I remember the moment in Mawaru Penguindrum when everything changed. I was watching the first episode on my laptop while lying on the sofa at my aunt’s house. There on the screen, Himari in her penguin hat yelled “SEIZON SENRYAKU!” An elaborate “transformation scene” follows, as a phallic rocket enters a whirling astrolabe of iron, train decals and snowflakes. The rocket becomes a bear, which gives birth to a newly costumed Himari, who magically strips and then tears a red glowing something from the chest of her brother. In that moment I felt deja vu. A few years before, I had seen Utena in the dueling arena, pulling the Sword of the Dios from the chest of the Rose Bride. Nothing else had given me that moment. But here it was again, in Penguindrum, and now it was new.
When I finished the episode, I stood up. I walked all the way around my aunt’s house. Then I did it again. “What are you doing?” my aunt asked. “Anime!” I cried. [I don’t know if I actually said “Anime!” But the feeling was there.] Then I sat down on the couch and watched that episode again, from the beginning. It was just as good the second time. Then I went online to see what people were saying about it.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Mawaru Penguindrum “activated” me as an anime fan. I’d been into manga and anime for years before—watching Pokemon each night at 8 on GMA, catching Fullmetal Alchemist as it aired on Animax, frantically trying to code the theme song from Digimon Tamers into my Nokia cellphone. When I entered high school I began lurking on blogs, following rabbit holes to out-of-the-way recommendations like Kaiba and FLCL. Hell, I’d followed Madoka Magica as it aired that spring of 2011. But something changed with Penguindrum. Before I’d been content lurking out the outskirts of fandom, nibbling at what was produced. Now I had to know more. And I wasn’t the only one! After that first episode, dozens of folks on the net were arguing about Penguindrum. Some of them started their own blogs (like this one!)
Watching the series as it aired, I saw Penguindrum as a puzzle to be solved. I think the show encourages this; its repeated use of symbols, catchphrases, sneaky references to history, literature and politics, constantly hint at a greater truth just out of reach. Working to uncover these secrets with other bloggers and fans was as much a part of the experience for me as the show itself. Of course, many of those predictions turned out to be wrong! I believed for a long time that the two girls in the ED had some tie to the Takakura brothers, until they were revealed to be Himari’s friends with their own tragic history. Similarly, I remembered being blindsided when Sanetoshi’s bunny companions appeared in the twelfth episode, presenting an entirely new and important symbol to worry about (but one that I would have briefly seen in the ED, had I only paid attention.)
In retrospect, attempting to “solve” Penguindrum is a recipe for burnout. The series is packed with details that tease fascinating connections, like the photo hinting KIGA GROUP began as a trip to Antarctica (with penguins!) before it became a cult. But then there are other choices that are just messy. What role does Mario play in the story? Was there any narrative justification for Yuri to threaten to assault Ringo while she was asleep? What is the significance of the bears within the Survival Strategy arena? The answers are something like: it’s a vestigial element from an earlier draft; Ikuhara is a supremely indulgent storyteller who isn’t above salacious cliffhangers undone in the very next episode; and hey, you know, people in his circle really have a thing for bears? Penguindrum takes its sweet time to answer these mysteries; the Takakura’s dirty family secret isn’t revealed until almost the halfway mark, and the villain makes his true entrance on the stage just one episode later. I’d venture to say Penguindrum inspired some loud and vitriolic reactions from people precisely because it teased viewers for so long, only to chide them for expecting technical “answers” at all.
But then I go back to how Penguindrum’s always been something I’ve shared with other people. In college I watched the whole series twice, once by myself and again with my sophomore year roommate. I showed episodes to my parents, I showed the first episode to the classmate I was going out with in junior year of college. Later my friends on the blog and I rewatched it with one of the original writers who’d covered it all those years ago. Even that time there were clues that I’d missed the first time around: the skunk in the fourth episode and its gas attack, the omnipresence of rotating fans from the very beginning. And after watching each batch of episodes, we’d talk. There were bits we agreed on and bits we disagreed on. But while my Penguindrum was different from another’s Penguindrum, we could still pass it from one person to the other. Like a bowl of curry, an unlabeled apple, or a still throbbing heart.
There is no singular answer to what Penguindrum is. It’s a metaphor, a fruit divided many times, a “train wreck.” A twenty-four episode television series. Shouma pulling Himari from the Child Broiler. Himari putting a bandaid on Kanba’s face after his father died. Kanba ruining himself on a rope to keep Himari from the abyss. Ringo’s thwarted sacrifice. A found family. Gray Wednesdays.