Mawaru Penguindrum Ep. 1: Literary allusions abound

I could use a helper penguin so I got one of my own, but mine’s kinda cranky and all he does is sleep.

You’re hot then you’re cold, you’re dead then you’re not… you don’t really wanna go~ Seriously though, sis, why are you not dead?

Himari is terminally ill — well, she’s supposed to be, but fate can be so cruel. A doctor once told her two brothers, Kanba and Shoma, that she could die at any moment, so when Himari collapsed during a trip to the aquarium, the brothers feared the worst. They rush Himari to the hospital, but to no avail.

As the brothers mourn her death, however, her body suddenly pops straight up. Oddly enough, she’s also wearing an ostentatious looking penguin hat. She begins to speak:

“I have come from the destination of your fate. Rejoice, for I have decided to extend this girl’s life. If you want to keep the girl alive…”

But of course, the penguin hat falls off before crazy Himari could tell the two brothers what to do — that would be too easy. The two brothers quickly move on, of course; they are just happy to see Himari up and about. A visit with the doctor confirms that Himari’s recovery is nothing short of a miracle.

The three try to return to their daily routine, but a strange package shows up at their doorstep. Inside? Three frozen penguins — a girl and two boys to match the three siblings.

Before long, the penguins would come to life and act as personal assistants to the Takakuras. Only the brothers and sister, however, could see the penguins. Although Kanba and Himari don’t seem all too fazed by the three odd and about birds, Shoma clearly isn’t amused. That’s when the ugly penguin hat finds its way back onto Himari’s head. The three siblings then undergo, well… — something. That’s honestly all I can say about the following sequence.

Gosh, I’m not sure if the second screencap is phallic enough.

At the completion of Himari’s mahou shoujo transformation, she orders the brothers to recover a… penguin drum? Himari slowly walks toward her brothers the entire time, stripping off a piece of her clothing one-by-one as she got closer. The brothers hear again that Himari has a new lease on life, but everything comes with a price. Shoma reacts to this like a normal person would so a penguin out of nowhere quickly disposes of him through a trapdoor (no normies allowed in anime, but let’s face it — nothing will be normal in this anime).

Why are her clothes falling off?

Once nutty Himari and Kanba are alone, she shoves her hand into his chest and what happens next is not quite apparent to the audience just yet. The anime immediately cuts to the Takakura household at night. Shoma is having a nightmare about his sister, while Kanba continues to pontificate over fate. Just before the episode ends, Kanba leans in to kiss his dear sister– whoa, on the lips?

No! …no! Bad anime!

Oh anime… What to say, what to say — well, twenty minutes of an anime straight from the pen of the guy behind Utena obviously isn’t enough to tell us a damn thing about the plot. I’m not going to say it was a good episode, but I’m not going to say it bored the hell out of me either. I just won’t conflate “interesting” with quality.

Mawaru Penguindrum was — for a lack of a better word — quirky… the same way Star Driver was quirky. What does this mean? Well, Star Driver eventually got repetitive. Let’s hope the same doesn’t happen to Mawaru Penguindrum, but with twenty-three episodes left to go, who can really say? For now, all we can really do is sit back and enjoy the crazy ride. I don’t enjoy the creepy incestuous vibes between the Takakura siblings, but at this point in my anime viewing life, what else is new? Still, did you notice the books on Himari’s night stand?

Gretel (but no Hansel?), Jack and something that ends with -ns, ALIS(sp) in Wonderland and Schneewittchen. The first three books are your typical fantasy stories, but the last book I listed is what pops out at me. It’s a German opera and a retelling of Snow White, but most importantly, it’s a deconstruction of the fairy tale:

“Unlike the Brothers Grimm fairytale, Robert Walser’s short play begins after the rescue of Snow White: the eponymous heroine and the archetypal cast of characters – the queen, the hunter, the prince and the king – meet again to analyse and comment on both the wondrous and the terrible prehistory of the famous fairytale. While doing so the original evaluation seems increasingly dubious: who is actually good and who is evil – and what really happened? By re-building several versions of the story, the protagonists discuss the question of their true identity and their relationships from within Robert Walser’s aesthetic.” (source)

Huh, well, isn’t that interesting? Schneewittchen almost sounds like a fairy tale version of Rashomon. Consider the prominent imagery of the apple in this episode; consider, also, that Himari died then came back to life much like Snow White did in her tale. But recall the seemingly unrelated conversation between the schoolboys early in the anime. “It’s not over!” exclaimed one of the boys, “What I’m trying to say is [death’s] actually where everything begins!” In Snow White, her revival (essentially) ended the story. In this anime, Himari’s revival is only the start of an entire series. Is this a hint at Mawaru Penguindrum’s bigger picture? Will this anime deconstruct our oh-so-familiar anime characters and tropes? Or is it just another “Oh, that’s neat” reference thrown into the background? Why Schneewittchen anyway? Why not just Snow White? Why opt for a very esoteric version of the original tale?

How do the other fairy tales fit into the picture? It’s interesting to contrast the difference between the Takakura household with its neighbors. It’s a small, colorful hut amidst a dense forest of upper-middle class homes. The house’s rainbow aesthetic even brings to mind the colorful variety of candy! This is all starting to sound like Hansel and Gretel, but we’re not quite done yet. In this home, the siblings cross over into a strange world during Himari’s mahou shoujo transformation. Alice in Wonderland and Jack and the Giant Beanstalk both feature a character crossing into a fantasy realm. Do any of these allusions add up to anything significant? Unfortunately, it’s too early to say. All we can really do is wait and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Oh, and if you think the literary allusions end there, nope:

“But I found the Night on the Galactic Railroad references the most intriguing, honestly. I’ll admit I figured from early on that Himari was actually already dead; the apple in the OP with all the train bits (gates, map symbols) had made me go ‘hmm’ but I didn’t connect the dots until the children were discussing Campanella and the apple. Then I went ‘oh, duhhhhh.’

I haven’t read Night on the Galactic Railroad, but adaywithoutme has, so hop on over there and take a peek at what she has to say.

Aesthetically, the anime is pretty awesome looking for the most part. The backdrops are often vibrant and visually arresting.

The framing in certain scenes is another highlight of the anime. I’ll bring to mind one particular example: when Shoma returns home and looks into the living room, the POV switches to first person. The “camera” shakes as we assume Shoma’s bewildered state; this is a very nice and surprising touch for broadcast anime where mediocrity often rules the day. Still, I’m hesitant to say that the entire anime was a visual triumph. I get that the minimalism in the screencaps below…

…is a stylistic (and perhaps metaphorical) choice. But what about moments like these?

The character animation doesn’t seem to fit in with the high production values throughout the first episode.

22 thoughts on “Mawaru Penguindrum Ep. 1: Literary allusions abound

  1. Sapphire Pyro

    FAIRY TALE REFERENCES *_* OH YES~ (Maybe “ALIS in Wonderland” is an intentional mispelling, like when they change the name of popular brands in RL? That or it’s the spelling in another language.. hhmm)

    I wondered why it didn’t focus on Snow White instead (with the apple thing, and the Schneewittchen reference)… but maybe it just doesn’t want to be limited as a “Snow White adaptation”?

    1. E Minor Post author

      Maybe “ALIS in Wonderland” is an intentional mispelling, like when they change the name of popular brands in RL?

      Hm, Alice in Wonderland would be public domain if we were in the US, but I can’t imagine Japan’s laws being stricter than that.

  2. Joojoobees

    I loved that sequence with the two kids talking about the apple. It had the quality of one of those scenes in Pulp Fiction where Samuel Jackson was trying to explain something deeply philosophical to John Travolta.

    1. E Minor Post author

      If only in 100% cleaner language…

      “Do you wanna know what they call an apple in France?”

      Speaking of American movies though, the wiki page on Ikuhara mentions that he wants to work with David Lynch one day. My mind’s been trying to come up with any possible Lynchian influences since I read that little fact.

  3. rishia

    Actually Schneewittchen is just the German title for Snow White. I find it unlikely that they meant Walser’s play of the same name.

    1. E Minor Post author

      If we’re going to play the “likely” game, then they would’ve just used “Snow White.”

      1. rishia

        Schneewittchen is the original title of the fairytale collected by the brothers Grimm. If they had used a translated title, 白雪姫 would have been the more likely choice.

        1. E Minor Post author

          So they used English for all the other titles but decided to use the German name for Snow White? Whatever you say.

            1. E Minor Post author

              Wow, you’re really dead set on this.

              Ikuhara: “Okay, guys, I want fairy tales on Himari’s night stand, but so help me God if their titles aren’t in their original language!”

              Whether “Schneewittchen” was intentional or a mere coincidence, who cares? I still find it an interesting connection regardless of what you find “likely.”

  4. E Minor Post author

    I should just put this in every post I write: authorial intent is an artifice. If you disagree, this is the wrong blog for you.

  5. Vucub Caquix

    Nice catch on the fairytale references. I picked up on it a bit, but you fleshed it out more than I could. My partner, however, was very keen on the Night on the Galactic Railroad references.

    1. E Minor Post author

      Thanks for reading. Since I hadn’t read Night on the Galactic Railroad myself, I totally missed out on the references to it, but between your blog’s post (I’ve taken a look at it just now) and adaywithoutme’s writeup, there are more than enough interesting ideas being tossed about.

  6. inushinde

    I noticed the similarities with Snow White (The apple, Himari waking from a deathlike sleep) when I watched, but the other possible references completely slipped me by until they were mentioned here. Once I rewatched it, they were quite glaring. It was good fun for a first episode, and while I don’t think it was the best as far as quality goes, it was certainly the one that piqued my interest the most in the season.

    1. E Minor Post author

      Aside from the visual missteps, if I had to criticize the first episode, I really dislike Kanba’s voiceovers. They just feel… forced. I just tend to dislike monologues in general because, to me, they feel like yet another failure of “show, not tell.” Couldn’t the anime communicate its fatalist themes to the audience in a less direct way? But yeah, it was an interesting episode if nothing else.

  7. Pingback: Mawaru Penguindrum First Impressions: I Still Don’t Know the Purpose of that Transformation Sequence I Saw That Day « Shinde Iie Anime Blog

  8. bonehimer

    I will be surprised if it doesn’t get repetitive like Star Driver, currently watching the third arc of Utena and she is fighting the same people for the third time. And a lot of the characters are revisiting the same baggage from previous episodes.

  9. M.B

    At first I was thinking that Kanba frenched his flesh and blood sister. I was actually disappointed when I found out she wasn’t later. That would’ve made things REALLY interesting.


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