Mawaru Penguindrum (2011) Review: The Balance between Intrigue & Entertainment

Mawaru Penguindrum

Mawaru Penguindrum (translation: Spinning Penguindrum) is one of the strangest anime you will see, next to FLCL or more recently, Mysterious Girlfriend X. It was made by lesser known anime studio Brains Base, who have previously done Kamichu! (2005), Innocent Venus (2006) and Baccano (2007). The bizarre factor kicks off when young girl, Himari Takakura is saved from her terminal disease by a spirit that resides in a Penguin Hat she bought from the Aquarium gift shop. The Penguin spirit asks her brothers, Kanba and Shoma to search for a mysterious “penguindrum” to save their sister’s life. Do you think that sounds strange? It’s only the beginning of the mystical adventure, which constantly asks “How far are you willing to go for your family?”.

Penguindrum was directed and co-written by Kunihiko Ikuhara – the man who directed Revolutionary Girl Utena (1996). Those who have seen the 90’s classic will probably not find Penguindrum’s eccentric style unfamiliar. It doesn’t help that most of its wackiness is derived from hallucigen-like metaphors or literature references that you’ll only understand if you do some throughout Googling. Whether you make sense of it or not, its endearing characters, compelling soundtrack and artwork turn Penguindrum into one hell of a ride.

The animation manages to perfectly balance simplicity of its character designs with detail in the costumes, backgrounds, locations and strange contraptions. The colors know when to be bright or dull, particularly in some scenes where the drawing styles changes to sketches (like in comedic fantasy scenes), or paintings. Interesting stylistic choices include floating stars, stick people in the background of scenes (this makes sense later in the series), and the scene transitions which continually emphasize trains and subway lines. Let’s not forget the repetitive, yet wonderfully animated “Survival Tactic” sequence, which one of my housemates compared to a Sailor Moon transformation shot – if that doesn’t make you think the director was high, I don’t know what will.

Penguindrum is different to other anime because of the variety of songs. Not only is there a standard opening and ending song, but a wide variety of insert songs for different scenarios. There are comedic insert songs within fantasy “theatre” scenes, transformation sequences and the extra punch for dramatic scenes. Mawaru Penguindrum manages to pack in up to eight different ending songs, which not only sets the right mood for each episode, but makes us resist skipping every single ending sequence. The two opening songs by Metropolitan Orchestra Etsuko Yakushimaru, “Nornir” and “Shōnen yo Ware ni Kaere” stick out from the crowd of fast paced Jpop. Yakushimaru’s vocals are childlike, breathy and high-pitched, which I can best compare to a mix between Julia Stone and Tori Amos. The music backing them mixes old with the new – a few electronic beats with guitars and violins. If you are not fond of bubbly pop it should be a breath of fresh air.

The ending songs, and many of the insert songs are by the female pop group, Triple H, which are threaded into the story and characters of the show. Heavy on guitars and techno beats, it is high quality pop that plays a similar role as Myco’s contribution to the anime Full Moon wo Sagashite (2002). The sadder tracks enhance scenes enormously, like “Ash Gray Wednesday” and “Daddy’s Shoes”. The song that is most likely to drive you up the wall is “Rock over Japan’, which plays during the “Survival Tactic” sequence. Don’t worry though, it is a lot less annoying as a track on an Iphone than in the show. There were only about two episodes where the sequence was either not included, sped up or changed considerably.

Yukari Hashimoto (Toradora) on the musical score is a pleasant surprise. She brings a sense of magic to the scenes, especially with eerie music box tracks, or full orchestrated melodies. It can also swing in the direction of sounding upbeat when necessary without sounding artificial. She does for Penguindrum what John Williams did for Harry Potter. The only voice actor who sounds out-of-place in the English dub is 39-year-old Illich Guardiola as the young Kanba, due to his accent. Even then, he gives a great performance in emotional scenes, and delivery from the other cast is quite good. Blake Shepard brings forth a believable, endearing Shoma. Monica Rial is a little high-pitched as Himari, even though it matches the Japanese.

The characters are explored in great depth, considering a great bulk of the story is exploring how all these apparently disconnected people link together, and the pasts that haunt them. Even ones you may start off not liking grow on you. I was personally very pleased when I character I despised, became even more despicable as his real intentions were revealed. The cast is hugely varied, interesting and they are rarely who they appear to be at first. For example, Ringo is one of the most eccentric female anime characters to appear since Haruhi Suzumiya, although she develops a backbone and becomes more sympathetic as the series progresses. For a more in-depth exploration of the characters and themes, please check out this article.

The constant metaphors can be considered either a flaw or a stroke of brilliance. It gives more to speculate about, long after the show is over. The ending is composed almost entirely of flashbacks, metaphors and dream sequences, necessitating three re-watches and a Google before I felt I understood it. In spite of this, it is incredibly powerful and moving. This strange coexistence between the obscene and familiar is what is great about Penguindrum. It has a bit of everything, demands re-watch value, and is a very collectible series.It starts off light-hearted in the beginning, and has a lot of filler-like material which sets up the characters. When it becomes darker from the first quarter onwards, there are a number of plot twists, which make for addictive, cliff-hanger entertainment.Even though I still don’t entirely understand the use of the penguins, it was a worthwhile watch, for the tears and giggles. I highly recommend to all those whom find pleasure in depicting metaphor, love to analyse media or who simply want to be entertained.


What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Anyone that likes Utena will love this. Kunihiko is great. Both have the same type of themes and artistic flare.

  2. This anime has some great intelligent symbolism and heavy themes. I’d go as far to rate it 5 stars.

  3. I tried to just quickly glimpse through this article, since this is an anime that is on my to-watch list and I hope not to be spoiled too much. It sure has a reputation of being wonderful yet weird at the same time.

    • Jordan

      No spoilers in the article, Jutin, so it’s all good 🙂 read away!

      • I reread this after I finished catching up on the series…wow. This show quite blew my mind away. If not for my distaste for Himari’s voice actress (I watched the sub version) I’ll rank this as one of the greatest anime ever made (while content-wise, it definitely is already). Apart from the usage of music and characters that you mentioned, one thing that appealed a lot to me is its discussion of the aftermath of that infamous 1995 incident in Japan. It’s not about growing up during that period, but the consequences that the children have to face as a result. Adding to the philosophical theme of what ‘destiny’ means, and the linkage to Kenji Miyazawa’s “Night on the Galactic Railroad” (referenced a few times in the anime), this is a 10/10 anime for me.

  4. Shabrosky

    Nice review! Did you notice how it has a very surreal delivery but still remain very real?

    • Jordan

      Yes, the characters are very down to earth. Weird things just keep happening around them 😛

  5. So the cute mini blue penguins was what made me watch this =D

  6. Penguindrum is very different to any ordinary anime show. It requires hundred percent of your attention. Amazing work of art. And like any great literary piece of work, not everyone would understand the creators point of view, but if you are, you will know how beautiful it is.

  7. Sherry Lamb

    Putting this on download, thanks!

  8. Dominique Kollie

    I really enjoyed this series. The title describes what the series does perfectly

  9. Seems like the series waddles as much as the penguins in the hat…

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