Penguindrum: Box 2 Review

Things get very weird in the second half of Penguindrum. If you've already seen the first half of Kunihiko Ikuhara's latest series, that won't come as any surprise, but when I say weird...

...You know the way you sometimes you get your anime set discs out of order, put the wrong disc in the player and watch a few episodes before realising you've missed something? Well, you often get that feeling when you're watching Penguindrum. Sometimes though you check the disc and find that it's not you it's just the series and the best thing to do is just stick with it on the off-chance that everything will eventually become clear. As unlikely as that might seem based on the first half-of the series, that's definitely the case with Penguindrum.

Weird however doesn't even begin to describe the latest anime series from the director of Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena. The first half of Penguindrum introduced us to the Takakura family where the terminally-ill Himari has been brought back to life by an alien princess in exchange for her brothers Shoma and Kanba agreeing to acquire the mysterious Penguindrum. To assist them, each of them have been assigned small squat invisible and mischievous penguins who seem to not so much help as cause havoc. There's another subplot that relates to Ringo Oginome, a young girl who is stalking a teacher Mr Tabuki, directed by a magic diary that she believes determines her fate. She's not the only one interested in the diary. So too is Mr Tabuki's beautiful but sinister fiancée Yuri, and one of Kanba's ex-girlfriend who is running around shooting people with truth-pellets. Then there's the mystery of the disappearance of the parents of the Takakura children, who appear to be terrorists sought after by the authorities...

You would think that the series couldn't possibly tie up all the bizarre goings-on in the first half of the series (the above is only a small sample), but not only does try to make sense of what lies behind all this strange behaviour, it throws a few more complications into the mix and then connects them all together into something that approaches a rational explanation. Yes, even the "Survival tactic!" outbursts have meaning. How? Well, even if you do feel slightly lost on occasion, there are several consistent themes woven throughout the series, relating to questions of Fate and Destiny and the extent to which it plays a part in our lives. Is there some kind of trade-off between good things that happen and the bad things? Who is to blame then when bad things happen and how do we deal with the fact that there are some things in life you can never get back?

As strange as things get in Penguindrum, these touchstones are constantly referred back to. Not necessarily in a linear or naturalistic fashion - flashbacks occur every three minutes or so that often complicate rather than illuminate - but they are key to understanding what is going on. There is nothing conventional or predictable about the way that the series examines these questions. It's like it deals with real issues, emotions and situations, but filters them through a layer of surrealism that is sometimes quirky, sometimes annoying, but never without some deeper significance or meaning. Ok, almost never. There are some elements that it might not be possible to work out, but that's the multi-levelled nature of the subjects we're dealing with here. There are no easy answers, but Penguindrum embraces this enhanced reality, making it entertaining and terrifying in equal measure as it goes to some very dark places indeed.

Which, when your considering questions of fate, guilt, lost pasts, alternate realities and changing destiny, is just about the only way you can do it. This is something moreover that only anime can do so well, as demonstrated in exceptional series like Clannad, Steins Gate, Puella Magi Madoka Magica or - particularly here - Eden of the East, and like those series Penguindrum is anime at its most imaginative and creative. As references to the number 95 and the subway imagery hint, it's not dealing with these matters in abstraction either, but relating them to significant events like the Aum Shinrikyo 1995 terror attacks on the Tokyo underground. Here, director Kunihiko Ikuhara can take alien princesses, penguins, apples and subway trains and use the symbolism and surrealism of them to explore complex philosophical and psychological questions, advancing the real-world concepts progressively, innovatively, imaginatively and in a hugely entertaining fashion. Doing things that only anime can do, in other words, and this is one of the finest examples of the artform.

As was clearly evident in the first half of the series, not only is the storyline distinctive and intelligent with a meaningful purpose, but the animation itself is capable of matching those ambitions. Character designs are strong, every frame is attractive and imaginative in imagery and often packed with seemingly minor and distracting details and activities - most of them involving the bizarre activities of the penguin helpers. Even these however seem to relate to the mindsets of the characters and express aspects of their personalities that are enlightening and sometimes disturbing. I defy anyone not to have a huge grin on their faces when the words "Survival tactic!" are uttered, although even here the second half of the series reveals that there are more sinister undercurrents directed to those "who shall amount to nothing". Penguindrum turns the world on its head for those whose world has indeed been turned on its head.

Penguindrum is released as a three-disc DVD set by Manga Entertainment. The set contains twelve episodes (13-24) which constitute the second half of the complete series, with four episodes on each of the three single-layer DVD-5 discs. Prepared for Manga Entertainment by Kazé, the set is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.

A DVD release only, the quality however is nonetheless very 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 on each disc are limited to variations of the Opening theme and the multiple versions of the closing theme, with some karaoke scripts and translations.

It's worth pointing out too that although elsewhere the content of Penguindrum meets a 12 certificate, it has been landed with a ludicrous 18 rating for the content in one episode on one of the discs here. Dealing with some dark subject matter, the series does explore some serious issues and contain some disturbing elements, but everything is suggested and, despite the 18 rating, there is nothing here that is explicit. It's yet another case of the BBFC being completely clueless about how to handle adult themes in animated series.

The second part of Penguindrum appears to push the series even further into more gratuitously over-the-top surrealism, with wild animation, complicated flashback sequences and obscure symbolism. Even if you don't immediately capture its intent and meaning however, it's still perfectly possible to enjoy the series on a purely visceral level as thrilling entertainment that abounds in ideas. It's clear however that there's is a consistent purpose and theme being explored here and it's brilliantly pulled together in the final episodes in a way that is satisfying but still leaves you with a lot to think about, or even immediately want to go back and rewatch. An indication, I would think, that this is anime at its finest.

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