Revolutionary Girl Utena
I can’t talk about Mawaru Penguindrum without talking about Revolutionary Girl Utena. Both series came from director Kunihiko Ikuhara. Before making Utena, Ikuhara worked on a little show called Sailor Moon, serving as the series director for seasons 3 and 4. During production on the final movie Ikuhara became unhappy with his lack of creative control over the series and formed a new group to create Utena.
There is no show as disciplined and controlled as Utena. Every element is thought out and deliberate, a lot of it is symbolic or metaphorical and some of it is nonsense; but even the nonsense is deliberate nonsense.
A lot of kids shows trade on patterns: You watch and episode of Sailor Moon or Power Rangers and there’s an obvious structure to them, Problem is established, monsters is revealed, hero transforms, monster is defeated. While that can be born out of laziness, there’s a power to it, so that once you break that expected formula you’re going to get a much stronger reaction from the audience than you would have otherwise. It’s important to establish a status quo, but only so that you can break it in a meaningful and effective way.
And while a lot of kids shows make use of that (i.e. The Green Ranger Saga of Power Rangers) I think that they usually do it without fully understanding what they’re doing. Just lucking into it for the needs of their story. (Power Rangers tried time and again to recapture the magic of those episodes just by repeating the basics, failing to make it resonate) Utena has that shit down pat.
There’s so much going on in Utena, much of it out of direct sight, obscured and unclear, but all well thought out and unifying. Every major color used in the show has a specific meaning attached to it. Not in a vague way, but in a “I could list them all for you right now if I wanted to” way. The focus of the show is right there in the title, Revolution, but what that means is not such an easy answer. The world of the show is one of death and hatred.
This list exists mostly because Utena stands out as such a clear number one for me. No show even comes close to touching it for quality and ambition. Well… that’s what I thought until I saw Penguindrum.
There was a 14 year gap between the release of Utena and Ikuhara’s next major project, Mawaru Penguindrum. It was worth the wait. How do you follow up the greatest anime? With the second greatest anime I guess.
What’s so remarkable about Penguindrum is how many similarities it has with Utena, and yet how different it is. There are a bunch of little details and tropes that show up throughout Ikuhara’s works, things he clearly just likes having in his shows. So you can tell that it’s still him behind the wheel. But Penguindrum is such a different beast, it’s that much more impressive.
Penguindrum is a much looser show than Utena. And it kind of had to be right? Following up Utena with a show as heavily structured would have felt played out, but Penguindrum feels completely fresh. That’s partially a result of a higher budget, so there’s less of a requirement for the show to reuse animation.
Penguindrum‘s world is one of guilt, where children suffer for the sins of their parents. It’s a cold uncaring world, where becoming unwanted and invisible is common. But the most important difference between the two shows is that Penguindrum isn’t metaphorical and symbolic in the way Utena is. Things exist as real things first and foremost. The apple really is just an apple. Penguindrum would be impressive enough on its own, but it’s such a change from Utena. There’s still a vibrant visual language to the show, but it’s a completely different one.
I think the meticulous nature of Utena, the sheer volume of its depth, keeps it number one. But Penguindrum got closer than I thought any show ever would to dethroning it. Goddamn.