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.
In Penguindrum’s ninth episode, the action pauses for a moment. In keeping with its title, “Frozen World,” the trials of Ringo and Shoma are briefly set aside, and we return back, back, back to the beginning. Back to the first episode of the show, as we experience that fateful day at the aquarium from Himari’s perspective. Back before that day, to Himari’s own childhood. And back before Himari’s childhood, back to our own world, where the terror and violence of 1995 hang high above the events of Mawaru Penguindrum.
Episode eight starts with a crack of thunder, as Ringo drags her creepy self up from beneath the floorboards. Framed in jolts of lightning and hideous shadows, Ringo’s attempted consummation is anything but romantic – and of course, that’s the only way it could work. By framing Ringo’s actions as a horror movie, Penguindrum both clearly demonstrates that it doesn’t agree with her actions, and also somewhat stylizes and thus softens the dramatic impact of Ringo actually trying to rape someone.
Ikuhara just can’t escape the stage. All of his shows are heightened and ornamented, full of elaborate framing and moments where you’re not sure if what you’re seeing is real, imagined, or somewhere in between. Characters are lit by spotlights and accompanied by gusts of roses, treading through shimmering worlds of elaborate costume and ghastly betrayals. His stars live between the stage and the stands, often directly acknowledging the tenuous nature of their performance. The spotlight is cruel in its ephemeral gaze.
There’s a strange, uncomfortable disconnect at the heart of Ringo’s mission. Of course, you don’t really need to dig very far to find her actions uncomfortable – even within this episode’s first scene, what has up until now “confined” itself to mere obsessive stalking seems to take an even darker turn. Ringo murmurs breathily about “wedding night” and “our first night together” as the camera trawls across her blue-toned room, the undersea framing echoing both Himari’s room and the general visual language of “fate.” Given their current relationship and her past actions, it seems like Ringo is overtly fantasizing about sexually assaulting Tabuki. But Ringo’s feelings are even more tangled than that.
Nine years ago, a typhoon raged through Japan just as Himari was coming down with a terrible fever. With no one to call for help, the Takakura siblings’ mother panicked over what they might do, before their father declared he’d take Himari to the hospital himself. Rushing out the door, he was pursued by both his sons, though only Kanba manages to follow him. And so Kanba raced out into the street, physically chasing his father at the onset of a pursuit that would last him all his life.
It’s time for a date! Ringo’s ever-demanding diary has upped the ante once again, and so this episode, she’s planning to take Tabuki out for a birdwatching expedition. As the episode opens, we see fate is in the air, represented through Ringo’s happy shoujo stars. Shoma is surprised merely by Ringo’s presence in his house, as he is the typical teenage protagonist – but Kanba has much bigger plans, and so he tasks his brother with tailing Ringo on her journey.
Today is Curry Day! That most inclusive and all-purpose of meals, a general dish that can be suited to all palettes, perfect for enjoyment with friends and family. As Penguindrum #3 opens, we hear Ringo’s happy memories of curry with her parents, as her room is framed like some underwater treasure chamber. The Takakura siblings don’t have much, but they have each other – their family is happy, even if its fate is unclear. Ringo is very sure of her fate, but it seems like all she wants is a happy family.
Penguindrum’s second episode is a much easier twenty minutes than the first. Not only is it more of a fun, propulsive adventure than a tragic drama, it’s also just much less dense, more or less sticking to one straightforward narrative. The brothers must find the Penguindrum, and the Penguindrum is in the possession of Ringo Oginome… probably. And so they head off, tailing Ringo (a girl whose name is literally “apple”) as she goes about her fairly unusual day.
So. Penguindrum. One of the thorniest, richest anime of recent years, a show that draws on classic tales and modern traumas to craft a story full of weird textural inferences and strangely poignant moments. Penguindrum is many things, but before anything else, it is a clear reflection of the style of Kunihiko Ikuhara. Ikuhara’s only directed three original anime over the past twenty years, and in spite of that, he is one of the most lauded and influential creators in the medium. He’s also as close as a medium as collaborative as anime can get to an auteur – famously difficult to work with, his shows share a common identity that mark them as indelibly his (even when they’re lifted by contributions from his often brilliant collaborators). Penguindrum exhibits all of his core qualities, so before I get into this show specifically, let’s talk a bit about what makes Ikuhara tick.