Monday 11 June 2012

Anime REVIEW: Mawaru-Penguindrum

While many anime series that seemingly take their influence from a vivid acid trip, those that actually rank highly in terms of quality are less easy to come by. But every so often one comes along and pushes the boundaries of quality, even if it may divide fan opinion in the process. From co-writer/director Kunihiko Ikuhara (creator of Revolutionary Girl Utena and director for many episodes of the Sailor Moon anime series) and animation studio Brain's Base (Durarara!!, Baccano!), Mawaru-Penguindrum is a surreal psychological journey that is just as dramatic and it is comedic. Originally released between July and December 2011, the series ran for a total of 24 episodes. 

Brothers Shouma and Kanba Takakura live alone with their younger sister Himari in a small multi-coloured house. Their parents have been missing for years and Himari is terminally ill, yet the three live a happy life. But a trip to the aquarium leads to disaster one day when Himari collapses, and subsequently pronounced dead when she reaches the hospital.

As the brothers mourn by her bedside, she miraculously awakens wearing a penguin shaped hat she had bought as a souvenir at the Aquarium. Initiating a "survival strategy", the hat-possessed Himari (known as the Princess of the Crystal) demands that the two brothers seek out an item known as the Penguindrum in exchange for her sister's life. To aid them in their quest, they are presented with three strange penguins.

The Princess of the Crystal

At times Penguindrum's story can be hard to follow. The opening episodes suggest a surreal, but somewhat light-hearted story to come, but the overarching narrative is anything but that. Dealing with topics such as nihilism, rape, rejection, fate and more literary symbolism than you'd care to believe, it's not the light viewing that the Princess of the Crystal's attire may have you to believe. Despite its seemingly wide range of topics, the show never becomes too lost in itself - giving each idea time to expand nicely before homing in on the key issues before the curtain closes. Packed with meaning, this is anime that will leave you with food for thought after viewing has ceased. 

Brothers Shouma and Kanba, confused at recent developments

Its structure seems equally erratic, constantly switching between present time, flashbacks and flash-forwards.  However all these different plot devices come at the right times, providing much needed exposition and insight into the characters. Everything is carefully planned, with ample amounts of foreshadowing preceding each and every plot twist (of which there are plenty - at least one every episode). Sometimes it'll be clear what's about to happen, some will smack you right in the face. However most of the twists will come as a complete surprise, only for you to realise that they've been dangled all the needed information right in front of you the whole time.

Masako Natsume: One of the many characters whose goals are not quite clear

The characters are all wholly unique from each other, displaying very different personalities but all victims of some sort of childhood trauma and intertwined via fate. Brothers Shouma and Kanba have very different ideals on how to save their sister's life, but both clearly care for her. All three of the Takakura family, along with the show's extended cast, are painted in multiple lights throughout the course of the narrative, making them feel more natural as characters as you dislike them in some situations as well as sympathise with them. The penguins provide some fantastic background comedy, which is not only a often-much needed lighter element to the show but often relates back to the story at hand.

The penguins' antics often steal the show

To complement the surreal narrative that Ikuhara has created, the art direction is a psychedelic masterpiece. As well as cartoon penguins and animal-hatted dominatrix princesses, Mawaru-Penguindrum's visuals often leave you wondering what's a dream and what is reality. Take the Princess of the Crystal's entrance, a vibrant, colourful, star-gazing rollercoaster ride set to a cover of 70/80s Japanese rock band ARB's "Rock Over Japan" which makes little sense in context as it does out of. There are also fairytale-esque daydream sequences (including 2D "cardboard cutout" characters), neon-lit corridors and a heavy focus on train lines. Sometimes maybe a bit too ambitious, but always distinct.

An example of one of Penguindrum's more surreal moments

Mawaru-Penguindrum is both an oddity and a triumph wrapped in one. Effortless drifting between both comedy and serious themes, not one character in the show can be taken on face value and the plot will leave you guessing right up to the very end (and maybe sometime afterwards too). While the show might not be quite what you were expecting, its undoubtedly one of the finest anime series of recent years.

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