Mawaru Penguindrum – Episode 17

Penguindrum’s seventeenth episode is titled “The Unforgiven,” a meaning which only becomes clear in its final moments. But unlike many of its recent episodes, this episode isn’t really “about” any one specific thing. So far, we’ve spent the show’s second half establishes the diverse and incompatible motivations of this world’s side characters, from the desperate loyalty of Yuri to the rigid persistence of Masako. There are few secrets left in this place, but that doesn’t mean we’re any closer to arriving at solutions. The still enigmatic Sanetoshi seems to understand this, musing idly on how all humans pursue individual ideals of truth to the point of self-sacrifice or destruction. Penguindrum’s human players have all established their truths, and now “the war is about to break out.”

The Takakura siblings don’t know that, though. As this episode begins, they’re enjoying a rare moment of familial joy in the present, sneaking ingredients into Himari’s hospital room and cooking takoyaki. Kanba is happy to believe things will actually improve. Even when Shoma raises the question of whether they should pursue the diary, Kanba pushes back, saying “don’t be stupid. Himari has that medicine.” Kanba consistently urges both of his siblings to “keep smiling,” attempting to preserve their innocence in all manner of ways. His trial is essentially a reverse of Dorian Grey – he wants to keep his portrait of a happy family pristine, while he himself weathers the pain necessary to preserve that image.

But even that overhanging melancholy can’t dampen the mood of this episode’s first segment. Warm and intimate shots help turn Himari’s room into a happy place, and silly character acting is matched by equally silly faces. The dramatic power of animation’s visual fluidity is on clear display in this sequence’s many cartoonish expressions, letting the show briefly hop genres without losing its overall visual coherence. Even the penguins feel appropriate for once, crossing blades with octopuses as the family banters about nothing.

Then the princess arrives. For the first time in quite a while, the Takakura boys receive a reminder of their mission, learning that “if you continue to neglect the Penguindrum, someone in your family will suffer a terrible misfortune.” Once again, the ambiguous relationship between Kanba, Himari, and the person possessing Himari is highlighted, and Kanba himself made that much more mysterious. The Penguindrum seems tied to Kanba himself in some way. The diary is an important symbol, but it might not be the answer.

The rest of this episode feels even more indebted to Revolutionary Girl Utena than Ikuhara’s stuff usually is. The following scene, where we learn Tabuki is also in on Yuri’s plan, contrasts meditations on revenge against the imposing figure of the Tokyo Tower. Giant towers already have a clear significance in Yuri’s life, but the Tokyo Tower isn’t the same thing as her father’s sculpture. A closer reference point would be Utena’s own monument to phallic power, the first of many odd visual echoes.

After leaving the newlyweds, we learn Himari has left the hospital altogether. Meeting with the bunny-children, Kanba and Shoma learn they need to get her back by that night or terrible things will happen. Their mission is a fantastical quest, essentially an interpretation of the Cinderella story. But as we soon learn from Himari, she is essentially being punished for a lie – the same doctor who’s now foretelling her doom was the one who gave her permission to leave. While fables aspire to teaching us lessons that will inspire righteous behavior, the fables of our own lives often end in morals like “children will be punished for their parent’s mistakes,” “no matter what a woman does, she will be condemned as unwomanly for it,” and “we will never arrive at true mutual understanding.” Penguindrum simply packages the morals of our lived realities in the fanfare of our invented stories, thus interrogating our uneasy relationships with those stories in the first place.

The Utena echoes continue in the next major sequence, as Yuri and Momoka square off in the parking lot. Penguindrum’s own signpost-fixated symbology gives way to Utenaisms like the car and roses, before our two gunslingers face off in a war of womanhood. Yuri and Momoka cross incompatible truths, but neither of their truths are particularly happy ones – Yuri peddles a line about Momoka’s innocence really just being ignorance, while Momoka digs in at Yuri’s apparently “old and used up” nature. Their weapons are both malicious societal assumptions used to undermine women’s autonomy. In a world like this, where people like Himari are given consent to leave and then punished because “naughty girls must be punished,” sometimes those are the only weapons we have.

Ultimately, it seems even the patient Tabuki can’t escape his violent destiny. Leading Ringo and Himari to the roof in one more echo of Utena’s imagery, he says he’s about to show them the “meaning of my life.” The heinous, despicable, devastating truth of the world is that lives don’t have meaning – none of us are here for a reason, none of us are indispensable, none of us are eternal. Attempting to fit our lives to meaningful, storybook narratives is a way of fighting back against the senselessness of the world, of applying reason to events like Momoka dying in a horrific act of terrorism. It is natural that we seek such meaning, and probably inevitable. But when the stories we write demand and even canonize the suffering of others, we are simply passing our hurt on to the next person down the line.

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