Has Kunihiko Ikuhara’s return come a decade too late to matter?
The problem with Mawaru Penguindrum is this: Ikuhara can still direct like a boss, but all of his stylistic fetishes – the things that he learned from Junichi Sato and which made him a standout director in the 90’s – have been so ruthlessly co-opted by modern directors that his strongest efforts just read like “acceptably good direction”.
This is both great news and bad news for the broader industry at large. Directors like Shinbo and Tsurumaki have taken Ikuhara’s ball and ran away screaming with it during his decade of absence, elevating collage-art effects, rapid-fire editing and swift, unconventional camera movements and shot composition to a point where discerning anime fans now expect such quality in every show as a matter of course.
Both Ikuhara and Hideaki Anno, who are mature and competent directors, now look like staidfast traditionalists in this light. While a lot of people are saying that Mawaru Penguindrum will “save anime”, the way that it feels when you actually watch it is about the same as a slightly elevated and more developed version of Star Driver. Igarashi, who never struck me as a particularly strong director, can do a very convincing Ikuhara now – and that’s the point I’m trying to make here.
Mawaru Penguindrum starts out with almost every Ikuhara trope on display in the first episode – everything from the fabulous!(tm) mechanical-sparkling transformation sequence that shamelessly cribs from the original Sailor Moon henshin to the ‘forbidden’ incest moment- it’s as if Ikuhara just threw all his normal cards at the wall right from the start. Hell, even the Incest Moment has become so mainstream a trope that where it once took Utena half a series to build up to the moment, it’s now casually tossed away at the end of the first episode of Penguindrum.
But did he do it to get them out of the way right away or to reassure us that yes, this is still what Ikuni is all about? It doesn’t feel like he’s been gone from the industry that long – Penguindrum doesn’t come across as aged or in any way dated – but it also isn’t giving us any explosive and ruthless improvements. Nothing to set the world of anime back on its ass and become a new standard.
Is it good enough that Ikuhara just directs within the standards that he helped to define ten years ago? How can we say that will ‘save anime’ if it’s just ‘good enough’?
Of course, this is only the first episode. And Ikuhara proves he still has the power and sheer balls to easily shock audiences – there are several moments that absolutely drop on the viewer’s head from nowhere story-wise, including the lurching drop in cabin pressure mid-episode at Himari’s spoiler moment, and the “what the hell did I just see?” swap from mild-seeming slice-of-life to FABULOUS OTHER WORLD, WITH HENSHIN! as the brothers are given their Plot Mission. The composition is clever, with a repeated visual motif of ‘binary twins’ on display (paired brothers, paired penguins, mirror-effects in shot after shot) and delicious subtleties like the ‘garbage people’ generic-person screen fillers. The backgrounds are luminous; they nearly glow, without being overpowering.
There’s nothing at all wrong with Mawaru Penguindrum. Maybe that’s it’s biggest problem.