In the increasingly competitive UK anime market Manga Entertainment are well established as market leaders. In recent years this position has been consolidated by some canny business deals which have brought us the likes of Dragon Ball Z, One Piece and Naruto, but it's their distribution deal with Kazé that has brought the most eclectic titles to our shores, and Penguin Drum is certainly one that defies easy categorisation.
The series focuses on brothers Kanba and Shoma Takakura whose
terminally ill sister Himari is released from hospital to end her days with her
family. However, her illness flares up quicker than anyone expected, and
she is soon rushed back to hospital where she passes away. Her distraught
brothers are at a loss but it seems she's not completely out of time. To
their utter shock Himari is miraculously resurrected by a strange penguin-shaped
hat they bought for her as a present, a hat that seems to contain some
mysterious intelligence. However, the resurrection isn't permanent,
Himari's life has been extended by the hat but in order to save her the brothers
need to complete a task for the being that now speaks to them periodically
through her. The being tasks the brothers with obtaining the Penguin Drum,
a mysterious item that has the power to save Himari, but the only hint to its
location is that it may be held by a schoolgirl named Ringo Oginome. Ringo
is a strange young woman with an obsessive crush on the teacher Keiju Tabuki,
stalking him in order to live out the destiny written in her mysterious diary.
The brothers believe that the diary could be the Penguin Drum, but how do they
go about separating a teenaged girl from her diary? Shoma is tasked with
getting the diary, but wants to do so legitimately and is quickly roped into
helping Ringo in her dogged pursuit of Mr Tabuki. However, Himari's time
is running out, and even with the support of three intelligent penguins that
only she and her brothers can see they're going to have their work cut out
getting the diary in time, and even if they do there's no guarantee it's the
I have lost count of how many times an anime hasn't been what I was expecting, but whatever the total is, Penguin Drum just raised it by one. On the surface the series seems like a comedy, perhaps even a romantic one, full of bright colours and cute mascot characters. To an extent it is, but it is also surprisingly dark and a lot more surreal than it at first appears. The story starts off in a dark place, with two brothers in despair as their sister succumbs to her illness, but it then swiftly resurrects her, introduces a trio of
magical penguins and effectively turns into a sitcom. Ringo schemes to try to win Mr Tabuki's affections, but he is already smitten with his girlfriend, a beautiful and talented actress. Ringo then ropes Shoma in to help her break them up or get Mr Tabuki to notice her, leading to many pratfalls, fantasy asides and backfiring plans as hilarity ensues. It seems like entertaining fluff, but there's always a nagging feeling that something is not quite right. Ringo is not just a schoolgirl with a crush, she is a full-on stalker, following Mr Tabuki, secretly recording him and even camping out under his house. There's certainly an unsettling edge to a lot of her actions that temper the comedy somewhat, and there is also the uncertainty over what the intelligence inhabiting Himari actually is. There are several quite heavy revelations as the series progresses, and there's also a nagging suspicion that there's another story going on that we're not seeing.
The story mostly focuses on Shoma and Ringo, and very little
is seen of what Kanba is doing. He's getting money from somewhere and he
seems to be following his own story path that is largely kept off-screen, giving
an additional air of mystery to the series which only grows as it progresses.
Towards the end of this set things get incredibly surreal, with conspiracies,
strange otherworlds, repeated motifs and more mysterious items and people.
It's heavy with subtext and visually stunning, with bright bold colours mixing
with effective CG animation and some intriguing designs, especially towards the
end of the set. The style of the series is kind of reminiscent of
Gainax's bizarre FLCL, and there's a link in that the writer of
FLCL worked with Penguin Drum's director on the uniquely surreal
Revolutionary Girl Utena. Considering this pedigree the series is
surprisingly straightforward to start with, sticking to familiar modern anime
tropes for the most part but with an undercurrent of subversion about the
character's motives and actions. In places the story is quite clever,
especially as more is revealed about Ringo and her diary, and there are
unexpected plot twists throughout. However, when the surrealism really
kicks in a few episodes before the end of the volume things start getting pretty
interesting, and it almost seems like a new story has started.
Penguin Drum's biggest problem is that it doesn't know what it wants to be. It sits somewhere between outright comedy and serious drama, with some very heavy plot elements introduced over the course of the twelve episodes in this set which jar badly with the daft humour provided by the penguins. At the moment there doesn't seem to be any point to the penguins beyond comic relief, all they do is mimic the personality and actions of their adopted owners whilst stealing food or fighting cockroaches. There's better comedy
provided by Ringo's wild imagination, but even this sits uncomfortably with the darker elements of the series, especially the revelations about Kanba and Shoma's family and Ringo's divorced parents. What is very unusual is that some of the more shocking revelations and story elements are almost revealed off-hand, often dropped in the middle of an episode unexpectedly without much of a pause to contemplate them before the story moves on. The surreal ending to the volume sends the series off in an unexpected direction, bringing Kanba and Himari to the fore and making things a lot more interesting. In a way it's a shame that the series doesn't head in this direction earlier but it does open up a lot of possibilities for the second volume which makes it very hard to predict.
Penguin Drum is one of those series which shows a great deal of promise but doesn't quite live up it at this stage. The story is intriguing, the characters are good and there's plenty of mystery, it's visually arresting and gloriously surreal at times, but it also sits somewhere between a romantic comedy and psychological drama without totally convincing as either. Despite this it is quite entertaining and things get a lot more interesting towards the end of the set as the story starts to focus more on Kanba and Himari. This change of focus is very welcome, the series up to this point is enjoyable but underwhelming, and is guilty of bogging itself down with some some of its own running jokes. Every time the hat-possessed Himari triggers her 'survival tactic' a magical-girl referencing transformation sequence starts up, it's funny once but gets old very quickly and it is repeated pretty much every episode. There's also repeated parodies of the old anime series Rose of Versailles, and the continual pratfalling of the penguins. All of this leaves Penguin Drum Part 1 feeling like it wants to be several different things at the same time. Despite overusing some of its jokes it is quite funny, and the dramatic scenes are well delivered and in places very emotionally charged. There's some darker moments that really catch you off guard and the problem is that it all doesn't blend together convincingly at the moment, although there are real signs that the series will outgrow this problem in the next volume. It's certainly an interesting series and one that's hard to pin down, all the ingredients are there but it remains to be seem what is going to be made from them.
As is often the case with Kazé releases the presentation is nice but the extras are pretty thin on the ground, with a textless opening and closing sequence and a promo of the 'survival tactic' sequence being pretty much it. There are front loading trailers on each of the three discs, and each disc comes in its own thin-pack case which slot into a nice slipcase box. It looks great, but is below par over all.