You Have Finally Realized It: Watching and Rewatching Mawaru Penguindrum

princess of the crystal, himari, himari takakura, penguindrum, mawaru penguindrum, the wheel of fate that binds us, human beings are such dense creatures

Human beings are such dense creatures.

“I hate the word fate. Births, encounters, partings, success and failure, fortune and misfortune in life. If everything is already set in stone by fate, the why are we even born? There are those born wealthy, those born of beautiful mothers, and those born into war or poverty. If everything is caused by fate, then god must be incredibly unfair and cruel.”

– Shouma Takakura, Mawaru Penguindrum, episode one

The premiere of Mawaru Penguindrum had me at the word “fate.” Stars drifted over Himari’s four-poster bed, as “Children of Fate” played in the background while Shouma Takakura spouted a monologue that I would later learn was almost a word-for-word quotation from an Aum Shinrikyo cult member.

“Things like inborn talent, family background. No matter what the situation, bright people are bright, people who can run fast can run fast, and people who are weak never see the light of day. There’s an element of fate that I thought was too unfair.”

– Shin’ichi Hosoi, former Aum Shinrikyo member, “Underground” (p. 320)

For 24 episodes I watched, enraptured. I reread Kenji Miyazawa’s “Night on the Milky Way Train.” I purchased Haruki Murakami’s “After the Quake,” “Sputnik Sweetheart,” and “Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche.” And I wrote at least 1000 words a week. Penguindrum was my life for half of a year.

himari takakura, himari's bedroom, himari's bed, mawaru penguindrum, penguindrum, i hate the word fate

Mawaru Penguindrum reinforces its thematic elements in every facet of the series. The music (background tracks, insert songs, and opening/ending pieces), dialogue, and visuals (iconography, color, cinematography, lighting) are all crafted by director Kunihiko Ikuhara and team to communicate with the viewer. As I watched while it was airing, each episode held secrets to uncover and pieces of a larger puzzle that challenged me to see a larger picture.

Every week, I waited eagerly for the next episode. Episodes were digested quickly, and immediately written about in a flurry of compulsive activity. The remainder of the week was often spent discussing Penguindrum in comments and reading what others had written about the series. A significant letdown followed the show’s conclusion, as there was no other currently-airing property to direct my energy and attention to. I realized that Penguindrum was an exception and not the rule.

san-chan, threetie, penguin number 3, penguin 3 in the library, sanetoshi's library, sanetoshi watase, penguindrum, mawaru penguindrum, frozen world

On the heels of the first-week rush, bloggers settle in and assign themselves series to cover throughout the season. Writing about a series week-to-week means that one will be included in the discussion that follows an episode; however, it also assumes that one will have something substantial to contribute to that discussion every week. Just as there’s only so much a sportswriter can say about a one-sided stomp, there’s only so much one can say about an episode of anime. In most series I watched prior to, and following, Penguindrum, I found it difficult to find something to write about every week. It is a unique series. Watching it while it aired was a special experience.

However, it was also a limiting one. There’s a certain myopia that lends itself to following something current. Participating in the discussion is both euphoric and limited in scope.

mary had a little lamb, penguindrum, mary-san, mary's three lambs, himari takakura, shouma takakura, kenzan takakura, kanba takakura, kiga apple

“Mary cried on and on, and the lambs’ consolation fell on deaf ears.”

– From Shouma Takakura’s story, Mawaru Penguindrum, episode 12

Episode 12 of Mawaru Penguindrum contained an allegory told by Shouma Takakura that began with the common nursery rhyme “Mary had a little lamb.” What followed was a mash-up of nursery rhyme, parable, and myth to tell the story of the Takakura Family.

Upon watching, I immediately rushed to draw whatever conclusions I could before vomiting these ideas from my fingertips into this post. A lot of the information in that post has since been proven completely false. The heady rush of speculation and desire to not only participate in the discussion, but further understand the series as a whole is contained in every word. The facts are wrong, but the post is earnest.

Recently, I coordinated with the writers at Isn’t It Electrifying? to rewatch Mawaru Penguindrum, in the hopes that the mysterious Penguinbear Project Kunihiko Ikuhara teases from time to time would air soon, placing the related series fresh in our hearts and minds. This time, there was no rush to publicly discuss, although we would gush and chatter amongst ourselves. Each episode provided more pieces to the puzzle upon rewatching, which only led to more unanswered questions.

himari takakura, himari, mawaru penguindrum ED, dear my future, himari as a member of triple h, triple h, penguindrum ending

Revisiting Mawaru Penguindrum stretched over several months – due to our conflicting schedules – giving each niggling thought more time to stew in my mind. For this viewing, the narrow focus that accompanied me while watching the series for the first time was gone. I had traded in the heady euphoria for something calmer and more comfortable.

The allegory of Penguindrum‘s twelfth episode is a microcosm for how I experienced the series then and now. Mary and her three little lambs now have a completely different meaning for me as a viewer. At first, I scrambled to pair each character in the story to their Penguindrum counterpart. Who was the goddess? Who were the black bunnies? What did the tree represent? Digesting the information immediately after watching led to a stricter interpretation.

“It might be hard to generalize and say that all of them do, but I think inside all Japanese there is an apocalyptic viewpoint: an invisible, unconscious sense of fear. When i say that all Japanese have this fear, I mean some people have already pulled aside the veil, while others have yet to do so. If this veil were suddenly drawn back, everyone would fell a sense of terror about the near future, the direction our world is heading in.”

– Hidetoshi Takahashi, former Aum Shinrikyo member, “Underground,” (p.348)

As soon as the allegory appeared in episode twelve, I listened to it as a whole. Knowing the events of the entire series, I saw the story not in pieces, but how it related to the overall thematic narrative. Where I had previously tried to fit it into my predictions for where the series would go, I now tied it into my own emotional interpretation. The lambs cries fell on deaf ears because, although Kenzan and Chiemi loved their children, they were more concerned with their own existential crisis: a fear of what was to befall Japan. Later in the series, Shouma Takakura, Kanba Takakura, and Ringo Oginome circumvent this cyclical fate by staying true to the personal bonds that they made with one another, similar to how Shouma initially befriended Himari when she was lost as a child.

himari takakura, ringo oginome, himari and ringo on the train, penguindrum end, mawaru penguindrum finale, penguindrum, mawaru penguindrum

I love both interpretations as they each act as reflection of myself at that point in time. Mawaru Penguindrum became a series that emotionally resonated with me, and I consider every attempt at digesting it worthwhile. This is not because each attempt contains correct facts – many of my first posts are far more incorrect speculation than anything else – but because they act as mirrors for the “me” of that time. Rewatching Penguindrum was as much of an invaluable experience as it was watching for the first time. It dredged up different, but no less powerful, emotions. I connected different dots. I cannot wait to watch it again.

22 comments

    1. I highly recommend it. Penguindrum is such a multi-layered series that I think each rewatch will add more value to it. Then again, as I said in the post, Penguindrum is an extremely personal show for me.

      Thanks for commenting. ^ ^

  1. It’s always interested how the way we view/watch a series and the pre-existing knowledge we have on the topics it touches shape our interpretation of it.

    In the end who was that goddess?

    1. I hesitate to pair the goddess with any one person, but that’s likely an entire post for another time. ^ ^

      Exactly. Now having rewatched Penguindrum, I can’t wait to revisit other series that inspired me to write feverishly (Hyouka, Gatchaman Crowds, and event he currently-airing Terror in Resonance all spring to mind). Thanks so much for the comment.

  2. What really stands out to me in this post is how each watch or re-watch acts as a reflection of yourself at a given time in your life. While a series like Penguindrum, due to its length, makes for less opportunity for constant rewatch, something along the lines of a Baccano or, more age-appropriate like FLCL can provide an interesting reference point for one’s “age of interpretation.”

    During my time in university, I always watched FLCL at the same time of year every year, and while this extent of repeated watches did not provide the same sort of opportunity for introspection as yours with pdrum, it wasn’t until I had long since graduated that I watched it again; it was at that point in which I noticed the difference in watching experience.

    I presume that the same could possibly hold for a series like penguindrum, but a lot can happen in a year, so who knows? Maybe for my example, it was a bit more difficult since there wasn’t as much material to comb through each time, but as we both know, FLCL certainly has just enough there for one’s perception to change over time.

    Good stuff, maybe I’ll watch FLCL again myself. It’s been maybe five years since, and I am oddly curious as to how I feel about it now.

    1. Penguindrum is an odd beast because I did resonate with it, but not as much as I think others could. FLCL is designed more to appeal to a specific audience – 16 to 25 year-old men – so I’m not surprised that it resonated with you so strongly initially and then served as a barometer for your life in successive rewatches.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts upon watching FLCL again. ^ ^

  3. I’ll just say it like this – I love Penguindrum and I love you for making Penguindrum so wonderful. I’ve only watched the show twice, and never so critically, but I am constantly thinking about it. As I see it, the show’s central theme of family and the bonds between people makes it more emotionally resonant to me than any other anime. I was thrilled when two great shows of 2012 (Uchouten Kazoku + Kyousogiga) also tapped into this theme.

    I feel a bit upset when I share the show with others and they aren’t touched by it in the same way, but on the other hand reading perceptive and personal analyses / others’ experiences of it make me fall in love with it so deeply. For me the sheer emotional impact of Penguindrum makes it so precious, far more than whether it’s thematically consistent or whether it strays in its plotting. It’s something I can’t explain well – I’m quite bad at expressing myself (and I’m sorry!) – but after reading this all I want to do is gush and thank you.

    I feel that I might be a bit like you – when I first considered the ‘Mary’ story, I wanted to take every detail of it, consider what it said about the Takakuras, about terrorism and the human condition, about fate and religion, about what message the series itself was trying to convey. It almost irritated me by its abstract nature. After I finished the ending, I adored the mystery and ambiguity of the show just as much as anything else. I was overjoyed just to appreciate while my friend turned to me and said, “WHAT HAPPENED!?!?” I love how it encourages a different view and a different reaction from every watcher. I love how it provides no answers. (That’s why I’m so scared about watching it with my sister who hates when things are left “open-ended”!)

    “The world is chaotic and indistinct. However, even in such a world, there definitely exists such a thing as an ‘absolute’. Even though they clearly exist in this world, they appear to be too beautiful, ugly, or simply routine, so that their true natures are only vaguely discerned. I don’t wish to deliver such a concept intelligibly through arranged and analyzed animation. I don’t wish to extract only the parts where the cels should be expressed numerically or lines could be articulated. If anything, I’d rather display unclear parts that can’t be expressed numerically or lines that can’t be articulated by using a picture to show such things indeed exist as clearly as chaos.” – Ikuhara Kunihiko

    1. First, thank you so much for this comment. ^ ^

      One of my friends, who I didn’t know had watched the series, recently said that she absolutely loved Penguindrum, in spite of never having thought of it critically. This made me ridiculously happy because, while the series was airing, even among anime bloggers (who are as niche as it gets to begin with) it was considered a niche, artsy series that one had to own a compendium to understand. There were a lot of people writing it off after a few episodes (episode four in particular was a very Ikuhara/Nanami-type episode with Ringo and the skunk that lost a lot of people).

      Reading your comment and listening to her say that she loved it, in spite of knowing very little about the 1995 Tokyo Subway Attacks, never mind Night on the Milky Way Train or anything Murakami, means that Penguindrum is a series that can resonate emotionally with a wide range of people if they give it a chance.

      Again, thank you for the comment.

      1. I recently purchased Underground, mostly due to your posts that incorporate it. Reading it is – emotional, and illuminating.


        I’ve become convinced that Lisa’s penguin can’t be anything short of a reference.❤

        By the way, I don't know whether or not you're watching Space Dandy, but I would love to hear your thoughts on S2 E8 – actually, it's an episode of anime that I would strongly recommend to anybody, detached from the rest of the series. I really hope that you can find the time to watch it!

        1. Underground is an amazing book that I recommend to a lot of people with the caveat that parts of it are difficult to get through.

          I caught that and wondered. Both series deal with similar subject matter, although they approach it from different angles.

          I desperately need to catch up on Space Dandy. From what I’ve heard it’s turned into a wonderful animators showcase, which sounds like something that’s right up my alley. ^ ^

          Thanks again for commenting!

  4. “Penguindrum was my life for half of a year.” Oh man, I credit Penguindrum with making my college job bearable, I’d time it so I’d watch an episode right before a three hour shift bussing tables and then I could spend the entire time mulling over the episode and once I was done, since usually the subs came out the day before, I could throw myself into the livejournal/anime forum discussions on it, there has never been a show since that for me where there was just so much to discuss for it every week. And I’m thrilled that people do still dicuss the show and reference it, actually the other day it took me a moment to realize that people talking about “the child broiler” of Terror in Resonance was a Penguindrum reference and I couldn’t think of a better comparison myself, it’s so odd that what would be a natural reference for me to make wouldn’t be understand outside of a small part of the anime fandom and it does make me a bit sad.

    1. Penguindrum currently-airing discussions were so fun. If anything, rewatching gave me a clearer understanding of how things fit together in a larger scale, where watching week to week had prepped me by focusing on the minute details.

      The imagery in Terror in Resonance immediately reminded me of the Child Broiler which brings up a lot of interesting parallels between the two series and their treatment of domestic terrorism. Actually, I’ve struggled writing about Terror in Resonance without making too many Penguindrum comparisons. ^ ^;

      As an aside, since you watched week to week, do you remember one evening where Koda (at that time she was still heading up GG) took to twitter to beg one of her staffers to come work on Penguindrum so the subs could come out? I remember so many people on Twitter trying to coerce Matt into returning so they could get their subs.

      Thanks for the comment.

  5. I just finished rewatching Mawaru Penguindrum, and in the midst of the heartbreak and looking for ways to keep this show going inside me, I google “I am not over Mawaru Penguindrum” and stumbled upon your this page.
    The second time is the hardest, because you already know what it is going to happen, you already know the fate of the characters (and the first episode sort of tells you everything) and yet I watch it, hopping to find something new.

    I also watched it while it was airing. I was new at tumblr, and a little bit lonely, yet, with my first post about Mawaru, I entered a community. It was rather exciting, we all shared something about the show for others to feed it, destroy it or nod in approval of our comments, And as I watch with several people the last episode raw, the little chat box of the streaming united me with people. It makes me wonder if Ikuhara intended this union. This second time around, now that people have moved on with other shows, now that I have a new tumblr account, I sort of look back to those moments, and picture my community free of boxes. This may sound corny, but I can’t help it with Mawaru.

    I love rewatching it, finding little details (like when they mention about fate that “some people are born into wealthy families, have beautiful mother or a born into poverty or war” and taaa-daah, Kanba=wealthy, beautiful mother (because we know Mrs. Takakura was amazing)= Shoma and poverty=Himari…and yet, this different kind of people ended up being a family) or reading this and understand a little bit (Why penguins?) http://the-artifice.com/mawaru-penguindrum-2011-study/ and feeling this sort of victory about how Kanba and Shoma defeated fate in their own special way (Yes, Sanetoshi told them what was going to happen to them, how they were going to disapear and all, how the amount to nothing…but it isnt true…they got their loved ones alive, they change the track of fate…somehow, they amounted to everything they needed to amount).

    At this dark time of my life, Mawaru once again gets me into a fighting spirit.

    And most of all, I get you…were do i put all of my love of Mawaru? What other series will make me feel like this? (Tatami Galaxy and Oyasumi Pun Pun sort of filled that place…but Mawaru is special).

    Anyway, thanks for reminding me that Mawaru is not over.

    1. Thanks for the link! I had seen that interview – although Ikuhara is infamous for spouting random stuff to confuse/throw people off – I love that he gives just enough about the penguins to be a non-answer. Additionally, while watching, I know that the penguins were contrasted with the Sanetoshi’s rabbits, particularly in their breeding habits.

      Mawaru Penguindrum is never over. ^ ^

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