Mawaru Penguindrum – Episode 18

Mawaru Penguindrum’s eighteenth episode is a singular masterpiece. Focused entirely on Tabuki’s confrontation with the Takakura family, it offers a ferocious articulation of Penguindrum’s central themes, tackling the nature of family, cycles of violence, and hope in a meaningless world in the most desperate terms yet. It’s also one of the show’s most beautiful episodes, courtesy of this episode’s genius director – Shigeyasu Yamauchi.

Yamauchi both storyboarded and directed this episode, his only contribution to the entire Penguindrum series. Like Takeuchi’s vivid ninth episode, episode eighteen is dominated by Yamauchi’s distinctive style. Yamauchi has lent star turns to a variety of productions, but his own baby is the terrific and visually distinctive Casshern Sins, something I’ve covered at length here on the site. Yamauchi’s many stylistic peccadilloes are all in clear attendance here – his consistent use of dramatic, often saturated lighting, his tendency to turn landscapes into jarring, emotive experiences, his extreme closeups that also turn characters into landscapes, his emphasis on background texture, etc. All of these tricks give episode eighteen a unique and powerfully melodramatic identity, perfectly appropriate for an Ikuhara show. But let’s start at the beginning.

Penguindrum #18 opens with a memory of Tabuki as a child, his piano-playing contrasted against images of a birdcage. Already we have several of Penguindrum’s central threads making appearances, from the idea of familial abuse and entrapment to the loud, ostentatious theme-underlying of the cage imagery. Tabuki’s childhood is rendered in beautiful impressionistic paintings, a choice that itself follows in Penguindrum’s general tendency to convey childhoods through the visual style that suits them best. In this case, the impressionist images offer a veneer of idyllicism, but also a sense of personal disconnect and emotional distance. There are no faces in these shots, and from both Masako’s childhood and the show’s general style of background characters, it’s already been made clear that faces are key to identity.

Tabuki’s childhood comes across like a mix of Masako’s and Yuri’s. Like Masako, Tabuki is ruled over by a caretaker who only cares about the chosen people – in this case, instead of strength, his mother values talent. Like Yuri, Tabuki attempts to reshape himself to fit his family’s preferences, only to consistently fall short. When Tabuki realizes his younger brother truly is a piano prodigy, he cripples his own hands, hoping to stop time at a point where his mother loved him. But Tabuki’s ploy fails, and both he and his songbird are sent off to where abandoned children go.

After that vivid intro, we return to the rooftop, where Tabuki reveals he is planning to make the Takakuras pay for killing Momoka. Tabuki’s plot reflects the cyclical nature of violence and abuse on both sides. It is undoubtedly Tabuki’s rejection by his mother that led him to this desperation, and inspired him to use violence in order to seek justice. And it is the violence committed by the Takakuras’ parents that brought them here, forced to pay penance for a crime they didn’t commit. In Penguindrum, the thread of fate is a vicious thing, causing pain to echo down through generations unless it is somehow “paid.”

Yamauchi’s distinctive visual sensibilities lend a powerful sense of drama to this standoff. In contrast with the visually cohesive paintings of the introduction, the rooftop scene is defined by clashes and contradictions. Penguindrum’s flat, full-color character arc is contrasted against backgrounds full of angry paint splashes, and the jumbled bars of the rooftop create a sense of entrapment echoing Tabuki’s childhood bird cage. Dynamic compositions cast the characters as dwarfed by their surroundings, visually emphasizing the sense that our heroes have been overwhelmed.

Tabuki demands that Kanba bring his father to the roof, but his real question seems unrelated to revenge – instead, he says he is “going to find the reason Momoka wished me to live.” The camera hangs on his scarred hand, emphasizing the fact that he believed he was destined to be a forgotten child. When you’re a child, you accept the role your parents choose for you, even if that role is nonexistence. But Momoka disagreed, just like she disagreed for Yuri.

Momoka’s rescue of Tabuki takes place in one of Penguindrum’s most fantastical and evocative settings, the Child Broiler. This nebulous place is where unwanted children go, where they are mashed into one substance and made nothing. The upbeat announcer discussing their fate underlines the mundanity of this fate – this isn’t some cruel, unintentional side effect of society, this is the solution we’ve all accepted. When you have no home, you become nothing. But Momoka disagrees.

Breaking through the walls of the chamber, Momoka proposes a different concept of home and value. Home doesn’t have to be your parents, and family doesn’t have to be your blood. She pleads with Tabuki to “return to the person who needs you. To me.” As shining light fills the chamber, Momoka sacrifices of herself and pleads that Tabuki “live for me.” In Tabuki’s mind, Momoka is hope itself, and certainty – as he directly states as an adult, she was supposed to be the “savior of the world.”

The subway bombing that forms the context for Penguindrum’s narrative reflects Tabuki’s fear and anguish in its own way. In the context of a world where meaning is mercurial, people find themselves desperate for anything to believe in. Tabuki believed in Momoka, and when she was lost, he turned first to despair and then to violence. The subway bombers likely had their own belief to hold onto, something certain in a world with no clear meaning. But their belief prompted terrible violence, and that violence led Tabuki here.

In the end, Kanba is forced to reenact Momoka’s sacrifice, scarring his own hand to save the person he loves. Kanba’s selfless sacrifice finally breaks through to Tabuki, who sees the spirit of Momoka in his actions. It’s not really a happy ending, to think that only seeing someone else suffer could remind Tabuki that there is still hope in this world. But in a world where fate seems to lead all these children to terrible ends, simply being able to give of themselves to help each other still feels like a revolutionary act. Penguindrum’s eighteenth episode ends on a huddled celebration of that sacrifice, and of the families we can find for ourselves. The world will not provide certainty, meaning, or kindness. We have to find it for ourselves, and share it with the people we love.

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