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.
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.
Penguindrum’s seventeenth episode is titled “The Unforgiven,” a meaning which only becomes clear in its final moments. But unlike many of its recent episodes, this episode isn’t really “about” any one specific thing. So far, we’ve spent the show’s second half establishes the diverse and incompatible motivations of this world’s side characters, from the desperate loyalty of Yuri to the rigid persistence of Masako. There are few secrets left in this place, but that doesn’t mean we’re any closer to arriving at solutions. The still enigmatic Sanetoshi seems to understand this, musing idly on how all humans pursue individual ideals of truth to the point of self-sacrifice or destruction. Penguindrum’s human players have all established their truths, and now “the war is about to break out.”
Mawaru Penguindrun’s sixteenth episode is goofy as hell.
That’s not really unusual for an Ikuhara show. Just like how his dramas juxtapose grounded, universal themes like gender identity and social ostracization with ornate, melodramatic framing, so too does he often mix his serious material and his absurd comedy. Ikuhara does not believe tone must match dramatic intent in the way, say, a director like Hiroshi Nagahama (Mushishi, The Flowers of Evil) might. The real world often splices comedy and tragedy, so why shouldn’t our fabrications do the same? It’s a style that takes some getting used to, but ultimately it’s quite possible to see the comedy as compatible with the drama, or even a way of underlying the fundamental absurdity of the world.
Penguindrum’s fifteenth episode begins with a young Yuri declaring that “I’ll never be free as long as that tower stands.” In the distance rises a giant, improbable skyscraper in the shape of Michelangelo’s David. It’s a testament to her sculptor father’s power and influence – wherever that tower can see, Yuri remains under his watchful eye. A metaphor made real, standing as the cruel arbitrator of Yuri’s life.
Mawaru Penguindrum’s fourteenth episode has sex on the brain. After a cold open revealing the last of Yuri’s performances, we cut to Yuri and her costar in a private moment, where we learn that the hero of Yuri’s play is actually a heroine. Their sexuality is emphasized here to the point of performance, and their words feel like theater as well – Yuri’s partner seems to feel no embarrassment tossing off lines like “you can only share this feeling with another woman.” Happy to play the role of callous seductress, Yuri plainly states that “I’ve grown tired of you,” and abandons her lover. And after we hear a strange hint about Yuri’s “secret,” she drives off, leaving her paramour behind.
Penguindrum’s thirteenth episode begins with the Takakura siblings at the hospital, now at the mercy of “Doctor” Sanetoshi. The Penguindrum has been stolen, and the woman who possesses Himari has seemingly run out of power. Only Sanetoshi can save Himari now.
Penguindrum’s twelfth episode begins with a familiar refrain, as we hear Shoma’s bitter speech on fate revisited in Kanba’s voice. But this time, it’s tied to the hospital, and the mysterious man known only as Sanetoshi. A clear set of new symbols mark the occasion – two black rabbits with piercing red eyes, and an apple with a bullet sticker. Sanetoshi places a picture frame on the doctor’s desk, and we see it’s of some expedition to the arctic, marked with the familiar penguin logo. One man in particular is familiar to us – sharing a unique set of angular, unfriendly eyes, he’s almost certainly Kanba’s father.
The contradictory pull of fate guides all actions in Penguindrum’s fatalistic eleventh episode. The theme is established quickly here, as Kanba heads to the estate of the red-haired woman in pursuit of the diary. Caught in the middle of painting Kanba’s portrait, his tormentor talks of how “the canvas doesn’t lie,” and that the Kanba she paints is more honest and true than the untrustworthy Kanba of the real world. Kanba’s current nature is capricious and mercenary, but by capturing him in painting, this woman can maintain the love she once felt for him like a perversion of Dorian Grey. While Momoka’s perfection is assured because of her absence, Kanba’s current presence undercuts his meaning for this woman, and thus she creates her own version. An object of adoration’s “true form” is the form which is most meaningful to us.
Shoma awakes in Penguindrum’s tenth episode, and seems not much worse for wear. In fact, Ringo seems far more changed by Shoma’s accident than Shoma himself – standing outside in the hallway, she seems legitimately concerned for Shoma for perhaps the first time. Now, with the diary torn in half, Ringo’s own mission seems somehow less important than the health of someone she can actually call a friend. The two have aired all their baggage now, and as Ringo listens outside, she learns Shoma doesn’t even blame her for the accident. For once, it seems like a tragedy might actually bring Penguindrum’s characters closer together.