Tag Archives: Allegory

Bridging The Gap: The Value Of Penguindrum (An Ode To Change)

Well there was no real way this post could be avoided. After finishing this series and realizing that there was little to no way this couldn’t be openly discussed in mere tweets/Facebook discussions, it finally came to pass that an extended post would have to be made regarding Kunihiko Ikuhara’s return to anime television. The very notion that such a long break from the industry that helped bring his name to international prominence in the mid-to latter 1990s by way of Sailor Moon R, and of course, Utena, it would have been safe to assume that any return could only be a disappointment. It seemed an inevitability considering how dramatically different the state of the medium is today. Or so I woefully assumed.

Taken as an entire piece, Mawaru Penguindrum is an unrepentantly unique, and often visionary series the likes of which may delight older fans, and utterly shut out a good portion of modern anime’s devotees with its treatise on a Japan gone from shattered paradigm to helplessly lost world amidst manufactured dreamscapes. Ikuhara alonsgide Takayo Ikami & Brain’s Base, Penguindrum takes very much the same “process” based cinematic techniques that helped make Utena become one of the most accessible, yet bizarre-on-the-surface titles to have ever made a splash on the international fan scene. The story of sickly Himari, and her two older siblings, Shouma and Kanba remains less about a bizarre quest to save her life from almost certain doom with the help of a penguin-hat sporting princess and a trio of hallucinatory birds, but rather the journey of many through a near concrete thick foundation of denial. It is from this outset, not remotely interested in tropes so much as the subversion of them, all the while spinning a tale of what extremities some feel compelled to go through based on perceived positions. Fate and destiny being something of an established chess board, with all characters merely pieces, often willing to turn to amazingly questionable behavior in the name of altering trajectory, or abiding it.




The biggest difference now is that the ante has been sufficiently upped by no longer setting the central action within and around a mythical school life/incubator space where our main characters could fight their ways through. This new expansion of the discussion pitts the characters within something almost resembling contemporary Tokyo, only with a slightly more advanced technological milieu. In fact, much of what many to consider Cool Japan is hyperbolized within this at times unsettling presentation. Colors are intense with pinks and blues, and structures are often day-glo bright. The interior of one of the most often used settings- the subway, is almost wall-to-wall with moving digital advertisement (often featuring the greek chorus in Double-H, who also serve a core purpose around the story). It is almost as if the entire design aesthetic in itself is a paradoxical reflection of internet pop culture Japan. Thereby universalizing the director’s concerns that haven’t subsided any since his previous masterwork. His concerns are Japan’s concerns. His characters may be living in a world of fairy tales, but they certainly don’t see that. In fact, the two-tone reality shared by the majority of Penguindrum’s characters seems to have cornered them to the point that delusions and/or audacious actions seem reasonable. In anime reality, we are quick to judge, but the show continually calls out the viewer, making the case that even wholly reasonable people are capable of such untoward behavior.



Continuing a 17 Year Old Soul Search
As the parentless Takakura children are further tumbling down the story’s rabbit hole, it becomes apparent that not only they are bound by the illogical in order to maintain a rendition of peace, but as are the lives of virtually everyone around them. The three kids, with the youngest mostly in the dark regarding these forces that apparently hold her life in limbo, are eventually surrounded by characters who also seem primed to overstep their moral bounds in order to attain a semblance of happiness. Carrying on the theme that binds all characters in the series, it is a seemingly generational curse that has even left troubling marks on those who came before our central leads. And the more we get to grasp the lives of Tabuki, one of the boys’ most seemingly level-headed schoolteachers, and stage actress celebrity, Yuri, it becomes all the more apparent that the Takakuras lie close the ground zero of a secret that almost brought the contemporary Japanese conscience to its knees. Even as the inexplicable advances of Masako seem ready to systematically “crush” some undisclosed object close-particularly to Kanba (who’s reputation as something of a playboy belies even stranger secrets). Even more troubling still is the role of pretty, yet seemingly ordinary high schooler, Ringo Oginome. A girl who could so easily be an inocuous entity in the story, becomes an unexpected element that may save or destroy all everyone holds dear. Not unlike the American television series, LOST, perceptions are questioned, rugs are constantly pulled, and Mawaru Penguidrum becomes something that series failed to become in six seasons, a tale of a society within stones throw of a heart hampered by a lack of emotional insight. It isn’t that Japan is screwed, but rather that it stopped looking forward when the chips were down. So as the tension ramps up when history seems bent on repeating itself, the world of the show is primed to either play within these assumed constructs, or break free by acting humanly unpredictable.




A big stumbling block this show may experience in regards to fandom outside Japan, may very well be the reality that much of what is discussed within the its 24 episodes. The entire narrative decidedly centers within a wholly Japan-centric mindset. As westernized as Japan currently is, much of what affects, and ultimately motivates the show’s characters is something more akin to post-WWII psychology. And while this may seem like something that is easy for many acclimated anime admirers to overcome, there is still quite a bit of context that is left intentionally unexplained in the confidence that those aware of their surroundings might pick up on it. Which makes the series an interesting twist on what some detractors have been declaring a growing “insular” movement in anime. This is perhaps an ultimate rendition of how that very movement can create something of cultural value without resorting heavily upon familiar tropes, lest they be toyed with in some signature manner. As visually specacular as this series can be, it’s often at the service of continuing a poem Anno helped spur to introspective life in 1995.





Backtracking a little, it is important to consider that Ikuhara has long been friends with Shin Seiki Evangelion director, Hideaki Anno. An artist who became famous for pulling the veneer away from anime’s “fantasy for its own sake” place of safety with his epoch-making series. A show that was in fact affected by the outside world as terror enveloped the nation as the sarin gas attacks, and subsequent trials pertaining to the cult known as Aum Shinrikyo were taking place on tv screens during that time. A nation half a decade into crippling recession, and such events revealed a growing sense of spiritual panic that came symptomatic of a society long neglectful of its heart as profits went up a decade prior, now broken and brimming with an almost insurmountable amount of confusion ready to burst at any moment. For many, Evangelion provided a much needed pressure valve for these emotions homeside, even as the series became a monstrous media success. But it’s also worth noting that despite many series to retread similar territory (as well as Evangelion’s unfortunate “molding” into safer fabrics over the years), it has often come at the sacrifice of likeable characters, and compelling storytelling. Something with Penguindrum never seems to run short on.

Humoring The Blackness
For a series tackling such heavy themes, one wouldn’t expect the series to continue Ikuhara’s trademark surreal humor. This is something Ikuhara’s contemporary could never take away from him, and it is here in full flower, personal quirks and all. From the often amusing antics of the Takakura family’ s newly adopted penguins, to the clever use of repetition, music, love of the takarazuka, and various spins on fan expectations, the series never lets us forget that we are in an exaggeration of matters. What makes this work so well for me is that despite all the goofy antics, there is often a very character-centric reason for it. Even when the penguins acts reach absurds highs like fighting off an octopus on a window-sill, there is often a lyrical purpose to it all that remains unspoken. The show’s faith in its audience to put everything together while laughing about what could very easily become a harsh melodrama is very hard to achieve, and more often than not, it works toward better helping us understand character dimensions we didn’t realize were apparent upon initial glances. “Show. Don’t tell” is a valuable tool in film, and Ikuhara remains a master of constantly playing with this.



Industry Of Seduction
Which plays quite nicely against the series’ ultimate vision of collective antagonism, the enigmatic Sanitoshi’s belief that it doesn’t matter if fleeting love is what it is, as long as one feels it if even for a brief moment. More extravanant and over the top than even the character of Yuri, Sanitoshi with his hopelessly fujoshi-bait image and voice embodies a youth unwilling to compromise with their mission to undo all around him, no matter the cost. The most ironic element within his penchant for things “eletrifying”, and in the moment, his seemingly magical presence belies something of an unerring addiction to simplified solutions to complex daily problems. With all of his smiles and assurances, there is little in the way of anything truly transformative within his motivations. In fact, it is every bit as binary as the world he seems hellbent to destroy. And like all classic visions of Mephisto, Methusela, and Coyote, he is a soothing, seductive presence fully in the mold of what some fans long to adore, all the while tending to a world of emptiness. He is the face of an artistic medium gone commercially desperate.



Mawaru Conundrum


Which brings me back to the core of why the series carries with it something that has long eluded anime containing elements of the experimental; a solid sense of purpose. Despite years of post-Evangelion attempts to inject a certain “newness” to certain series, eager to capitalize on a growing mature market, most series have had the unfortunate distinction of either taking themselves far too seriously, or suffering from copycat-ism often symptomatic of shows existing in a newly defined environment. And it isn’t that shows like Bakemonogatari are intrinsically flawed, but rather that they often carry lesser baggage and lack the narrative acumen to reach beyond a specific audience. They ultimately become niches unto themselves, making them not only hard to market, but closer to gallery material better suited to a Murakami exhibit. What Mawaru Penguindrum has that most of these series do not is a truly sneaky package, made all the more potent by being especially meticulous about its messages/questions. There never seems to be a moment wasted, or a shot in it for the mere sake of showing it. Ikuhara has observed anime over the last ten-plus years, and clearly has quite a bit to say about it with imagery that spans the absurdist to the terrifying. Most often asking contradictory questions within the same mise en scene, as if the internet age has accelerated our intake of complexity in how we view the world, and he acknowledges this, even as the drama unfolds. Carefully, and provocatively, it beings back the notion of the auteur to television anime in a way that simply has been missing for quite some time.


Smashing The World’s Blu-ray Case
So when the climax comes, and matters for our heroes have reached their irrevocable conclusion, this is where Ikuhara delivers a passionate plea for not only the medium, but its fans. As our most unlikely characters are forced to rise to a challenge that threatens the future of many, including characters we once thought we knew within how the series initially presented itself, we are visually made aware of a world which Ikuhara seems ready to do away with. One that has essentially caged all of our characters, and led them to this desperate, penultimate moment. We are suddenly shown the destruction of a very vessel that binds many a fan the world over.- A batch of anime dvds/Blu-ray. Which in and of itself could very well have been taken alone as an atypical cinematic means of hammering the point home in a one-sided metaphor. But it is immediately amended when this very vessel becomes the means by which salvation is delivered. Interpretation: Mindless consumption carries none of the value that comes with what is being said within the things we value most. In short; Ikuhara’s distaste for ravenous fan culture & preference for something resembling actual substance is made clear within a mere few seconds of animation.


The world model within the series is rhetorically based on years of buying into invisible assumptions (Often bolstered by consumer culture sturm & drang-Something which even more harshly binds the Japanese.), and the form of the show (not unlike certain characters) seems bent on shattering these illusory traps. It seeks honest answers as opposed to perpetuating ad-hoc, otaku posturing. The show opines that destiny is what we determine with our ever changing expressions of inner personal desire, and not on what we are sold into accepting. The cycle begun with Shoujo Kakumei Utena closes with Mawaru Penguidrum, making it both one of the more exciting shows to have ever been given the green light in such a volatile media climate, and a challenging riposte to a decade of hiding beneath a shell of societal assumption. It’s wild, weird, beautiful, gaudy, painful, and imperfect look forward and backward, seeking diverse answers from difficult questions. It’s both an introspective masterpiece for modern Japanese media, and a spectacular yet inelegant kick in the teeth to the addicted, and we are all the healthier for it.


Through Older Lenses: Toward The Terra

In a far-flung future, Earth has become a scorched, near uninhabitable body in space due to mankind’s innate tendency toward violence. And from the ashes of this apocalyptic scenario, those remaining develop and implement the SD protocol (Superior Dominance), which is a system that requires humanity to expand out into the farthest reaches of space, and with its invitro-borne young to be emotionally, mentally maintained via an all-omnipotent computer designed to weed out any notions it deems undesirable towards an improved, utopian future. And yet amidst this clinically monitored civilization, a race of humanoid psyonics has arisen, known as the Mu. Instantly deemed a danger to the system, the powerful, and yet physically fragile Mu have long been attempting to return home to the world they call Terra.

Led by the ailing, yet potent psychic, Soldier Blue, the Mu have at long last found the individual whom they could pit their greatest hopes on. A seemingly average boy named Jomy Marcus Shin, who’s required education is near an end. On the day he is set to be graduated to adulthood, and separated by his appointed mother and father, he is soon questioned for discussing a series of bizarre dreams. Declared a latent enemy of society, he is soon rescued and taken in by the Mu who claim him to be a most powerful member of their kind. In denial of this revelation, it isn’t long before Jomy is plunged deep into the conflict, as the future of Earth’s inheritance hangs in the balance.

After the previous natsukashii gush-fests I’ve been occasionally littering upon these pages, it felt justifiable to dip back into the time well to perhaps dig up some views on another noted title from days long past. And perhaps it is best to be up front by stating that even after years of having this film in my collection since the VHS era, the 1980 adaptation of Keiko Takemiya‘s science fantasy epic is much less a successful adaptation, and more a Cliff’s Notes trip caught in afternoon gridlock. A project headed by live action television veteran, Hideo Onchi, the film ultimately succumbs to the classic problem of continuously biting off more than it can possibly chew, leaving viewers in a space better reserved for clips shows -which is only made worse by inconsistent pacing, and clearly on-the-fly, wooden scripting.

The first of the film’s many problems comes right at the offset, when it attempts to compress what is clearly a huge character arc within the opening thirty minutes. By the manner in which the story unfolds, the movie seems to believe that Jomy’s life must be narrated to us rather backhandedly than told in any comprehesibly visual manner.

To illustrate: The story opens with Jomy Marcus Shin as something of a coddled member of what is SD’s ideal society, a system that has worked so well up until the moment we join in. And he is portrayed as something of a flighty, insensitive brat who not only openly shares about a series of strange dreams, only to be deemed a subversive by the planet’s main computer, and trailed by an army of Esper Interrogators(agents tasked with the specific duty of sniffing out and terminating Mu upon detection.), but often pushes people around willy-nilly, and starts fistfights with friends over virtually nothing. In half the time it took me to type this, we are told that this is the case rather than treated as witness to it. The revelation that Jomy is experiencing an awakening of latent Mu genes is virtually glossed over in the most rushed fashion imaginable, and therefore offers little in the way of drama, let alone economical storytelling.

Peculiar since animation is specifically geared toward illustrating action, and granting the viewer a means to explore worlds our characters reside in. And given the very idea of attempting to create a film version of such a rich, layered world featuring several generations of characters, the very idea that we are to accept the Jomy character’s journey from spoiled child of controlled world, Ataraxia to the Mu’s heir to leadership. There’s simply no means for us to even clock the story’s central character, and this is a trend that continues throughout the film, going from introducing a story beat, only to conclude it within five minutes of establishing it. Sometimes, even a few seconds. Upon the moment Jomy decides to shoulder the mantle of Soldier Blue, as he attempts to lead the Mu toward the home planet they had long been exiled from, nothing is earned, and everything feels perfunctory. For this main character to go from jerky ne’er do well to destined savior within merely thirty minutes is not only slapdash, but jarring.

And this continues for the remainder of the running time as we are introduced to a bevy of characters meant to create a tapestry exposing how complex Terra e’s central conflict is. From Jomy’s introduction, to near non-existent courtship with the powerful empath, Carina, to the story’s counter lead in test-tube humanoid, Keith Anyan’s quest to understand the system’s inability to weed out the Mu gene at the source comes at far too rapid-fire a pace for anything to have any significant impact. It’s the movie equivalent of an outline for making a movie.


We are merely told what is happening, rather than experience it. And this methodology only serves to undercut the original manga’s star-spanning, epic quality, making it something of a failed blueprint of a better film. Even as it attempts to fill in the gaps by making it clear how not black and white the conflict truly is, the pacing is often all over the map. And for a story that is on the scale level of Frank Herbert’s Dune, or even The Lord Of The Rings, there is never a single audience identification figure to be had to help the viewer ground themselves. While not all films should rely on this narrative crutch (even I agree it can be one), this is one story that could truly use one. Even as Jomy’s role takes on more mythic levels with the birth and subsequent rise of his aggressively charged son, Tony, things never really engage on any kind of emotional level. Stuff just happens, and that’s a serious problem.

Toward The Terra’s reputation amongst the world manga & anime has remained something of a timeless favorite by many, and even this film has been regarded by many to be something of an understated classic. However, this film can only truly be seen as something of a curio piece of a most interesting period in theatrical anime productions. Being that this was initially released in 1980, this is dead center of a most transitional time in the medium, as Tomino’s Gundam had helped rewrite the books in regards to animated science fiction storytelling, and yet was still a few years from a burgeoning era of anime children-turned-creators. Released amidst the real heyday of feature films based on the works of Leiji Matsumoto, Terra e had all the potential to at the very least compose a dreamlike encapsulation of the Japanese equivalent of SLAN, with an ambitious production backing it. But alas, the film seems to be a victim of incessant corner-cutting, and can only serve as another reminder of the once ambitious scope of a medium, often obsessed with reaching far beyond the confines of the familiar, with a sensitivity toward the simple and relatable. Conversely, a TV update of the series aired in 2007. And while I’ll admit to not having seen it, I still believe there’s a means to someday tell this tale with the breadth, and sensitivity it deserves. And for now, Vertical has released the original 3 volume manga for those looking to rediscover this tale that could very well give X-Men a run for its money. There is a wealth of relevance and emotion within these pages, something the film rarely has the momentum to generate.


Long and short, with Takemiya’s reputation as being perhaps the most instrumental name in the evolution of manga into worlds of shoujo, and BL, her work deserves a much grander stage.

(Oh. And is it just me? Or does the SD insignia make a dead ringer for Scooby-Doo’s collar tag?)