Mawaru Penguindrum – OST Vol. 1 – Review

Album Title: Mawaru Penguindrum Vol.1 Bonus CD
Anime Title: Mawaru Penguindrum
Artist: Yukari Hashimoto
Catalog Number: SSX-10205
Release Type: Soundtrack
Release Date: October 26, 2011
Purchase at: CDJapan, Play-Asia


Tracklist

Show »

Track Title Artist Time
01. The Children of Fate Yukari Hashimoto 3:49
02. Sparkling Yukari Hashimoto 1:49
03. Boy Meets Girl Yukari Hashimoto 1:42
04. The Murder of Penguin 0 (Audio Drama) Yukari Hashimoto 15:33
05. Penguin Mission Yukari Hashimoto 2:22
06. Here Comes Sexy! Yukari Hashimoto 1:48
07. Labyrinth of Coral Yukari Hashimoto 2:01
08. The Joy of Our Desiring Yukari Hashimoto 2:03

Review:

Though it’s been over a month since Mawaru Penguindrum has finished airing, its impact is still palpable. There has been much discussion about whether the show lives up to its own reputation, but most will agree that the show does exactly what it intends to do, in the way it wants to do it, with little regard for anything else.

It’s a bit of a cliché to say so, but the soundtrack takes a similar approach. In the same way the show marches to the beat of its own (penguin)drum, the score’s strongest trait is that it follows no precedent. Instead of adhering to any preconceived genre or setting at all, the tracks conform to exactly what’s called for emotionally at that point in the script. Need a dramatic jazz orchestra? Done. Doing an outlandish storybook sequence? Try an eccentric operatic number sung in pseudo-scat. There’s an undercover spy mission in this episode? Commission a grungy latin jazz tune.

This shotgun method to the soundtrack can be seen as inelegant, but in reality comes off as an incredibly honest effort by Yukari Hashimoto. It’s in many ways a refreshing change of pace from the typical shackles of genre pretense.

What is important is that the songs are never cynically strange for the sake of strangeness; the tracks are so purely sincere in going about their business that they end up ringing very true, and often incredibly beautiful. This first volume is a scant 7 songs (omitting a drama track) but runs such a gamut of emotions and styles that its miniscule 15-minute runtime is actually rather grueling. Between its 7 songs, this volume contains an instrumental power ballad, a couple jazzy operatic numbers, an electronica track, and vocal chamber pieces, among others.

The caveat is that the soundtrack’s pursuit of breadth over depth runs counter to its episodic release format. The sporadic tone of this volume combined with its short length makes it seem incomplete somehow, like a single puzzle piece to an implied much larger picture. This is in no way a fault of the songs themselves, just a regrettable distribution decision.

The Children of Fate

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Staggered soundtrack release schedules usually mean that there’s at least one big “anchor” track to beef up the track list (see: Cowboy Bebop and “Tank!”), and here, that more or less takes the form of “The Children of Fate.” Imminently catchy and hugely dramatic, there is no finer breed of background track than “The Children of Fate.” The enduring litmus test of a good soundtrack number is whether or not it stands on its own without its show as a basis, and this stands mightily. It’s also worth mentioning that the melodic elements in this track form the backbone (of what little there is) of the recurring thematic components in other songs in later volumes. It’s a worthy listen that makes its mark as one of the best standalone tracks to come out of anime in recent memory.

It’s somewhat of a bait-and-switch, then, because those expecting similarly exciting songs to follow will be rather disappointed. The rest of the songs are charming in their own way; they’re just not as overtly fabulous as the above. It’s a bit more disingenuous that every track subsequent to “The Children of Fate” proceeds fairly chronologically to its appearance in the show, whereas “The Children of Fate” plays in much later episodes. The producers knew that the track would hook listeners, and, indeed, I continue to listen to the later volumes largely in order to encounter a track that lives up to “The Children of Fate.”

Sparkling

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I’ll be one of the first to admit that the rest of the disc is not immediately endearing. Following “The Children of Fate,” “Sparkling” begins with a comparative whimper. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it; it’s just not in the same tier as “The Children of Fate.” Though a whimsical curiosity of a track with lots of tinkly mallets and swoopy flutes, it nevertheless comes off as uninvolving, especially following the first track.

Boy Meets Girl

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You don’t need to look much farther than the next track, “Boy Meets Girl,” to see that Hashimoto held no genre trapping sacred. It suffers the same general blandness issues as “Sparkling.” It’s a bit of a shock to hear a beach-rock track on an anime OST, but its critical shortcoming is that it’s nothing particularly special other than that it’s very different than the track that preceded it.

And herein is the general trend that permeates this disc (and its subsequent volumes): Hashimoto touches upon many styles but does little that’s interesting with any of them. I wish she had just done an outright terrible job, though, because that’s much easier to review! Everything is at least competent, sometimes great, but rarely stellar. It returns to the Kajiura vs. Kanno debate: Is it more commendable to do a single thing exceptionally or to do many things (only) very, very well?

Here Comes Sexy!

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Well, two songs near the end of the disc approach this border between “great” and “exceptional,” and, unsurprisingly, they fall in the general category that’s been proven to be more or less Hashimoto’s strong suit: neo-classical chamber music. “Here Comes Sexy!” and “The Joy of Our Desiring” are both classically-styled pieces with purposely unintelligible syllabic “lyrics,” but the former is more overtly flamboyant while the latter is gentler and more restrained. It’s easy to be put off by the seemingly babbling vocals, but there’s something very comforting about listening to a human voice sing without having to pay attention to what it’s saying. The unrestrained bizarreness at work in the vocals is infectious; “Here Comes Sexy!”’s sappy, cornball eccentricity makes it the better of the two.

The Joy of Our Desiring

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Perhaps it’s telling that there’s little to be said beyond that even for tracks that are supposedly among the best on this volume. There has been a lot of acclaim for this soundtrack, but I just don’t think it stands that well on its own. This volume has a lot of charm, but lacks a little something to make it really stand out.

Rating: Good

About the author

Aftershok A huge jazz nerd and unabashed fan of alternative rock, I joined Anime Instrumentality in December 2010. I tend to get very passionate when it comes to music and try my best to understand how it works. An enormous fan of The Pillows, among my favorite anime composers include Ko Otani and Yoko Kanno. My tastes in anime vary wildly, but I try to be as thoughtful about my viewing as I am about my listening. I play the saxophone.

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6 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. Joojoobees says:

    I agree the real standout here is Children of Fate. In a sense I admire when an effort is made to subjugate the music for the needs of the anime, as you describe with stylistic (or at least genre) continuity here, because it represents a team effort to focus on a single goal — the audience’s experience while watching the anime. In practice, however great the anime experience is, these are precisely the OST releases that seem to disappoint.

    • Aftershok says:

      That’s the thing, really. Soundtracks that are best written for the screen are not always the best to just sit and listen to. They’re just adapted very differently.

  2. Lollipop says:

    Agreed as well. Unmei no kotachi is the star of the show. While most of the other tracks on this album (and indeed for most other volumes as well) are great, Children of Fate and its variations simply mask the subsequent songs. I know I’m waiting for the variations that were played at the final episode.

    • Aftershok says:

      I’ve sifted through the fourth volume of this OST, and I still don’t think there’s yet a track that lives up to “CoF.” A few come close, but there’s quite a lot of filler as far as I can tell.

  3. bram_history says:

    It’s not exaggerate if Children of Fate is the best song in Mawaru Penguindrum. It deliver everything you want to feel about this ‘fate’ … definitely my favorite.

    • Aftershok says:

      In terms of sheer staying power, there hasn’t been a track like “Children of Fate” to come out in anime in a long, long time if you ask me. The tragic thing is that it’s just so alone. You’d think there would be a few more of its ilk scattered around these releases, but as of Vol. 4, no dice.

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