Penguindrum’s fifteenth episode begins with a young Yuri declaring that “I’ll never be free as long as that tower stands.” In the distance rises a giant, improbable skyscraper in the shape of Michelangelo’s David. It’s a testament to her sculptor father’s power and influence – wherever that tower can see, Yuri remains under his watchful eye. A metaphor made real, standing as the cruel arbitrator of Yuri’s life.
Ominous architecture is a bit of a theme in Ikuhara’s works. In Revolutionary Girl Utena, Ohtori Academy’s centerpiece was a soaring tower as well, though a more traditionally phallic one. That tower emphasized the natural role patriarchy played in Utena’s society, the assumptions that all of the characters in that show fought under. In Yurikuma, sharp angles and impossible geometry made a horror movie of Kureha’s school life. And here in Penguindrum, we have the great David, symbol of Yuri’s tragic childhood.
The giant tower isn’t the only motif here – we also have both her father’s chisel and the consistent helicopter flying past. The helicopter essentially just echoes the tower’s own sense of surveillance, but it also tethers this sequence and its implications to one other key scene. The shot that keeps being repeated here was first employed on the day Momoka died, implying the sense of societal disarray in the wake of the subway bombing. By repeating that visual touchstone here, Penguindrum makes one more link between terrorism on a societal scale and violence within the family unity.
Penguindrum isn’t shy about revealing Yuri’s specific tenor of physical and emotional abuse. Her father states that he can “only love beautiful things,” and thus can’t love Yuri. Yuri is ugly, and “the ugly are loved by no one.” His words reflect both the sins of the parents from the Takakura family story, as well as the theme of abandoned children that we’ve already seen time and again. And when he speaks of how “your mother got uglier by the minute after she gave birth to you,” even Ringo’s story is echoed, a reinterpretation of how Ringo was ultimately blamed for Momoka’s death. We seek for meaning in despair, even if that means condemning others as responsible for our pain. Shapeless, sourceless pain offers no comfort – pain with an actual culprit is more comprehensible, actionable, and manageable.
“Fortunately,” Yuri’s father has an awful solution – letting him remodel her into something beautiful. Hacking away with his chisel, vague scenes of physical violence become an awful ritual, like a plea to some god for salvation. Please save this ugly child from her own nature. Please bless her and make our family whole.
Momoka disagrees with Yuri’s father. Coming up to Yuri in class, she asks if she can model for a picture specifically because she finds Yuri beautiful as she is. The two connect after school in a series of scenes consistently framed from far away, emphasizing how small the two of them are. Even given Momoka’s kindness, the two are ultimately children, all their play taking place in the shadow of the great tower.
In response to Yuri’s reiterating of her father’s ethos, Momoka states that she thinks everything in this world is beautiful. “If God created this world, can there really be anything dirty or ugly in it?” Her words are kindly meant, but also feel like an ambiguous rephrasing of Ringo’s belief in fate. “God created everything, so everything is beautiful” isn’t far off from “fate is real, so even terrible things happen for a reason.” They both shield us from the pain of senselessness, but don’t necessarily help us move on.
Yuri’s father’s response to his daughter making a friend is textbook emotional abuse – “you can’t trust her, she’s just pretending to be nice. The only one you can trust is me.” His words are played against a terrifying mix of imagery, contrasting the chisels that reflect his intimate, implicitly male violence with the helicopter that demonstrates his infinite reach. “Family members never lie,” he dares to say, in a show where we’ve seen again and again how much distrust and violence can flower within a family.
Later on, Sanetoshi is eager to leap on the preposterous nature of this statement, idly wondering “just how many children suffer because they’re bound to their families?” Describing families as either a fantasy or curse, he makes them seem much like fate itself – a fact we can’t avoid, and must either accept as senseless or venerate as destined.
But Momoka seems to possess an escape from this fate. Holding up the diary, she states that “I can transfer onto another fate by chanting a spell from this book and praying to God.” At last, the theoretical meaning of the penguindrum is revealed – it’s a sacred object that can defy and rewrite fate itself. As the two converse on a hill that’s suddenly become latticed with rail lines, Momoka even references the train metaphor herself, saying her ability is “like making a transfer on a subway.” All of the rail lines in Penguindrum have been one-way affairs, reflecting how our own paths often can’t be chosen or changed. But Momoka seems able to turn the wheel.
Of course, changing fate always comes with a price, and a punishment. Just like how Kanba’s denial of Himari’s fate continues to make him suffer, Momoka’s power seems to come at the expense of her own body. Wishing the tower gone, we see Momoka briefly catch fire, becoming the scorpion who burns itself up for the sake of others. And so the story of Momoka and Yuri becomes clear, revealing Yuri’s motives, Momoka’s kindness, and the power of the penguindrum itself.
Momoka’s power ultimately feels like everything else in Penguindrum – a double-edged sword, a weapon that takes at least as much as it gives. For every fate averted, a price paid, and thus suffering is never denied, but merely shifted down the line. But focusing on the extreme moment of Momoka changing the world to help a friend ignores the power she was already able to exhibit without relying on the penguindrum. Families can be horrible, but they don’t have to be our destiny. We can choose the people we love, and perhaps even choose the people we become.
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