Mawaru Penguindrum, a whimsy, clumsy, psychedelic and most unexpectedly heart-wrenching anime.
The ENDING card. *sniff*
A while ago I watched an anime called Gatchaman Crowds that was chiefly about heroism, humanity in an electronic age, courage and a whole lot of other lofty ideals. It was a mosh pit of ideas, a mixing pot of a thousand and one good ideas. But not all good ideas can become good anime and sadly, Gatchaman Crowds ended up biting more than it could swallow and died a sad, suffocating death full of inexplicable plot holes and washed-out characters.
This is Gatchaman Crowds
I mention Gatchaman Crowds because Mawaru Penguindrum is what Gatchaman Crowds probably set out to do: create a story that’s bursting with real, flawed, human characters with real, flawed enemies and with a thousand real, human and flawed sub-plots connecting to a larger story that spreads out over everything else like a giant, good, amazing mushroom.
Mawaru Penguindrum is everything I said it was before: clumsy, whimsy, psychedelic and in its 24 episode run, it romps through a huge range of comedy that borders on outrageous and melodramatic. It ranges from wit, to slapstick and even the downright ridiculous over-dramatizations of characters’ dreams. Mawaru Penguindrum does comedy right.
But coupled with this amazing hilarity is the soft undertone of something darker. In every episode, there is a sense of darkness that just won’t go away. It’s not something as crude as an approaching death. It’s more subtle and because of this, it’s more real. Even when Shouma, Kanba and Himari are sharing a nice family dinner, there are small hints of something approaching. Hints that something is going to break everything apart.
And in events of actual despair and sadness, this feeling gets suffocating and oppressive. The characters’ grief washes over the entire scene, thick and tangible. How is this done?
The Power of Extended Metaphor.
The whole story is presented to the audience through a veneer of false reality and the thing is; it works.
Everyone is used to extraordinary things happening in anime. In fact, most people expect it. Some people even refuse to call ordinary slice-of-life stuff anime.
Thus Mawaru Penguindrum subverts this expectation by dealing, liberally and heavy-handedly, in things like robots, magic diaries, magical hearts and enchanted penguin hats. But there’s just enough real-life poking through to separate the metaphors from real life.
I could now take about three or four paragraphs here to explain in detail what some of those metaphors are but it’s exhausting and more to the point, pointless because they just won’t make sense in writing. The metaphors are so well transferred onto screen that anyone watching simply gets it instantly. There’s no need for explanations by the characters; that bird in the cage is not a bird. Mary with the three sheep is not Mary. An apple is not an apple.
Here is one of those amazing metaphors. In THE FLESH
It’s a really good mix. Ridiculous, out-of-this-world comedy and eloquent tragedy. And the production in the anime mirrors this combination really well.
The anime deals in a lot of colour. Everything’s vibrant and eye-popping. The three main-characters live in small shack built to resemble a doll’s house, an indication perhaps of their unrealistic lives. Even the hospitals, usually depicted in mindless white in most media, have variations of blue, green and red sometimes. Along with the all the colour, comic moments are also accompanied by typical comedy production style. Fast-cuts, exaggerated emotions on faces, blunt dialogue, loud sound effects as well as perfectly punctuated silences. Music is usually absent during comic moments.
Nothing says cheerful like a good bit of color
Moments of despair and grief are a whole other story. In the anime, most of these are depicted in metaphor. Characters run through endless mazes, fall into bottomless pits, throw themselves off bookshelves, get lost in infinite libraries and much more. To mirror the suffocating emotions, the camera stays fixed most of the time, narrowing our perspective. Colours aren’t muted but less varied. Red, black are mainstays during these scenes, with dark blue and green stepping in sometimes. Music also fills the background, adding to the stuffy feeling during such moments. It’s heavy-handed, true, but it works because of the beautiful contrast against comedy.
Or sombre as a long, pensive, dashing look from one of our two main characters.
Characters. My god. Everyone has holes, everyone has flaws. It’s a theme here. Everyone you want to love in this anime has some negative aspect in them, be it selfishness, a mind-twisting desire for revenge, jealousy, insecurity bordering on self-hate and even, for a short time, feelings of incestuous nature. And in every case, it’s their wants and needs that are pushing them towards these negative feelings and characteristics. But here’s the thing, we never really understand any of the characters completely until the last episode. The anime maintains its narrative momentum until the last minute so that even until the very end, we are only partially in the know about everyone’s motivations and desires.
Plot twists abound here. And the plot twists are devastating because they’re all character driven. Every last one of them.
This is a beautiful anime. Complete in its perfection with a superb cast of characters, a brilliant story that’s mostly character driven and full of amazing production.
Profound, philosophical and yet still full of simple everyday things, this anime brought up more questions about life than any other anime has ever deigned to answer.
Penguins in Lingerie.