Mawaru Penguindrum – Episode 4

It’s time for a date! Ringo’s ever-demanding diary has upped the ante once again, and so this episode, she’s planning to take Tabuki out for a birdwatching expedition. As the episode opens, we see fate is in the air, represented through Ringo’s happy shoujo stars. Shoma is surprised merely by Ringo’s presence in his house, as he is the typical teenage protagonist – but Kanba has much bigger plans, and so he tasks his brother with tailing Ringo on her journey.


Ringo and Shoma spend a lot of time getting to know each other this episode. While Ringo would like to be getting closer to Tabuki, all of her devices for earning his affection are arbitrary; trying to match the resolute demands of the diary, she is forced to fabricate basically all of the day’s major events. In contrast, her conversations with Shoma are all embarrassingly real. He gets to see her pettiness and insecurity and effort, things that may not have much to do with “fate” as Ringo imagines it, but certainly have a whole lot to do with people actually getting closer to each other.

But Ringo isn’t in the mood to see that – in fact, Ringo spends basically this entire episode suspended in lala land. A legitimately fateful advertisement on the subway gives our dreamer a chance to segue into one of Ikuhara (and this episode director Shingo Kaneko)’s favorite tricks, flowery shoujo framing. Ringo has stepped briefly into this mode for reaction faces before, but here, her fantasies dominate the proceedings. It’s a consistent joke that honestly gets a little overbearing over time (though very on theme for this director), but it’s a fine representation of the world Ringo personally occupies.


Those shoujo interludes also serve a key tonal purpose. When you break it down, Ringo’s behavior is extremely creepy. She is a legitimate stalker, and attempting to emotionally manipulate a man into caring about her. She’s already established herself as willing to crawl under his house and force-feed him, and at this point, her plans are moving on towards actual physical action. She’s a daydreaming teenager, so this behavior is perhaps a little understandable in an archetypal sense, but very little about her is currently likable or sympathetic. It’d be very easy for her behavior to tilt over into the overtly uncomfortable.

To make up for these issues, the show essentially cheats in her favor in every tonal way possible. It frames her actions as shoujo fantasies, reducing the bite of manipulation and replacing it with humor. It has all of her trials end in physical humor anticlimax, evoking sympathy purely for her patheticness. It throws in the penguins whenever possible, and emphasizes the contrast between “fate” as a romantic concept and fate as the shitty series of Sisyphean boulders Ringo is pushing. And it lays on the silly faces like mad.


This episode is a treasure trove of silly faces, incidentally. Ringo is pretty much constantly emoting like crazy, and the rest of the cast generally alternate between stunned reactions and shoujo absurdity. Sympathy doesn’t have to be fostered for purely narrative reasons; Ringo’s wild expressiveness can itself generate sympathy, because even if her motivations aren’t relatable, her broad mix of visual feelings definitely are. Ringo’s actions may not be sympathetic in a realistic sense, but Penguindrum is happy to push them into the realm of cartoon scheming. Penguindrum will ultimately be a very heavy story, but for now, the heaviest notes are partially lifted by transitioning into farce.

Many of the other visual choices here are also excellent. The show makes a very clear contrast between Yuri and Ringo; apparently not finding it demeaning enough to simply have Ringo wear a t-shirt and pants, the plot shifts her into Shoma’s shapeless overcoat, an unromantic outfit that’s echoed by the colors of her shoujo dress. Meanwhile, Yuri already looks like a shoujo princess in her real clothes. And the ticking clock is omnipresent, matching Ringo’s sharply plotted concerns (her strategies once again seeming like the opposite of fate, while providence constantly conspires against her) until it switches to abruptly signifying that time has run out.


Because it does seem like time is running out. Four episodes in, Penguindrum is just barely able to get away with a light episode of cartoonish escapades, but the quest to save Himari can’t be stalled that easily. Yuri already knows the truth about Ringo, and Kanba is now being pursued by a figure willing to kill for her goals. Once again, those searing shoegaze strings herald a darker end.

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