Along with Madoka and Steins;Gate, Mawaru Penguindrum has been one of the most praised anime of 2011. Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t like it, but it seems like the fans of it are the ones making the most buzz. Having seen and loved director Kunihiko Ikuhara’s other famous work, Revolutionary Girl Utena, I had high hopes for Penguindrum as well. I liked the series well enough in its early episodes, confident in the fact that the confusing things would “be explained later.” So now that it’s over, why do I feel so…dissatisfied?
Inushinde brought up a good point that there seems to be a fine divide between viewers of Penguindrum’s finale, or as I see it, the entire series in general. On one side are the people who think the show is an overly pretentious, incomprehensible mess that uses symbols to fool viewers into thinking it’s “intelligent” when it really has no definable narrative. And on the other side are people who think that while it is a strange show, all the symbols, allusions, and artistic techniques are what make it brilliant even if explanations for everything aren’t spoon-fed to you. Whichever of the two sides you’re on, I agree with Inushinde that the last episode will mostly likely not change your opinion about the series but will simply reinforce what you already believed it to be – a mess or a masterpiece.
As for me, while I didn’t find the series utterly bad, I’m more on the negative side than the positive. My main beef about it, as others have pointed out, is the over-saturation of symbolism and unexplained plot points. Now, I certainly don’t mind symbolism in a show and leaving things up to the audience’s interpretation. But when, like, 90% of the show is spent throwing out symbol after symbol and vague plot twist after vague plot twist rather giving us a breather to actually explain things and give us some semblance of a comprehensible, linear narrative, that’s when I have a problem.
To me, such an over-saturation of symbolism creates a frustrating blur between what’s really happening in the show and what’s just a symbol of what’s happening. Are the four penguins actual living creatures or just symbols? Is the Child Broiler an actual place that’s somehow existing in the real world or is it just a symbol? Were Shoma and Kanba really locked in tiny cages where an apple suddenly appeared or was that all just symbols? Is there really a magic diary that has god-like powers to alter time and space to change people’s fates that somehow got in the hands of a little girl named Momoka, or was this symbolism again? I think you see my point…not knowing what’s really, objectively happening in the story versus what’s just a symbol for plot twists and character emotions, is probably my biggest issue with Penguindrum. I know Utena had things that blurred the line between reality and symbolism that weren’t fully explained – the Rose Bride, pulling swords out of people, the upside down castle in the sky – but I don’t remember there being nearly as many as Penguindrum, and I found it much easier to distinguish symbol from reality in Utena. My favorite Penguindrum episode was the one where we see Himari’s past relationship with the Triple H girls and she meets Sanetoshi in a library of her own mind – I like this episode because I felt the distinction between symbols and reality was more clear and it had just the right amount of symbolism to make it interesting but not confusing.
For those of you who think Penguindrum is brilliant, if you could answer any of these questions for me, I would greatly appreciate it:
- As I mentioned above, were the penguins real creatures or just symbols? If they were really existing, where did they come from?
- If the two penguin hats were really the split of Momoka’s soul, why did one become this “Crystal Princess?” Why did the hats choose Himari and Mario out of all people? Why did her soul have to split in the first place?
- The diary; is it a real magic book with god-like powers? If so, where did such a thing come from?
- Momoka; I’ve heard it said that she’s actually some kind of witch and that’s why she has this diary? If that’s so, does that make Ringo a witch too? But if she is just a regular girl, why would she have such a diary?
- How did Masako know about the diary’s powers and how does she have these magic penguin bullets that can make people lose their memories? Don’t tell me she’s a witch too…or was it from Sanetoshi?
- Speaking of Sanetoshi, he’s just a ghost right? If so, I was never clear on his motivations or his relationship with Momoka? And why did his soul split into two bunnies again?
- With all those random flashbacks, I just couldn’t piece together the correct chronology of the lives of Shoma, Kanba, and Himari. If someone could lay out a timeline for each of their lives, that would nice. And what exactly did their parents do that made everyone hate them? Was Kanba supposed to carry out whatever “plan” the parents had?
- Like I already mentioned, was the Child Broiler a real place? If so, why would such a cruel place exist in modern Japan? How was Shoma able to save Himari from it, and Momoka save Tabuki? Or again, was it all just symbolism?
- What were those robot teddy bears?
- So the penguindrum was Shoma’s…heart? Why would Momoka (if the penguin hat is really part of her) want it?
- How did the Triple H girls have the words to Momoka’s spell? I don’t remember them having any relationship with her? And if it’s in their song, how would Ringo know which are the right words?
- Where exactly were they in the last episode – they couldn’t have actually been in a train yet that’s where Ringo and Himari ended up? Was it some kind of alternate world, the same world that popped up whenever the “Survival Strategy” sequence occurred? And I can’t even begin to understand what happened with Sanetoshi, Momoka, Shoma, Kanba, and the penguins in the end?
I’ll probably think of more questions but I’ll leave it at that. Now, I know I’m not the best at following and remembering complicated details in anime, and maybe some of my questions were properly answered in the series. But even in the most complex anime I’m able to get a good gist of what happens in the end even if some things are left up to interpretation. But for Penguindrum, I feel more confused by the end than I did at the beginning.
Some people might say to all my questions that “You’re reading too much into it, the fun is to interpret it your own way.” I know that’s part of the brilliance that people associate with the show. Nopy for example wrote a great post pointing out all the symbols Penguindrum has in terms of classic Greek plays and the Japanese novel “Night on the Galactic Railroad.” Despite my own misgivings, I can see why some people like this series. They enjoy musing about the show’s themes of fate and family, and interpreting the various symbols and allusions rather than concerning themselves with how much the story makes sense or whether they really know what the hell is going on. Whether Ikuhara intended this to be the appeal of Penguindrum, or whether he just used the series to have fun with symbols that only he could correctly interpret, I couldn’t say. But I can say that while I see why people like the series, my joy in anime comes from plots and characters I can understand rather than interpretation with few solid facts. That’s mainly the problem I have – most of what happens in the series is symbolism that’s open to interpretation, and only a small amount is real, official fact. With Penguindrum, I felt like I was trying to correctly interpret a piece of abstract art rather than watch and understand an anime.
But to conclude on a positive note and to give the show some credit, I would say I liked it more than disliked it. Despite all the convoluted symbols, the show did have some sincerely good messages to offer about fate, love, family, and just plain human suffering. It had a lot of heart and emotional impact that I probably would have enjoyed more if the confusing symbolism didn’t keep me from being fully invested in the characters. Speaking of whom were good characters despite the fact that some of them – Tabuki, Yuri, and Ringo – did major 180 personality changes in the series that I felt were a bit contrived, but nothing terrible. The three main siblings were fairly likable despite some over-the-top moments (like Kanba chasing the truck), and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the penguins doing their funny little skits that may or may not relate to what their respective characters were doing. Penguindrum was also great to look at in terms of animation and color. If you don’t think too hard about the symbols, they’re great fun to observe. The opening and ending songs were alright though they all started sounding the same to me after a while.
So, to wrap up this longer-than-usual post, Mawaru Penguindrum is certainly a must-see if you like artsy anime that messes with your head. But if you prefer your anime to follow a logical narrative structure that explains more than forces you to interpret, you probably want to pass on it.