Ikuhara Kunihiko‘s newest project is already shaping up to be great in its own right. I’d been wanting to write on this series since its premiere but hesitated because I didn’t feel ready to “get it right.” I apologize for the late start. I wish to review Mawaru Penguin Drum, hereafter referred to as simply Pengudrum, with the justice it deserves, so if I go a little overboard please excuse me. And so, I will proceed:
Everything Until Now Has Been For You (今まで 全部… あなた の ために)
To the casual viewer, Mawaru Penguin Drum is inscrutable. In fact, even as it nears the half-way mark of its two-cour run, many fans and converts to the series STILL don’t know what exactly Pengudrum is about but for the sake of exposition and getting to the review proper let us outline in rough the route our heroes have trod thus far. For those who are not current with the series, this is your first and only spoiler warning.
We have in the outset the three Takakura siblings, brothers Kanba and Shouma, who dote on their beloved younger sister, the gentle, terminally-ill Himari. One day during an outing to the aquarium Himari collapses, ostensibly succumbing to her illness after a prolonged battle. Although the brothers rush her to the hospital, they cannot save her and she dies shortly thereafter. However, the penguin-shaped hat bought for Himari as a souvenir holds strange properties: when placed on her head, she is miraculously revived, though only by the grace of an mysterious, authorative entity (the Penguqueen, shall we say) that possesses the hat (and speaks through Himari’s body) who in return demands an object she cryptically refers to as the “Penguin Drum.”
At this point what the Penguin Drum is, what it does and its location is anyone’s guess but the brothers know that without it the deal to extend Himari’s life is void, creating a literal matter of life and death. Thus the great quest for the most MacGuffin-est MacGuffin ever begins. How do you start looking for something when you don’t have the first clue about what it is? Aided
sometimes? by penguin counterparts the siblings alone can see, the brothers are swept up in a series of bizarre events precipitated by equally bizarre persons -the most crucial being Oginome Ringo, the girl in possession of their precious quarry: the Penguin Drum, which turns out to be her diary.
Ringo has her own plans for the Penguin Drum, namely taking up the persona of her deceased older sister Momoka to fulfill her “destiny” in her place and carry out “Project M,” which involves getting pregnant by her teacher and Momoka’s childhood-friend Tabuki Keiju-sensei. As Kanba and Shouma both vie in their own ways to claim the one thing that can save Himari’s life, a new challenger emerges to throw the brothers’ plan into doubt: Natsume Masako, a woman with a score to settle with Kanba, heavily implied to be an old flame, sports a penguin accomplice of her own and erases the memories of her victims with a powerful scope-sight slingshot. Through dubious means she ends up with half of the diary, which she needs to save her brother who appears to suffer the same life-on-loan situation as Himari.
Through it all, Himari remains blissfully unaware of the ordeals Kanba and Shouma are undertaking but remains alive and well, pending acquisition of the Penguin Drum… until now.
Seizon Senryaku, Once More (もう一度! 生存戦略)
Kanba returns home to find the house empty. On the low table in the dining room is a heaping bowl of rolled cabbage, his favorite. Suddenly, an anonymous call from a man claiming to be from the “Destination of Fate” warns Kanba that Himari will die again. Meanwhile, Shouma explains to the puzzled Ringo why his family is responsible for her sister Momoka’s death.
Sixteen years ago, Shouma’s father Takakura Kenzan (Koyasu Takehito!) is a mild-mannered factory worker, overjoyed at the news of his wife’s delivery of a healthy baby boy. Immediately afterwards, Takakura seems to organize a rendezvous amongst fellow conspirators to initiate their “Survival strategy” plan (セイゾンセンリャクシマショウカ) to bring peace to the world. Incidentally, this is the same morning that a young Tabuki Keiju was supposed to have met up with Oginome Momoka, the yet-unborn Ringo’s sister, to catch the subway to school together. Having overslept, Tabuki, rushes to catch up with her only to discover that the subway lines have been shut down due to a series of terrorist incidents resulting in the deaths of countless victims, among them Momoka. As Shouma concludes his confession, the Penguqueen urges him and Ringo to accept the wheel of fate that binds them, and warns that because they have lost the Penguin Drum the fateful time is at hand.
At this, the Penguqueen falls to her knees. Even as her life ebbs away and she slips into unconsciousness, she warns the pair to secure the Penguin Drum in order to escape the cruel fate in store and to stop “them.” With that, the hat falls to the ground and Himari’s eyes close.
As Kanba desperately races towards the hospital, he recalls sweet memories shared with Himari. On a particular day also Himari was making rolled cabbage, which she explained wasn’t just Kanba’s favorite food but also a symbol of reconciliation and the bond between them as siblings. At the emergency room, Shouma begins to recount a nursery tale involving Mary and the Three Lambs. Shouma continues to narrate the tale of Mary and her lambs in voiceover throughout the subsequent scenes, which are intercut with scenes illustrating his dialogue.
This is where we progress into the realm that Ikuhara crafts so well. His presentation of theater and narrative, and his layering and juxtaposition of visuals and dialogue is, well, brilliant. To digress somewhat but to the point, I greatly admire Ikuhara’s work, going back to 1999 when I was first introduced to his seminal piece Shoujo Kakumei Utena (少女革命ウテナ) aka Revolutionary Girl Utena or, if you prefer, La Fillette Revolutionnaire. I was very impressed with the series. So much so that in all the intervening years since that first viewing I have yet to see Utena again in its entirety; and yet the impact of its art style; its stark surrealism; and its multi-layered and often loaded symbolism has persisted so strongly within the murky recesses of my memory it has influenced my reception and appreciation of all shoujo/fantasy-themed anime and manga to this day. Such are the similar masterful techniques Ikuhara employs in the following sequence:
Ikuhara gives us the symbolism of Mary’s apple tree, with its too-good-for-this-earth fruit, and its pure wholesomeness. A source of light, suddenly and tragically extinguished. Kanba finally arrives on the scene to find Ringo despondent and Shouma emotionally defeated. Seizing the penguin hat, Kanba storms the ER, frantically trying to coax some sign of life from the silent Himari. As Kanba grieves, Shouma continues his narration and introduces the taboo method for reviving the tree. It is then that Kanba attempts to use the hat to awaken Himari.
The penguin hat, however, for once fails to fully initiate Seizon Senryaku timespace, leaving Kanba and the Penguqueen in a neitherworld limbo. The Penguqueen, weak and fading, tells Kanba that time has run out and thus she must return to the “Destination of Fate.” As such, Himari cannot survive. However, Kanba will not give up.
Can’t it be done one more time? (もう一度やってくれないか？)
With that phrase, in a noble, selfless gesture of fraternal love, Kanba offers his own life force to the Penguqueen, begging her to prolong Himari’s life once more in what is perhaps the most poignantly beautiful scene in the entire series thus far. Regretfully, the Penguqueen explains to Kanba that such a thing is all but impossible, as it is akin to finding love or one’s first kiss, unique one-time-only experiences that cannot be duplicated (note the ruins of the Penguqueen’s staircase: looks alot like vertebrae and ribs to me). Yet Kanba remains firm. Seeing his resolve, the Penguqueen declares that she will accept his offer, although she hesitates to completely extract the Scorpion Soul from Kanba. But as Shouma’s narration of Mary and Her Three Lambs begins to synch up with what unfolds onscreen, we hear Himari’s heartbeat clearly but tentatively register over the EKG monitor only to flatline once more.
But just when all hope seems lost, Watase Sanetoshi appears.
In a series that continues to amaze, Pengudrum keeps getting better and better. I was a bit apprehensive during the course of some of the previous, more light-hearted episodes involving Ringo’s pursuit of Tabuki, but this most recent episode rates as the best yet. I enjoyed it as much as the Himari-focused Episode 9, which was also very satisfying. Sanetoshi’s direct involvement with the cast is sure to bring about some interesting developments. I’m not sure where Pengudrum is heading, indeed it’s too soon to say, but chances are it’ll be good. Real good. If not better than that.
Seizon Senryaku: Don’t give up (生存戦略: 諦めないで)