Mawaru Penguindrum is an anime about penguins, but also, Mawaru Penguindrum is about the day in 1996 when the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo dropped sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway. Simultaneously, Mawaru Penguindrum is about the horrors that parents inflict on their children, but often this story is told through whimsical musical melodrama. While the leader of the terrorist group that haunts the series may no longer technically exist, and the diary of a dead girl may have a magical spell in it, Mawaru Penguindrum avoids the question of whether the show is fantasy or science fiction by never pretending it matters, instead stepping between reality and fantasy whenever it will best serve the characters and story. Mawaru Penguindrum is slapstick comedy and melodrama until it’s deadly serious, magical until it’s all too real, transitioning smoothly enough to believe in and sharply enough for it to sting.
Mostly metaphorical, Mawaru Penguindrum feels as real as life sometimes feels. Director Kunihiko Ikuhara likes his symbolism, but he doesn’t like explaining it, preferring instead to make jokes about it to his fans. Before the final episode aired, he tweeted of fan theories surrounding the titular Penguindrum that the protagonists had spent the whole series searching for without knowing what it actually was: “All of you have enjoyed making your predictions. Now, I’ll tell you the truth. Yes. Just as all of you have predicted all along: ‘The “Penguin Drum” is a peach-colored washing machine.” Ikuhara is playful man (he dresses fashionably, wears a blonde streak in his perfectly kept hair, and occasionally poses in the outfit of Sailor Mars) but he isn’t trolling his fans out of malevolence. He’s saying, slyly, that the mystery and symbols aren’t the most important thing.
The plot of Mawaru Penguindrum changes so much it’s a bit difficult to explain and its premise is almost a joke. Fraternal twin brothers Kanba and Shoma take their sister, Himari on a visit to the aquarium. She’s been diagnosed with a fatal illness and they’re trying to enjoy the time they have left with her. They buy her a cute and ridiculous penguin shaped hat, but as they’re leaving she collapses and dies. It’s heartbreaking, until she bolts upright in her bed, still wearing the penguin hat, and possessed by a bossy and demanding alien intelligence who threatens the twins with their sister’s life if they don’t find the Penguindrum, whatever the hell it is, because she doesn’t tell them. Each of the siblings is then presented with adorable but mostly useless penguins who vaguely imitate their behavior, and they spend most of the series failing spectacularly at what they’re supposed to do. Their quest is fun, but also hopeless. The kids try to carve as much happiness for each other as they can in the small space they have to live, and they do, but they are also doomed.
It’s not really about finding the Penguindrum, it’s about three siblings trying to make a family for themselves now that their parents are gone. Wait, it’s about a young girl who saved her friends from parents who hated and neglected them. Wait, it’s about a high school student trying to get a teacher to fall for her and not his opera singer girlfriend. Wait, it’s about how that whole relationship is a lie, a plan to make the memory of their dead childhood friend live again. No, stop, forget all that: it’s not about any of that. It’s about fate, how it can’t be changed, except it can, and how the lonely and abandoned losers of life figure out how to be alive.
Actually, forget that too, forget all of it, forget the whole thing: Mawaru Penguindrum is an anime about penguins.