This might end up a stream-of-consciousness review, because Mawaru Penguindrum resists normal analysis. It's fascinating, mind you. Watch it with a like-minded friend and you'll be up until two in the morning discussing it afterwards. Nonetheless even its director, Kunihiko Ikuhara, had difficulty working out how to convey his vision to his animation staff. His first attempt was, "Well, it has penguins in it!"
It starts out gently. The first half of the show appears to star realistic characters in a realistic world, depicted with charm and a light touch. It's entertaining. We begin with the Takakura family. We see no parents, but just three teenage children: Kanba, Shoma and their terminally ill sister, Himari. In episode one, she dies. Kanba and Shoma don't take this well. Don't worry, though. She'll get better! More specifically, she's going to be resurrected by a penguin hat that turns her into the Princess of the Crystal and can summon her brothers into a singing magical realm, to tell them that they're worthless people and order them to find the Penguindrum.
She doesn't tell them what this Penguindrum thingamajig might be, or how to recognise it. She just tells them that if they fail, Himari will die.
Yes, I did say "realistic". This is the comparatively normal bit of the show, since almost everything in it can be taken as literally true and it hasn't yet started messing with your head. Oh, and our heroes acquire comedy penguins that reflect aspects of their personalities and are invisible to everyone else. Thus, for instance, Kanba's penguin likes porn and Shoma's penguin is obsessed with food, perhaps as a result of Shoma nearly starving to death in a cage as a child. (We will see this. He now likes cooking.)
This is silly. It's fun, light, colourful and told with a twinkle in its eye. However it's doing this while taking us down a dark path, even right at the beginning. They're not joking when it comes to Himari's death. She really dies and even after being resurrected, she hasn't been cured... and that's before the show gets much, much darker. Other jolly notions, for instance, include the Child Broiler, where children are put on a conveyor belt to be made invisible and ground up into powder. No one loves them, you see. (I'm still not sure how literally we're meant to take this. It's one of the most unrealistic story elements in a show riddled with symbolism, magical reality and metaphors given impossible flesh. However it also seems to be a real place and characters go there.)
Among other things, it's built upon the sarin attack of 20 March 1995. In case you didn't know, on that day, terrorists released poison gas on several lines of the Tokyo underground railway. (Appallingly, that hadn't even been the worst thing to have happened in Japan that year, since in January one of the worst Japanese earthquakes of the 20th century had flattened Kobe.) You're probably thinking that's something you just can't turn into anime. It really happened. People died. However Ikuhara not only addresses it but uses it to explore themes including revenge, forgiveness and the guilt of the next generation.
Objective reality is a difficult thing to pin down, which is appropriate. We're slipping into a shadow world, where delusion is as dangerous as a gun and symbolism can be the most important thing in the world. Sometimes the show contradicts itself. If you're paying attention, you'll hopefully realise that's because you've been shown that someone's perceived reality was (horrifyingly) at variance with the facts.
The best point of comparison I can find for this show is Revolutionary Princess Utena, which was also directed by Ikuhara. Yes, he's weird. Both shows are dripping with symbolism. (Both shows also tip the hat heavily from The Rose of Versailles, here with a character who's an actress in a Takarazuka production of it.) Utena's finale goes Batshit Mental Ballistic in a way that makes this show look run-of-the-mill, but Utena is also traditional in its plot structure. It uses the forms of other anime. It's doing it deliberately and it's clearly the next evolutionary step on from Ikuhara's Sailor Moon, but it's still deliberately and knowingly repetitive. Mawaru Penguindrum, in contrast, is original in every way and invents entire new dimensions of plotting and psychology. It's hard even to describe, let alone trying to imagine how someone could think it up in the first place.
That said, though, I think Utena's more entertaining. It's less heavy. Utena herself is really cool and the show doesn't take its audience into disturbing mental places.
Did I enjoy Mawaru Penguindrum? Often, a lot. I admire it greatly and much of it is fun. It's also the kind of show that you could watch again and again, being surprised each time as you discovered new ideas and resonances. The suggested incest, for instance. (Well, um, actually... no, I can't say more.) Alternatively, note the bookends. At the start of episode one, two kids walk past the Takakuras' house, discussing Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad. Remember them at the end. That film also connects with the show's apples, which appear in both credit sequences, can be fired from guns and are used to suggest, among other resonances, Snow White and the Garden of Eden. (One character, Ringo, even has a name that in Japanese means "apple". As with several characters here, she's capable of seeming mentally ill and broken, but also, later, the sanest person in the show.)
The ending requires interpretation. That's another "discuss until two in the morning" job, if you've had the foresight to watch this with that hypothetical friend I suggested.
1. Skunks aren't like that.
2. I respect the show's painstaking avoidance of fanservice, even if the three girls in the closing titles are wearing attention-grabbing outfits.
3. I don't like the first opening theme and I'm not wild about the second one either. I can see what they're doing, though. It's off-putting and arrhythmic, which is a good filter for weeding out viewers who like their anime fun, bouncy and dumb.
4. Wow, that's a rude penguin hat.
This is my first Brain's Base anime, by the way. I've been hearing intriguing things about that studio. They're offbeat. They also made Durarara!!, Princess Jellyfish, Kamichu!, Innocent Venus and Baccano, for instance.
It does Alice in Wonderland. It's about bereavement, the damage your parents can do and the opposite of a sibling. It hides things in plain sight. If you speak Japanese, you'll slap your forehead in belated recognition at at least one name. It has a duel between penguins and an octopus. It has a bad person who'd do whatever it takes to save his sister, alongside a good person who lacks his brother's ability to ignore moral lines. Which of those two would you rather have on your side? Think about that. Now watch this show.
Would I recommend this? Hmm. Good question. I think it's an extraordinary piece of work and I'd love to see the inside of Kunihiko Ikuhara's head, but it's probably too non-literal, corkscrewed and, in the end, dark for most viewers. It's also light and funny, though. I think it's clearly one of the most important artistic works in anime to date, if that helps.