Mawaru Penguindrum is a story about family. It is about three siblings—Shouma, Kanba and Himari—and the lengths that they are willing to go for each other. Everything else is a spoiler. A few hints to stir the pot: stalkers, trains, fate, lesbianism, abusive parenting and more Murakami-esque magical realism than you can shake a stick at. Penguindrum also doubles as a cultural exploration of one of the most infamous incidents in modern Japanese history, but I think I'll let you figure out which one it is by yourself.
The direction is top-notch, and important details that would be delivered by any other director as a straightforward exposition dump are in Penguindrum hidden in the background, waiting for the viewer to parse. Color composition, reoccuring visual motifs and even space are used to brilliant effect. Visual details don't always matter much in anime, much less television, but in Penguindrum everything is important. Every little detail, no matter how inconsequential it appears, is integrated. Even when the animation quality dips drastically, style barely carries it through.
Its creative fearlessness is both its greatest strength and weakness. On one hand, it ventures onto genuinely shocking ground in ways that have not been attempted by Japanese anime for years. On the other, its attempts to bewilder, shock and awe the viewer are occasionally manipulative and very convoluted. Deaths are miraculously averted. Horrifying cliffhangers are abruptly negated the next episode. Penguindrum delights in pulling the rug out from under the viewer, and if that's enough to shock you out of the experience than it can be difficult to recover. There's a reason, of course, why Penguindrum has been one of the most polarizing shows of 2011, drawing both accolades and harsh criticism.
It can be oblique, infuriating and even abrasive. Keeping track of it requires obsessive attention. But in the end, its director Kunihiko Ikuhara (of Revolutionary Girl Utena fame) didn't just give us what we wanted. He gave us what we didn't even know we wanted in the first place: a sprawling work that couldn't have come from anyone else, or have worked as well in any other medium. You might not like it, but you owe it to yourself to at least give it a try. A true original.