What does an anime about fencing, roses, and revolution have in common with an anime about a mind-controlling hat, penguins, and terrorists? There is actually more than you might think.
Revolutionary Girl Utena was one of the greater anime from 1997. Set in a mysterious academy, students duel each other in a king-of-the-hill type tournament in order to become engaged to the Rose Bride and obtain the power to bring world revolution. Utena, a girl that dreams of one day becoming a prince, is dragged into the conflict when she rescues the Rose Bride.
Mawaru Penguindrum is one of the series making waves this year. Two brothers, Kanba and Shoma, are at a loss as to how to save their dying sister, Himari, from an incurable disease. When all seems lost, a mysterious penguin-shaped hat appears and takes over Himari’s body. The hat then orders the brothers to obtain the Penguindrum in order to save Himari’s life.
While the plot and setting for these two series are obviously different, they do have a lot of common themes and elements. This can be attributed to the fact that Mawaru Penguindrum is the first anime that Kunihiko Ikuhara has directed and written the script for since Revolutionary Girl Utena.
One of the most noticeable themes in Utena and Penguindrum is of taboo relationships. In Utena, one of the duelists, Juri, is in love with her closest friend, who’s also a girl. Penguindrum experiences a similar one-sided love with the character Yuri (note the similarity in naming), falling in love with her closest friend. It is also shown that Anthy, the Rose Bride, shares an incestuous relationship with her older brother and possibly sees Utena as more than a friend. Similarly, it is implied that there is something going on between Himari and Kanba when the penguin hat takes over.
Another theme that appears in both series is that of a lost hero. Starting right from the beginning, Utena and Kanba are depicted as the noble, trustworthy character of their respective series. Near the end of each series, however, they both fall victim to the antagonists’ plans and lose sight of their purpose.
A unique aspect about these two anime is their use of something akin to a Greek chorus. If you are unfamiliar with a Greek chorus, you can read up about it on Wikipedia. Every episode of Revolutionary Girl Utena had a short play using shadow characters which described the underlying themes using riddles. Mawaru Penguindrum uses a more visual approach, utilizing video advertisements on trains to play out a small scene involving two characters that foreshadow ominous events.
Perhaps the most notable similarity between Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum are the confounding metaphors that no one seems to be able to figure out. Roses are a large part of the imagery used in Utena, but when watching the series, it’s impossible to decide whether they’re just there for something to look at or if they’re supposed to represent a person’s purity, or perhaps their naivety. On the other hand, penguins are seen in almost every scene in Mawaru Penguindrum. Considering each of the main characters has an invisible “pet” penguin that acts out different scenes in the background, I think it’s safe to say that they’re more like an extension of the Greek chorus and an avatar at the same time.
The final similarity that I want to bring up which defines Kunihiko’s works is the appearance of the characters’ antithesis within themselves. So as not to spoil either series too much, I’ll just use two side characters as examples. Nanami in Revolutionary Girl Utena, is often portrayed as a fool, being the highlight of all of the comedic episodes and unaware of the significance of the events around her. In the last several episodes of the series, she reveals that she is wiser than she seems after figuring out the relationships in the Himemiya household and giving Utena a clear warning. Ringo from Mawaru Penguindrum also sees a total reversal of character near the end of the series. While she was portrayed as a fatal siren when the anime began, she eventually turns into a sweet girl with many motherly attributes.
Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum may have vastly different storylines, but if you liked one, then I’m sure you will like the other. For these two anime, it’s not the story that matters, but how it is told.