After episode twenty-one’s continuous suffering, twenty-two opens with a welcome fragment of levity. Having finally received Himari’s scarfs, Double H decide to come visit her, resulting in some solid comedy and a charming scene between them and Ringo. Himari isn’t home, of course, but Ringo is happy to accept their gift. In the midst of Penguindrum’s heaviest material yet, it’s nice to be reminded that some people in this world can be happy, and that people can still care about each other.
Unfortunately, that’s about all the happiness to be found in this episode. As Shoma returns home, we are reminded that Himari didn’t actually go to her uncle’s house, and that she’s now off collaborating with Kanba. Awkwardly close shots of Shoma and Ringo prevent even this place from evoking its usual sense of intimacy. One of the only shots that pulls back from their faces and limbs exists only to remind us of Himari’s room, now grey and empty. The camera moves from Shoma’s anxious eyes to his trembling hands, emphasizing his tension and total powerlessness.
Kanba isn’t doing much better. Over at his Kiga Group headquarters, he seems to be preparing for another large-scale terrorist action, the second act of his father’s performance. Kanba’s original competence and agency seem entirely subsumed by Sanetoshi’s goals at this point – from the moment Sanetoshi said the medicine wasn’t working, Kanba has ceased to be much of an active character. Back in the doctor’s office, dutch angles elevate the violence of the moment as Kanba outright attacks Sanetoshi. But Sanetoshi evades his grasp, and we’re treated to a shot of Kanba’s hands, again emphasizing his own powerlessness. “Just abide by our curse like a good boy” Sanetoshi says, and Kanba complies. He has very literally inherited the sins of his parents.
Himari is equally powerless to stop her brother. The focus on hands continues as she wraps her arms around him, pleading with him to give up on this quest. If anyone in the audience somehow didn’t get the point of this conversation, the penguins helpfully underline it, with Himari-pengi attempting to seduce Kanba-pengi away from his very serious literature. But at this point, the two are essentially unable to communicate, running on disparate but equally predetermined tracks. As Himari tries to stop him from leaving, we see them framed in the context of Sanetoshi’s globe – a view of the world that’s literally constructed out of spinning and occasionally aligning but irreproachable lines. The circles of Sanetoshi’s globe reflect the truth he wants to believe, that no train or person can escape their destination.
From there, things start to get pretty messy. Himari chases after Kanba, but finds herself once again at the penguin exhibit, the place where her illness first threatened to tear the family apart. She begs god to take her back to that moment, and restore everything that Kanba had lost, and god… seems to comply? Either way, we jump from there to Yuri and Ringo, where we learn Yuri’s attacker was actually her own ex-lover. Tabuki is essentially written out of the story, and Yuri seems to soon follow, the two of them exiting the narrative on an unsatisfying “we just needed to hear the words ‘I love you’ from someone.” From an initially tightly wound thematic/narrative construction, loose threads are starting to spill out of Penguindrum one after another.
This narrative tangle is exemplified by the last act, where Kanba reunites with Masako. Kanba’s violent actions seem suspended between reality and metaphor, as he flips up on a phone app and seems to literally blow up a series of police officers. The metaphor there is clear – after an episode full of characters unable to save each other being consistently aligned with useless, trembling hands, the only effective use of for hands is for instigating violence. The physical reality of this sequence is a lot less clear – is Kanba actually blowing up a bunch of police officers? If so, how is any of what he’s doing physically working? If not, what is actually happening here, and how seriously are we supposed to take it?
Down in the sewers, we receive “answers,” but they’re equally flimsy things. Apparently, Kanba initially abandoned the Natsume clan in order to make sure Masako and Mario would be safe. Once again, this works in a metaphorical sense (“sacrificing yourself for your family” is central to Penguindrum’s many stories), but is completely incoherent in a narrative sense. It’s clear there simply isn’t enough time to set up a convincing backstory here, but the result makes Masako’s whole narrative seem totally unreal. What could Kanba have possibly done to “save” Masako and Mario, and how would it have separated the Natsume clan from the Penguin Group in any meaningful way?
Penguindrum has always ridden heavily on its metaphorical subtext, but this is the point where the narrative train entirely jumps the rails, leaving the metaphorical train to lead the story entirely. Things no longer seem to be happening or connecting in any tangible way, and it’s really just these characters’ emotional links to each other, along with the underlying concept of “challenging fate,” that guides their current actions. Metaphors are obviously a great dramatic tool, but when your story loses its physical grounding, it is difficult to feel like anything has stakes or consequences, or to be invested in how any character moves from Point A to Point B.
Penguindrum’s messiness reaches its apex in the following scene, where Masako is essentially written out of the story without a second thought. Having finally learned that Kanba still does care about her (conflict grounded in character! good!), she decides to sacrifice herself so Kanba can escape. Though her sacrifice is given plenty of dramatic visual embellishment, her exit feels hollow, an unsatisfying and incomplete epilogue for one of Penguindrum’s most mysterious characters. Her reflections on being unable to save Mario only remind us that hey, Mario also had a penguin hat, and wasn’t there supposed to be some sort of story there? Her exit is not a triumph, but a narrative capitulation. This story was juggling too many balls, and at last some have begun to fall.
Still, stories don’t simply end once they make their first mistake. With Kanba having escaped his vaguely constructed conflict, our last shot returns us ten years back, to Shoma trapped in a penguin-mark cage. Penguindrum may be coming to a messy ending, but there are still treasures awaiting us yet. This train will come into its station, no matter what troubles beset it along the way.
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