The Penguindrum manga, by Isuzu Shibata, is an adaptation of the anime series of the same name that was released back in 2011. Blending elements of comedy, drama, mystery and the supernatural, this is definitely one of the most unique manga I’ve read this year.
Kanba, Shoma and Himari are a close-knit group of siblings who have been looking out for each other ever since their parents died. But being orphans wasn’t the end of their misfortune. Himari becomes ill and passes away from the disease, leaving her two brothers devastated. Then she suddenly wakes up and starts acting like a completely different person, saying that she comes from a place of destiny and demanding compensation for saving their sister’s life. The boys quickly realize that Himari is under the control of a mysterious entity that’s possessing the penguin hat they’d bought her at a local aquarium. While the alien presence has cured Himari of her illness, Kanba and Shoma are now forced to follow its commands if they want to keep their sister safe. The unnamed entity wants them to find something called the penguindrum, the problem is they have no idea what that is and the hat is being oddly cagey about it.
Penguindrum is one weird and trippy read. Possessed hats, transformation sequences, trap doors appearing in places they shouldn’t be and adorable, magical penguins are just a few of the wacky things that pop up over the course of this volume and I found the randomness to be pretty fun. The characters, and their reactions to all of the craziness, are also very comical. Shoma acts as the straight man who has trouble believing that any of this is real, whereas Kanba and Himari seem to accept things pretty easily and immediately start using the hat’s little penguin minions to run household errands.
One of the most over-the-top characters in the manga is Ringo, a girl that the siblings befriend who might hold the key to finding the penguindrum. Ringo is a stalker who is in love with their teacher and is constantly fantasizing about the relationship she desires to have with him. Ringo’s delusions are drawn in an old-school, shojo romance style, complete with dramatic gestures and period costumes, and I found these scenes to be hilarious. Ringo is an extreme character whose obsession drives her to do some bizarre things as part of her plan to win the affections of Tabuki, the completely oblivious man she’s stalking. Her ridiculous schemes are mostly played for laughs (and are frequently very funny) but the more we learn about what’s driving her the more sympathetic Ringo becomes and I wound up liking her character quite a lot, despite the fact that she’s pretty creepy. She’s also kind of a bad-ass! In one epic scene she crawls out of the trap door that the possessed Himari tried to drop her down, charges up to Himari and knocks the hat off her head in an impressive move that catches everyone by surprise. Too bad this almost kills Himari and everyone has to scramble to get the hat back on her head, so Ringo’s victory is short lived.
While I enjoyed this manga’s humor I do have few complaints. First, the story has some pacing problems. There was a lot of stuff jammed into this volume and I didn’t feel like the story had any time to breathe. I’m assuming this is caused by the fact that this is a 5 volume manga series that is adapting a 24 episode anime series. It was probably necessary to rush in order to include all of the important story beats, but as a result there are times where it feels like information is just being thrown at us and there are significant seeming moments that the narrative just breezes by in order to move onto the next thing.
The second issue I have is that Himari feels more like a plot device then she does an actual character. When Himari is herself she is sweet and cheerful; the stereotypical, perfect little sister that our male protagonists feel compelled to protect. While she is perfectly likeable, she is woefully underdeveloped. We don’t learn how she feels about her illness, her brush with death or the fact that she has made a miraculous recovery. She also seems to be unaware of the nature of her magic hat or of the quest that her brothers have undertaken for her sake, so she doesn’t really do anything to help with finding the penguindrum. The only significant thing she’s done so far is make friends with Ringo, and while I find their interactions to be cute, it’s a little annoying that the central female character of the story, around whom the whole plot revolves, is essentially just a narrative prop. Hopefully this is something that will improve in later volumes.
There’s one final thing related to Himari that I wanted to mention before moving on. It seems that Kanba has romantic feelings for her and he kisses her on the lips while she’s asleep at one point. I’m not exactly thrilled with the prospect of a potential incestuous romance element being added to the plot (barf!) and I wanted to give anyone who’d like to avoid that type of content a heads up.
Penguindrum is a wild and crazy story filled with over-the-top humor and mysteries piled on top of mysteries. Just what is the penguindrum and why does the being possessing the hat want them to find it? And just what was a magic hat doing in the aquarium in the first place? Despite having some flaws, I’m intrigued enough by the story to keep reading. I also think I’ll need to check out the anime this is based on, as I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about it.
Final Score: 7 out of 10
For more information of Penguindrum, visit Seven Seas Entertainment’s website: https://sevenseasentertainment.com/series/penguindrum-manga/
What did you think of this manga.? How does it compare to the anime? Let me know in the comments.