Mawaru Penguindrum – Episode 13

Penguindrum’s thirteenth episode begins with the Takakura siblings at the hospital, now at the mercy of “Doctor” Sanetoshi. The Penguindrum has been stolen, and the woman who possesses Himari has seemingly run out of power. Only Sanetoshi can save Himari now.


Like last episode, we open with one more repetition of that original speech regarding the nature of fate. Ikuhara loves his visual and textual repetition, and that passion is well-suited to a show centered on fate, where the crimes of one generation cycle back as the punishment of the next. Even Sanetoshi’s comforts are framed in cyclical terms, as he offers salvation with the promise “the world hasn’t stopped turning yet.” It’s clear to Kanba that Sanetoshi knows more than he lets on, but equally clear that Kanba has nowhere else to turn. Sanetoshi offers a fairy tale solution, but like all fairy tales, his wondrous magic comes with a steep price.

This episode’s early scenes are dominated by Ikuharian embellishments, visual metaphors both direct and obscure. Some of these are natural and immediately effective, like the focus on the colored lines dictating the direction of the various hospital wings. Transposed against Shoma’s laments about fate, it’s easy to see that those routes are intended to emphasize how our paths are often predetermined, and you can’t change fate just by wishing for it. The hospital’s mix of clinical white and striking single colors echo the theming of the show’s opening song, and its visual tools are put to clear and effective use.

Mawaru Penguindrum

Other images are more obscure. The apple has been a consistent motif in Penguindrum, and at the start of this episode, it’s linked directly to Sanetoshi’s salvation. Last episode, we saw Shoma’s heart portrayed as something resembling an apple for the first time, linking that image to the “scorpion heart” that embodies sacrificing for the sake of others. It’s easy enough to then connect this to Sanetoshi’s vials as a more artificial cure, but things get messier when those apples reappear in a flashback to three years ago, where they clearly symbolize the three siblings in general.

That ambiguity points to something I mentioned in my first Penguindrum writeup – the fact that you can’t just directly analyze away every single element of an Ikuhara production. Ikuhara loves to throw out vague imagery and charged motifs regardless of the context, first establishing a clear definition for some visual flourish and then deliberately messing with your expectations. His playful attitude towards imagery reflects how his works aren’t just “puzzles to be solved,” which is actually a good thing. It can be frustrating to the bright-eyed media analyst to see a creator deliberately fucking with your ability to draw clear conclusions from their work, but arriving at clear conclusions is not why we write stories. Stories can imbue direct morals with all the complexity of living characters, adding undertones to truths in a way that makes them incomparable to essays or lessons. Simply engaging with themes in the context of fallable human characters accomplishes this, but Ikuhara loves his ostentatious, theatrical flourishes, and so he gives even his underlying imagery ambiguous shades.

Mawaru Penguindrum

Of course, sometimes this show’s imagery is just classic visual storytelling. The suited policemen that meet Shoma at the door offer a fine example of that – clad in colorless grey and rising out of the frame, they tower over Shoma, emphasizing his frailty. The uneaten meal in the living room is another solid example – moments removed from their happy gathering, the isolated, uneaten food emphasizes the abrupt disruption of their home life. This flashback frames the Takakuras as abandoned children, a concept that Ringo knows well.

The hotel the Takakuras are sent to offers a sharp contrast with their colorful and intimate home. The first establishing shot frames it in the same terms as the policemen – looming and colorless, the camera has to lean upwards to capture the full building, a mirror of the slightly downward-tilting shot that always introduces the Takakura home. The hotel’s interiors are equally forbidding, presenting cavernous hallways and faceless background characters.

Mawaru Penguindrum

Waiting in the hotel, the Takakura siblings receive a call from their uncle, and learn their parents are actually suspects in the train bombing thirteen years before. That scene is one of the most visceral of the episode, and seems designed specifically to convey the oddly specific sensation of learning about a terrorist attack. The siblings start off by fretting about unrelated concepts, worries that will no longer be relevant when the truth comes out – and then the phone rings. There’s a protracted sequence of reaction shots from both brothers before Kanba answers the phone, emphasizing the threat that call represents. And then their uncle opens with the classic “turn on the television,” as if the whole world is now attuned to this one moment. That really is how the aftermath to a terrorist attack can play out; distracted by mundane worries, a single phone call can alter the stakes of your entire world. By framing the breakdown of the Takakura family in the terms of a terrorist attack, Penguindrum emphasizes how its focus on terrorism is ultimately one more reflection of the breakdown of the family unit.

From its most intimate and visceral moment, the episode then cuts to its most fanciful, as Sanetoshi introduces us to a girl who appeared sixteen years ago. We’ve got enough clues at this point that it seems obvious to say that girl is Momoka – upon her death sixteen years ago, she somehow ascended to being the same kind of being as Sanetoshi. “Until I met her, I was all alone in the world” Sanetoshi reflects – but although he was alone, he could “hear the world crying out ‘save me'”, and thus could “see the optimal path forward for the world.” These aren’t the words of a humble and charitable man – this kind of rhetoric is basically the rhetoric of terrorism itself. The world needs to be saved from itself, and only he can do it. But Momoka rejects Sanetoshi’s answer, and spurns him entirely. In a scene framed to echo Himari’s visit to Sanetoshi’s world, we see Momoka assume the penguin mantle, becoming an ambiguous god in her own right.

Mawaru Penguindrum

Sanetoshi mentions that he’s talking to two figures, which makes his lecture somewhat ambiguous in a different way. But though this show has numerous pairs (the brothers, the rabbits), it’s likely that his intended pair are the two penguin-bearers – the Himari/Momoka amalgem, and also Mario, the younger brother of Kanba’s tormentor. Kanba’s assailant seems fully invested in the cyclical nature of fate – in fact, in response to a news bulletin reminding viewers to steer away from tragedies like the subway bombing, she calls in to say “light and darkness must exist in equal measure.” We often see themes of such moral balance in fiction, but Penguindrum seems to undercut their standard meaning, by framing the embrace of such a philosophy as a natural response to the cruelty of the world. Just like how we cling to fate to find meaning in catastrophe, we may cling to ideals of balance simply to tolerate the intolerable injustices of the world.

After a full episode of sorrowful exposition, Penguindrum’s thirteenth episode ends on one brighter note: Ringo seems to be in a much better place. She explains what she was trying to do to Tabuki, openly expresses her feelings regarding the Takakuras’ background, and even seems to come to terms with her father moving on to a new family. We often find unhealthy ways to rationalize the world, but it seems Penguindrum believes that even someone as mixed-up as Ringo could eventually find peace.

Mawaru Penguindrum

As a final note, this episode marks the beginning of the show’s second half, and the introduction of a new ending sequence. Penguindrum’s first ending sequence is one of my favorite endings in anime, with its transition in particular always offering a stirring punctuation mark to the episode’s final twist. There are different ways endings can be used effectively, and Penguindrum’s first is perfect for its purpose – like the ominous chanting of Madoka’s ending, its urgent guitar strums strongly imply future danger to come. It’s an ending appropriate for a propulsive mystery, where new revelations are constantly making things worse – but that’s not the only way an ending can be effective. With so many of its narrative cards on the table, Penguindrum could easily conclude within an episode or two at this point, but the new ending points to the path it will actually take forward. Having replaced tense rock music with melancholy piano, what was once urgent is now elegiac, mournful. Penguindrum has established its sorrowful players, and now comes the endless tumbling down.

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