Mawaru Penguindrum – Episode 20

Penguindrum’s twentieth episode (directed by talented key animator and Gainax mainstay Akemi Hayashi, who also gave us this terrific Space Dandy episode) centers on a new location and an old memory, at the forbidding Penguin Force Hideout. The hideout is located in a vast, colorless condominium, a structure that seems to underline our collective anonymity. Rows after rows of identical doors promise homes for everyone and no one, infinite potentially wrong paths. The young Shoma is dwarfed by this place, lost in long stairwells and ensconced behind railing bars. This is truly a frozen world.

This condominium is introduced to the sound of the Takakura father’s voice, railing against the injustices of this cold and lonely world. His speech mixes banalities about the world being on the “wrong track” with charged lines that echo a variety of other characters. He speaks of “the accepted and unaccepted, the chosen and unchosen,” echoing the feelings of Himari and Tabuki. He claims this is a world “ruled by those who will never amount to anything,” the signature line of Himari’s doppelganger. He says that in spite of this being a frozen world, “the Flame of Hope is still burning strong,” gesturing towards the burning scorpion. He closes with “this is our survival strategy!”

Though Takakura claims to be seeking a world where “mankind only need true things to survive,” the hodgepodge nature of his speech reflects the impossibility of that goal. Takakura has arrived at many of the same thoughts as Penguindrum’s other characters, and experienced similar hardships, but his survival strategy is incompatible with theirs. As Taneguchi once said, we all fight hard for our own truths, but those truths don’t necessarily align. The introduction to this flashback underlines that point further, emphasizing how the many doors of this place represent infinite possibilities. “It was hard to tell which was real, which was righteous.” Faced with all of these possibilities, Shoma dithers on the path outside.

There is no truth without ambiguity in this world, and Penguindrum’s own thematic ramblings reflect that. As I said in my very first Penguindrum writeup, Ikuhara thrives on ambiguity – a direct moral point is nice, but layering related concepts and letting them create their own reflections is the heart of fiction’s illustrative power. Ambiguities reign over the following conversation between Sanetoshi and Himari, as the two of them walk in circles around the concept of love.

Sanetoshi frames love as an engagement between one who chases and one who is chased. Himari balks at this, expressing sadness that the one who is chased can never turn around, and give their fruit to the chaser. Love is linked to this fruit, which is further linked to kisses and the survival strategy. When Sanetoshi proposes kissing (in a sequence clearly framed as a seduction), Himari responds that “kisses are perishable. If I keep kissing without the fruit, I’ll become empty. Empty people are thrown away.”

The end result is much like Sanetoshi’s earlier conversation in the doctor’s office – a general sense that no truth can be utterly relied on. All of these characters are dancing with a symbology that is itself as fluid as their understanding of it, exchanging kisses for fruit until kisses become fruit, giving of themselves until they are taken by the frozen world. Ikuhara further muddles any possible conclusions by playfully reframing his own motifs. Both the scorpion and the idea of “unchosen people” are echoed in Shoma dividing flammable and non-flammable trash, while his classmate’s laments return us to both “we’re getting punished for the sins of others” and the apple imagery. These concepts are framed as inescapable tenets of the world that will never truly explain themselves – all we can really know are the truths that we and others have chosen to believe.

In contrast with this episode’s ambiguous thematic tendrils, the material at the Penguin Force condominium is grounded and immediate enough to feel truly painful. In the wake of the subway attacks, the Penguin Force becomes the Kiga Group, seller of both apples and Natsume’s strange memory-balls. But Shoma isn’t concerned with any of that. Shoma stands outside, idly playing with an apple and then finding a new friend.

The desaturated colors emphasize the faded nature of this cold, forbidding place. In a tucked-away staircase, a chalk giraffe stands as Himari’s guardian, a reflection of her soul that would eventually find its way to the Takakura home. The chalk images are a heartbreaking reflection of Himari’s nature – though she spurns Shoma’s help and seems to have given up on the world, her art reflects her enduring warmth, her urge to be. Shoma shares his scarf with her, and Himari lets him stick around.

Later on, the two of them find an abandoned kitten. When Shoma questions why someone would leave a kitten in a place like this, Himari replies that “its cuteness was consumed, and it was thrown away.” Himari’s abandonment has led her to see love and affection purely as transactions. Like the fruit of fate, if you give up your love, it is spent, and you will never get more back. If the Takakura father’s truth is a response to the coldness of the world, Himari’s truth is a reflection of her own parents’ coldness towards her. Himari and the kitten Sunny’s names both promise warmth, but if warmth is just fuel waiting to be exhausted, then this truly is a frozen world.

When Sunny is taken, Shoma is forced to reckon with that fact. Walking out of the condominium for the first time, he finds himself in a silent and snow-laden neighborhood. He chases Sunny as long as he can, but he has no hope of changing this place. And Himari’s acceptance of the cruelty of this world, her fundamental belief that this is just the way things are, hurts worse than anything else. Her quiet words are like the cold snow, echoing the awful lessons her parents have taught her. After Sunny leaves, so goes Himari, heading off to the child broiler.

Episode twenty’s final segment is one more of Penguindrum’s great highlights, a passionate denial of this world’s fundamental cruelty. While Takakura’s response to the heartlessness of this world is to speechify and pass the cruelty on, Shoma has a more primal response – “my friend has been taken, and I want them back.” Himari’s hope echoes in his head as he dashes through the cold streets: “we were like a family, and it was fun.” Himari’s life has given her no route to challenge this world, no door worth opening, but Shoma is not so unblessed. The remains of lost children turn to jagged fragments, falling like snow and cutting at Shoma. He reaches Himari, and offers once more to share the fruit of fate. If our truths are fluid, then maybe we can survive this terrible place. We weren’t “like” family, Himari. Family is what you make of it.

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