On Mawaru Penguindrum


My bad, guys. I was going to do for Penguindrum what I did for Madhouse’s X-Men and blog it weekly (much as it pains me to even mention the two in the same breath), and in fact threatened bodily harm to anyone else who tried. For reasons not worth going into, it’s been a bad couple of months for blogging for me. In recompense, I offer my thoughts on Penguindrum ten episodes in- such as they are. I’m not going to apologize for calling “dibs” and not following up though, because apologizing for that would require the assumption that anyone takes my aniblogging-related threats seriously.

First of all, I love Penguins, therefore I love Penguindrum: this show could be orders of magnitude more stupid and terrible and I would still probably love it. How much do I love Penguins? I have two plush penguins on my desk at work, Rocky and Paul: Rocky because he is a Rockhopper penguin, and Paul because he just looks like a Paul. In fact, I love penguins to a degree that I would love to fund a new documentary all about penguin chicks. However, unlike March of the Penguins, when the heartless filmmakers stood by and watched while mean predators stole and ate the baby chicks while Morgan Freeman warbled something about “the cruelty of nature,” my documentary filmmakers would totally be there to hack reality for the penguins; filming would actually be the secondary concern.

A walrus tries to eat a baby penguin for lunch? Bam, sound guy hits the thing in the face with his boom mic. Predatory bird tries to steal a chick away from his mommy? Key Grip clubs that bastard like it’s a seal. Are the penguin dads getting too cold when they try to warm the eggs with only their body heat over the long Austral winter? Equip them each with tiny penguin-sweaters, and make thermal insulation for the eggs. Yeah, I know we’re supposed to let nature take it’s course, natural selection blah blah blah, but hey, my feeling is that if we’re going to fuck up the environment with CO2 levels and whatnot anyway, let’s at least fuck it up in a way that’s completely awesome.

I fear I may have lost the thread with this topic here: Back to animu.

There was a whole section here about how it would be easier to write about Penguindrum if I actually understood Penguindrum, however no one, including Ikuhara, actually understands it; it’s a satisfying thing to type, but I don’t think that’s strictly true. While I don’t understand everything Penguindrum is doing, what I do think I have a handle on is what the series is about: the two themes that seem to crop up, not just often but incessantly, are the necessity (and difficulty) of reproduction, and the way that Japanese society (represented by the mass transit system) makes people feel like interchangeable units, or drones, in a hive.

The reproduction theme is obvious: From Himari’s “Survival Strategy!”, to Ringo’s “Project Maternity,” to the constant apple imagery, to even that ridiculous magic spell Ringo and Shoma try to pull off that involves frog’s eggs, everyone involved is trying to reproduce so they can survive- as you do. And the constant train/subway imagery is hard to miss, even if you don’t think it’s as significant as I do. However, for a while I was confused: What, if anything, do these two themes have to do with each other?

What I’ve decided is that the relationship is an ironic one: the species that have drones, hives, etc., tend to be the ones that are pretty damned good at reproducing. When have you ever heard concerns about ants going extinct? And yet, for all it reduces it’s citizenry to interchangeable worker bees (to an extent; I’m not demonizing Japanese society here), Japan isn’t very good at reproducing lately. They get the worst of both worlds: living like bees in a hive, only without the Queen giving birth to a thousand babies whenever she feels like it.

Things could change the further we get in the series, but at this point, I really think Penguindrum is about the fear for Japan’s low birthrate, in the same way that Evangelion was about the despondency of an economically, socially stagnant Japan. Or rather, Penguindrum is about a lot of the same concerns, only “and by the way, have you noticed how much we suck at having babies?” added to the pile.

It also seems like the attempts to address the problem on the show are dysfunctional; without getting started on Ringo (please, let’s NEVER get started on Ringo), the main evidence of “Penguin Queen” Himari’s “Survival Strategy” that we’ve seen so far seems to involve her brother, Kanba; I think there may be some commentary on modern anime’s bizarre fetish for incestuous relationships on display here, but more importantly, that’s a bad survival strategy, lady. Like, rule one of reproducing: Don’t reproduce with your siblings if you can help it.

Of course, if it ends up being a post-apocalyptic, Neo-Garden of Eden scenario, brothers and sisters have to reproduce because there simply is no one else, and I’m a bit afraid that that’s where the show is going. Not afraid that it will be bad, per se, but afraid because that’s just so sad; it’ll be Shinji and Asuka on the beach again in a ruined world, and as much as the thought of Shinji and Asuka’s spawn repopulating the planet is beyond terrifying, what’s the alternative? Himari shacking up with her brother might be repulsive, but maybe the Penguin Queen knows something we don’t and the situation is already so dire that taboos, like sibling sex, no longer even matter.

I’ve always been impressed with how Ikuhara deals with adolescence as a theme, both in the Utena movie and in Sailor Moon Super S, which was an underrated season in my opinion. It seems appropriate that he’s moved onto what happens after adolescence- when your reproductive organs are all nice and developed- but I’m afraid Penguindrum may be breaking the pattern of optimism for the future that I’ve always sensed from his work, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

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