Mawaru Penguindrum–What’s Real and What Isn’t (Spoilers)

In Japanese it is customary to leave out the subject or the object of a sentence if it can be inferred from the context. Perhaps as an extension of this principle, Japanese writers usually disdain to spell out anything that the audience members should be able to figure out for themselves. Western anime fans are accustomed to the experience of watching an anime and saying “Huh? What the heck happened?”

The true fan will accept this. Sometimes I have to watch an anime 2 or 3 times before I feel that I really understand it. If the anime is good enough I don’t mind, and if it isn’t I probably wouldn’t have watched it all the way through even once. (A native Japanese viewer, with a better grasp of the underlying cultural assumptions, could probably figure it out in a single viewing.)

In more serious literature, beyond manga, anime and light novels, things are less simple. In a typical Haruki Murakami fantasy we may be left with the understanding that something supernatural has taken place but there is no way to be sure exactly what happened or who did it or why. (The universe is more complicated than we imagine and it doesn’t come with a manual.)

Mawaru Penguindrum enters this territory. (Writer/Director Kunihiko Ikuhara is clearly a fan of Murakami’s stories.) It’s all very surreal. Some of the scenes that we see are clearly symbolic while others are supposed to be “really happening” in the context of the story, and it’s often unclear what is supposed to be real and what isn’t.

I’m going to make an attempt to sort out what story elements we are supposed to take literally and what is only symbolic. Two warnings: first, I’m not 100% sure about any of this. Second, everything below is loaded with spoilers and you really would do better to watch the show before reading this.
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Mawaru Penguindrum Timeline (Spoilers)

After reviewing Mawaru Penguindrum once again I’m starting to feel that I mostly understand it. One thing that helped, since the story is told in a very non-linear fashion, was to construct a timeline of the events, including the back-story.

I’m posting it below with the warning that this is intended only for people who have already seen the anime. I’m not trying to explain the story here. I’m just putting the events in order. Reading this without having seen the anime first will just be confusing and quite likely will impair your ability to enjoy this magnificent work.
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2011: The Anime Year in Review

I’m going to go about this in my usual biased way, ignoring anything that didn’t interest me and selecting the shows that were great, the shows that were good, and the shows that might have been good were it not for some serious flaw. Ongoing series that have not completed a single season will have judgement deferred until next year. (Too often a promising show is ruined by a bad or missing ending.)
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Mawaru-Penguindrum Ends

Back in April I said “It’s too early to be naming the best anime series of the year, but unless something truly amazing comes along [Madoka Magica] has it locked up.”

I may have spoken too soon. I’m not sure I’d say at this moment that Mawaru-Penguindrum is better than Madoka Magica, but it’s competitive enough to make it a close call.
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Mawaru Penguindrum–Anime First Impressions

Mawaru Penguindrum (“Turn Around Penguindrum”) was probably the most eagerly-anticipated anime of the summer season. At least it had the most mysterious marketing. As it turns out I am not sure what to think of it. There are some impressive animation sequences but it is truly weird.

Twin brothers Kanba and Shouma Takakura (Subaru Kimura and Ryohei Kimura) live with their beloved little sister Himari (Miho Arakawa). Unfortunately Himari is suffering from a Anime Disease and is not expected to live long.

Sure enough one day after visiting an aquarium, admiring the cute penguins and buying a penguin hat, Himari drops dead. The boys are devestated, but then Himari mysteriously revives, her disease apparently cured.

But there is a catch. Sweet little Himari is now possessed by an imperious penguin goddess who regularly takes over Himari’s body, shouts “Survival Strategy!” and starts giving orders to the boys. They have no choice to comply for she threatens that Himari will die if they refuse.
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