The first Ikuhara show I saw was Yuri Kuma Arashi, which I thought was very dense when it came to symbolism, references and repetition. Oh what a fool I was back then. Mawaru Penguindrum exceeded it in density, length and complexity. When I try to think about what Penguindrum would be like if it was 12 episodes shorter… well, actually, that’s pretty easy, because I thought the first half was very slow. But that’s beside the point, because I realise that Penguindrum consists of different “stages”, so to speak (because I feel like saying it has story arcs simplifies the character interactions too much), of storytelling, and the progression through those stages is essential to the final resolution of the story.
The way the flashbacks and references to the Child Broiler are spaced, for instance, is important to the context of the occasionally very repetitive “main storyline” in that they make every iteration of the repetitive stuff, Seizon Senryaku for instance, feel different. The repetition is also used for comedic effect by spicing up the scenes with creative details, such as in the instance of Seizon Senryaku pictured above. Speaking of comedy, I think the penguins were a great addition to the show. Sure, they didn’t really serve any purpose in their own right, but I loved the way they were used in the background of the more dialogue-heavy scenes. Instead of just having a bunch of humans sitting around a table and talking to each other, Penguindrum had these adorable mascot characters doing cute and/or funny stuff in the background.
I think the reason I found the first half of the show so slow and occasionally boring is that due to the aforementioned repetition and the fact that the penguins were there to make it so that stuff was actually happening all of the time, many of the individual scenes in the show weren’t actually that consequential in themselves. In some early episodes, it even felt like nothing really mattered, especially when I wasn’t the biggest fan of Ringo’s story. Only later, when the cumulative effect of the flashback scenes, the symbolism and the progression of the main storyline gave a more complete picture of what was going on, did more and more scenes start feeling important to me. And that’s honestly not something that I’ve seen many times. The repetition I’m familiar with from Star Driver (whose director, Takuya Igarashi, worked with Ikuhara on Utena), but unlike Star Driver, which coasted along mostly on style and character, Penguindrum really is a slow-burner with a satisfying ending. And what an ending it was! The visuals and artistic choices were fantastic in themselves, but I feel the climax wouldn’t have been nearly as emotionally explosive had the show had a faster pace. It was just fantastic.