I have a confession to make: I have not watched Revolutionary Girl Utena all the way through. I have watched AMV’s, parts of the movie and parts of the television series but I have never watched them all of the way through despite knowing that it is one of the most critically lauded and beloved titles ever. The director of that is Kunihiko Ikuhara who also directed episodes of Sailor Moon something else I have never watched all the way through – primarily because it’s a girls show.
Up until recently it seemed that Kunihiko and I just weren’t fated to get along. One clip from Mawaru Penguindrum changed that.
Three siblings, twin-brothers Kanba and Shouma, and their terminally-ill sister Himari Takakura live together at home without their parents. Kanba and Shouma dote on Himari as any day could be her last. One day, when the siblings are out on a trip to the aquarium, Himari collapses. Taken to hospital it seems that Himari is finished but a miracle occurs when a spirit in a penguin-shaped hat revives her but in exchange for keeping Himari alive the spirit asks the Takakura brothers to acquire an item named the Penguin Drum which is in the possession of a girl named Ringo. Their only help is a trio of penguins that only they can see.
The first thing to note is that the anime is an incredibly gorgeous and detailed whimsical dream.
Just look at the establishing shot,
The transformation scene above is one of the most elaborate and magical I’ve seen in a long time. The backgrounds are some of the most gorgeous I’ve seen with a lot of small details and animation going on – just watch the anti-groping video on the subway cars.
The characters are brilliantly depicted – the central relationship between the siblings feels real – the happy-go-lucky sister refusing to be kept down and her two doting brothers who shield and molly-coddle her, allowing her to live out a fantasy.
The dialogue and interactions are wonderfully nuanced as they touch on the familiar, the extreme and the touching. Whether it’s Shouma referring to the hat as bōshi-sama or the cynical and colder Kanba pressuring his brother to commit acts that become increasingly extreme there are so many amusing lines. Hiding away are hints of something darker here – familial break-down, forbidden love, hell the anime is never afraid to whack you around the head with death.
Whenever Himari dies the art style takes a sharp turn with stark colours that reflect the devastation of the characters as their slice of life hyper-dream just shuts down, music stops and reality claws in.
Where it really shines is its ability to mix the serious with the whimsical. At first it seemed like all of this beauty and detail was purely to make the anime cute but it has a lot of bite hidden behind that cute smile. We get goofy slice of life crashing against fantasy and with every episode it ventures into some very dark and very surprising areas. The tone of the show is melancholy as revealed by the main theme.
I’m only part of the way through but if it can keep coming up with finales like that to episode two then I will carry on watching.