Shoma awakes in Penguindrum’s tenth episode, and seems not much worse for wear. In fact, Ringo seems far more changed by Shoma’s accident than Shoma himself – standing outside in the hallway, she seems legitimately concerned for Shoma for perhaps the first time. Now, with the diary torn in half, Ringo’s own mission seems somehow less important than the health of someone she can actually call a friend. The two have aired all their baggage now, and as Ringo listens outside, she learns Shoma doesn’t even blame her for the accident. For once, it seems like a tragedy might actually bring Penguindrum’s characters closer together.
Of course, things are never that easy. Approaching familial warmth always involves a difficult negotiation of terms in Penguindrum, even as the characters cling to familial rituals. Himari might as well stand in for family itself in this episode’s early scenes, reaching out to both Ringo and Kanba in her attempts to bring the group together. Her presence acts as a counterpoint to the hospital’s oddly mechanical, labyrinthian design. A real hospital wouldn’t have recovery room ceilings stuffed with pipes like this, but it’s perfectly appropriate for the simultaneously sterile and circuitous world Penguindrum is attempting to create. These characters are prisoners in a maze, and even if Ringo is no longer denying their passage, the world itself is a clear antagonist.
But the world isn’t the only antagonist here. After Shoma finds himself face down in food once again, Kanba and Ringo are presented with a ransom note – give up the second half of the diary or Shoma dies. Ringo again demonstrates her change of heart here, hesitating not a moment before offering up the diary for Shoma’s sake. The combination of revealing her true feelings to Shoma and then seeing him sacrifice himself for her has clearly shifted her priorities, and made her into a legitimately sympathetic figure for perhaps the first time. Ringo is sad and misguided, but she’s not a monster; she feels guilt over what she’s done, and is willing to give up on a goal she’s committed so much to for the sake of the boy who stood by her.
Ringo’s change of heart is matched by Kanba’s, as he urges her to keep the diary safe. Considering Kanba was suggesting Shoma should take the diary by force just two episodes ago, it’s clear Kanba’s feelings have also somewhat shifted. Putting Shoma in danger has changed the stakes of the conflict for both of these characters; tragedy is what initially drove them to their violent extremes, but here, potential tragedy is also causing them to pull together as a makeshift family. Through their actions, fated tragedy seems less like an inevitability than a conscious decision: misfortune will fall on all of us, but how we respond to that certainty is still in our hands.
That’s not to say that our fate is necessarily in our hands, of course. This episode’s second half is dominated by the woman who has taken Shoma hostage, and who seems connected to Kanba in some mysterious way. Himari’s extended conversation with Kanba offers some context for her resentment – though Kanba cannot think of a single gift he enjoyed receiving from a woman, he has a long list of gifts he dislikes. And his spurned gifts are all fed back to him, as he trudges down one more Ikuharan staircase into his own memories.
Kanba’s battle with the mysterious woman is presented as off-kilter and alienating, all dutch angles and stark long shots. Their first confrontation on the roof ends at a mysterious music box, an old-fashioned toy that signals a shift from the already fanciful world of the hospital to a fantastical world of Kanba’s memories and his accuser’s regrets.
We’ve clearly left the station as Kanba awakes, now trapped within the bars and penguin icons of Penguindrum’s larger symbolic vocabulary, From the New World warbling over the hospital speakers. Like in the previous episode, journeys into these characters’ emotional states don’t really play by the rules of reality – obviously Kanba’s opponent couldn’t have taken over the entire hospital, but his story isn’t really taking place in the real world. Instead, his journey is intended to combine Ikuhara’s traditional emphasis on stairs as the passage to emotional revelation with the tangled complexity of a labyrinth, something that’s even given a direct nod by the villain’s reference to “Ariadne’s red thread” (Ariadne being the woman who gave Theseus a string to guide him through the Minotaur’s labyrinth).
Kanba’s adventure is a more overtly fanciful digression than most of Penguindrum’s prior flourishes, but it’s still largely a realization of existing ideas. Ringo already lives largely in fantasy and memory – she can’t deal with the world as it is, and so she substitutes softened spectacle for ugly specifics. In this sequence, Kanba is instead being dragged into another person’s memories, memories she is certain they actually share. Styling herself as Ariadne implies she sees Kanba’s current denial as being trapped in the maze, with her unknown truth offering the only escape. Like how Kanba’s retreat from his family is ultimately intended to ensure they stay together, this villain is antagonizing Kanba “for his own good.”
But this episode offers no real answers, outside of the fact that Kanba’s pursuer apparently wants him for herself. Instead, the only piece of finality here comes from Ringo, when she willingly drops her notebook off the building without any promise of recompense. Ringo has at last assumed a hero’s mantle here, leaping from being willing to drug Tabuki to have her way with him to sacrificing her most precious possession to save Shoma’s life. We are all labyrinths of conflicting desires, capable of great violence or great charity. We all contain multitudes.
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