This series reminds me of Madoka Magica in some ways, because I think it’s an utterly fascinating mess that never really comes together. Both series are the work of dark and subtle writers and stylish directors (in the case of MPD, the same man) and both probably bit off more than their endings could chew. Yet these two series will perhaps be the most discussed shows if 2011, and that wouldn’t be an injustice, because both are dense with intellectual content and clearly the product of talented hands. It’s more interesting to watch a genius fail than a journeyman succeed, and both shows – especially this one – have their share of successes to go with the failures.
Where did this series go right? First and foremost, it challenged me every week. Other than the dark patch where Ringo became the obsessive focus for a few eps, even the less successful episodes prompted a lot of consideration when they were done. I’m not crazy about the way Ikuhara kept piling mysteries on top of mysteries merely to seemingly prove he could, but it undeniably kept the audience guessing throughout. He also gave us a series with one of the best soundtracks of the year, using his BGM in an almost operatic sense and changing up the ED song with almost every episode. And the visuals – God, the visuals. Where Shinbou has a tendency to fall back of trickery and smother his material with his tics, Ikuhara’s work never seems busy visually. And that’s remarkable because really, it is – there’s a lot to look at all the time but the magic of his touch is that I was never exhausted by all that. True, he did fall back on re-using the same sight gags far too often in some episodes – but that’s a relatively small blemish in the larger scheme of things.
For a long time, I was intellectually enraptured by Mawaru Penguin Drum but never emotionally absorbed (another commonality with Madoka Magica). To be blunt, there simply weren’t very many characters in this show to like. Shouma was always the most relatable and likable for me, but his indecision and incompetence made him hard to really bond with. I don’t know when all that changed precisely, when I started to care about this people as much as I eventually did, but the transition was brought on by the way Ikuhara skillfully revealed the layers underneath the ones that were so obvious on the surface. No one was quite as they seemed, and villains revealed themselves to be allies, and vice-versa. All of the absurd and distasteful behavior gradually was given context, and while it didn’t make all the characters likeable it certainly made their actions understandable (with the possible exception of Sanetoshi). There was a “gotcha” element to some of this shapeshifting that represents Ikuhara’s less admirable impulses, but on the whole it wasn’t unbearable.
I’ve already discussed the meaning of the ending in that episode-specific post so I won’t repeat myself here, but how you understand what happened there is obviously vital to how your response to the series as a whole will play out. For me, this show is not a masterpiece. It’s too self-consciously clever, it takes too long to get where it’s going too often, and I find the ending – while poetic – to be ultimately unsatisfying. Some of the detours off the main line in the middle section of the track never really revealed themselves to be essential – these are the “abandoned meanders” I referred to a few weeks ago and I think they detract from the impression Mawaru leaves as a whole.
But damn, this is a show I’m going to be thinking about for a long time. I stand in awe of Ikuhara’s creativity as a writer and director – though to be fair, perhaps his decades-long absence from the creative spotlight gave him time to pile up the fascinating ideas the way Lennon and McCartney’s suppression of his writing allowed George Harrison to release the stupendous triple-album “All Things Must Pass” as soon as he was out from under it. I was never, ever bored here – whether I was moved or pissed off or fascinated, I was never neutral. No show in recent memory has used symbolism with the skill and frequency this one did, and none has proved as imaginative visually (even the weekly antics of the penguins are an exercise in pure comedic genius – they’re little Chaplins). That might not always be what you want from an anime, but this one was a mental workout of the highest order. It was never easy to be a viewer of Mawaru Penguin Drum, but the rewards were very real.
I certainly hope Ikuhara doesn’t wait so long before he gives us his next project. There are very few true auteurs in anime, writers and directors who have a unique voice and a fearless approach to telling a story. Brain’s Base clearly gave him the creative freedom to tell the story he wanted, and the financial support to do it in a lavish and often stunning fashion. They’re to be commended – there are very few studios that can point to the same kind of track record over the last few years that Brain’s Base can, not just in terms of quality but in terms of variety. There’s no such thing as a “typical Brain’s Base series” – they’re MPD and Natsume Yuujinchou and Kamisama Dolls, series with little in common but the artistry that goes into them. For all its flaws, we’re very lucky to have seen a full-length Ikuhara series once again – there’s simply no one like him.