Penguindrum: Box 1 Review

Penguindrum, the latest anime series from the director of Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena, is one of those anime series that you can quite happily sit through as if everything were perfectly normal (in an anime world kind of normal obviously), but when it comes to sitting down and trying to explain what it is all about, it just sounds completely insane. Insane in a good way though. OK, let's give it a go then...

It all starts when Himari Takukura dies. It's been known for a while that Himari has an incurable illness, but her two older brothers, Shoma and Kanba - all the family she has left - are determined to do everything they can for her in her remaining days. She shouldn't even be alive at this stage, but they can't help taking her to one of the favourite places of their childhood, the sea-park and aquarium. So far, nothing too strange I grant you. All madness breaks out however on the utterance of the words '"Survival tactic!", and you'll hear that about once an episode.

So, Himari does indeed die and she dies just outside the sea-world gift shop, where her brother has just bought her a souvenir penguin hat. The hat however miraculously brings Himari back to life, or at least allows her to extend her lifespan by being possessed by an alien princess (reminiscent in look and style from the director's earliest series, Sailor Moon from 1992). On the proclamation of the words "Survival Tactic!", the brothers are transported to a SF-fantasy realm where she advises the worthless worms that they shall recover an object known as the Penguindrum for her. Henceforth, the Takukura brothers and their sister Himari discover that they have each been assigned small round penguins - visible only to themselves - as helpers and assistants.

That however is only part of the story, and probably not even the weirdest part. The brother's investigation leads them, having attached cameras and phones to the waist-high penguin and sent them into a school where the girls wear short skirts (don't ask), to discover a lead to finding the mysterious penguindrum with a young high-school student called Ringo Oginome. Ringo is a very strange girl with a deep obsession over schoolteacher Mr Tabuki. Following directions in a pink diary, she's determined to carry out 'Project M'. Convinced she's simply following the directions of Fate, her behaviour however is somewhat on the stalker side. Prone to flights of fancy might be another way of putting it as Ringo experiences romantic illusions, in cut-out drama form, sometimes as musicals. It gets weirder still...

There are other strange elements that don't entirely add up just yet, such as a plot hatched by one of the ex-girlfriends of the elder brother Kanba and mysterious exchanges of money that take place on the underground, but Penguindrum is perhaps best characterised by its other unpredictable elements and strange stylisations. There's the aforementioned musical cut-out romantic drama interludes, background characters are blank shapes, and there's plenty of background humour in the animated underground informational ads, in the running jokes of the battles between the penguins and a growing bug population, and in various other unpredictable elements.

The wackiness does seem a little forced in places, but the unpredictability and the animation itself is grounded in some consistent themes and images. The stations of the underground and associated subway imagery, for example, all relate to the idea of lines of fate and destiny as well as having a real-life significance. Unlike previous Kunihiko Ikuhara series the animation too is less shojo stylised. It uses those elements in some of the wilder romantic fantasy moments, but integrates them well with a more contemporary mainstream style that is attractively designed and nicely animated. There's clearly a method employed here, but it's one that is far from predictable or conventional. There's no telling what the eventual destination on that subway train might be then, but it's guaranteed to at least be a fun ride.

Penguindrum is released as a three-disc DVD set by Manga Entertainment. The set contains twelve episodes which constitute the first half of the first season, with four episodes on each of the three single-layer DVD-5 discs. Prepared for Manga Entertainment by Kazè, the set is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.

A DVD release only, the quality however is nonetheless good in Standard Definition. The image quality is hard to fault, the transfer is stable and colours are reasonably well-defined, although skin tones seem a little murky in places. You might notice some colour-banding depending on your display set-up, but it's only occasionally evident. Subtitles are white, as they should be, clear and easy to read. The audio tracks consist of an English dub as well as the original Japanese track, both in Dolby Digital 2.0. I didn't sample the English dub myself, but the Japanese track is clear and resonant with strong dynamic. It's just not surround. Extras are limited to a Promotional Video (trailer), and Karaoke versions of the Opening and Closing themes.

There's plenty of incident, weirdness and imagination evident in the first half of Penguindrum Season 1. Even if it seems occasionally that it's being weird just for the sake of it, it's still highly entertaining and it's at least never predictable. You may find however that things start to make sense by the end of the first 12 episodes, or at least show that there is some method behind it that looks like adding up to something greater. Released on DVD only by Manga Entertainment, this is a nice little set that gets an interesting series off to a great start.

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