Mawaru Penguindrum and the Return of the Auteur


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.


3 thoughts on “Mawaru Penguindrum and the Return of the Auteur

  1. Nice post! I think Ikuhara still has a few tricks up his sleeve; I’m sure he didn’t wait a decade to make an ordinary anime. I think the lyrics to “Rock Over Japan” (the transformation song) show his determination. Yeah, it’s a cover song…but just look at that title. Basically it’s about kicking butt and showing other people how it’s done. That being said, I don’t think he has to make a masterpiece to validate his return. If he makes a “good” anime, in his original style, then I think he’ll have left his mark (again) on anime, considering that the “moe” era seems ready to shift to the next era.

    • Agreed- no Ikuhara anime is ever “ordinary”. The sheer audacity of episode 2’s “urine stars” opener had me laughing so hard I couldn’t even focus on what Ringo was saying- talk about subverting his own tropes! That was a sweet moment of ballsy take-THAT-audience! behavior. And yet he turns around and does the “oujisama roses” bit too later in the episode- oh man, how long has it been since that shot worked in anyone else’s hands?

      All I had wanted to say with this, I guess, is that to me it seemed like the entire industry fetishized elements of Ikuhara’s work after his absence, and that it would be a greater challenge for him to come back and stand out in the same way that he did before. I’m not demanding Ikuhara produce miracles – there’s only so much that can be done with today’s anime industry and it IS just entertainment, after all. But it looks to me like he’s not intending to redesign his style; instead (based on ep 2’s developments) he’s clearly gonna beat the crap out of his “children” with Penguindrum in the sheer guts department. Nobody but him (and maybe Anno) would even consider opening an episode with a shot of a -toilet-, after all.

Comments are closed.