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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.