Mawaru Penguindrun’s sixteenth episode is goofy as hell.
That’s not really unusual for an Ikuhara show. Just like how his dramas juxtapose grounded, universal themes like gender identity and social ostracization with ornate, melodramatic framing, so too does he often mix his serious material and his absurd comedy. Ikuhara does not believe tone must match dramatic intent in the way, say, a director like Hiroshi Nagahama (Mushishi, The Flowers of Evil) might. The real world often splices comedy and tragedy, so why shouldn’t our fabrications do the same? It’s a style that takes some getting used to, but ultimately it’s quite possible to see the comedy as compatible with the drama, or even a way of underlying the fundamental absurdity of the world.
Still, this episode sure is goofy. Episode sixteen offers our first dedicated look at the life of Kanba’s stalker, who we soon learn is named Masako Natsume. Masako is the current heir of the “Natsume clan,” a rich and powerful family who’d grown mighty off the financial might of Masako’s grandfather, Sahei Natsume. As a child, Masako held the letters of her father close, the man who promised that one day “the four of them could live as a family again.” Until then, she was instructed to keep Mario safe in his place.
Masako’s present-day life is all absurd theater, a gilded parody of the ultra rich. Her home estate is elaborate but impersonal, its various interior details feeling more like clutter than beloved ornaments. Outside of her home, sloping shots are framed from extreme angles, designed to emphasize both the enormity of her power and the fact that she’s seemingly dwarfed by it. And when Masako reaches her grandfather’s statue, it’s clear that he himself is the source of this ominous, encroaching power. Her grandfather was a finance giant, but also “a failure as a human being.” And so we return to her childhood, witnessing long days of living in the shadow of the giant.
Nearly every childhood has been presented in a distinct emotional tone in Penguindrum. For Ringo, the childish dreams of undersea monsters and teddy bear parents actually emphasized the cruelty of her memories, and the ways she’d been forced to come to terms with them. For the Takakura siblings, the traumatic events of their childhood were presented in unvarnished fashion, with sequences like their long night at the hotel hitting the harder for their unembellished nature. And for Masako, her childhood is presented as absurdist farce, as she runs through a series of imagined assassinations of her awful grandfather.
The underlying situation here is pretty terrible, but the actual execution of these sequences is wonderful comedy. Masako’s dreams of murder rely on a few core comic principles – continuous escalation, visual absurdism, and comic repetition. In terms of escalation, the episode starts off by presenting one of the most classic and cliche of familial murders, as Masako first poisons her grandfather’s morning tea. From there, things escalate into visual madness, as Masako pulls off tricks like shooting a blowgun dart into her grandfather’s neck and hiding in a basket of mixed fruits with a king cobra. The linchpin of this sequence is the vocal repetition, as her grandfather’s sycophantic subordinate continuously gushes “Mr. President, look out!” in goofy (but surprisingly fluent) English. It’s pretty great comedy all around.
Of course, all of this silliness is merely embellishing material that reflects much of Penguindrum’s core themes. The meaning of family is silently questioned throughout this sequence, most significantly embodied in the figure of Masako’s grandfather. While the bond between Ringo and the Takakura siblings has emphasized the validity of found families, Masako’s unhappy home life reflects the arbitrary nature of natural families. Sahei consistently harps on the importance of the “Natsume Clan,” but his vision of the clan seems divorced from concern for any of the individual people who make it up. The fact that Sahei’s face is consistently covered by a sheet with “Grandfather” written on it emphasizes both his view of family and his role in Masako’s life. Sahei is “Grandfather,” an impersonal icon – unwilling to actually get close to his grandchildren, he never exists as anything more than a vicious ideal.
Kanba makes appearances inconsistently throughout this episode, at one point starting an unintentional fight with Himari, at other times appearing to comfort the young Masako. When Masako states that she might be forced to kill Sahei “even if I were to be cursed for eternity,” it’s Kanba who’s there to reassure her. How the two of them actually met is still a mystery, but it seems that at least in the past, Kanba represented for Masako the hope of found families that Ringo now represents for the Takakuras.
Of course, it’s hard to escape the expectations of the world you’re born into. Episode sixteen makes constant visual and narrative parallels between Masako and her grandfather, even as she plots to end his life. Though she despises him for breaking their family apart, she can’t help following in his footsteps – and even when he dies, the fact that her father doesn’t return is framed as a meaningful curse, and not just a failing of her father. Her greatest fear is realized when even her brother Mario seems possessed by her grandfather’s spirit, and so she moves to break the curse in the most ridiculous way possible.
The episode concludes with Kanba, Masako, and Masako’s father all appearing on that strange ghost train, the place that may well be the destination of fate itself. The doctor states that Kanba and her father “have been chosen” – a loaded term, reflecting the established idea that some people are chosen for glory, while others are condemned to tragedy. But Masako does not join the chosen, even though the doctor extends her an offer and Kanba offers her a glance. Her pride and determination may echo her grandfather’s voice, but she will not be anyone’s pawn any more.
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