Penguin Drum was pure win until it decided to head for supernatural territories without really trying too hard to explain what the devil is going on. I was really enjoying it while it was comedy or human drama but when that magic fate reset stuff started to happen, it just made a big mess of the wonderful premise.
My initial impression about it while reading the story and looking at the entry picture made me think it would be some ridiculous fan catering show. And to be honest it is but in a stylish and artistic way that makes it far more enjoyable than a run-of-the-mill ecchi. The director of the show is the same guy who directed Revolutionary Girl Utena, one of my favorites from the 90’s. After some idiots tried to imitate its glory and made that piece of poop called Star Driver, I thought I would never again in my life be able to enjoy an anime full of repeated clips and erotic innuendos. And to my amazement the same guy managed to win my impressions with Penguin Drum. It really is all about the execution after all; this guy has a talent, the others just suck on it hard.
The story is as insane as the one in Utena and one should not try to take it seriously if he is to emerge himself in it. The presentation though is amazing to the most part and shows how with proper handling you can make something great even out of the most stupid premise. In this case we have the tale of three siblings, invisible alien penguins (KYU KYU), and a possessing tsundere hat. It makes little sense really but the core story is the two brothers having to find a penguin drum in order to save the life of their sister, who was about to die and was saved by a penguin hat. As a reward, it demands from them to do its biding (in an extremely snobby way) and sends them to look for it by stalking a stalker schoolgirl. Too bad there are many others looking for it as well, and we get a weird blend of amnesia guns, pop idols, metro flash video advertisements, black rabbits, hidden libraries with a billion copies of the same book, evil sects, ghosts, and a lot other weird stuff no one will be able to keep track of if he doesn’t pay attention to.
Anyways, as I said all the fun is at how it all plays out and not if it makes sense (although in a purely allegorical way it does). It is a struggle of how they try to save a life while living with invisible to everybody else penguins, chasing after a stalker girl with a crush on her teacher, fending of the amnesia balls of romantic rivals, making deals with the devil of sorts, whatever the cost, whatever the situation. It is all done with extreme style and liveliness, good humor, and above all, without becoming too repetitive and getting you bored. I was literally unable to tell what will happen in the next 5 minutes, much less the next 5 episodes, as the story keeps introducing new elements and revealing more sides to the earlier ones. Nothing feels useless and thus in the longrun no episode is without its meaning.
Unfortunately, the story becomes far more chaotic and far less interesting as it goes on, with the finale being quite stupid in overall. They tried too much to make it symbolical and metaphysical and crammed so much magic panacea and coming back and forth to time and space that ruined the beauty of the earlier episodes. It’s not like I didn’t understand what the heck happened but it surely felt far less interesting than when it was about slapstick humor or human drama.
The production values are exceptional and quite eye catchy (studio Brains Base is very good at this stuff), despite the setting being contemporary Japan. The visual effects and the lively motions, as well as the simplistic representation of crowds and the use of technology, it all makes you think it is some sort of videogame. Even the soundtrack won me fast, as the female singer is the same as the one in Tatami Galaxy’s ending, another favorite of mine and an equally trippy show that is mostly art than crap. Furthermore, there are hints of art all over the series, such as tributes to Klimt paintings (which I hadn’t seen in anime since the opening of Elfen Lied ), as well as subway flash animation advertisement that tell us a lot of what is going on in that crazy country called Japan. Even further than that, the repeated clips are not the same every time. There are episodes where the SURVIVAL STRATEGY thing is not even used or ones where the same things happen in different ways, so you are again never bored with them like in Sailor Moon. And yes, voice acting if very fitting and lively for everybody.
Again, just like Utena there is a lot of weird sexuality amongst the characters, from allusions to incest amongst the siblings, to stalking and peeping with hidden cameras at very private areas. It is not done in a ridiculous way like in Star Driver, thus even such quirky elements end up working for the best. It flavors them as personalities instead of leaving them as boring archetypes. They are all somehow connected to one another and try to affect the story without being passive stunts. The invisible penguins are not just there as mascots but as active players, supernatural avatars and extensions of the siblings that use stealth to get results. They are also quite sloppy and goofy and they do many mistakes or do things they shouldn’t, thus they are not exactly uber magic panacea. They also have quirks and their lack of knowledge around morality makes their actions pure enjoyment.
Again, just like Utena its core themes are about breaking the taboos for the sake of love. Pretty much everyone is deviant and he or she excuses it as the limitless willpower of love. And since love is in fiction the most powerful power of them all, it makes it very enjoyable to see how low or bold or weird people can become because of it. Many will probably find all that to be pretentious gibberish without much purpose in the story but they do manage to make you think about stuff and that is what matters in the end of the day.
Although someone can find similarities in story elements and artistic overtones in other shows of 2011, such as Madoka Magica and Steins;Gate, I personally enjoyed Penguin Drum a lot more than any other of that year. The characters were easily likable, funny and memorable, without being overblown with otaku humor or without riding too much on SHOCK EFFECT and having very little time to expose the story. Although it is true that Ringo’s stalking arc was stretched too much and the final episodes are way too chaotic, messy, and turning to magic time resets WHICH I HATE, the directing was in overall far more exceptional, mature, and smart. Unfortunately the ending is far more exciting and memorable than in those other two shows which will leave most with bad final impressions and a big drop in the scores.
Despite the messy last quarter of the series, it is still an amazing piece of work, worthy to be viewed by anyone who wants something out of the ordinary and it definitely belongs in the top titles of the year.
And now for some excused scorings.
ART SECTION: 9/10
General Artwork 2/2 (artsy)
Character Figures 2/2 (somewhat generic but easily memorable)
Backgrounds 2/2 (artsy)
Animation 1/2 (basic)
Visual Effects 2/2 (artsy)
SOUND SECTION: 9/10
Voice Acting 2/3 (silly but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Music Themes 4/4 (great)
Sound Effects 3/3 (artsy)
STORY SECTION: 6/10
Premise 2/2 (interesting)
Pacing 1/2 (erratic)
Complexity 2/2 (rich context)
Plausibility 0/2 (none)
Conclusion 1/2 (cheesy)
CHARACTER SECTION: 8/10
Presence 2/2 (funny/sexy)
Personality 2/2 (eccentric)
Backdrop 2/2 (everybody has some)
Development 1/2 (overblown but it’s there)
Catharsis 1/2 (overblown but it’s there)
VALUE SECTION: 7/10
Historical Value 1/3 (will be somewhat remembered for its crazy presentation)
Rewatchability 2/3 (high if you like its style but many scenes will be skipped)
Memorability 4/4 (the penguins alone are enough to forever remember it)
ENJOYMENT SECTION: 8/10
Art 1/1 (looks artsy)
Sound 2/2 (sounds great)
Story 2/3 (great themes and funny to the most part but messes up in the end)
Characters 3/4 (they are great but the ending doesn’t do them justice)