In Penguindrum’s ninth episode, the action pauses for a moment. In keeping with its title, “Frozen World,” the trials of Ringo and Shoma are briefly set aside, and we return back, back, back to the beginning. Back to the first episode of the show, as we experience that fateful day at the aquarium from Himari’s perspective. Back before that day, to Himari’s own childhood. And back before Himari’s childhood, back to our own world, where the terror and violence of 1995 hang high above the events of Mawaru Penguindrum.
A tone of dreamlike unease is set from this episode’s first moments, as the show’s premiere is replayed with strange, added characters. As Shoma and Kanba play out their familiar parts, Himari is distracted by the penguins, and eventually slips after one into a downward-sliding elevator.
The elevator, like the stairs, are a favorite of Ikuhara (though this episode in large part belongs to Nobuyuki Takeuchi, an Ikuhara collaborator/SHAFT mainstay). Both of them tend to signify separation from the conventional world, and ascension into some place defined by conflict, emotion, or the underlying rules that govern our conventional action. The elevator, and the downward-moving elevator in particular, was given a very specific meaning by Utena’s Black Rose Arc. In that arc, all of the duelists Utena would eventually face rode the elevator downwards, and through doing so ended up first acknowledging their subconscious desires and then becoming an instrument of them. The elevator is the path to visiting our own oldest, darkest, most bitter and fearful selves.
But at first, the destination of Himari’s fate seems vague and unclear. After the penguin moves beyond the traditional floors, the elevator continues downward, arriving at the impossible sub-floor 61 and then opening to reveal a bright, sunny day. Himari’s journey obeys only the logic of dreams, and like our dreams, it is marked by strange touchstones both familiar and unfamiliar. A monument in the grass lists out Ghandi’s Seven Social Sins, perhaps echoing the fact that pursuing fate without sacrifice is a fool’s game. Three statues stand on small pillars – a boy hiding the oft-referenced apple, a girl reaching out for it, and a lonely chair beside them. And in the distance, the library that Himari has often frequented, here stranded sixty-one floors beneath the bones of the aquarium.
The storyboarding of this sequence elevates what might seem incoherent into the beautifully surreal. Himari is framed through shots that emphasize the strange geometric patterns of the world around her, creating lovely symmetries and stark single moments. It seems as if Himari belongs in this place, and as she takes her usual place in the library, the audience is carried along. This entire sequence seems dedicated to evoking the unique tenor of dream logic – events don’t follow each other in a pattern resembling the real world, but somehow every action seems like a logical extension of the prior moment.
Reaching the front of the line, Himari finds she actually does have books to return. Himari’s taste in literature is diverse; her returns range from Sputnik Weirdo (a clear play on Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, which emphasizes the difficulty of conforming in society instead of chasing your dreams), Christine (by “Stephen Queen,” a simple switch of the killer-car Stephen King book of the same name), and a self-help book. And then she asks for a book which the librarian cannot find for her – Super Frog Saves Tokyo.
Super Frog Saves Tokyo is not truly a book, but it does exist. It’s one of a collection of six short stories that Haruki Murakami wrote in vague connection to the 1995 Kobe earthquake – this one ran in GQ, and is actually still available online. In this story, the loan collector Katagiri is visited by the mysterious Frog, a six foot frog who tells him the two of them must prevent a terrible earthquake. Beneath the bowels of Tokyo lies the massive Worm, a creature “the size of a commuter train” who essentially draws in all the tremors and anger of the world above, and releases it as a hateful earthquake. Tens of thousands will die if they do not complete their task – as Frog explains, the damage to commuter lines alone will cause untold tragedy.
It is impossible, at this point, to avoid the larger connections that Penguindrum has been steadily drawing. The constant train motifs, the themes of fate and isolation, the breakdown of the family. The recurring “95,” and this final emphasis on Frog and his heroic mission. Even the date of Frog’s prophesied earthquake holds significance – February 18th, 1995. That date falls just a month and a day after the Kobe earthquake – and a month and two days before the Tokyo subway sarin attack.
The subway terrorist attack, perpetrated by a cult whose leader promised to “take in the sins of the world,” was a watershed moment in Japanese society. In a country renowned for its low crime rates, it was a terrifying upset prompting larger social reconsidering. Haruki Murakami, already marked as a figure of clear import in Penguindrum, would ultimately release a book of interviews concerning the attack, which emphasized the sense of societal isolation that might drive people to join such an organization. Frog’s companion Katagiri comes across as someone who very well might have joined such a group, if not confronted with an unexpected friend like Frog. Left without companions in a society that has no ultimate reward for him, he questions why Frog chooses him as an ally, until Frog says that it is precisely “for people like you that I must save Tokyo.”
Even without more context, the parallels to Penguindrum itself seem clear; all of Penguindrum’s heroes struggle against isolation and the breakdown of their traditional family units, and all of them see “fate” as something that must be conquered or struggled against. The way of the world trends towards isolation, and it is only through our own effort that we bridge those gaps. Though we might want to consider an event like the sarin attacks a freak accident, like Murakami, Ikuhara seems intent on demonstrating that a society which does not champion connection will always lead towards isolation.
Of course, none of that is apparent in the immediate text of Penguindrum’s ninth episode. At only five minutes in, we’ve already hit a threshold of obscure imagery and extra-textual references that seem almost designed to overwhelm the viewer. And in truth, I don’t think there’s need for an “almost” there. As I mentioned (warned?) at the start of my first writeup, Ikuhara intentionally prefers to layer his symbolism so thick that it essentially becomes more of a tonal affectation than a series of discrete problems to solve. Ikuhara doesn’t want his stories to be puzzles with single correct solutions, and this preference has clear merit. When a story is marked by provocative linked concepts but also ambiguous, wandering edges, the viewer is forced to personally engage with the material being presented. We can only resolve his stories by imparting some of our own thoughts and feelings, and through doing so create both a conversation and a very personal experience.
The winding halls of the library match the complex, circuitous references of Himari’s titles. As Himari searches for her desired book, disorienting shots frame the library as closing in on her, walls growing ever tighter as she follows her pied penguin piper. A striking image of birds in flight heralds her entrance into a strange subsection of the library, where Himari’s journey is guided by subway markers through a labyrinth of stairs. She passes by many adventures of Super Frog, but can’t quite find her own story. Contrasting the sad subtext of Super Frog against the scale of this library, a message becomes clear – in a society defined by isolation, all of us need a Super Frog to give us meaning.
And then, a stranger appears. Announcing himself with the strange line “isn’t it electrifying?”, Sanetoshi is heralded by flowing pink hair and uneasy harpsichord. He names their strange dreamscape the “Hole in the Sky” Annex, and tells Himari that as the librarian of this place, “now that you have come, I promise to find the book you desire.” The phrasing is strangely affected, more like he’s confirming a wish or contract than helping a customer – and as they walk, that feeling only grows. Sanetoshi explains that “only chosen guests are allowed inside. You’re a very special person chosen by fate.” But in a cavernous, empty chamber defined by bars and negative space, that doesn’t necessarily sound like a good thing.
The first book Sanetoshi extracts has a new title, “Super Frog Saves H-Trio.” As he explores the contents (with both himself and Himari stranded in that inescapable stage light), the episode at last answers a question, instead of just raising new ones. Apparently, Himari was once close friends with those two idols on the subway signs – in fact, the three of them initially wanted to become idols together. Their first “destiny” was to all become stars, shining in unison under the lights.
As the flashbacks continue, the idea of fate is challenged, at least as Ringo understands it. Himari lashes out at her mother for not getting the correct, “fated” ribbon for her audition – but when Himari is almost punished for this selfishness, it is her mother who protects her. And when Himari later seeks punishment from her friends for this transgression, they too refuse to abandon her – instead, they only seem worried about her mother, and completely forget about their idol dreams. Fate as something that must be pursued at the expense of all else seems incredibly flimsy in these flashbacks; instead, the power of family and love triumphs again and again.
Perhaps it is because her family and friends were so kind to her that Himari ultimately does not begrudge fate’s cruel turns. Confronted with the end of her dream and the reality of her friends’ success, Himari tells Sanetoshi that she can honestly cheer for them, and that it’s “perhaps it’s because they were my true friends back then.” It is unclear whether Sanetoshi is impressed or disappointed with this answer, but either way, he at last withdraws the penguin crown. And so Himari becomes the bride of fate.
The conclusion to this episode is a gorgeous descent, as Himari assumes the penguin gown and slips back into her present world. Lifted by a beautiful song and stark imagery, it once again raises new questions, introducing a “child broiler” and a fated love. A threading of mystery, charged imagery, and aesthetic wonder, it’s a fair summation of the magic Ikuhara creates, the music he spins of theater and sad children and love. Himari’s dream seems to have offered an answer to the series itself; in the face of cruel fortune, her salvation comes from the love of others expressed through the grace of her current, infinitely charitable feelings. It is no wonder this show can’t truly take place from Himari’s perspective. She is stronger than all of them.
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