Ikuhara just can’t escape the stage. All of his shows are heightened and ornamented, full of elaborate framing and moments where you’re not sure if what you’re seeing is real, imagined, or somewhere in between. Characters are lit by spotlights and accompanied by gusts of roses, treading through shimmering worlds of elaborate costume and ghastly betrayals. His stars live between the stage and the stands, often directly acknowledging the tenuous nature of their performance. The spotlight is cruel in its ephemeral gaze.
In Penguindrum, Ringo in particular is almost a living embodiment of the stage. The story she is telling is wholly artificial – instead of living a conventional everyday life, she is attempting to match the events of her life to a preexisting script. Ringo swoons over concepts like fate and destiny, ideas lifted from theatrical fairy tales. When she encounters hardships, they are framed as either intrusions to her narrative or antagonists designed to accompany it. And the relationship that guides her life is entirely unreal.
This episode’s first scene emphasizes that unreality, as Ringo and Shoma bicker beneath the floor of Tabuki’s house. Like with episode four, there’s a clear contrast drawn between Ringo’s heightened and totally disconnected view of her relationship with Tabuki and her grounded, unglamorous relationship with Shoma. The “real Ringo” is an insecure and extremely creepy girl. Escaping into fantasy has only left her real life all the poorer.
But while episode four used theatrical framing mainly to create comic contrast in Ringo’s adventures, this episode directly engages with theater as an extension of reality. Tabuki invites Ringo to an actual theater this time, and there, we learn that Ringo’s romantic adversary is a real life actress.
The framing of Yuri here is intentionally set up to mirror Ringo’s fantasies. It was initially one of Yuri’s posters that prompted the fantasies of episode four, and here, Yuri’s performance returns the favor, adopting the visual style and even language of Ringo’s world. Yuri’s song is called “The Tragedy of M,” echoing Ringo’s mission, and her song directly challenges the whims of fate. The characters are presented just short of how they appear in Ringo’s fantasies; all long lashes and glimmering eyes, Yuri’s play is able to bring Ringo’s fiction to reality.
The ambiguity of this lifting of Ringo’s fantasies strikes at the heart of why Ikuhara likely finds theater so compelling. By framing theater as reality and reality as theater, Ikuhara’s stories muddle the line between the artificial or theatrical and the real. It’s a trick that’s also often used in the Monogatari series, and it serves at least some of the same purposes here. By creating this sense of ambiguity in what is reality and what is fiction, the show emphasizes the ways we individually interpret reality, and create fictions of the world itself.
Ringo’s adventures in episode four (and her overall need to follow a strict script in her actions) are an extreme version of this behavior, but it’s something common to human nature in general. Fiction is often how we parse the world – we compare real-world events to classic stories, and try to construct satisfying narratives of our own lives. Our desire to make sense of our lives even echoes Ringo’s obsession with fate – the idea that everything which happens has a purpose aligns nicely with the desire to make a coherent narrative out of our incoherent lives.
We all play parts in our own lives, and the fictions we create often simplify the roles others are allowed to play. While Ringo desperately seeks to control the fiction of her life, Yuri’s mastery of this skill seems effortless. In the scene following Yuri’s play, we see that Yuri actually brings the stage magic with her – the same shimmering lights and billowing roses that defined her performance accompany her to their dinner date as well. Though Ringo grumbles over the cheesiness of the theater, and thinks uncharitably of Yuri’s “outrageously black heart,” the fact of the matter is that Yuri is simply much better than Ringo at exactly what Ringo wants to do – managing the stagecraft of her own life. The final shot of this scene emphasizes the difference between them, as Ringo’s childishness is mirrored through the glass of juice she must raise to the others’ sparkling wine.
Of course, Yuri is not entirely blameless here. Her performance is excellent, but she can’t help exulting in her victory over Ringo. Her “I convinced Tabuki to invite you” carries a double edge of poison – not only does it imply Tabuki didn’t actually care about bringing Ringo to the theater, but it also implies Yuri has so much control over Tabuki that she could convince him otherwise. Inviting Ringo to an event the next week, she casually tells Ringo to “bring your boyfriend,” even though she knows the truth of Ringo’s feelings. Yuri may not be the evil witch Ringo thinks of her, but she definitely has a crueler side.
Yuri is ascendant in the next scene, where her mastery of the theater bleeds entirely over into the real world. The setting of the party matches the ornamentation of the stage – all ornate stairs and stage lights, it presents Yuri as the mirror of the fictional Marie. Yuri and Tabuki are framed in a spotlight against the crowd, and as Yuri announces her victory over Ringo, her old theater companion urges the audience to provide a round of applause. Ringo may aspire to theater, but Yuri commands the stage with her every thought and motion. Life may not match our idealized storybook hopes, but life is a theater just the same.
Defeated on the princess’s stage, this episode’s last act sees Ringo adopting a different costume – that of mad scientist. In a series of scenes both disturbing and ridiculous, Ringo first tries to make a love potion with Shoma, and then decides her last option is to forcibly bear Tabuki’s child. These are horrible and absurd acts, and the camera knows it – framed through burbling chemicals and jolts of lightning, Ringo’s actions adopt a theater of Frankenstein, emphasizing a cartoonish style of overt villainy. Ringo’s desperation is turning her into a monster; while her thoughts are still framed in the theater she wants to embody, the world she lives in refuses to play along. It is an unfortunate thing to play the villain in your own life.
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