Somewhere between the violently perverted Bokusatsu Tenshi Dokuro-Chan and the cleverly yuri 2x2 = Ninin ga Shinobuden lies the peculiarly well put together Penguin Musume Heart. While I have great love for this series, I can't shake the feeling that I am overrating it. The problem with this anime is that it decisively does NOT break new ground. Coming to it when I did---in the wake of my first convention and newly determined to own up to my identity as otaku--I found it hilarious and rewarding. Months later, it's still funny, but not the standout masterpiece I thought it to be at the time. However, as I began to look closer, I realized that its production values are higher than they should be and the whole thing is executed with a flair and attention to detail that its content doesn't seem to deserve. The result is a show that was great fun to watch but proves tricky to review.
The plot follows the lives of rabid otaku, Nankyoku "Penguin" Sakura and her classmates through a series of predictably outlandish adventures in the mould of a typical high-school comedy. While the show masquerades as a zany slice-of-life affair, the writers managed to pack four distinct story lines into the 22 episodes without making the series seem either frantic or rushed. Each short episode (between eight and fourteen minutes in length) serves to set up one major joke or set piece while trying to squeeze as much other random humor as possible along the way.
However, despite the overall ambition and scope of the story, Penguin Musume Heart fails to deliver any riotous laughs, which I would consider a fair-sized failing for what is essentially a comedy show. The humor in the series comes from pre-existing familiarity with the material and therefore both lacks the punch of more a unpredictable series and becomes worn quickly instead of remaining equally as funny on repeated viewings.
The character designs are distinctive and attractive (especially Penguin, who gets to cosplay in the most fantastic costumes at every opportunity), featuring an adorable, rounded style reminiscent of Lucky Star or 2x2 = Ninin ga Shinobuden. In addition, the over-the-top expressions, which can make or break a show like this, are well done and varied, ranging from starry-eyed-fangirl ogling to scary-younger-sister evil eyes and everything in between. And finally, the backgrounds also get a fair amount of love as the series uses a number of well-realized locations during its over-exuberant story line.
If there is a shortcoming here, it's in the overuse of static expressions livened up with animated effects. Scenes of real comic emotion usually have the character hold still while the sweat drops, ghost flames, or upset hatching moves in the foreground. The short episode lengths mean that the storyboards relied on still montages to speed along the story, but where the script calls for a fight scene or an involved action sequence, the show delivers in style. The OP and ED animations are very unique. As the first ED parodies Touhou Project games (showing Penguin on a broom in a side scrolling shooter), the second ED naturally features an original animation by IOSYS. In contrast, OP's are relatively simplistic (I believe them to be a dig-dug reference) until episode 8, which features a fan-created opening before the series settles into a standard, if overwrought, OP for episodes 9-22.
How you feel about the sound of the series depends on how you feel about the voice acting. The soundtrack features a catchy opening and two simple, but pleasant ending themes and the indicentals perfectly augment the show's mood in each scene--no matter how random. However, if you can't stand Kataoka Azusa's super-saccharine Penguin, the show will grate on you. Sounding 3-clicks cuter than Chiyo Mihama of Azumanga Diaoh and almost twice as enthusiastic you will either love Penguin every time she says "DVD", or want to punch her in the face. Nogawa Sakura of My-HiME fame turns in the most compelling performance as Cha Chi, giving her character at once manic energy, genuine emotion, and near-perfect comedic timing, all tacked on to a verbal affectation that had me giggling every time she delivered a line.
Your mileage may vary. Starting with the cosplaying, magical-girl-obsessed Penguin, these characters come straight out of central casting, which suits the goals and humor of the series perfectly. Since Penguin Musume Heart sets out to make fun of itself as an anime, you will find the liberal use of stereotypes either hilarious or overdone. The cast includes a shrine maiden, a female successor to a dojo being raised as a boy by her Akuma-like father, a goth-loli servant who's actually a cross-dressing guy, a one-eyed maid with a cold demeanor who writes the world's cutest text messages, and a butler named Sebastian who is at once imposing and creepy, and still manages to cater to his mistress' every whim. Of course Penguin's younger sister is the responsible one (think Hiraswa Ui of K-ON!). Of course Etorofu Kujira, the tomboy, has three girls chasing her during the series (think Nagisa from Futari wa Pretty Cure). Of course Sebastian finds a way to dress up like a cheerleader (think Kamen no Maid Guy?). You've seen it before and, again, either you're gonna laugh along with the series or decide that it's too predictable to be funny.
I had originally intended to give this show an 8/10, but decided that it was too strong a statement in its favor. This show sets out to make fun of itself, load up on anime references, and deliver fan service. Without a doubt, it succeeds at this modest goal. Penguin Musume Heart knows that you're going to predict where each development will take the show and how all of the characters will react to each other, and it wants you you chuckle knowingly along with the hapless cast. I would consider this show like a traditional holiday dinner. You know precisely what's going to be on the menu before you sit down, but the whole thing is delicious and makes you feel exhausted. Pretty, passingly clever, and occasionally blissfully brain-dead, this series is a solid addition to the sub-genre of otaku comedy. This show is not for anyone who takes anime too seriously, and the uninitiated need not apply, as the best jokes will blow right past them. However, for anyone who loves anime as a culture and hasn't yet seen this show, I can't recommend it enough.
The anime and cosplay-loving Sakura Nankyoku – known by her peers as Penguin at her old school – has just moved to a new location. After suddenly becoming student council president, she finds herself in the middle of many bizarre and ecchi situations. Panties fly, transformations are plentiful and the day is never dull in the life of Sakura, her third-grade sister Kaede, her tomboy rival Kujira, Cha Chi from China (who wants nothing more than to be Kujira's "boyfriend"), and more!
These days I load up on comedy, slice-of-life, and horror shows, but I'll watch almost anything that sports a good voice cast, an interesting story, or looks particularly pretty. I tend to relate anime I review to other shows I've seen, because that's just how my mind works. Whether my warped view on a particular show totally misses the mark or you believe I've hit the nail on the head, I'd love to hear from you and welcome feedback and intelligent discussion of just how wrong I might be.