ANIME & MANGA - Review
15:00 - 15th June 2013, by David West

PenguinDrum - Box Set 1

When their sister Himari dies during a trip to the aquarium, brothers Kanba and Shoma Takakura are stricken with grief. Imagine their surprise when Himari comes back to life at the hospital, restored to vitality by the penguin hat that Shoma bought for her at the aquarium as a souvenir. But the intelligence channelled through the strange hat wants something in return for saving Himari's life - it orders the brothers to find and retrieve the Penguin Drum. Sadly, it fails to mention what that actually is.

PenguinDrum is directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara, who helmed the completely bonkers Revolutionary Girl Utena and fan favourite Sailor Moon. For a change this time, the focus is split between male and female characters in equal measure, but Ikuhara has lost none of his visual extravagance. The two brothers are ordered by the personality in the hat to follow a girl called Ringo Oginome, who may or may not be in possession of the Penguin Drum. Ringo is a compelling character in her own right, obsessed with a school teacher called Mr Tabuki and the idea of destiny.

One of the central themes of the series is how different people react to loss. The Takakuras have lost their parents, and now the brothers are terrified of losing Himari. Similarly, Ringo had an older sister who died on the very day she was born and constantly feels like she has to act as substitute for her departed sibling. However outlandish her behaviour, which becomes more extreme as the story unfolds, the motivations that drive Ringo are always believable, springing from a desperate desire to feel loved and worthwhile.

The emotional grounding of the characters is vital to the success of the story, as director Ikuhara throws in outlandish plot devices and elaborate fantasy sequences that would become mere spectacle without strong characters to support them. The Takakuras are followed everywhere they go by a trio of penguins that are invisible to everyone else. They contribute to the sense of fragmented reality in the show, and provide comic relief when the script goes down dark emotional alleys. Ringo's flights of fancy, in which she imagines Mr Tabuki falling in love with her, include a Western sequence in the style of Sergio Leone, fairy tale daydreams and even a musical number, all of which are visually enthralling. Ikuhara effectively communicates the idea that these people exist in their own little world by rendering background characters as blank outlines - everyone is so caught up in their drama that they simply don't notice anyone else.

The test for Ikuhara and the series will be to see whether it all coalesces into a coherent whole in the second half. This first instalment raises numerous questions, but offers precious few answers. Given his track record - notably Revolutionary Girl Utena which refused to make any sense at all - the jury is out until PenguinDrum wraps up, but Ikuhara is off to great start with this first instalment.

PenguinDrum is gorgeous, inventive, emotionally compelling and not afraid to tackle hefty themes about fate, destiny, life and death. The surreal elements are perfectly balanced by the down-to-earth slice of life scenes of the Takakuras at home sharing dinner. If Ikuhara can maintain this high standard for the rest of the story, this could be a certified classic.
SCORE: 4/5
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