Mawaru Penguindrum Is the Most Educational Show I’ve Ever Seen

Mawaru Penguindrum

Anime has provided me with snippets of knowledge in a wide range subjects. I could easily recite the history of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, recommend some good fermentation techniques, and tell you more about honorifics then you’d ever want to know.

But the most educational series I’ve ever seen is about a magical penguin hat.

Mawaru Penguindrum is the sort of show that feels like it’s weird for the sake of being weird. In its first few minutes, its female lead dies, comes back to life, and then turns into a magical girl while an adorable cover of “Rock Over Japan” plays.

From there, things only get stranger. The show regularly showcases the antics of sentient penguins. Silly train ads serve as an adorable Greek chorus. Diaries have the power to alter fate until they don’t, and unwanted children are ground into shards in some kind of heavy-handed metaphor.

It’d be easy to write Penguindrum off as a pretentious mess, but it has a fascinating plot if you’re willing to look for it. It’s a surrealist exploration of the Tokyo subway gas attack, an act of domestic terrorism carried out by a bizarre doomsday cult. The attack is subtly referenced throughout the show, and the year it occurred — 1995 — is regularly flashed across the screen.

Japanese viewers probably picked up on these allusions right away, but I knew nothing about the gas attacks before Penguindrum. Instead, I had to piece things together little by little via frantic Google searches. Slowly but surely, I learned all about Aum Shinrikyo, Japan’s lost decade, and the consequences of Japan’s patriarchal society.

Penguindrum even expanded my knowledge of fiction. I’ve been a fan of Haruki Murakami for years, but the show got me to read “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo,” a fantastic short story I’d missed. It also got me to pick up Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad, a surprisingly poignant children’s story that drew inspiration from the sinking of the Titanic.

I watch a lot of “smart” TV shows — series that win awards, are studied by academics, and get piles of critical acclaim. Still, I don’t think that any of those shows have taught me as much as Mawaru Penguindrum. It might be too goofy for college courses, but it’s definitely a series that rewards the curious.

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