And so it ends.
Having followed the cursed Takakura family as they carried out the rambling will of fate, everything comes together on that inescapable train, icon of both terrorist violence and the inescapable nature of destiny. The tracks only ever go one way, and all we can hope to do is leap onboard and be carried where it goes. Kanba hopes to tame the beast that is fate, agreeing to Sanetoshi’s bargain if only to save his sister. Shoma knows Kanba’s route is hopeless, but has no clearer goal. The two stand apart, each desperately hoping to save Himari, each powerless before the will of fate.
As the two square off, we’re returned once again to their first meeting, when the two were both stranded in caged boxes. These boxes reflect Sanetoshi’s understanding of the world, his belief that we are all stuck in such cages. But they also reflect the fundamental struggle of Ikuhara’s works. Where are these boxes? What is the context of this meeting? Unlike sequences like Shoma’s introduction to Himari, Kanba and Shoma’s first meeting lacks the tangibility of scene-setting that gives thematic narratives emotional weight. Ikuhara’s narratives often struggle in their metaphorical pretensions, shifting from a narrative about individuals, to a fable about human nature, to a general philosophical statement. The messiness of his ambitions strains Penguindrum, though the poignancy of details like facing hunger by “eating in your dreams” work to keep this sequence grounded, human, and painful.
Back in the present moment, narrative and metaphor collide as Himari is revealed to be riding the train of fate. She lies on that wonderfully whimsical bed, introduced through billowing red sheets that part like the curtains of a stage. Her current state is a compromise between comfort and sterility – though she lies in the bed her brothers found, she is wreathed by heartbeat monitors and medical paraphernalia, icons of her fated demise. Himari is flatlining, but Kanba desperately argues that “completing this mission will save her.” Sanetoshi grins at this, and emphasizes again the intractability of their destiny. The world is one vast, self-contained ecosystem, where one creature eats another and is then eaten in turn. “In other words, no one can stop this fate.”
And again we return to those two boxes, Kanba and Shoma side by side. This flashback isn’t truly a sign of the story “coming together,” because it’s both a wholly new scene, and also one that seems to exist outside of the show’s established narrative. Like Masako’s impromptu exit, it’s a band-aid, a rope tethering two important loose ends that never naturally fitted together. The story doesn’t actually work without this sequence at all, but the fact that this sequence doesn’t naturally extend from our prior knowledge is a clear failure of storytelling. You can’t wait this long to decide where your story’s first domino stands.
Narrative shakiness aside, the fact that this scene is an emergency stop-gap does mean it’s tailor-fit to its dramatic hole. Facing mutual starvation, Kanba suggests the two of them make a promise, that “whoever survives shall do something in the other’s stead.” Each of them must send a message to someone precious to the other, making sure at least some part of their will lives on. Living in another’s stead is a concept that runs all through Penguindrum, from Ringo’s attempts to emulate Momoka to smaller things, like Double H living the life Himari never could. If fate has decided you are doomed, others can still do their best to carry you with them.
And then Ringo arrives, bringing the whole still-relevant cast together on the train of fate. Justifying Kanba’s loyalty to his message, Sanetoshi states that “people need light. And he has found his light.” Sanetoshi’s words evoke the light provided by the fiery scorpion, but he has twisted the message of that story. The scorpion realized he had lived a selfish life, and became a star in order to live selflessly, and give freely of himself for others. Sanetoshi frames the contrast of his path and Shoma’s denial as “I’ve given him light – what can you give him?” His framing reflects his belief in the mercenary, transactional nature of all things, and his view of fate as something that can be passed on, but is ultimately inescapable. No matter what you do, someone will suffer greatly – all you can hope to do is take what is available, and let the suffering fall on another. This fatalism is reflected in one more flashback, as we see Kanba is the one chosen by the apple, the one who survives.
But Himari has something to say about that. Rising from her deathbed, she initiates one more Survival Strategy – but this time, it’s not the Princess of the Crystal or Momoka waiting, it’s Himari herself. Glass shatters in the crumbling atrium, echoing the moment when Shoma sacrificed of himself to save Himari back in the child broiler. This time it is Himari who accepts the punishment, glass tearing at her dress and skin as she rises up the skeletal stairs. “Living was the punishment” she says, and we’re treated to a wondrous reflection of small familial duties, the tiny pains they suffered at each other’s expense. It is these tiny moments that bring this story home, these reflections of a familial happiness we’ve come to truly believe in. “All the punishments are precious memories,” Himari says, and we believe her.
And so the final truth is revealed. Back in those barred boxes, it was not some great destructive torrent that saved the two boys. They did not crush society to escape, didn’t escape at all, in fact. But though Kanba was the one “chosen,” he was still able to rebel against fate. He split the apple, sharing it with Shoma, saving the boy beside him. Because Shoma was saved, he was able to save Himari, dragging her from the child broiler into his own family. Because Himari was saved, she is able to stand here at the destination of fate, hugging Kanba close to her, drawing him back. The wheel of fate may turn uncharitably towards its end, but these children created their own wheel, saving each other and proving their love in turn.
One person need not wholly consume themselves for another – if the fate is shared, it might yet be borne by all. So Ringo believes as she states the magic words, defiantly declaring “let’s share the fruit of fate.” And she bursts into flames, and Shoma comes to her aid. And Himari’s heart starts once more, as Kanba deteriorates into those shards of glass. The brothers take on the punishment, but their reward is the safety of all those they’ve cherished. And as the credits roll, the end meets the beginning, with the cyclical nature of fate meaning that Shoma and Kanba will get to try again, and find a new path forward.
Mawaru Penguindrum’s conclusion is messy, incomplete, and not wholly satisfying. It gives up on a number of characters and plot threads entirely, and leaves us with enough mysteries to wonder who some other characters ever were. It hangs heavily on scenes that were clearly inserted just to make the story come together at all, and falls into Ikuhara’s usual issue of leaning so far into metaphor and thematic throughline that the human element can feel almost lost altogether. And yet, at the same time, it pulls together so many of the show’s other threads, and cares so deeply about its central characters. It validates Ringo’s dedication and the scorpion’s fire, Shoma’s kindness and the terror of loneliness, Kanba’s strength and the majesty of fate. As the train comes into its station, we are left with the simultaneous understanding that this is a cruel world full of isolated boxes, and yet we can still find warmth together. The Takakura siblings staggering through that glass to each others’ side is a symbol enduring through all the messiness, all the tangential threads and awkward turns. There is so much beauty in this show, and this show sees so much beauty in this world.
This article was made possible by reader support. Thank you all for all that you do.