(CW for some discussion of incest and sexual predation)
When I first watched Mawaru Penguindrum, I thought I hated it. Or if I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t connect with it at all. It was beautiful yes, in a way that took my breath away. But it perplexed me. The characters all seemed so…simple. The story seemed so doomed. It was a neat, artful enameled box of a series, but it meant nothing to me. Mawaru Penguindrum was the last of Ikuhara’s series that I had watched, since having watched Utena several times over and becoming obsessed with Sarazanmai, I had resolved to familiarize myself more with the man and his work. It seemed a particularly divisive series before I started it, with some loving it immensely, others being more dismissive of it. It being jokingly referred to as the most “heterosexual” series of Ikuhara’s works, and also the one with more weird and somewhat-uncomfortable incestuous overtones didn’t help its case either.
I preface this with saying that whenever it comes to comparing a work with something else you already love deeply, it makes sense that it will, unfairly maybe, pale in comparison to everything else. I had loved Utena, but Sarazanmai was–and is–a series that had struck me to my very core, as a work that will most definitely be following me for the rest of my life. Sarazanmai is a story that is, amongst many things, about the futility of self-sacrifice, a critique of doomed-martyrdom that seeks to be selfless but ends up being self-serving. It’s a story with characters that feel painfully real, about love and hope and connection, with an uncertain and painful but still joyous ending. I resonated with it immensely.
Watching Penguindrum, on the other hand, was an experience of struggling to relate to the characters and story it presented especially since I couldn’t help but compare it with my Sarazanmai experience at every turn. The characters to me seemed much more stylized and less based in reality. They acted as tools to serve the story, and they all had arcs and resolutions, but they felt less like people to me and more like highly specific, strange roles. The story had a fundamentally doomed feeling to it as well. The focus on the inescapability of fate, and the idea of consequences and transactional sacrifice were so moody and somewhat pessimistic. Was it romanticizing the idea of self-sacrifice? Was there really no hope or the only way to escape from cruel systems is to give up part of ones’ self? It was kind of the perspective that Sarazanmai seemed to be pushing back against and thus, encountering that attitude in a seemingly more pure form in Penguindrum, was somewhat less attractive to me.
The thing is though, looking back on it, and having sort of rewatched it and having gained more background context, I realize that Penguindrum is actually very different than my first impression of it, and I’ve come to sort of add more thoughts to my, not necessarily initial criticisms, but initial reactions that first turned me off in the first place.
1) “The most heterosexual of all the Ikuharas”
It is certainly much less gay than literally other Ikuhara series, but its focus on relationships between men and women is not in a way that I would deem heteronormative. It portrays many examples of what would be hetero relationships, but the structure of the hetero-nuclear family is something that seems to be more of an unrealistic structure and goal that none of the main characters are able to manifest, and their pursuit of it ends up being an exercise in pain and absurdity.
It’s unfortunate and certainly worthy of criticism that the only gay character in the series, Yuri, is shown being creepy and predatory towards the teenage Ringo. That being said, my interpretation of the scene was that it portrayed her actions as not necessarily stemming from an essentialist concept of her being inherently “deviant” but more her extremely fucked up way of finding a resolution to the abuse and loss and sense of brokenness she suffered as a child. While once again not an amazing choice, considering she is the only explicitly gay character in the story, this is internally consistent with Penguindrum’s theme of traumatized adults in the series inflicting their trauma onto children in ways that make everything worse and perpetuate cycles of pain.
2) “The weird incest”
The “incestuous” content–namely, the relationships between the adopted siblings Himari and Kanba, and to an extent, Himari and Shoma, while undoubtably discomforting, actually came across to me on a second viewing as much less creepy than they could have been, certainly less so than the ways in which the sibling relationships in Utena were portrayed. Within the visual language of the story, the relationships read less as an example of toxic-abusive heteronormative sexuality (as it was in Utena), and more like symbolism for an elevated desire for emotional connection and closeness in ways unbound by a traditional family or gendered structure.
The vaguely incest content and the conflating of the sibling relationships with romantic imagery and language is once again is not for everyone, and the effectiveness and appropriateness of the symbolism is always up for debate. But as far as framing within the story I think it occupies a very strange place, in that it has a presence, but is not directly commented on in the way that it is in Utena. It also is very different I feel than a lot of other stories where incest is used as a gothic “taboo” element for dramatic effect, or for more specifically for sexual-fetish reasons. Penguindrum doesn’t seem to really do any of that. Its close romantic sibling scenes, while definitely can be interpreted with incest vibes, seem to me less explicitly so, and more an expression of the intensity of the relationship to me. In some ways to me, personally, it hearkens back to a lot of classical literature, in which romantic partners would try to describe the depths of their love by comparing it to various different types of relationships, familial or otherwise. It’s like a reverse situation of the passage in the Biblical Song of Songs, where the lovers are dismayed that they cannot express their affection for each other openly, the way family members do. Once again, this particular creative choice isn’t for everyone and is definitely understandable in how it can be off-putting, but even then I think I can now somewhat appreciate what the story was going for.
3) Lack of Cultural Context
A lot of frustration I had with the structure of the story seemed mostly to stem from my lack of cultural context, which I read up more about after watching, mostly related to the information about the Sarin Gas attacks, Murakami’s Underground, and Night on the Galactic Railroad. I am not Japanese, so I don’t have all that cultural background knowledge, and I accept that the series was not necessarily made with me in mind. While I still wonder how much of the story being reliant on external references might make it weaker even as someone within the culture as well, I understand that it seems to have been a specific choice, even if it was not one I particularly resonated with personally.
Penal Substitutionary Atonement
For of course, even if it was not the intention, I always cannot help but bring my own cultural background into my interpretation and reaction to media. My biggest reaction, upon my first viewing, was its view on sacrifice. As a Christian, and someone who was raised with the concept of Penal Substitution Atonement, that in order for humanity to have a good thing (salvation from inevitable Hell) there had to be someone to bear the burden of sins and suffer greatly and die in order to appeal to an arbitrary concept of balance in the world (Jesus), and someone who spent a lot of time trying to move away from that model of divine relationship, I found the initial idea of sacrifice repulsive. In Christianity, belief that builds itself upon the concept of penal substitution sees love, both in relationship with God, and with others, as transactional. You are supposed to “die to self” in order to better serve others. While there are multiple generous interpretations of what this means, a common interpretation is that it means self-denial and sacrifice. The inherent nobility of inevitable, doomed self-sacrifice and suffering is a concept that I am opposed to in that it can be presumptuous and take on a selfish quality–and thus is why I so loved Sarazanmai, in that it deconstructed that aspect of self sacrifice, while in my initial watching, Penguindrum seemed to portray it in that inherent-noble, if tragic way.
But after thinking it over, I think I was wrong about that. It is an interesting interpretation for me to bring my own thoughts and cultural background to the story, but looking at it again, I think that neither Penguindrum nor Sarazanmai are a “correct” view of the subjects of sacrifice. They both include truths that come with different experiences on the very complex topic, drawing from very different reference points and sources of inspiration.
In the end I now think Penguindrum’s theme does speak to the idea of doomed-ness and inevitability, but less about the inherent nobility of sacrifice. It feels more about finding solace in relationships even in the face of that kind of chaotic and doomed feeling. It’s less about how suffering is noble, but more that because it is a part of life, we need to find ways to cope with it through forming relationships with each other even if it will not necessarily end well. At the end of the series, they are not able to really change the structure of the world in any big way. The oppressive systems still exist, and the world is still full of suffering. However, the characters are able to cope with it by sharing love with each other, and mutually sacrificing for each others’ benefits to form a happier, smaller world for themselves in the midst of it. Even Yuri and Tabuki realize that their way of coping with their own suffering and loss–trying to seek revenge, and inflicting pain upon the children–was pointless, and resolve to try and help others in the world instead.
I watched the final episode of Penguindrum on the first day of 2020, when my own grandmother was in the hospital, shortly before she passed away a little more than a week later. Looking back, its tempting to narrativize that experience and connect the themes, with the happenings in the world and in my own life. However, at the moment I remember seeing the sequence of the ending, seeing the story wrap up in a beautiful and thematic way in a way that was objectively well made, and feeling….a lot of nothing, really. I’d accomplished my goal of finishing the next Ikuhara series, but that was that. It was not something with themes that I felt inherently connected to my own experience of anxiety and stress in that moment, just another anime watching to pass the time. Perhaps it was my misjudgement then, expecting the series to give me a sense of meaning connected to my life in that moment rather than letting it express itself on its own terms.
A lot has been said, both jokingly and seriously, about the agony that the past year of 2020 has been. While I personally have been protected from much of the worst of it, I think it is telling that I was not able to really think about or get a better appreciation of Penguindrum until we had been several months into the COVID crisis, daunting election anxiety, and the cyclical revelation of the ugly systems that plague our world. In some ways, similar to what I had talked about in my Tash post, there were definitely times where I did not want to hear an “optimistic” messages or platitudes about things Actually being Good or better. Sometimes one needs to wallow a bit. And I think, while being in that mindset, I was able to Appreciate the beauty and drama and pretentiousness of Penguindrum without getting too repulsed by it.
In a lot of ways, despite my additional thoughts, my appraisal of the series, at its core, is the same. It has things to say. It’s not a perfect series, but like all things that Ikuni has worked on, it’s a breathtakingly artful one, and the ways in which it stumbles adds in some ways to the artfulness to me. I respect what is being expressed, and while its message may be frustrating and muddled to me in a lot of ways, it is no more frustrating or muddled than a lot of the experience of living in the world itself at this time. In that way, while it will never be my favorite series the way others are, I can respect it and its vision.
Also, I suppose I owe it to Penguindrum and Triple H to introducing me to the music of ARB. Playing “Grey Wednesday” on repeat a lot during the year was certainly helpful