Mawaru Penguin Drum – Series Review

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This is a funny sort of post to write, because after twenty-four episode posts and some side posts, I almost feel as if everything there is to say about Mawaru Penguin Drum has already been said.

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.

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  1. F

    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.

    Wait, hold on a second. While I'm not going to argue relative emotional resonance (I found Madoka to be highly "resonating" and Mawaru notsomuch), I'm going to have to ask for clarification (or a point to a clarification) on the issue of Madoka's ending. The ending of Madoka was shockingly straightforward, and flowed directly from the character development of both Madoka and Homura.

    While I can see definite comparisons between the two shows, I'm not buying this one.

  2. S

    I don't think it's fair to compare MPD to Madoka as well. Urobuchi Gen did provide us with a pretty satisfactory ending for a rather convuluted plot. Madoka's ending was relatively straightforward and much more tangible to say the least. The surrealism of Ikuhara's finale might be closer to Evangelion's which argubly makes even less sense than what MPD just presented.

  3. I think I understood Urobuchi's ending fine – I just didn't especially like it. I have problems with both, but for different reasons. And I think some of the problem in both cases from leaving too many loose ends to be tied up in one episode,

  4. F

    Seriously? I mean SERIOUSLY?

    Madoka's probably the most tightly plotted show of recent memory, and Penguindrum the loosest!

    Do you have a post exploring your issues with the Madoka ending, because I really want to hear more about this.

  5. Just pull up the Madoka Magica label, you'll see it.

  6. T

    I do think this show may have been a (highly flawed) masterpiece, but I'm saving that judgement for a rewatch. I just think that it did things I've seen nowhere else, and it did them in a good way.

    But the biggest thing that sticks out to me is how much I agree with what you said towards the end: that I hope Ikuhara's back for good. He's got the sort of vision that damn few people have, and perhaps now that he's let loose with Penguindrum he can (I hesitate to say "tone down") polish up his craziness a bit. Also, looking at the list of people who worked on Utena, I further suspect that Ikuhara does his best (not unlike John, Paul, and George, to borrow an analogy) when he's got similarly creative minds to bounce off of.

    Though if he does take another decade-long break from anime, at least that'll give me some time to figure out what happened here.

  7. A

    @kenosha kid. Never save judgement for a rewatch. If the series can't explain or argue for itself in the first viewing, then it's by definition flawed.

    Also, Enzo, you're amazingly skilled. I wanted to quote some things that I thought were spot-on, but they are simply too many, and you pinpointed them perfectly. What do you do for a living?

  8. T

    @anon: One of the hallmarks of any good story, IMO, is that it stands up to repeated viewings/readings/whatever. This is partly a matter of expectations: oftentimes we come into a work expecting one thing and get something entirely different, and for me at least that can certainly hamper my enjoyment. This show trolled me and pulled the rug out from under me so many times, but I wonder if it would still work if I had some idea of what to expect from it. Madoka, for instance, isn't nearly as good once you know what's coming–after the brilliant visuals and plotting are gone, you've got little substance left over.

    Which brings me to my second point: content. Details. A good story is, I think, in the details, and though I can certainly get quite far trusting my gut instinct, there will always (with a good show at least) be all sorts of details that don't stick out until the second or third time. It was that way with Utena and with Cowboy Bebop. It was that way (at least for me) with The Big Lebowski and with my readings of Shakespeare. I want to know if it'll be that way with Penguindrum. It's messy as hell, but it's easy for me to lose my grip on a series when it's my first time through and it's over the course of six months. My gut reaction is that I loved it, but I won't really trust that until I can go through it a second time with a somewhat more level head.

    Sorry for the wall of text; I've had plenty of conversations IRL about re-reading/watching and the benefits thereof; it's a subject of some importance to me personally.

  9. @Anonymous
    Alas, not write full-time – though I do as much as I can. My RL is a lot more boring. Thanks very much for saying such kind things.

    In terms of the argument between you guys over re-watching and first viewing, I see validity in both arguments. But I lean towards the view that at the very least, a series needs to be able to stand by the impression it makes after one viewing. FLCL is a perfect example – I've seen it 10+ times and every time, I pick out something I missed. But I was still blown away even after the first time I saw it.

  10. l

    Don't forget about Baccano and Durarara that both brian's base made. But enzo if you had know the ending for this would you have watched this show at the beginning?

  11. ICD, if you want to go back the list of great BB series is huge – I was just sticking with 2011!

    Yes, I'd absolutely have watched it. I didn't hate the ending – just didn't love it – and I like to think a critic should form a partial opinion of a series before the ending, anyway.

  12. R

    I've never posted in here before, but now that the series has ended I just wanted to pop in real quick and thank you for your episode reviews. I stumbled upon this blog purely by accident somewhere around Episode 12 and have been reading it after watching every episode of MPD since. Your thoughtful commentary was a nice companion to the series, and helped point out/highlight allusions and symbols I might have otherwise missed.

    So thanks, and keep up the great blog! I'm getting into "Chihayufuru" now, thanks to you, and look forward to seeing your opinions on the Winter line-up as well. I'm pretty busy (and quite picky about my anime) these days, so it's always nice when I can find an intelligent blogger to point me to some good series. 🙂


  13. Dee! You made my night, thanks so much. You're very welcome to lurk all you like but I hope you comment from time to time as well. MPD was a blast to blog, though it was also a lot of work.

    If you haven't seen it, my Winter Preview is linked in the sidebar and the dropdown menu, and it'll give you some idea of what I expect to like, anyway. I also expect to be wrong about half of what I expect, based on past history.

  14. M

    I really enjoyed this anime!! Its really not typical, dunno if I would recommend it, and I had a hard time understanding the ending, among other things 😛 but I still think its awesome!!!That show didn't give me the urge to marathon all the episodes (I don't think that makes a show good or bad) and each episode satisfies me each week (more like overwhelms me :P) so I have enough time to absorb, read about (thx to many blogs they've been writing and interpreting it, but I gotta say yours was maybe my favorite and easier to understand so thx a bunch :D) until the next episode. I think that alone makes this anime more than an anime, or any show despite its flaws (it sure does have many :P) I enjoyed all the time I spent on this show and I guess that's what really counts (for me at least ;)) Once in a while having a show like that is really fun

  15. Thanks, Mrmz. I couldn't imagine marathoning this one – it would be too exhausting…

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