Mawaru Penguindrum – Episode 19

It’d be hard for any episode to live up to Shigeyasu Yamauchi’s gorgeous interpretation of Tabuki’s rooftop duel with Kanba. That episode isn’t just great for this show, it’s an all-time great episode within anime at large. In light of that, it’s perhaps a bit less disappointing that Penguindrum’s nineteenth episode doesn’t even really try to compete with its predecessor. This is largely an information-expositing and board-moving episode, shifting us past the focus on Tabuki and into a new and somewhat abrupt arc starring Masako Natsume. This is the point where the cracks in Penguindrum’s overall narrative begin to show, but it still gets its job done.

Perhaps the biggest issue with this episode is that it simply gives us too much too easily. Up until now, Penguindrum has been cryptic in a way that never undercut the immediate appeal of its narrative, offering just enough clues to keep overarching mysteries like the nature of the Penguindrum and the goals of Sanetoshi interesting. But here, a variety of the show’s mysteries are given abrupt solutions without any real dramatic flare. Straightforward answers shouldn’t be their own reward; they should be the impactful conclusion to sequences that make them feel meaningful and urgent. We’re getting into the show’s final act, and now answers are just tumbling into our lap.

Our first answer arrives immediately, as Kanba reveals he actually was lying to Tabuki. Recovering at a shabby restaurant, he is greeted by his mother and father, alive and in the flesh. Apparently, the two of them aren’t just alive, but still actively committed to whatever their mission once was, and have left Kanba to “defend the Takakura family” in their place. Concealing the truth about his father seemed to actually come above Himari’s safety for Kanba – but then again, Himari’s safety still came well above his own. And then one of the black-suited men slides money down the bar, confirming that Kanba’s duties and the money used to keep his family safe all stem from the same source, the terrorists set on restoring the “line of fate.”

More answers follow in the next sequence, as we learn that Tabuki has quit both his job and his current life altogether. Another revealing flashback demonstrates that he and Yuri were never actually in love at all. They got together to preserve Momoka’s memory, and to perhaps restore her somehow. Yuri still seemed to have some hope for them, saying that “it’ll just be pretend at first, but eventually we’ll be a real family” – but in the end, it seems like the specter of Momoka actually doomed them. In contrast with someone like Ringo, who has had no trouble integrating into a “fake” family with the Takakuras, Tabuki and Yuri were bound by the specter of Momoka, and couldn’t enjoy the life in front of them.

Penguindrum makes that contrast even more clear with its next scene transition. Yuri is portrayed as lost within a dark and oversized apartment, and her final words are “this room is so cold.” From that shot, we jump to a literal stove burner heating up, and a series of close, bright shots that demonstrate the warmth of the Takakura residence. Not every piece of visual storytelling needs to be the most subtle.

The scene in the Takakura home is important, though. In contrast with this episode’s frustrating glut of purely exposition-focused scenes, this one focuses instead on the immediate, offhand warmth of the siblings and Ringo. In the midst of lofty conspiratorial machinations and thrice-filtered reflections on the nature of truth, sequences like Himari and Kanba lightly jibing each other ground Penguindrum in a clear human context. Ikuhara’s work can turn cold when it fully embraces its metaphorical embellishments, and scenes like this are important to make sure we have a reason to care.

In spite of its overall celebratory tone, the scene ends on Himari expressing clear discomfort here, leading her back into the sterile office of Sanetoshi. Himari doesn’t mince words, immediately arguing “you let me leave the hospital because my illness can’t be cured.” She refuses to be coddled by Sanetoshi – in contrast to her earlier unquestioned acceptance of his returning her gifts, here she pushes back, responding to his “you’ll live” with a flat “you’re lying.”

This scene marks a key change for Himari, a fundamental shift in her position in the narrative. Up until now, we’ve stuck close to the Takakura boys, and thus Himari has been treated by the story much like a princess in a castle. Her dedicated episodes have been wonderful, but she hasn’t gotten a chance to be a truly active player in the narrative. Here, openly admitting that she doesn’t feel like she belongs in her home anymore, she has found her own narrative.

More answers follow in the next sequence, as the doctor’s followup appointment confirms that Masako is directly working for Sanetoshi, with Mario acting as a kind of hostage. While Masako challenges Sanetoshi’s cryptic nonsense, his words seem to echo this show’s vision of personal, conflicting truths. When Masako asks what the spell means, Sanetoshi replies that “a spell is just a spell.” The fact that Himari’s diary is the Penguindrum may seem arbitrary, but it’s likely that anything we instill with meaning could be the Penguindrum. The words have no inherent meaning – we impart them with that ourselves.

Sanetoshi freely gives away a great deal of his own motivation here, reiterating that he wants “to put this world back on track.” Whatever happened during the Subway Sarin incident, it clearly failed to right the course of the world, and Sanetoshi is determined to finish what the Takakura parents started. And beyond that, his further deliberations with the black rabbits reveal that he needs the diary to be destroyed – “I can’t do it myself, and I can’t win with that thing around.” That’s followed by more elaboration of Masako’s disagreement with Himari, and… well, it’s as I said. This episode fast-forwards through half a dozen key reveals, and the results are pretty tepid all around.

The finale has at least one very good idea – pitting Masako and Himari against each other in a battle of the foreheads. Challenging Himari in her own home, Masako declares that “Kanba can’t come back to me because you’re still pretending to be his sister!” Masako relies on a strict definition of family that Penguindrum itself clearly rejects, but these words are still a shock to Himari. Chased out into the rain, a fan overhead finally reminds her that she was a castaway herself, sent to the child broiler as a young girl. But like Tabuki, Himari was chosen and saved – by Shoma, the boy who seems to bear the fruit of fate. Even as reveals pile up, Penguindrum still spins more secrets into its wild thread.

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