In an industry that runs on adaptations, there’s always a base level of excitement for an anime original project. Original series give the writers and directors the creative freedom they need to take full advantage of the medium, and every so often someone uses that freedom to create a masterpiece that can only exist in animated form – or more specifically, can only exist as anime.
Penguindrum certainly aspires to those lofty standards. Putting infamous Revolutionary Girl Utena director Kunihiko Ikuhara back in the director’s chair after nearly 15 years and pairing him with critically acclaimed studio Brain’s Base was certainly enough to grab everyone’s attention, even before we knew a single detail about the series itself. The result of their union is something beautiful, strange, and not for everyone, but they very well may have achieved that goal.
Penguindrum Collection 1
Studio: Brain’s Base
Publisher: Sentai Filmworks
Release Date: December 31st, 2012
The basic premise of Penguindrum’s story isn’t too hard to follow: Himari Takakura is a young girl who succumbs to a terminal illness, only to be revived by a mysterious power. As payment for her life, this power orders her two brothers to acquire the equally mysterious Penguindrum. Find the Penguindrum and Himari continues to live, fail to find it and she dies. Part 1 of this collection contains the first twelve episodes of the series which focus on Ringo Oginome, a girl with a special diary that may or may not tell the future. She is the brothers’ only lead in finding the Penguindrum and ultimately saving their sister.
Whereas the starting point is fairly easy to explain, it’s where the series goes and how it gets there that becomes difficult to describe. Penguindrum relies on its visuals nearly as much as plot events and dialogue to tell its story, so it really needs to be seen to be understood. You can look at it like any other abstract art: in an abstract painting, you use colors and shapes to make the viewer feel like they just saw, for example, a flower, as opposed to a traditional painting where you would try to paint a flower as realistically as possible.
In the same way, Penguindrum often uses seemingly unrelated images and concepts to create the right feelings for your mind to fill in the blanks. Despite the modern setting, the story is told with a colorful, surreal, fairy tale aesthetic that shifts between the past and the present, dreams and reality. Sometimes it’s played for comedy, like turning a romantic delusion into an elaborate musical pop-up storybook. Other times it’s devastatingly creepy, like using stuffed animals in lieu of parents in a flashback about a child’s family splitting apart. The mood, perspective or art style of a scene can change at any moment, creating an atmosphere that’s both intentionally uncomfortable and incredibly engrossing.
Understandably, this method of storytelling is not for everyone. While some people may enjoy the speculation others might find it frustrating, especially in these first twelve episodes where very little concrete information is provided. Despite the challenging presentation though, Penguindrum is far from a wall of impenetrable non sequiturs. The story always stays grounded in the hard, human realities the characters are struggling against. Rather than replacing the plot, the surreal fantasy elements embellish it, creating a mesmerizing modern fairy tale that will not be soon forgotten.
Penguindrum’s abstract presentation would not work without solid visuals, and while it looks fantastic that is more a function of the show’s stylish art direction than actual technical prowess. The animation quality is just above average at best, and there are some obvious shortcuts like recycling an entire several minute long transformation scene through the first few episodes. Fortunately the lovely character designs, gorgeous painted backgrounds, and bold graphic design more than make up for those shortcomings. Colorful princesses and poison apples clash with sleek logos and train advertisements, creating just the right mix of storybook fantasy and near-future urban style.
In addition to the striking visuals, Penguindrum’s soundtrack is also impressive. The score itself ranges from dramatic orchestral pieces to cool, funky pop to light jazz to simple, lovely piano pieces. The insert songs are particularly clever, essentially pop-idol covers of songs by the decades old Japanese rock band ARB – I am pretty sure you’ll be singing along with the ridiculously catchy “Rock Over Japan” after a listen or two. Most importantly though, the soundtrack does its job in supporting the visuals and helping to create the beautiful, unsettling atmosphere the story requires.
Less impressive, unfortunately, is the English dub. Despite my personal aversion to the California accents, most of the female cast is passable with Monica Rial’s performance as Himari being the best of the bunch. Most of the male cast felt a bit lacking however, particularly Kanba who sounded too pedestrian for a smooth talking playboy and Tabuki who often sounded out of sync with his lines. What surprised me was some of the dialogue missing the lip flap, which is something you just don’t see much anymore. To be fair that was due to the lower quality animation in some scenes, but it’s still something you don’t like to see. Of course you can always watch with the original Japanese audio, which features some great performances by mostly new voice talent. The subtitles do stick more to the dub script than an actual translation, but I did not notice anything totally out of bounds in the localization.
This release is a simple affair with no extras beyond the usual clean opening and ending songs and a few trailers. Penguindrum leaves so much to interpretation that I would have loved to hear some of the director commentary or maybe even an interview, but sadly none of that is available. The lack of extras shouldn’t dissuade you from buying such an excellent series, but don’t expect anything beyond the bare bones main feature.
I can guarantee not everyone will like it, but I do think every anime fan should at least give Penguindrum a look and decide for themselves. It’s one of the best examples of what a television anime series is uniquely capable of, and like Ikuhara’s Utena it’s destined to live on as a cult classic. Despite the lack of extra features and the questionable dub, Penguindrum Collection 1 is easily worth the price of admission and I’m really looking forward to finishing the series with Collection 2.