Blu-ray Review: MAWARU PENGUINDRUM Will Make You Dance To Its Beat!


(Insert Linux joke here...)

Recently I lamented the general lack of originality in anime. Next thing I know, this series was dropped in my lap, making me eat my words. For Mawaru Penguindrum is not just original, it's beyond batshit crazy. At the same time, it has a strong and gripping narrative, with characters you despise, yet root for. And the insanity turns out to have an intriguing structure to it.

Think of a very quirky and weird version of Thai thriller 13 Beloved, and you are not a million miles off the mark.

Last month Siren Visual released the first half of this series on Blu-ray for Australia and New Zealand. Time to review it!


The Story:

Shoma and Kanba are teenage twin brothers who live together in Tokyo. They have no parents and care for their younger sister Himari, who is ill and only has a few weeks left to live. They try hard to make her days as cheerful as possible.

But one day the inevitable happens: Himari collapses and dies. As the two boys are grieving in the hospital, Himari suddenly revives, her body possessed by the funny penguin hat she was wearing. Claiming to be an alien, possibly from the future, the entity tells Shoma and Kanba that it can briefly prolong their sister's life, but in return they must help it retrieve something called the Penguindrum.

The two boys immediately start hunting for the Penguindrum, following some vague hints given by the hat. But the task is difficult, because nobody knows what the Penguindrum is. Also, the brothers find their sense of morality challenged, as they keep having to complete stranger and more dubious tasks to reach their goal. Like when they need to help a female student stalk her teacher...

How far are Shoma and Kanba willing to go, just to keep their sister alive a little bit longer? And what on EARTH is the entity which possesses Himari anyway?


Penguindrum-BR-ext1.jpgThe Series:

Good word-of-mouth about the anime series Mawaru Penguindrum reached me some time ago, but when I looked at the available versions I was met with a disturbing lolicon cover image, which showed what was either an underaged girl's asscrack or her camel-toe, caused by her too tight fanfare uniform (the pic above is chaste by comparison).

Ewww, not my kinda hype... and I've questioned this kind of thing in the past (link). So I dismissed the series for then, labeling it in my mind as probably too silly and with too much fanservice.

Fast forward to last week, when a review copy arrived for Siren Visual's Mawaru Penguindrum Blu-ray. Ah well, I thought, let's check it out then. But after only one episode, I restarted and called in that most fanservice-hating, anime-cynical and impatient of critics to join me: my wife.

And we have been watching it engrossed, finishing the series in lumps of two, three episodes each evening.

I shouldn't have been too surprised, as the anime studio involved is Brain's Base, who previously produced shows like Durarara!!, Baccano! and Princess Jellyfish, all of which are loved by the both of us.

It is definitely a silly series with plenty of adolescent, predictable embarrassment jokes, and indeed there is fanservice aplenty. By all means I should be fiercely disliking Mawaru Penguindrum on those counts. But these things are only a thin layer, put on top of something far more adult and interesting.

Characterization is strong, emotions seem earned rather than played for cheap sentiment, and the central storyline is very intriguing. The boys are unfairly blackmailed into crossing line after line, but what is really happening here? Starting early on already, there are some strong hints that not all is as it seems, and at the halfway point there have been some stellar twists already. Few series have made me and my wife go "What the hell?!" as often as this one did.

No matter how funny and quirky Mawaru Penguindrum gets, you are always made to remember that there are a tragedy and a mystery underneath. Even the fanservice seems often to have been put there to disturb rather than titillate.

As for the artwork and animation, this is fine, often even excellent. The character designs are of the pixie-ish kind currently favored and vastly overused in anime, but the backgrounds are fantastically detailed. And whenever the boys are summoned by the Penguin entity, they enter an alternate reality which looks wild, bizarre, strangely sterile, yet crazy as hell. Think of the Oz segments in Hosoda Mamoru's Summer Wars, and you'll have a good idea of what this looks like.

Recurring visual themes, like the overabundant use of logos everywhere, get a menacing quality after a while, foreshadowing danger. The series rewards paying attention, as even the most baffling details and bizarre jokes turn out to have a narrative function.
All in all this makes for compelling viewing. Alas, the disc only contains the first half of the series' 24 episodes and I cannot wait to see what happens next...


Conclusion:

Can I get the second half of the story, like, NOW? Despite its naughty and silly appearance, Mawaru Penguindrum isn't just good, it is one of the best anime series I've watched in ages!

Studio Brain's Base has delivered yet another crown jewel of a series here. I haven't seen the finale yet, so I keep being a bit apprehensive in case the juggling act goes bad in the end, but at this point in the story Mawaru Penguindrum is definitely HIGHLY recommended.


On To The Discs:

Siren Visual has released Mawaru Penguindrum on Blu-ray, and I'm happy that they did. The regular artwork is at times very detailed, but once you enter the "mindscapes" (if that's what they are?) of the protagonists, CGI is used copiously and even the details get their own details. The Survival Strategy summonings of Hiwari-in-Penguin-Empress-mode look especially lush and glorious, demanding an HD transfer to do the artwork justice.

As for sound, both a Japanese track and an English track are provided here. Which is unusual, as Siren Visual chose to go with the Japanese title of the series (the rest of the world just calls it Penguindrum), something they normally only do when there is no English dub available. This being Siren Visual, the discs default to Japanese with English subs.

A few words on the subtitles: these take some getting used to. While they are excellent for the dialogue, they also cover any songtexts in the background, or hard-to-get references to local customs and television series. This means that there are sometimes five, six, or seven lines of subs on screen at the same time, and only for a fraction of a second. Several times I had to rewind a bit and pause the screen to be able to read all of it. Thing is, most of these explanations really do come in handy, and I appreciate them being there. I applaud Siren Visual for including them.

I have a minor niggle with the translated songtexts though, as these often are mixed through the regular conversations, making it hard to follow both. Again, it's good to have them, just put songtexts consistently in the top of the screen perhaps and keep dialogue in the bottom?

This first half of Mawaru Penguindrum is completely bare bones. No extras, no trailers, no clean opening or closing credits. Maybe these will be on the second release?

But the series itself looks stunning, and I'm pleased as Punch that Mawaru Penguindrum is now available in region B on Blu-ray. It is a truly fantastic anime and I urge everyone to go check it out!

Penguindrum-BR-ext2.jpg
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