Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mawaru Penguindrum 2: Risky Survival Strategy

A lot of the shows I talk about here are ones that you have to work to read things into, to notice the more symbolic meanings that lay at the centre of what are ostensibly ordinary genre shows. Mawaru Penguindrum is not one of those shows.

On a pure plot level the show is hard to make heads or tails of, except as an absurdist comedy. All kinds of weird things happen – Himari revives from the dead at the price of being occasionally possessed by a magic penguin hat with mysterious motives, penguins appear to serve every whim of our three main characters and are invisible to everyone but them, and then there are the sequences where the brothers get whisked off to some kind of pocket dimension and receive bizarre instructions from their possessed sister as she strips off her clothes.

All of this follows the reputation of director Kunihiko Ikuhara, creator of the surrealist magical girl series (and anime masterwork) Revolutionary Girl Utena. Like Penguindrum, Utena is so full of sequences unrelated to plot or character and strange stylistic choices that it practically begs for interpretation in the same way so many modern literary works do. This is I suppose another variety of the “puzzle anime” I discussed last week: the viewer is charged with deciphering not what is happening but why it's happening on a metafictional level. (Some shows, such as Evangelion (or Lost, for an American equivalent), demand deciphering on both the narrative (i.e. “what the heck is going on”) and symbolic levels.) Penguindrum is the first show Ikuhara's directed since Utena, which ended (if you count the movie) in 1999. As you might expect, the twelve-year gap has expectations quite high for this show, and the reputations of Ikuhara and Utena cast quite a long shadow on the new show.* So I'm going to try to avoid a head-on comparison between the two shows, although they do have similarities that deserve being called attention to.

On the surface, Mawaru Penguindrum is sweet and innocent. The colours are bright pastels, the central three characters all love each other in a warm-fuzzies sort of way, and much of the action (at least in this episode) revolves around cute penguins doing cute penguin things. The design of the siblings' house (which is notably differentiated by the more mundane dwellings around it) reflects this kind of gumdrops-and-lollypops atmosphere.

(The above screenshot is interesting because of just how crowded the shot is, especially in a form that is known for artistic simplicity. And in amidst all of these distractions, Himari has quietly put on her penguin hat again. This is just snuck into the background of the scene. Mawaru Penguindrum is asking us to pay close attention to even its backgrounds, or else we'll miss what's about to happen.)

Even the girls' bathroom is sparkly and fantastical.

So this is a world where cute little girls literally shit stars. But the cute world of Mawaru Penguindrum also has its seedy, base and depressing sections. After all, the first episode includes the sweet little girl at its centre dying of a terminal illness. And in “Risky Survival Strategy” we begin in the toilet, travel through a lingerie store, and end up under the baseboards with a crazed stalker.

We open in the above-pictured girl's bathroom, with a shot sicklingly cute pink toilet flushing. The opening, pre-credits scene is a mirror of the one from the first episode, featuring a previously unintroduced character (in this case Ringo) going about their daily business while monologuing in voice-over about fate. Whereas Shoma (at least I'm pretty sure it's Shoma) hates the concept of fate, relating it to his sister's terminal illness, Ringo has a more positive idea of it, viewing it in the lens of the romantic “fated meeting”. Ringo's idealized view of the world, gleaned from popular depictions of romance, is set up aside Shoma's jaded perspective based on his own experiences. This leads them to opposite conclusions: for Shoma fate makes everything pointless, and for Ringo it makes nothing pointless. (Day over at Gar Gar Stegosaurus has a good post up about the nuances in translation in these two speeches, and the fansubbers' decision to render “umei” as “fate”. Given how disastrous my attempt to learn Japanese was, I'll leave the question of translation to her and encourage you guys to go check out that post.)

This contrast between cynicism and romanticism holds true to their characters even outside of the question of fate. Shoma is the cynic, refusing to accept the occurences of the supernatural (and cute) around him, which is contrasted with his brother Kanba's easy acceptance of the inexplicable. On the other hand, at least as seen throughout “Risky Survival Strategy”, Ringo is a born romantic who refuses to accept the negative – she cannot see how surrendering her future to fate could lead to anything bad, or how her love could possibly be unreturned. It would be a bit facile to say that both characters are equally in denial, refusing to accept the parts of the world that do not fit their worldview. Shoma's perspective is at least informed by a part of reality and not a fiction, and all it has lead to so far are a couple of freak-outs and not a stalkerish obsession.

“Risky Survival Strategy” then turns to light comedy about taking care of the mysterious penguins. For most of this episode's runtime it is in a distinctly comedic mode. The jokes are unusually broad – see the gags that involve the penguins in lingerie – but I don't think that makes Mawaru Penguindrum any less worthwhile or thematically interesting.

After that we have another “Survival Strategy” sequence, where Himari is posessed by the penguin hat and sends her brothers to some kind of strange otherworldly place in order to give them orders. It's hard to tell since we're only two episodes in, but I'm assuming that this is going to be a bit of repeated animation like the “transformation sequences” of many shows a la the stair-walking prebattle sequence of Utena. These sequences started out, like so many signature anime techniques, as a practical measure to save time and effort – if you could use the same ninety-second footage of the giant robot transforming in every episode, that was thousands of frames of animation you didn't have to worry about. (Lengthy credits sequences are another anime trademark that may have originated this way.) However, I have to think that this isn't the main motive here. After all, in this digitized day and age the savings of chopping out a small amount of the animation work has to be smaller, and it doesn't really suit an animation studio like Brain's Base who has begun to attract a reputation for quality.

Rather I think it's a conscious stylistic trait of Ikuhara. These kinds of repetitive sequences have shown up in every anime he's directed (Utena and much of Sailor Moon), and especially in Utena they're thematically linked into the show, representing the repetition Anthy is forced to go through as the Rose Maiden. In addition to whatever meaning it may have in the context of the show, it's also a nod to the history of the medium, drawing on its history in much the same subversive way as Utena draws on the tradition of the magical girl genre and Mawaru Penguindrum draws on the current cuteness craze (but more on that later.)

Here's the sequence, which really deserves to be watched in its entirety, starting at around 0:20:

It's kind of hard to decipher this scene, if only because it has such a surplus of random symbols – and I mean that literally, as we see little icons fly past the screen faster than we can keep track of them. To a certain extent, it's meant to be indecipherable -- which is to say that a major point of the sequence is just this postmodern rush of simulacra, a submersion into a chaotic world with endless layers of referents. Then again, there are other aspects of the sequence with hard-to-ignore symbolic meanings – the blatantly phallic rocket-thing slamming into that pink thing definitely calls attention to the incestuous undertones to the series.

And then there's the dialogue after that sequence. In the three episodes of Mawaru Penguindrum released so far, the visual aspects of this scene are more or less the same – Himari stands on top of a stage while her brothers are below in handcuffs, she dictates things to them while slowly walking down the stairs and shedding clothing, and then Shoma gets dumped through a trapdoor – although the dialogue is different each time. This is similar to how the repetition worked in Utena – similar, but slightly different each time. I also have to wonder at the significance of Himari's movements during this sequence. Given that she is (in her normal personality) sort of subordinate to her brothers, being the object they look after and protect, this sequence represents a reversal where she is elevated and they are at her mercy. (This leads to a weird bondage-y vibe to the scenes.) However, she then comes down to their level – perhaps a sign of the iminent restoration of normal family relations. Interestingly, so far there's no indication of how this weird trance ends – in all three episodes we've just abruptly cut away to something else. This may simply be another way in which these sequences are established as breaking the laws of time and space, or there may be some greater significance to this revealed later.

Himari instructs her brothers to find the Penguindrum, which besides being in the title is completely mysterious to both characters and audience. This continues the absurdist nature of the series, with the brothers searching for something while having no idea what it is. Anyway, Himari says it's in the possession of Ringo, the girl we met at the start of the episode. This leads to them stalking her, using their invisible penguins as scouts.

In this way the penguins are coming to represent the pure id of their associated characters, able to get away with their owners' forbidden desires. This is hinted at early on in “Risky Survival Strategy” with the penguins' insatiable appetite for fish and sardines. In the first episode the penguins simply aided the characters in fulfilling their immediate, banal desires – cleaning the house, providing an umbrella in the rain, etc. However, they've already escalated to more sexual desires, and are out doing them themselves instead of simply aiding the characters. As invisble and somewhat magic, the penguins can do things that the humans can't, without shame or fear of repurcussion. In this episode alone they engage in voyeurism, wearing women's underwear, and bisexual ass-groping. The lingerie store in particular is the perfect example here – this is a place that the boys cannot go but that doubtlessly holds a spot in their inner desires, and the penguins allow them to enter this area.

(To be fair, so far these deviances have always been framed as accidental or essential for the plot, but it's hard to ignore how often the penguins seem to do these things.)

The final reveal of this episode highlights the inappropriateness of the brothers' behaviour. They use the penguins to rifle through Ringo's belongings and stalk her around the city, following her eventually to the home of her teacher, who they discover she's been psychotically stalking. “She's doing the same thing we're doing,” says Shoma. Of course, the brothers have the excuse of following the orders of the spirit possessing their sister – but we have no real basis to say that these visions are more real or sane than Ringo's “diary” which she believes predicts the fate of her and the teacher. The penguins seduce our protagonists down these roads, and it is only at the final beat do they realize what they've turned into.

With that said, in the world Ikuhara constructs there's every reason to believe in the supernatural. Things are presented stylistically instead of realistically. This involves both minimalizing details extraneous to the plot – the blank restroom-sign shapes that replace the “extras”, the subway stations replaced by white voids – and adding on a sheen of enchantment, as can be seen most clearly in the romanticized bathroom at the start of the episode and the weird lingerie store with its floating bras and technological slickness. Reality is subjugated to the will of the plot, lathering extra focus on what matters to it and less detail on what doesn't. It's difficult to tell right now whether the characters see the world like this, or whether this is a visual representation of their psyches, or something even further removed.

Of course, there's all kinds of interesting stuff that I didn't get to in this review – the weird underwater motif, the importance of subway trains, literary allusions, the uncertain role of real-Himari, not to mention the normal plot questions of what the penguin drum is and what Ringo actually has to do with it. Mawaru Penguindrum is one of those shows where the more you look into it the more you constantly find new dimensions, and so for the sake of time and my sanity I'll stop here. I would, however, encourage anyone to watch this unique and (so far) high-quality show, through whatever illicit means you prefer.

*For the anime-illiterate, think of how much difficulty Treme has had getting away from the shadow of The Wire and being judged on its own merits, and then add in over a decade of anticipation.

Next Week: Our first wildcard slot. I delve into the wider world of television and hope to come up alive.

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