Wednesdays Watching Anime – Penguindrum

August 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

This week, for our anime, we have OP1 for Penguindrum, “Nornir” by Yakushimaru Etsuko!


What do you think, when you hear the title of this anime? What do the words “penguin” and “drum” bring to mind? Anything specific?

For me, the interesting thing about Ikuhara Kunihiko is that he seems mostly indifferent to selling the deeper themes of the shows that he makes via their OPs and EDs. A more callous heart than me might feel, deep down, that he is mostly indifferent to selling them because, with the exception of Revolutionary Girl Utena, he doesn’t actually have anything to sell. That’s why I’m looking closer at Penguindrum, which lies between Utena and the recent Yuri Kuma Arashi, with regards to both chronology and apparent depth.

The most obvious visual motif of Penguindrum‘s OP is… well, all the penguins, right? In addition to the three super-deformed penguins that are counterparts to the Takakura siblings, there are also the various logos of the flightless waterfowl, done in the style of corporate street-art, something that Ikuhara tends to favor in his works almost as much as seemingly infinite geometric patterns. These logos spin, first triply and then singly, reflecting the Mawaru part of the full Japanese title — Mawaru Penguindrum — which was truncated for international release. These configurations possibly represent (on the one hand) the family unit that comprises the Takakura children and (on the other) the children as discrete individuals whose actions shape that family.

And then there’s some falling. I’ve yet to find an OP for an anime that wouldn’t do with some falling. Falling is symbolic as hell, you know.

After fifteen mildly self-indulgent seconds, the last thing to fall is an apple, which evokes the show’s conception of sin. The characters themselves are sinners (but then, aren’t we all) and Aum Shinrikyo, the infamous cult that forms a central pillar of the anime’s story, was founded around the concept of a leader able to transfer and remit his followers’ sins. The apple, as a Judeo-Christian device that serves as the vessel for sin — which, in the book of Genesis, is tellingly equated with knowledge — recurs again and again in Penguindrum as a means of commissioning and transferring sin between characters that might not be equally culpable. About a minute into the OP, the apple is replaced by vials of caustic-looking pink liquid, a savvy update to the “poison apple” of religion and fairy tales.

And then… I don’t know. From that point, the OP starts to get overloaded with symbols. We have:

  • The robotic bears, which appear to be just some flair on the part of Ikuhara, probably owing to his interest in the visual intricacy of technology.
  • The subway gates and maps, which are a much more obvious reference to Aum Shinrikyo.
  • More falling!
  • A character catching fire, which… uh…
  • A character with an exotic gun standing among penguin-branded ping-pong balls.
  • Two separate characters standing in front of full-body shots of them walking.
  • An incredibly obvious shot of the villain character.
  • Falling. Drink!
  • And finally we’re back to rotating penguins and apples.

I’m kidding, just a little bit. It’s clear that the first forty-five seconds or so are what’s devoted to introducing the objects that are going to dominate the thematic conversation of the show, after which Ikuhara reverts to the standard showcase of the principal and then ancillary characters. When he comes back to his now-established arsenal of meaningful images, in the last few seconds of the anime, he simply reinforces the two dominant ones: a group of penguins, awkward and social animals that need each other to survive (now with a fourth one, which doesn’t really have a payoff in the show itself, as I can tell you), and the apple, the vessel for sin.

What I like about the OP for Penguindrum, distinct from those by other directors of anime who are just as artistically inclined, is the sheer competence at work, which is actually a little bit incredible when you take Ikuhara’s relatively low output into account. The music is smooth and pleasant, even if the lyrics are a bit insipid, and the quality of the animation, which seems high-tech but not computerized, allows a high volume of images to be thrown at the viewer without them becoming an impressionistic blur. It’s clearly a work by someone who cares about symbolism, but understands that the most important use of symbols is unconscious and instinctual recognition, requiring a softer touch.

And hey, if Ikuhara’s touch isn’t softer, then I don’t know whose is.

Ringo, Shouma, and Himari ride the train in Penguindrum

Ringo, Shouma, and Himari ride the train in Penguindrum


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