Matt Kamen rolls out the Penguin Drum…
Magical girls occupy an odd space in the anime world. Originally aimed at young girls, the colourful superheroes managed to find traction with viewers of all ages over the decades since Sally the Witch cast her first spell on viewers in 1966. However, one of the pleasant side-effects of attracting an older audience is the freedom it gives creators to experiment with the form. The result has been fan-favourite series such as Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which subvert the surface veneer of delicate girls in frilly dresses by exploring much darker themes. Penguin Drum is the latest show to toy with fans’ expectations, delivering a madcap fusion of life, death and mystic flightless birds, hatched from the mind of veteran magical girl director Kunihiko Ikuhara.
Ikuhara is a creator well-known for his experimental proclivities, and has been creating mature, challenging and thought-provoking ‘magical girl’ series for years. Of course, like most things relating to the modern magical girl, the Tokushima native’s career is inextricably linked to Sailor Moon. Having worked under original director Junichi Sato on Toei’s adaptation of Naoko Takeuchi’s genre-redefining manga, Ikuhara took over directorial duties from the second season, Sailor Moon R. He would helm the series for three years, covering the S and SuperS seasons, before stepping off the show, frustrated with the lack of creative control he was afforded.
Founding the creative agency Be-Papas in the wake of his departure from Toei, Ikuhara partnered with manga artist Chiho Saito to bring Revolutionary Girl Utena to both page and screen. An apocalyptic tale of destiny and reincarnation set in a decidedly unconventional boarding school, Utena touched on themes of obligation, freedom, lesbianism and transgenderism as the eponymous heroine – determined to become a prince, rather than a princess – fought to protect the ‘Rose Bride’ Anthy in a succession of bizarre sword duels. The series became extremely metaphysical, replete with allegories to mythology, while its visuals drew on shadow puppetry and traditional Japanese theatre as much as it did on Saito’s distinctive art style. Despite the 1997 vintage, Utena remains one of the most unusual magical girl series in terms of tone and style. Although its narrative is deliberately dense and potentially confusing, with events wholly open to interpretation, it’s clear the series provided Ikuhara with an avenue to explore his more challenging ideas.
Following Utena, Ikuhara took a step back from animation for a number of years. Literary and musical collaborations – including the manga The World Exists for Me with Saito and the novel/concept album Schell:Bullet with mecha designer and artist Mamoru Nagano – filled his creative slate, with only storyboard and guest director roles on series such as Aoi Hana and Soul Eater bringing him back to anime in brief bursts. It would take his creation of Penguin Drum, first aired in Japan in 2011, to bring him back into the fold.
The series follows the terminally ill Himari Takakura and her brothers Kanba and Shouma. When Himari finally passes after a visit to an aquarium, she is revived by a strange penguin hat. Empowered by the ‘Princess of the Crystal’, her life is extended, but only if the trio can find the mystic Penguindrum, though just what that is remains a mystery. Aided only by three invisible magic penguins – yes, really – the search forces the close-knit family to engage in stalking and burglary amongst other crimes, all while Kanba and Shouma face the possibility of losing their sister for good if they fail.
Penguindrum once again sees Ikuhara re-writing the rules of magical girl anime. Himari’s transformations are more akin to a spiritual possession than a super-powered metamorphosis, with the Princess forcing her host body into a penguin-themed idol with the fashion sense and personality of a dominatrix. There’s a level of darkness and desperation too, with the heroes forced to undertake some distinctly unheroic actions. Even the designs are intended to test viewers’ acceptance, with the assorted penguin paraphernalia bordering on the deliberately farcical. At its core though, Penguindrum is a fable of family and fraternity but the themes explored will make you see just how different a magical girl can be in the telling.
The first collection of Penguin Drum, containing episodes 1-12, is on sale now.