There’s a strange, uncomfortable disconnect at the heart of Ringo’s mission. Of course, you don’t really need to dig very far to find her actions uncomfortable – even within this episode’s first scene, what has up until now “confined” itself to mere obsessive stalking seems to take an even darker turn. Ringo murmurs breathily about “wedding night” and “our first night together” as the camera trawls across her blue-toned room, the undersea framing echoing both Himari’s room and the general visual language of “fate.” Given their current relationship and her past actions, it seems like Ringo is overtly fantasizing about sexually assaulting Tabuki. But Ringo’s feelings are even more tangled than that.
Shoma finds himself roped into Ringo’s crusade this episode, when learning the truth of Himari’s situation prompts Ringo to use the diary as a kind of hostage. As Ringo talks about the upcoming “Project M,” every visual feature of the subway screams that Shoma is walking into a trap. While the subway messages directly tell Shoma to stop what he’s doing, his penguin blithely munches still-shelled chestnuts, skewering his own cheek in the process. Some of Penguindrum’s imagery isn’t the most subtle.
It’s the next scene that really starts to unveil the full nature of Ringo’s feelings. As Shoma staggers under a massive load of her belongings, Ringo yells at him for “stepping on Kappy and Ottie.” Ringo doesn’t just have pet names for her stuffed animals – she actually asks them if they’re okay, and refers to them as family. It’s clear that Ringo is still something of a child at heart, which at least partially explains her mindset. Clinging to childhood beliefs can buffer you against the pains of maturity – when taken to an extreme like Ringo’s, belief in the past can essentially become a kind of power, her faith in fate the one stable thing in a shifting world.
Ringo’s framing of the stuffed animals is also important. When Shoma asks if they’re coming too, Ringo replies “they’re family, so of course we’ll always be together.” Certain words end up possessing specific, charged meanings in Ikuhara shows, and in Penguindrum, “family” clearly fits the bill. The camera constantly focuses on pictures of families that used to be, and contrasts them against the cast’s current struggles to keep their families together. Even though Ringo’s parents are separated, she still believes “family” means “we’ll always be together” – family implies permanence for her, and like with her fate-diary, she is willing to bend reality to match her personal world.
The contrast between Ringo’s childish beliefs and threatening, feverish actions come to a head when she actually collapses with a fever. And then, in an extended dream sequence, we finally learn the truth. Ringo once had a sister named Momoka, but that sister died on Ringo’s birthday. Five years after that, young Ringo overheard a late-night conversation with her parents, where they discussed “pouring their love for Momoka into Ringo” and the cruelty of fate. After that, their family slowly drifted apart, Momoka’s absence hanging like an albatross over any future happiness.
The framing of Ringo’s parents offers a sharp illustration of Ringo’s fractured mindstate. The two of them are presented as stuffed animals, the only markers of her parents that she can now hold on to. Their tragedy plays out like a strange farce, softened by distance but still clearly an overpowering element of Ringo’s psyche. As the memory ends, the scene fills with water, presenting the characters as drowning in an inescapable tide and giving context to Ringo’s undersea bedroom. And in the wake of that conversation, Ringo ended up tying the idea of fate to her family’s survival, and feeling that she must actually become Momoka to bring her parents together.
Much of Penguindrum’s overt plot is explained by this sequence of memories. The nature of the diary, Ringo’s obsession with Tabuki, and her skewed ideas on family – all of them stem from Momoka’s absence, and the ways her parents chose to deal or not deal with their grief. Children often blame themselves for the actions of their parents, and Ringo’s choice to believe she can master fate itself actually seems like an understandable response to a situation where she truly has so little control. “This mission must have a meaning,” she tells herself. “By becoming Momoka, everything precious to me will become eternal.”
“Eternal” is another one of Ikuhara’s favorite words, one that possessed elevated significance throughout Revolutionary Girl Utena. In that show, “something eternal” was one of the goals the duelists sought – an unblemished love, or a youth everlasting, or escape from the leering crowd. Here, Ringo ties it to family, which is a necessarily impermanent institution. But Ikuhara’s heroes are always defined by perfect hopes they cannot realize. Fate is what will bring Ringo’s family together, and so she must become the agent of fate, even if it means giving up on her own identity.
While Ringo works to reclaim the past, Kanba is hounded by the ghosts of his own. After learning his old girlfriend has forgotten him, he meets with the two other members of the Kanba club, in a scene drenched in the horror framing Ikuhara adores. After a relatively mundane conversation conveyed through mostly standard mid-distance shots, the two girls are both shot by Kanba’s pursuer, and the scene’s framing immediately goes wide. We open with an intimidating shot of Kanba shouting into the void, and then the camera turns to scan the scenery, the mechanical backgrounds and ominous PING SEVEN billboard creating a sense of lurking danger.
Those sniper shots also employ another of Ikuhara’s favorite tricks – the black-on-red impact shot to convey extreme violence. It’s a trick he’s used in both Utena and Yurikuma Arashi, a signature move that emphasizes extreme violence in a beautiful way while also creating a sense of ambiguity. Beyond possibly being outright necessary to get away with shots of extreme violence, it also lends these scenes an interpretive, theatrical air, and forces the audience to fill in the gaps of what’s actually happening. Ambiguity can actually heighten the impact of extreme violence (or give it a visual marker which can then be used to indicate the “violence” of less overtly traumatic acts, like Ringo’s memories).
Finally, this scene also features one more of Ikuhara’s visual hallmarks – an emphasis on menacing stairs. Stairs are often central to the recurring shots of Ikuhara’s shows (though this show’s “transformation scene” instead emphasizes the train), and generally contribute to the sense of repetitive rhythm in his stories. But they also tend to imply a kind of winding labyrinth, and it’s that effect that’s most relevant to Kanba’s paranoid tale.
In the end, Ringo’s dreams of her wedding night don’t end in outright sexual assault. Like everything else, these violent dreams are tempered by her childlike perspective; the wedding night doesn’t mean consummation, it means sharing dinner and buying new toothbrushes together. Ringo clings to the past because it’s the only steady thing she has, and the past lives in her through her childlike view of the world. But even if fate truly is a circle, its turning wheel will never bring her what she wants.
This article was made possible by reader support. Thank you all for all that you do.