As an unrelated note, I’m sad to say the notes for Last Exile S2 were left in California, so I’ll be unable to do either of the posts I promised months ago. I’ve meant to say earlier, but general inactivity left me unsure where to say so.
So I have finally caught up to the really “hot” show of the Summer season, which has now finally reached its midpoint. With the legacy of Madoka Magica also behind us, there have been discussions of the two being similar in phenomena on Twitter, and of course, just as many contrary opinions opposing, usually favoring one over the other. That, I must give, is the seed for having even considered this post. However, that will not be the true focus of the post itself, due to both the fact that Mawaru Penguindrum has yet to end (making it impossible to properly appraise) and the fact that I don’t believe they are in fact so alike, fundamentally.
There are of course, many similarities, the most important of which is what probably sparked the contention I saw at-a-glance: the driving force behind the suspense and excitement of both anime is essentially questions. The simple technique of asking more than you answer in each episode. That is, to drive a person to continue to watch through “mystery” and inspiring a desire in the audience to have their questions answered. It is a simple technique, but one reliant the ability of a director to execute it and the ability of the writers to implement interesting questions on the long term. I believe both shows do an admirable job exploiting this technique and that plays a very large factor in why both are so similarly popular during their runs (with Penguindrum‘s, of course, yet to have abated, as it is ongoing).
Aside from that similarity, there are of course other things, such as the carefully cultivated visual style that directly challenges the viewer with the reality that what they are viewing is fiction and the “presence” of the director is omnipresent. There’s not an inch of the illusion that all the visual components aren’t exactly calculated to a director’s specification when you are confronted with Madoka Magica‘s witch worlds or the uncaring, flat “everyone else” simulacra of humans that populate the larger stage in Mawaru Penguindrum (or how about Ringo’s delusions being depicted through paper puppet plays, to reflect her understanding of the world as being directed (oh ho) by the power of destiny and fate?). Between two very stylistic and popular shows, such similarities are fairly easy to draw.
Least of all is the idea of “deconstruction” that was touted a lot–probably too much–particularly during Madoka’s high point in receiving commentary. I’m not going to bother tackling that particular piece of terminology, but the idea is that both shows are entirely aware of the formal properties of their particular base genre, which is not unusual, but then goes on to advertise that fact in the most naked way possible. The show knows its own tropes, and wants you to know that it knows it, and that it knows that you know that it knows it. Essentially speaking, they are “reflexive” works: a work late in a genre’s life, when many of its formal aspects and set pieces are finely defined, that seeks to stretch or disrupt those very elements that comprise the genre. Both shows undoubtedly do so to a point. The fundamental difference, then, is in the details of how they have pursued this goal, and though the difference is fine, I feel it is interesting to note.
I think in essence, Madoka attempts to contain itself within the small, fabricated universe of the Magical Girls, paying tribute to its realities. Where it seeks to mix things up is to introduce alien concepts into the sealed ecosystem, and not benign ones that keep the status quo, but ones that severely upset the balance. Ideas of binding contracts, death, despair, etc. Madoka articulates the Magical Girl genre with elements of reality that the genre had long taken for granted. The most iconic example this is of course Kyubey, the mascot that cannot ever be suspected of wrong doing, and heroines harmlessly trust random magical creatures as common as day. It’s very simple to just make that animal mascot not so trustworthy, and the girls not quite so trusting. That’s how I see the fundamental order of Madoka, with the finale of course being Madoka’s forceful changing of the world (seemingly) into one that abides to the traditional rules of the genre more. If the introduction of non-generic elements was the cause for despair and pain, then the cure must be the removal of those non-generic elements. Despair is the result of reality and fiction or ritual is the membrane to block its path.
With Mawaru Penguindrum, however, one could say the reverse path is taken. Along with taking up a genre that is far broader than the niche of Mahou Shoujo, it does not seek to introduce realities into the elements and established rules, but instead seeks to explore the ramifications of those devices when considered within a more holistic scope than normal to the genre. The idea of destiny and fated encounters are strongly linked to romance, and they, along with the various visual tropes such as the red strings and roses, are used not as the rules of the story, but the framing of it. In other words, what we have is quite simply various tragedies of the highest order, in various ways rather disconnected from vanilla “romance”. Terrorism and broken families: these are modern ails that bubble to the surface of the Japanese or even Modern psychology. And this tale, along with the supernatural factors arming and inspiring it, is instead told with the grammar of the genre.
Essentially, I feel Penguindrum tackles a much more contemporary, non-specific story removed from fully-formed genre and proceeds to explore the ramifications of considering generic elements or tropes as applied to the wider reality. Instead of augmenting the rules of the closed space with alien constructs, it exports its rules upon the alien world outside of it and focuses on the wider, alien existence. Without the red threads and sparkling eyes, Penguindrum would be about existentialism, determinism, idealism, etc.: philosophy of existence. But by adopting the “grammar” of shoujo romance, it has instead framed the conflict as what “fated encounters” and “destiny” really mean when you consider its applications outside the narrow field of romance. Fate both as a claustrophobic trap for those who feel destiny is an idea that preordains and legitimizes their suffering and as a savior that gives suffering unknown, future meaning. Or exploring the idea of fated encounters, not only in the realm of soulmates, but with people and events of uncanny coincidence, etc. That is how Mawaru Penguindrum is “reflexive” of its genre, even though the story it follows isn’t technically of the genre.
Both ways are valid approaches to a reflexive use of a genre, and at the end of the day, I think the show that will appeal to you most is the one where you understand the ritualistic tropes most thoroughly, not just a superficial, distanced understanding of it. Despite these differences, though, I think it would be easy to agree that both are notable, and perhaps comparable, in at least the way they’ve been able to take a viewership by storm and drum up some real hype and speculation.
One thing I will say about the way Penguindrum is set up though, is that compared to Madoka, it is probably a bit easier for “outsiders” of the genre to appreciate it, due to the nature of its mechanic as reality decorated by genre, rather than genre decorated by reality. Still, both shows I think are pretty entertaining for even viewers who only have the most passing knowledge of the genre and a lay sense for media, with those intimately aware being most thoroughly entertained. They make a valiant effort to make their respective shows have wider appeal as narratives.