Note: There is absolutely no way I can talk about this anime without spoiling something, so please don’t read the following post until after you’ve completed Penguindrum. There are so many spoilers after the cut that I can’t even count them. Also, I talk about the end of Revolutionary Girl Utena, so if you don’t want to know about the conclusion of that, you’d better skip the last couple paragraphs. You’ve been warned, but trust me, you’ll want to watch this anyway.
It’s extremely hard to focus on one thing at a time when you’re talking about Mawaru Penguindrum. It’s about family. Fate. Destiny. Love. Expectations. Terrorism. Idol groups. Brothers. Sisters. The relationships between them. Crazy stalkers. Murder. Child boilers. Apples. Biblical stories. Fables. Punishment. Life. And, yes, even penguins.
The synopses that can be found around the internet, and even on the back of the DVD box really are misleading. It’s not about aliens. It’s about a family. The story is told in a way that’s hard to comprehend at first. It starts at one point in time and then is told through a series of flashbacks, indicated and spelled out for the viewer as train stops. We’re really all on the ride of “the train of destiny,” and if you don’t know why the number 95 is in a circle in the opening credits, don’t worry. The show explains it. You have to wait 12 episodes for it, but it really does wrap everything up in a nice little package…eventually. However, to get there, you have to go through six billion twists and turns, with your heart breaking for these characters every step of the way.
Kanba, Shoma and Himari are brothers and sister who live by themselves in a little house. Himari has some kind of disease where she had to be pulled out of school and is in the hospital half the time. The other half the time, she’s fine, acting like absolutely nothing is wrong with her. She asks her brothers to take her to the aquarium like they did when they were younger, and here’s where the trouble starts. After picking out a penguin hat for a present, Himari dies. Seriously, in the very first episode, the girl drops dead. When Kanba and Shoma are in the hospital, though, just like Frosty the Snowman, this “magic hat” brings her back to life, where she is possessed by someone who says the two of them need to find an object called the penguindrum to keep her alive. And it’s true; if Kan and Sho haven’t made any progress in finding it in a couple days, Himari stops breathing. It’s a terrible cycle. Nobody really knows what this penguindrum is, or how to find it, and the only clue they have is a girl named Ringo.
That’s the basic premise, but the show goes sixty thousand ways to Sunday from there. Ringo has a diary that tells the future. The viewer is made to think that it’s HER future, but really, it’s the diary of her sister who died on the day Ringo was born in a terrorist attack where this group called Penguinforce blew up some subway cars. This event, as well as Ringo’s sister Momoka, herself, transforms the destiny of every major character.
Every single visual in this show has a double meaning. You can watch each scene at least three times and find something new in every single viewing. There are video screens on the train cars that show two girls with different messages that relate to the plot of each individual episode. There are three penguins that follow around Kan, Sho and Himari that directly relate to each person. If Himari dies, #3 fades away. #1 has a band-aid on his cheek, and you don’t find out exactly how that relates to Kan until the very end of the series. #2 is always killing bugs, much like Sho tries to protect everyone. The three penguins watch out for each other, just like the three siblings do.
My favorite character has to be Ringo, though. At first, you think she’s just an insane chick trying to live out her fantasies of marrying her sister’s childhood friend, Tabuki, in any way possible. I mean, bitch sleeps under his house and listens to him watching television shows about birds to get her rocks off. She makes a creepy frog lay eggs on Sho’s back so she can try to make a love potion to force Tabuki to fall in love with her. Then, you find out that the fantasies aren’t even Ringo’s own…they are diary entries her sister wrote. Some of the stuff in the diary is pretty graphic for a middle schooler to write, so you’re not actually sure if these are just her sister’s dreams or if they actually happened to her, but damn. There’s this thing called Project M…three guesses as to what the M stands for if you didn’t watch the show. Marriage was my first one. I was so wrong. Luckily, after her bouts of crazy, Ringo comes to her senses and realizes she loves Sho and not Tabuki, but there is no real romance in the cards for them.
The openings and endings really help with trying to figure out the plot, as well. I’ll admit, at first I didn’t get it. At ALL. I thought the songs were weird and I skipped the ending entirely. However, there’s an episode where the character of Himari gets fleshed out, and after that, I was like, oh…that’s why there’s a blue haired girl in the ending. And Double H…those are the girls in the train car ads. It was like a light bulb clicked on, and from there, I watched every single ending. The song changes constantly after the first ten episodes, you never know which one you’re going to hear, but they completely depict the mood of the events that just occured. In yesterday’s Anime Mondays post, I talked about how one character died and, even though I disliked them, I still cried a river. In episode 12, Himari dies, and I honestly thought she was gone for good. The song that played in the background was later used as an ending theme, and I was like, “Where have I heard this and why am I crying…?” Yeah. Good call. It’s a really beautiful piece of music. Even the rock & roll song that was used during the stock footage transformation scenes has a purpose.
This isn’t your run-of-the-mill anime, and if you’ve seen Revolutionary Girl Utena, you’d know that it wouldn’t be. There is this creepy incest vibe that runs throughout the show between many different characters. Everyone pretty much turns insane at one point in time or another. You’ve got Natsume who goes around blasting people with memory loss bullets, who is trying to get the penguindrum along with everybody else. You go through the whole show thinking the penguindrum is Momoka’s diary, but is it really? Midway point, we start hearing more about the bombs in the subway and how that changed everyone’s destiny. And concerning destiny, if everyone’s life is already written down, if it IS fate, why are people born? Can the ultimate destiny really be changed? These questions are brought up at the very beginning of the show, and although it’s possible to forget them if you’re not paying attention, this ends up being the major theme of Mawaru Penguindrum. Kan wants to save Himari so badly. She is his light. She is his reason for living. But if she is fated to die, if the whole family is fated to be punished because it was their parents who bombed the subway, how can he change that? Kan needs to change fate.
The visuals help tell the story in an insanely beautiful way. The blood drops change into penguins. The background characters have no faces, no clothes, just generic people symbols like you’d see on bathroom doors. The train will always tell you where the characters are going, but they move so fast that sometimes, it’s a blur. Fantasy sequences are done in the style of paper cut outs, like an elementary school puppet show. Glass shatters and slices clothes to ribbons. The train of destiny is dark, red and terrifying. The bombs are disguised as children’s toys. There’s so much to take in. For example, let’s look at the child boiler. What is it exactly? It’s a place where lost children go when they think they are not loved. In this place, they are destroyed, cut to pieces and turned into dust. They are made invisible. And to anyone, not just children, if you feel unloved, that’s how it feels. There’s pain, pain, pain and then you’re nothing. You’re forgotten. Both Tabuki and Himari get saved from the child boiler by people who love them, who become their new family, even though they aren’t related. These scenes are horrifying. To think that anyone, let alone hundreds of children could feel so unloved that they want to turn into nothing is quite possibly the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. But Tabuki and Himari are special. In this world of gray, they are in color. They have people who love them, despite what they think. And before they fall into a giant death machine, their “family” members will make sacrifices to show them just how much they care for them to save them. See what I mean when I say it just tugs at your heart strings?
I put the word family in quotes because the definition of it is completely skewed here. Some of these people are related by blood, while some aren’t. But it’s not about romantic love here, it’s about family. Everyone wants to have a family, a place where they truly belong, whether or not they are actually related.
The ending….oh, the ending. Here come your Utena spoilers.
In a truly similar fashion, there is a giant battle where the main characters have to discover something about themselves, love and friendship and make the ultimate sacrifice. Just like in Utena does, both Sho and Kan sacrifice themselves in order to save the ones they love (thankfully, one of which is Ringo, Sho + Ringo <3, okay). And then they both disappear, not only in reality, but in the memories of the ones who love them. Oh god, how I bawled. It’s just not right that in order to change destiny, they have to fade away into almost nothing. The freaking Satoshi “ghost,” who forced the Penguinforce to bomb the subway in the first place, fed Natsume and Kan lies in order to get them to do anything it took to find the penguindrum, and killed Momoka when she was trying to change fate and stop the first bombing from even happening, can just touch something and have someone brought back to life. But in order to save Ringo and Himari, both Sho and Kan have to, in theory, jump headfirst into the child boiler, even though they have people who love them who want to save them. Fuck, I HATED that. The same thing happened in Utena, where she sacrificed herself to save Anthy and then pretty much disappeared. Anthy could at least attempt to find her, but what does Ringo have? Nothing. Natsume had a dream. Himari had a note written in her re-stuffed teddy bear. Will she ever know what happened to her brothers? The ones that loved her so much they gave her their own family and then sacrificed themselves to save her? The penguindrum wasn’t the diary. The penguindrum was part of Sho’s heart, an apple that Kan could have used to save only himself when they were kids, but instead shared with Sho, therefore bonding the two of them together for life, as if they were real brothers. The diary was pretty much for nothing. The words that could change fate were given to Ringo by Himari’s best childhood friends. But I just….I mean, I got it. I understood it. They couldn’t avoid their punishment for the evil that their parents brought upon the world. But goddamn it, why did two of my favorite anime of all time pretty much have to have identical, tear-jerking endings???
Okay. I’m alright. Really. No more tears.
Mawaru Penguindrum is both brilliant and beautiful. I can’t wait to watch it a million more times to see what I missed and re-watch the parts that made my heart shatter. The twists and insanity kept it interesting the whole way through. There wasn’t one episode of filler. There wasn’t anything I would want to skip over. Like the title of this post says, it literally blew my mind, as much as Utena and Madoka Magica. If you’re a hardcore anime fan, it’s something to not be missed, but I know it’s not for everyone. I just want to talk about it until I’m blue in the face. If you’re reading this, thanks for watching it, or at least being curious enough about this post to take in all the spoilers to read what I thought. Now tell me, what did you think? What did I miss?
Tell me about your survival tactics.