Penguindrum – Messy Characters Who Try To Hold Onto Something

I’ve only ever written about Utena a while back and a little bit about Sarazanmai when it was airing a while back, but I haven’t discussed all of Ikuhara’s work yet and I would like to say that I am some kind of Ikuhara fan. There are other people who can make that claim better than me, but I like his work a lot. In fact, until recently, I watched all of his anime. Penguindrum was the last one and it was the one I was saving for the right moment. At some point, I decided that I didn’t know when that moment was and I watched it at the beginning of this year. Mainly because I feel like holding back on it really had no point anymore. It is time for a survival strategy.

The interesting thing about this series is that I’ve tried to watch it almost a decade ago at this point. Possibly longer. This was one of the anime that my anime club put up as one of our weekly watches. So I knew the beginning of this series already because I’ve watched it before. There was something about it at the time that made it feel off putting. Maybe I just wasn’t ready for Ikuhara or any more complicated series that didn’t have robots fighting each other, spaceships having space battles, or anything really evocative, messy and complex ten years ago. But I was ready for it this time because I’ve seen a lot of very messy things that have no real clear interpretation. This is just my own reading and it can be completely wrong.

Ikuhara, Symbolism, and References

While we are talking about some interesting and symbolic things to look into, Night on the Galactic Railroad needs to be mentioned here. There is a reason why I posted about Night on the Galactic Railroad this week before posting about this. Because there is Galactic Railroad imagery all over the show and it helps to dictate which direction this show is going if you know the ending of it. Not to mention the apple symbolism that was in the film while you have a character in this show that is literally named apple. Or the constant train symbolism of people on it, or the train stops for the eyecatch in between every episode.

I have also to mention some of the work of Ryoko Ikeda with Rose of Verseille and Dear Brother with Dezaki’s anime adaptation for both of them because watching those has helped me to see more of where Ikuhara is coming from. He really likes those series and Utena has so much Dear Brother in it that its not even funny. Oddly enough, so does Penguindrum because there are relationships that you can see in Dear Brother twisted around in this show into the way Ikuhara would because I don’t think he believes in pure people. Understanding the shows that your favorite people have watched can help you see more into their work than ever before.

A thing about Penguindrum is that it’s a series where the general plot doesn’t matter because, in general, it doesn’t make any sense. It also doesn’t want to explain itself at all. That’s fine. This is a series where character interactions, symbolism, imagery, and so many things are what you want to look for then just the plot itself. It is also full of queer and very unusual sets of relationships between people that you couldn’t call normal. Also, some nonconsensual threatening of sex. This is one long way of just saying, this is an Ikuhara show where you watch it and you soak in it for a bit, and then find your own meaning and thoughts behind it. 

Yet there are also the really typical sort of Ikuhara character archetypes that fill the screen in a more modern look then when he created Utena. Watching Utena has helped to figure out what to expect from this show from people that look like Utena characters to some tropes that he just looks. Or the Ikuhara funny animals that are weird and disgusting in one way or come with penguins that follow the main cast and tell you more about the relationship between each member of them by how their penguins act around each other and in different environments. 

The First Half

You can tell people what happens in this show and, like a few other anime I could mention, people will look at you like you are completely out of your mind. Yet, here I am still giving you how the show started because it is very important to do so. Otherwise, I would be here all day talking about some of these characters and their relationship to each other and it wouldn’t make any sense. So here is some way to make it feel a bit more sense, starting at the beginning.  We start with Takakura. The young sister is dying due to anime disease and on a trip to the zoo with her brothers Kanba and Shouma, she finds a penguin hat that keeps her alive.

Except the hat is inhabited by an alien creature that does increase Himari’s life span for a but, but asks the two brothers what the Penguindrum. I don’t think anyone ever knows what the Penguindrum is in this show, but Kanba and Shouma have to find it anyway to save their very pure sister. The closest thing that they know of being the Penguindrum possibly is a mysterious journal form one seemingly normal girl named Ringo Ogninome. A girl that creepily stalks Keiju Tabuki, a now adult teacher  that has been around her since she was young because the journal tells her, following Momoka’s supposed plan to have romance with him for destiny purposes.

So Shouma and Kanba following and even helping this strange girl that stalks Tabuki to the point of planting bugs in his shoes and living underneath his house at some points is the first half of this show. Then you add one particular adult woman who is always one step ahead of Ringo in all of her plans in very legal ways to where Ringo’s are not, and you can kind of see how complicated emotionally and morally this show is. Ringo isn’t framed in a good light in this part for half of it, but Yuri is also seen as her own. Momoka means everything to Ringo in a way that represents something to her in a place that is deepest in her own heart. While Ringo goes after Tabuki in very aggressive ways, Shouma is there being the pure boy that he always is.

Is it strange to call this show fun in this portion, because it really is. Fun in that way that feels like you are watching cars crashing against each other. Just in a way that you can’t look away from it but in a good way too. Because there are some crazy things going on here. I mentioned some of them, but there is a part where Tabuki is hypnotized by Ringo and she could have gone through with her plan using the Penguindrum’s destiny, but that is where she realizes she doesn’t want it anymore and maybe Shouma could be worth looking into because he’s always been there.  Kanba has always been away doing who knows how to keep the family’s house. 

What intrigues me enough about this first half in general is you can tell through all the things going on that there is something waiting under Penguindrum’s surface that wants to show its true face. Is this a show about Ringo or is Ringo the first person that has scratched something below the dirt and everyone else is keeping a straight face or playing a role for now? For me, I know how Ikuhara does things. The family trio of Kanba, Shouma, and Himari feels forced in a way that feels unnatural. Adding Ringo and the Hat’s survival strategies just adds to what is in there. But the second half is where Penguindrum’s real meat is.

The Second Half

This show man. There is just so much to dig into here. The biggest part is that a lot of people have connections to Momoka or have their own sort of perfect image of what she is and what she represents to someone else. This isn’t just Ringo who is trying to live up to her sister’s expectations because she was born the day Momoka died. There are people who have had their lives change because of one instance that changed their lives. Or we could mention the number of people that were born the same day. A lot of coincidences that push things too far to be realistic, but this show never tried to be realistic in the first place.

This has helped me to see Momoka as some sort of religious figure to all of them because they all hit the same sort of crossroads in this world of lost children that have grown up while still feeling lost. All out there trying to find something to connect to or thinking about that one moment in their past that they didn’t feel lost. That isn’t just a connection to this very biblical figure like Momoka, this is everyone in general. People trying to create some kind of normal for themselves that society is never going to give them. The execution behind that is messy at first, but the leaning in towards that sells those points much more strongly and it just hurts man.

It really does become a show that examines everyone for who they are and why they are here in the show. HImari does get locked in the hospital by the series’ villain that resulted in some honest family moments before the somewhat obvious reveal that Shouma, Himari, and Kanba were never related in the first place. Shouma himself is a real Takakura, the others were just picked up by the mother and father who are just terrorists that have something to do with the lost children across the world and have committed many wrongs to a lot of people which is part of why this show is the way it is too. Especially when Kanba follows their path.

Sins of the last generation on the children that are lost is something heavily put into Penguindrum too. Lots of great and flawed characters that are explored pretty well in this show. Especially Ringo who in my mind, became the main character of the show itself as she faced a lot of the trauma from what she forced on Tabuki for much different reasons than revenge. Luckily some of the heavier stuff was stopped  before it went too far even if by pure coincidence. Then the drama with the Penguindrum being split in two parts at the beginning of the second half was quite something. Must be symbolism like apples being fed to those who can die.

Man, the ending of Penguindrum was great and sad. I had an idea in what direction the show was going to go, but I didn’t know who would be affected by it. Those crazy exceptional elements and detailed places. It was a happy ending and yet it wasn’t the first time there either. Such a good piece of fiction. That Ikuhara guy knows what he is doing and how to really dig into those great things onto them too as well. The Ikuhara endings are always just so good to me at hitting on some really good themes and emotional levels at the same time in a great package. 

Wrapping Things Up

Penguin drum isn’t always the best looking show. There are a lot of shortcuts in the show by only having the important characters in a series having a character design. Background characters barely exist. But the character designs we do see are pretty great and full of some very distinctive personalities between them too. Some in reference to relationships between each other too. There are also some very emotional and great moments of animation too while others are very emotional still moments that capture a lot of feels by showing the right amount of things too. Minimalism is still good at doing so many things too. 

For the Show itself, I had a fantastic time watching it and seeing a lot of intriguing things to really dig into and see. There are a lot of messy and complicated characters in this show that helps the show feel so realistic while having a convoluted sort of plot that might or might not make any sense towards the end. It is a very good emotional experience and it was great watching all the time when I got the chance to do it too. I’m glad that I rewatched it now after watching so many more anime series because it really did color the experience I had with watching this series in a very positive sort of way.

7 comments

  1. I’m about 1/3 way through this. What hit me from the first episode is how much it and Sarazanmai are alike in structure. It has been slow going. Now and again I’m tempted to DNF it.The plot is all over the place and really isn’t grabbing me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I stopped watching it three or four times. But it always drew me back. Whether I liked it or not! But then, the show’s a bit beyond my liking or not liking; it is what it is. Scott’s review did a good job of capturing its internal cohesiveness, primarily on a symbolic level.

      Liked by 2 people

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