Kunihiko Ikuhara tends to be famous for his work Revolutionary Girl Utena for several reasons. He is remembered for creating a show that takes the more conventional tropes of magical girl shows and fairy tales and twists them in an unusual but pleasant manner. He also took some very sexually explicit material and infused it into a story without making it gratuitous. He is also known for using some pretty bold symbolism and metaphor while still making an accessible and entertaining product. But the piece of his legacy we will being looking at in Mawaru Penguindrum is his flair with visuals that are both stunning and yet crammed with meaning and purpose.
When I look at Revolutionary Girl Utena, I see so many techniques and a visual library that let’s you look past a low-budget. Working within a limited means can sometimes create innovation and push the limit. So even when a show like Mawaru Penguindrum has more of a financial push behind it, Ikuhara doesn’t leave behind his flair for the dramatic. He combines this with an odd grouping of motifs in spectacular fashion making Penguindrum, if nothing else, an eye-catching anime.
The most obvious and persistent piece of symbology in the series is the use of train related visuals. The Takakura siblings are constantly traveling around Tokyo on the train. While train travel is extremely common in Japan, Ikuhara goes out of his way to show people having conversations on the train at least once an episode to reenforce the theme and visual motif. It also lets the mascot idol duo appear every episode in little subway reminders that have the distinct look of Japanese train announcements.
But even outside their trips on the train the iconography of rails is everywhere. The openings are filled with the icons of Tokyo trains and much of the stylization is similar in style to signs and fonts found in any Tokyo train station. The eye catch also uses Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line as a visual representation of the progress of the plot with each episode being a representation of a stop on the line. Also when the Survival Strategy Spirit summons people to her world it is filled with the same subway iconography. The opening shot of her world is entering through a turn style into a world where subway icons float around all over.
There is also miscellaneous symbols such a subway line markers, subway maps, train markers, and tickets being invoked in places not usually associated with trains. All of this is also great ways of interweaving two major ideas into the story. All the train imagery is a great way of invoking the story of Night on the Galactic Railroad as well as the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Both events are intrinsically liked to trains in the Japanese conciseness and tie into the greater themes of the story.
Penguindrum has a tendency to create layers in its scenes. That is clear already from Hisui’s discussion about trains and the continued motifs that we’ll be discussing, but right now I’m talking about Ikuhara’s literal layers. Any given episode will feature two, sometimes three, very different actions happening simultaneously; one in the foreground, one in the background, and on the occasions of a third, one in the middle ground.
As it happens, this three tier technique is most easily seen in the train scenes. During these trips we frequently have characters talking while the penguins are getting up to mischief. Sometimes there is also one of the idol ads running alongside all this which act as strange warnings.
These layers give a rewatch value because they are both literal and figurative so of course it is hard to catch everything the first time through. And often times this is made more difficult with subtitles as you are supposed to be listening to one thing while watching another creating that odd juxtaposition.
But these almost invisible people also invoke the image of the Kuroko. These black clad stagehands are always present but ignored by the audience in Kabuki just like all the unimportant people in Penguindrum. This brings up the fact that the theater and fairy tales are another important source of the shows’ visual lexicography. Yuri is constantly surrounded by the imagery of the Takarazuka Revue when she is on the stage of her all female performance of the Tragedy of M. But off the stage she still has her Fabulous Max flowery closeups and theatrical framing. The Double H subway signs often acts as a Greek chorus commenting on some event in the episode.
There is also the extended fairy tale like stage play of lambs and a goddess which uses a very water colored children’s book aesthetic in episode 12. There is also some borrowing from the aesthetics and symbology from stories like Snow White, Super-Frog Saves Tokyo, Urashima Taro, and Adam and Eve.
The influence of stage extends to the many color and lighting techniques Penguindrum employs. The most obvious is of course the spotlight and silhouette. You can actually see depth and flatness at the same time in Penguindrum through light. And beyond that you can see many instances of extreme contrast whether it is from deep shadows or heavily saturated colors.
An excellent example is the three siblings house a place that practically glows against the mundanity of the surrounding area. The stage employs all these things, and more, in order for the entire audience to discern what is happening. But a stage audience sits at different distances while we all have the same view with Penguindrum which heightens the awareness and drama.
There are also dozen of other little constant design flourishes. As I mentioned before Penguindrum borrows from a wide variety of stories to build its look. And one of the common elements it likes to use is the apple. Apples are seen everywhere from apples being used for curry, apples being on products everywhere, the medicine that Sanetoshi uses having an apple symbol on them, and Himari being saved from the Child Broiler through the use of a magic apple.
The only symbol more common is that of the Penguin. While we have the three magic penguins that follow the Takakura siblings and the black penguin that follows Masako there are penguin symbols on everything that does not have an apple symbol. Any clearly seen object that would have a brand name on it has a penguin version of that logo instead. It is omnipresent and integral to the story.
You also see a good deal of the red string of fate. You constantly see the red string in the endings with Himari attached to someone via a red string. But we also see Kanba attached to Masako via the red string of a sweater. Also the main train line motif is always on a red line which can be seen as reenforcing this imagery.
In general, Ikuhara has an affinity for architecture on many grand scales. One of the motifs that gives a lot of flourish to scenes is the incorporation of stairs and elevators (which look like cages; also he likes cages). They are visually interesting through their lines and structure while also working as solid points about where we’ve come from, where we’re going, struggle, escape, status, power, and the list can go on. And all these things are displayed can be philosophical and/or actual sense.
For example, look at the “survival strategy” scenes where she stands high above the “idiots.” The space in which a scene is taking place can say a lot about what is happening in Penguindrum.
I think that Kunihiko Ikuhara’s greatest strength is not that he can fit all these techniques and pieces of imagery into his visual library. It is that he can put them all into a series in a way in which they all reinforce each other. The color schemes, the lighting, the train motif, and the repeated uses of penguins don’t exists as singular tools to highlight singular themes. Each tool is integrated into the other and is helping propagate the others.
And the most amazing part is we only scraped the surface of the imagery of the show. Anything we mentioned here could be spun off into its own scholarly paper. I hope to read some of those papers one day.
One of the overall great things about Ikuhara is his use of animation as an art form that has no limit. This is what I like best, you can see so many things in Penguindum that just would not work anywhere else. He can make things grandiose or miniscule to his heart’s desire and use odd angles, transitions, and actions leaving you wondering what goes on inside the man’s head.
There is so much to see in Penguindrum you can’t help but watch. What others have people noticed?