Quickly! Late, I know. Part of this is going to require knowledge of kawaisa, and I have a post on that already, just skip two thirds down. For those uninitiated with the series, I’ve limited the spoilers to about the first half of the series. Also, what the hell are you doing reading this? Watch it. Now.
Mawaru Penguindrum, a 26 episode series, created by Kunihito Ikuhara is anime trying to make a modern myth about fate. There’s avoiding fate, finding fate, creating fate, losing to fate, and most of all, changing fate. A by-product of this fate fixation is that Penguindrum comments on the most common type of social determinism, gender roles. Ikuhara, however, does so in a very Japanese way, reflecting the ways men and women are expected to act in his society and the overriding aesthetic. While the series is not mainly concerned with gender roles, Ikuhara remains a man who is definitely concerned about it. As a result, a lot the metaphors and a analogies for fate, work similarly for convention. Mawaru Penguindrum really argues for a more family centric society, where the roles are determined by necessity, not birth. So we see a flexible family structure, opposed by obsession and, as is often the case in anime, the bad guy is overcome by love.
For those who have yet to watch the show, Mawaru Penguindrum stars an idealised orphan family of the two brothers and their younger sister. In the midst of their happiness (which is so cute and sugary that witnessing it could incite diabetes), Himari gets some horrific disease which cannot be cured. Her brothers, Kanba and Shoma, attempt to live out her last days as best as they can manage. After a penguin-themed adventure, she dies, then comes back to life, possessed by a spirit demanding that the brothers acquire the penguindrum to save her.
This summary is nonsensical in the way that someone not familiar with anime would still say, “that sounds like Japan,” and that is very much the point. Cuteness and absurdity are a key part of Japanese pop culture, and Ikuhara uses that to inform the viewer of his perception of Japan. Kawaisa masks the severity of rape, cults, and mass murder, all of which are discussed in Penguindrum. Ikuhara doesn’t mean to say that cuteness is bad. He’s regularly embraced it in past work. Not to mention that the series is better for its high fructose-based reality distortion, as the story feels more like a fable, where the moral stakes are higher than physical ones. In Penguindrum, kawaisa is simply the lens through which fate and –for better or for worse– women are seen.