#1 A bizarre mission with high stakes
Kanba and Shouma Takakura are two brothers who live together in a small house with their sickly little sister Himari. The two of them decide to take her on a trip to the aquarium so they can all briefly forget about her illness, which takes a turn for the worst when Himari collapses and has to be hospitalized. Despite the best efforts of her doctors, she passes away moments later.
The brothers are left devastated by the loss, but when they get a moment alone with her to say their goodbyes, Himari suddenly jumps back to life. The brothers then learn that she is being possessed by a magical penguin hat that they bought her as a present just moments earlier. This entity promises to keep Himari alive for as long as it can, but in return the brothers must acquire something called The Penguindrum. What is a Penguindrum? No fucking idea.
Shouma and Kanba are given little to no direction, yet have to work with this uncooperative, magical hat-thing if they want to get their little sister back. Their mission to find the Penguindrum will force them to meet with eccentric people, confront the shadows of their past, and put their own lives on the line. It’s an exciting and confounding mystery story that sucks you in deeper with every twist.
#2 Tight-knit family
What really sold me on the show is the Takakura family and the bond they share between them. Each of the three kids is very different, but they all share a devotion to each other and work hard to overcome the problems in their life together.
Kanba is an unrivaled ladykiller, always breaking hearts and scoring new dates. He is a strange boy, but very dependable when it comes down to it and able to get things done efficiently. Shouma is a goody-two-shoes by comparison and comes of as overly meek in the face of Kanba’s charisma and confidence. He is the moral anchor, always wanting to do the right thing and trying to take the diplomatic route between his family’s needs and the people they are forced to deal with. Himari, then, is angelic in her loveliness. It’s exactly the kind of pure character that you just know a cruel author is waiting to kill off, but Penguindrum gives her some intriguing twists and takes her character in unexpected directions.
An interesting detail here is the complete absence of parents, which is a sensitive issue to Shouma in particular. The three kids live alone in a house that doesn’t look exactly normal and Kanba has some creative means of keeping the family finances going. There’s evidently something wrong here and rest assured that the curious family situation at the Takakura household sees plenty of development throughout the show.
#4 Captivating visuals
Penguindrum marks the glorious return of Kunihiko Ikuhara to anime after he quit directing shows 12 years prior. While he has done some work on storyboarding and art in the meantime, you really notice that the man behind Revolutionary Girl Utena is back in control here.
Like Utena, Penguindrum is a visually bizarre show with a surreal, stylish look to it dense in symbolism. The character designs are more modern and the music has a focus on cheesy J-pop and alternative rock compared to the epic choirs of Utena, but it carries on the spirit of that show nicely and contains a lot of visual references to Ikuhara’s career-making classic.
Even outside of Utena’s influence and fame, Penguindrum still holds up well on its own. It’s a beautiful and colorful show that often had me admiring just how vibrant certain backgrounds were.
The search for the Penguindrum leads Kanba and Shouma to a high school girl called Ringo, who they are told either has the Penguindrum itself or holds the answer to what it is they are looking for. However, she turns out to be the first (and best) of a series of troubled characters they’ll be encountering.
While the whole supporting cast was interesting, Ringo’s story was so “different” that it actually became one of the main reasons I stuck with the show. You see, Ringo has a diary that “predicts” the future. It belonged to her deceased sister and Ringo follows the future plans described in it almost religiously, believing that completing her sister’s ambitions will help restore her broken family.
Most importantly, she has taken to aggressively stalking her sister’s former boyfriend, which Shouma is dragged into as he tries to befriend her and discover what part she has to play in curing his sister. Her actions also begin to drive a wedge between the two brothers, as Shouma keeps getting strung along by her promises to help while Kanba wants to forcefully take the diary away from her.
It’s an amazing storyline and while the latter half of Penguindrum has good moments of its own, nothing tops the drama and atmosphere of Ringo’s arc.