Ask John: What’s John’s Interpretation of Mawaru Penguindrum?
I just got finished watching Mawaru Penguindrum, and I don’t know what to even think about it. On one hand it has some incredibly good visuals and the characters are adequately fleshed out. However, the ending left so many unanswered questions (the penguin hat? The three penguins? The survival strategy magical girl scenes), and the symbolism was slathered on so thick that I’m struggling to understand the meaning of this series; let alone whether I truly enjoyed or not either. So, what is your take/opinion of it?
I’ve watched the 24 episode Mawaru Penguindrum television series once and haven’t had much opportunity to mull the show and analyze its twists, revelations, and symbolism. This is a dense, weighty narrative bursting with complexity, theme, and nuance. It’s also not certainly entirely cohesive. While imagery and concepts that remain present and consistent throughout the show suggest that creator/director Kunihiko Ikuhara knew what he was doing and had a conscious plan for the show, the prominent shift in tone from bizarre sitcom to grim fantasy tragedy and the show’s sheer amount of symbolism and narrative complexity suggest that some extent of the program may have been arbitrary. I can’t explain every aspect of the show. I’m not even convinced that every aspect of the show has a straightforward explanation or meaning. After all, numerous aspects of Ikuhara’s slightly more comprehensible Shoujo Kakumei Utena are merely irrelevant gags and elements randomly inserted into the narrative. So I can provide my own rough interpretation of the meaning of the show and its ultimate climax, but I can’t insist that my interpretation is comprehensive or even accurate.
I’m intrigued by the fact that Mawaru Penguindrum wrestles with many of the same philosophical and narrative concepts that Evangelion does, suggesting that these two distinctively different shows both mine a common existential anxiety present in Japanese culture. Watase Sanetoshi resents the inescapable alienation that exists between people, particularly within society. Because human beings can never fully understand what each other are feeling and thinking, inequalities and anxieties exist between them. Evangelion’s Seele Project sought to literally eliminate the boundaries between humans. Sanetoshi seeks to destroy the society which encourages those restrictions. Arguably even more so than in Evangelion, all of the primary characters in Penguindrum are emotionally scarred. They’ve all encountered traumatic childhoods and tragedies, leading to the zeitgeist that the world is divided into those who seek love and those who give love.
Seemingly, Sanetoshi manipulated Kenzan Takakura and his wife to establish a terrorist cult that would destroy the world. However, Momoka Oginome managed to partially obsctruct the plan by changing destiny. Dramatic change is always difficult, so for the massive scale of the changes Momoka makes, she had to sacrifice her own life. However, she was seemingly only partially successful. Having served his purpose, Kenzan Takakura was executed, and Sanetoshi returned as a ghost to again manipulate the Takakura family into doing his destructive bidding, the second time convincing Kanba to follow in Kenzan’s footsteps. However, Sanetoshi didn’t return in spirit form alone. Ringo Oginome is not the reincarnation of Momoka; Himari Takakura is.
Momoka sees the world in black and white. Black is negative. White is hopeful and happy. Momoka sees people as ones who need love in their lives and herself as a person who provides love. As Tabuki realizes, Momoka wanted he and Yuri to remain in the world because they both seek love. Love will eventually heal their lonliness and grief. Sanetoshi doesn’t fit into either of Momoka’s categories. He neither seeks nor gives love. Since he doesn’t fit into Momoka’s world, Momoka tries to literally expell him from the world. The first time, she’s not fully successful, but the second time, in episode 24, she walks away from Sanetoshi, taking both the black and white penguin caps with her, symbolically taking away both of Sanetoshi’s possible directions for the future.
When Momoka’s spirit takes over and speaks through Himari, the penguin princess emerges from the white teddy bear, suggesting that she comes from the positive side of destiny. She addresses people who stand upon and fall through the black bear, people who stand upon and descend through misery and suffering. The apple represents not knowledge but fate, possibility. When they were children and desperate, on the edge of death, Kanba found possibility, an apple, and split it with Shouma, allowing both of the brothers to live. Seemingly forever tied to those roles, Kanba becomes a martyr, always giving of himself to sustain his adopted sister and family. He gives love. He’s a playboy, dating many girls, spreading his love around. But at the same time he seeks love. He harbors an unfulfilled love for Himari. Shouma, on the other hand, cherishes life after receiving the gift of salvation from death. It’s Shouma who rescues young Himari from death. Shouma takes pity on Ringo and spends time with her, even risking his life to save her. Shouma rejects the death and destruction caused by his parents. Ringo isn’t the reincarnation of Momoka; she’s the embodiment of destiny’s possibilities. Ringo is Japanese for “apple,” the fruit of fate. Ringo is the one that, from the outset of the series, believed in destiny. It’s she who recites the spell to alter the direction of fate in the final episode.
Taking cues from anime like Serial Experiments Lain and My Hime, Mawaru Penguindrum concludes with Momoka, through Himari’s body, with assistance from Ringo, redrafting the world into a more pleasant environment. Ringo shifts the world from the path it was on to another parallel path in which a makeshift family descended from terrorists doesn’t exist and Himari, Kanba, Shouma, and even Masako Natsume now live separate but happier lives. The show is very much one about the decisions and ramifications of one generation coming to bear on the next generation, like divine punishment falling upon the children of the blasphemer. But love and sacrifice allow this fate to be averted, rewritten.