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.
After the elegiac and atmospheric frozen world of episode twenty, Penguindrum’s twenty-first episode sees the show’s narrative shifting into high gear. The episode opens with Ringo being confronted by a tabloid journalist, who claims he has an important scoop regarding the Takakura family. Ringo pushes this man away, but his fundamental presence implies that the Takakuras’ fragile equilibrium is about to fall apart. Times have been desperate before, but the siblings have always had their home and each other to rely on. Now it seems like even that sanctuary may be crumbling down.
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.
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.