October 05, 2011

Train of thought

Mawaru Penguindrum
is a series about three siblings, a hat and some penguins.

And yet it’s not about them, really. Three siblings, a hat and some penguins is where the series starts but, unlike too many other stories, Mawaru Penguindrum isn’t afraid of motion, of going to places. Where I was expecting a series revolving around its premise, Mawaru Penguindrum soon abandons the initial setting and accelerates to awesome heights. Everything changes, all the time. The characters, the plot, the whole premise. 

Mawaru Penguindrum’s storytelling advances at an exhilarating pace. You think you’ve gotten the hang of the story, only to realize there’s yet another layer underneath. When you think it’s a story about three siblings, a hat appears. Then penguins, metaphysical teddybears, stalkers, destinies, mind-wiping slingshots, childhood traumas, cockroaches and oh god more cockroaches. Not once has the story been about what I thought it’d be about, because each episode has reshaped the very fundamentals of the whole series, all the while hurling the plot forwards with relentless inertia.

Aside from the charms of a narrative arc with all the predictability of a giraffe on acid, Mawaru Penguindrum also excels (and surprises) with its bipolar atmosphere. The series has an abundance of comedic elements, to the point where one could almost pass it as a light-hearted comedy. But to label it light-hearted or a comedy would be a mistake. 

Mawaru Penguindrum is sick and twisted. Characters who initially appear amiable turn out to be utterly depraved, or at the very least fundamentally broken, and the story constantly steers towards the darker end of the emotional spectrum. Love and life in the series are only facades hiding darker undertones: Love is obsessive and consuming, and life consists of chaotic freedom clashing against immutable fate. Mawaru Penguindrum makes sure you never know what to believe in. The only thing you can count on is that nothing is permanent and nothing is simple. Not fate, not chance and least of all love. And still, in the end, the series somehow manages to be very optimistic about everything.

Mawaru Penguindrum is a series where fate and free will clash, where everything is in motion and nothing is constant. It’s a series where, above all, there’s a lot of sitting in trains.

Trains, for the most part, are the very pinnacles of destiny. You go through the station gates, pick a line, board a train and then you wait. Your free will means nothing on rails, where there are no surprises, only the railroad track guiding you towards the next stop. And even if there are surprises, you can’t do anything about them. Your will may very well be free, but it has no effect on the outcome of your journey. You just sit and wait and see where the rails lead you. No matter what is true in life in general, on rails there is destiny, absolute and pure. You know where you came from and where you’re going, and there’s not much you can do in between one station and the next.

But sitting in a train in Mawaru Penguindrum is never just “sitting in a train”. It’s sitting in a train that’s going to an unknown destination, or to an unwanted destination. It’s sitting in a train thinking thoughts you would rather not think of. And most of all, it’s sitting in a train, waiting to reclaim your life (or someone else’s) from the cruel grip of your (or their) fate. Sitting in a train in Mawaru Penguindrum often means you’ve set out to get things back on track, or off the track entirely.

The rails of destiny might move you one station closer to your ultimate destination but everything changes when you get off the train. Once you disembark, nothing is certain. The board is set but the pieces are free.

(Edit: This was written after seeing around 11 episodes of the series, hence the somewhat skewed perspective.)

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