By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Penguindrum is a series that offers exactly what I love in anime, which is an in-depth mystery with plenty of layers mixed with drama and a healthy dose of humor. The show revolves around the Takakura family, who live by themselves in a small multi-colored house in Japan. One day their sister Himari dies suddenly but is miraculously saved by a spirit of some kind that has taken over her penguin shaped hat. This spirit transports the brothers into a very surreal looking parallel universe and informs them that in order to save Himari’s life they must acquire an item known only as the Penguin Drum. What initially begins as a flashy and off the wall comedy/slice of life quickly reveals itself to be a drama/tragedy with a healthy dose of surreal elements, and those that give it the chance to spread its web of mystery will be drawn in by what Penguindrum has to offer.

I’m not going to go too in depth about the overall plot of this series, as revealing specific details would ruin many of the nuances and surprises that happen along the way. But what’s important to make note of is that despite everything seeming completely random during the first few episodes, every single element that is presented has some sort of role to play in the story. At the beginning, viewers are given a look at the daily life of the Takakura family. Shoma and Kanba both attend high school while Himari is stuck at home due to being sickly. During the first episode she is feeling better so the three decide to go to an aquarium, but Himari ends up collapsing and is later pronounced dead. She is revived a short while later by the power of a mysterious penguin hat, which takes the brothers to a parallel universe in one of the flashiest transformation scenes I’ve seen in an anime recently. This scene is repeated at completely random times throughout the series and is reminiscent of a transformation from a magical girl show, which isn’t that surprising considering director Kunihiko Ikuhara was also behind Sailor Moon R and Revolutionary Girl Utena. After this transformation, Shoma and Kanba are told that for Himari to survive they must find an item only known as the Penguin Drum and the family receives the assistance of three penguins, which only they can see.

Their search for the Penguin Drum quickly leads the brothers to Ringo Oginome, who has a stalker like obsession with their teacher Keiju Tabuki. Oginome is living her daily life using the diary of her deceased sister Momoka, who was friends with Tabuki, and the Takakura’s end up assisting her stalker tendencies as they believe the diary could be the Penguin Drum. More characters are introduced as the show progresses, including the actress Yuri who Tabuki is engaged to and a mysterious woman named Masako who seems to have it out for Kanba. After the first few episodes, I thought that Penguindrum was going to be a lighthearted comedy with plenty of surreal elements. But as it turned out, the comedy only played a small role in the overall plot and it didn’t take before long until the show had done a complete switch in tone and hit me with drama on par with that of a Key adaptation. There were numerous moments after the first couple episodes where I found myself tearing up and really beginning to feel for these characters and their situations, which is a sign of a well written show.

Without giving away too much more of the plot, symbolism and metaphors are at the heart of the tale Penguindrum weaves. Rather than simply spelling everything out for the viewer, director Ikuhara has chosen to leave a lot of elements open to interpretation and new layers are added to the overall mystery with each episode. Two of the biggest ideas that are expressed throughout the series are the idea of whether one can control their own fate/destiny or if they are simply trapped into a pre-determined role, as well as what elements truly define a family. Although the Takakura family initially seems close, as the series progresses it becomes clear that their relationship is quite different from what one might have initially thought. But what’s great about Penguindrum is how everything fits together. At the very beginning, you’ll likely have a ton of questions. These will probably be things like what do the transformation sequences have to do with anything, and what is with the constant emphasis on trains and subway stations? Everything has a purpose though, and even some of the smaller sub-characters are given depth throughout the course of the storyline. Each one has a darker side and a bit of a tortured past, and the ways that they all connect are not always obvious meaning that viewers won’t simply begin to predict every event.

The early comedic sections that center on the Takakura family and their penguins will surely draw some people into the show, but the drama and thought provoking storyline will keep them watching. Thankfully the comedy isn’t completely abandoned by the end, as there are not only plenty of extremely sad and depressing moments but downright uncomfortable situations. Attempted rape (female to male and female to female), child abandonment and abuse, and death and disaster are all elements that are in Penguindrum but it never feels like the series is exploring them simply for shock value and handles them in a mature manner. It’s this element that made the show remind me so much of a Key series, as there is plenty of character drama mixed in with sad and uncomfortable moments that draw you in and keep you wanting to see more. By the time the final episode was over I found myself truly caring for some of the main characters and this helped it to leave a lasting impression.

While the storyline and themes would have been more than enough to make Penguindrum one of the better anime I have watched recently, the production values really help to put it over the top. Ikuhara and Brain’s Base did an absolutely wonderful job at bringing the characters and the outlandish elements to life. The animation is bursting with bright colors and no single element is ever presented in a straightforward fashion, with many coming through as psychedelic dreamlike sequences that let the animator’s run wild with their imaginations. This not only makes Penguindrum particular eye catching, but it adds to the symbolism and gives the viewer plenty to think about from one scene to the next. Even though it is now over two years old, I think that the work Brain’s Base was able to do on this one still stands out as one some of the best I have seen in recent memory.

Another area where this series absolutely shines is in its voice acting and music. The core cast all nails their roles perfectly and are able to bring the over the top comedy elements to life as well as the drama and pain that occurs later on. There’s clearly a good deal of chemistry between the voice actors that allowed them to get the most out of their roles, and what’s neat about this is that there is a balance of seasoned veterans and newer names. But what’s even more surprising is how well the music is integrated into the series. Not only are there two opening themes, but there are different ending themes every couple of episodes along with some insert songs. What’s interesting about this is that not only do the songs have lyrical content that foreshadow what is to come, but they’re actually really catchy arrangements that I’ve found myself looking up and listening to outside of the show itself. The background music is also particularly well done and is able to enhance the overall mood of many of the scenes, and as a whole I found myself impressed with how much attention was paid to what can sometimes be a throwaway element of anime.

I could go even further in-depth when it comes to the themes and metaphors Penguindrum presents (and if you Google the name you’ll see plenty of others have), but I think it’s best to let newcomers dive right into the series and experience everything for themselves. What I initially thought was going to be a lighthearted and wacky slice of life/comedy with surreal elements became one of the most engrossing and thought provoking dramas/mysteries I’ve come across in the past year or so and while some parts were a bit hard to watch I always found myself wanting to press forward to see what happened to these characters. Rather than simply spelling things out for viewer, Penguindrum lets its supernatural and fantasy elements stay open to interpretation and doesn’t explain what’s really happening and what isn’t, which is part of why it was so enjoyable to watch. Dive in and be prepared for a rollercoaster ride of an experience where no single element is wasted and even the smallest details come to serve a purpose by the end, ensuring this is one anime you won’t soon forget.

Penguindrum is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Sentai Filmworks and streaming on Hulu

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