This is a funny sort of post to write, because after twenty-four episode posts and some side posts, I almost feel as if everything there is to say about Mawaru Penguin Drum has already been said.
This series reminds me of Madoka Magica in some ways, because I think it’s an utterly fascinating mess that never really comes together. Both series are the work of dark and subtle writers and stylish directors (in the case of MPD, the same man) and both probably bit off more than their endings could chew. Yet these two series will perhaps be the most discussed shows if 2011, and that wouldn’t be an injustice, because both are dense with intellectual content and clearly the product of talented hands. It’s more interesting to watch a genius fail than a journeyman succeed, and both shows – especially this one – have their share of successes to go with the failures.
For a long time, I was intellectually enraptured by Mawaru Penguin Drum but never emotionally absorbed (another commonality with Madoka Magica). To be blunt, there simply weren’t very many characters in this show to like. Shouma was always the most relatable and likable for me, but his indecision and incompetence made him hard to really bond with. I don’t know when all that changed precisely, when I started to care about this people as much as I eventually did, but the transition was brought on by the way Ikuhara skillfully revealed the layers underneath the ones that were so obvious on the surface. No one was quite as they seemed, and villains revealed themselves to be allies, and vice-versa. All of the absurd and distasteful behavior gradually was given context, and while it didn’t make all the characters likeable it certainly made their actions understandable (with the possible exception of Sanetoshi). There was a “gotcha” element to some of this shapeshifting that represents Ikuhara’s less admirable impulses, but on the whole it wasn’t unbearable.
I’ve already discussed the meaning of the ending in that episode-specific post so I won’t repeat myself here, but how you understand what happened there is obviously vital to how your response to the series as a whole will play out. For me, this show is not a masterpiece. It’s too self-consciously clever, it takes too long to get where it’s going too often, and I find the ending - while poetic – to be ultimately unsatisfying. Some of the detours off the main line in the middle section of the track never really revealed themselves to be essential – these are the “abandoned meanders” I referred to a few weeks ago and I think they detract from the impression Mawaru leaves as a whole.
But damn, this is a show I’m going to be thinking about for a long time. I stand in awe of Ikuhara’s creativity as a writer and director – though to be fair, perhaps his decades-long absence from the creative spotlight gave him time to pile up the fascinating ideas the way Lennon and McCartney’s suppression of his writing allowed George Harrison to release the stupendous triple-album “All Things Must Pass” as soon as he was out from under it. I was never, ever bored here – whether I was moved or pissed off or fascinated, I was never neutral. No show in recent memory has used symbolism with the skill and frequency this one did, and none has proved as imaginative visually (even the weekly antics of the penguins are an exercise in pure comedic genius – they’re little Chaplins). That might not always be what you want from an anime, but this one was a mental workout of the highest order. It was never easy to be a viewer of Mawaru Penguin Drum, but the rewards were very real.