Anime as a medium has many tropes and archetypes, though some of them are more understated than others. One particularly noticeable yet unexplained trend is the presence of penguins in anime. These flipper-having creatures show up in numerous anime series and films, many times in prominent roles. Despite that, there’s no truly concrete explanation for why they’re there.
This penguin phenomenon has been going on for decades, with anime of various demographics and genres all having penguins in some prominent capacity. The result is a craze that seemingly no one can explain, making penguins very much the equivalent of catgirls and other strange concepts that anime feels fit to simply run with.
From Mecha to Moe, Anime Loves Penguins
As mentioned, numerous anime of just as many genres involve penguins to varying degrees, including shows where the birds are central protagonists. Examples include the film Penguin Highway, plus shows such as Polar Bear Café and Mawaru Penguindum. The latter two are animal-centric anime, the former of which has a penguin as one of the main characters in a series about zoo animals. The zany slice-of-life series Azumangah Daioh also occasionally bring penguins into its hilarious happenings, which range from dreams about penguins to the diminutive Chiyo falling over in a massive penguin costume. All of these productions have a sort of cutesy, low-key vibe to them, though this hasn’t stopped penguins from marching into more hot-blooded anime as well.
The soccer anime Inazuma Eleven has athletic techniques based around penguins, including “Emperor Penguin No. 1,” among other moves. Likewise, the emperor penguin Pen Pen is a cast member in the psychological mecha series Neon Genesis Evangelion. This role as Misato’s pet isn’t exactly major, but he does add levity to the series and has become one of the franchise’s most endearing elements. In fact, it’s Pen Pen’s role in Evangelion that might help to explain why the birds are so popular within anime as a whole.
Penguins Perfectly Encapsulate the “Cute” Elements of Anime
In many of the shows mentioned above, the penguins’ antics add laughter and levity to already funny shows or to ones where the stakes are usually pretty grim. Thus, much like cats, it would seem that penguins are some of the go-to “cute” creatures used to make things more adorable in anime. The aforementioned Chiyo in Azumanga Daioh was already the show’s resident cute kid character, so adding penguins into the mix with her costume makes for something even more irresistible. The exact reason for why this is may never be stated, as penguins don’t naturally live in Japan. Despite that, they have become as integral to Japanese popular culture as cats or rabbits.
Much as there are maid cafés and cat cafés in Japan, there’s also the trend of penguin cafés. These establishments allow patrons to sit back and enjoy their evening as penguins swim, slide and even eat fish at their own leisure. Given that this is much in the same vein as cat cafés, it again speaks to the cuteness factor of penguins and how that automatically endears them to Japanese culture. Penguins are arguably the cutest of birds due to their awkward nature, waddling to and fro and having easily anthropomorphized flippers. Swimming instead of flying and generally having aesthetics that make them seem happier and cuddlier than, say, a chicken or an eagle, penguins are more “relatable” to mammals than most other birds.
With Japan being a country where marketing prioritizes cuteness, it’s no wonder that anime and other forms of media have taken to penguins whenever a bird is needed. There’s also the simple irony of shows set in cities or remote Japanese countrysides featuring an animal that’s supposed to live in cold, Arctic environments. This irony makes them even more lovable, which is why penguins are easily some of the most ubiquitous animals in anime.