Women and Anime: Mawaru Penguindrum
Quickly! Late, I know. Part of this is going to require knowledge of kawaisa, and I have a post on that already, just skip two thirds down. For those uninitiated with the series, I’ve limited the spoilers to about the first half of the series. Also, what the hell are you doing reading this? Watch it. Now.
Mawaru Penguindrum, a 26 episode series, created by Kunihito Ikuhara is anime trying to make a modern myth about fate. There’s avoiding fate, finding fate, creating fate, losing to fate, and most of all, changing fate. A by-product of this fate fixation is that Penguindrum comments on the most common type of social determinism, gender roles. Ikuhara, however, does so in a very Japanese way, reflecting the ways men and women are expected to act in his society and the overriding aesthetic. While the series is not mainly concerned with gender roles, Ikuhara remains a man who is definitely concerned about it. As a result, a lot the metaphors and a analogies for fate, work similarly for convention. Mawaru Penguindrum really argues for a more family centric society, where the roles are determined by necessity, not birth. So we see a flexible family structure, opposed by obsession and, as is often the case in anime, the bad guy is overcome by love.
For those who have yet to watch the show, Mawaru Penguindrum stars an idealised orphan family of the two brothers and their younger sister. In the midst of their happiness (which is so cute and sugary that witnessing it could incite diabetes), Himari gets some horrific disease which cannot be cured. Her brothers, Kanba and Shoma, attempt to live out her last days as best as they can manage. After a penguin-themed adventure, she dies, then comes back to life, possessed by a spirit demanding that the brothers acquire the penguindrum to save her.
This summary is nonsensical in the way that someone not familiar with anime would still say, “that sounds like Japan,” and that is very much the point. Cuteness and absurdity are a key part of Japanese pop culture, and Ikuhara uses that to inform the viewer of his perception of Japan. Kawaisa masks the severity of rape, cults, and mass murder, all of which are discussed in Penguindrum. Ikuhara doesn’t mean to say that cuteness is bad. He’s regularly embraced it in past work. Not to mention that the series is better for its high fructose-based reality distortion, as the story feels more like a fable, where the moral stakes are higher than physical ones. In Penguindrum, kawaisa is simply the lens through which fate and –for better or for worse– women are seen.
Furthermore it is kawaisa and moe that makes it so easy to accept the weird family situations, in which the characters find themselves. Penguindrum offers a non-standard option to who does what in a family, and places most of the importance on support rather than exact responsibility. The most glaring example comes from the main trio, Kanba, Shoma and Himari. Kanba and Shoma act like surrogate parents, with Kanba becoming the father, and Shoma the mother. Shoma appears more typically feminine, considering his long eyelashes and drooping hair, especially in contrast with his tougher looking brother.
In episode 4 he wears a girl’s clothes, and they are never called ill-fitting. He is explicitly called the “bickering mother to us,” by Himari in the final episode. He also fits the show’s pattern of devoted mothers being unable to accomplish anything, regardless of their intentions (we’ll get back to this later).
As men can take the roll of mother, it seems apt that Masako takes the role of father. Masako and her brother, Mario, are similarly orphans, and Mario is similarly possessed and afflicted with the need for a penguindrum to save him from an illness. In her case, she takes the role of father, repeating her grandfather’s catchphrase, “Gosh, I must crush him soon” and in episode 10 saying ““I am not a pathetic hunter who lets her prey escape,” in regards to her attack on Kanba.
“This [scene] is a direct reference to 1991′s acclaimed thriller Silence of the Lambs, which has actress Jodie Foster frantically stumbling around in the dark as Buffalo Bill stays just outside or her perception, lusting and longing and desirous of her.”
On a more basic level, her appearance is distinctly more masculine. Her eyes are like Kanba’s (which Mario does not share) and she wears a tie with a collared shirt beneath her uniform. Masako’s transformation into a more masculine figure comes after the disappearance of her brother, her father and the death of her grandfather. It can then be implied that she, out of necessity, takes the role of father because it is demanded of her. Mario needs a father figure. The company needs a president. Her inheritance requires authority. Fate brings her these things, but her character, which develops into a fierce and destructive personality, is what allows her to take the role.
These flexible family dynamics exist somewhat in contrast to the rest of the world that is so plain and generic, they are represented by copies of generic infographic people. You know, the guys on the washroom signs. These people, however, don’t ever engage with the main characters. Instead, convention and determined social fate is represented by those obsessed with fate. The exemplary Ringo believes it is her fate to fall in love with a handsome prince, who will get her pregnant, and the resultant child will fix her family. The fateful lovers trope is a commonly used as the resolution or motivation for female characters in animated films, especially Disney princesses (excluding Mulan). With that in mind, it seems almost rational that Ringo would believe that replicating her dead sister’s life and love would fix her parents relationship and her own feelings of loneliness. It’s only when she takes that belief as destiny and pushes it way, way, way too far that it starts to look like madness.
Let’s look at one particular sequence in Penguindrum for a remarkable example where one’s obsession with fate and convention leads to a disaster for all involved. Click for annotations to get subtitles.
The shojo style and the bizarre use of French comes from a Japanese stereotype that France is centre of culture and love. See the Rose of Versailles and most early girls’ comics, which act mostly as escapist romance. Course, Ringo takes it beyond any of those manga would, as their love for each other is shown to be interplanetary. We even get a glimpse of the Disney castle about three-quarters way through the fantasy. Once we return to reality, Keiju says “If failure and despair are the will of fate then I’m sure there’s meaning to everything. Not a single tear is wasted.” In plain terms he reassures Ringo that no matter her actions or her suffering, because she trusted fate, it will guide her to a happy ending. But we start to see the cracks in her belief when she is placed on the bed and tears gather up in her eyes in regret. She doesn’t know why she’s crying, and indeed, those tears are wasted. The scene is broken up by Himari and Shouma, whose discussion of love ends with a shot of the penguin hat, one of the symbols against determinism.
Penguindrum then changes genres as it gains elements of German expressionism. The colouring becomes more garish; the lines become harsher and look closer to woodcuts. This style is essentially the horror equivalent to Penguindrum’s usual cute fable aesthetic. It signals that we are now watching a monster movie. A hand bursts through the door, as the frog-man cries out her name. In one sense, this can be seen as a twisted version of the frog prince. The girl turns the man to a frog so he will love her, but when she realizes she doesn’t, he decides to rape her. Given the way this scene ends, the style keeps the show funny, acting as a contrast between the nonsense French space romance she imagined earlier. In spite the looming threat of rape in the background, Yuri casually walks inside and ignores the trauma. By the time Ringo repeats her claims that they are fated lovers, there’s some nervous laughter coming from the crowd.
Like a fable, the sequence ends with a lesson. You can’t force fate, and forcing fate only brings others into your madness. The danger is moral more than it is physical. The sequence is an elaborate caricature of the Disney princess mentality. We get a glimpse that the potion that was supposed to make Keiju fall in love with Ringo forever only lasts a day. Ringo, at best, would have a one night stand. She fundamentally misunderstands being in a relationship. Her actions separate Keiju from Yuri, and are in direct opposition to Kanba, Himari and Shouma’s goals and way of life. They wish to live quietly and together. Her demand to know why fate allowed her to fall in love reminds the family of their own secret and starts to tear them apart.
Once the obsession with keeping fate is out of the way, the characters then attempt to avoid fate entirely. Kanba and Shouma try to avoid Himari’s death as long as possible, despite it becoming increasingly clear that they can’t. Yet, the first instance of a fate transfer shown on screen is during Yuri’s childhood. In the alternate universe, her father declares her too ugly to be loved and warns her that “Your mother became uglier by the minute after she gave birth to you. That’s why she could no longer live in this house and ended up like that.” The father’s offer then to “fix” her renders a physical ramification of the abuse he lays upon her soul. Momoka then changes this fate by rejecting the abuse, and physically injuring herself. Why?
“Momoka is an allusion to Jesus Christ.
[…]She loved Yuri with no reservations, despite Yuri’s insistence that she was without beauty, thus outside of Creation and unable to be loved. Momoka refutes this, and explains that she is able to change fates with her diary and a small bodily sacrifice.”
The bodily sacrifice is supposed to represent the punishment we each take by sharing our love with each other. Because Momoka takes all the responsibility, she takes all the punishment, acting more or less as Japanese lady Jesus Christ.
The total absence or rejection of mothers is a dissonant feature of the Penguindrum world that without the right context seems a little counter-productive. I’ve mentioned this before that generally all mother figures in this series, though they may love and care for their children, rarely accomplish anything. In the example above, Yuri’s mother was chased out of her home because once she had given birth she was no longer beautiful. Simply, she fulfilled her child-bearing destiny as a lady and because she no longer has beauty or purpose, is tossed aside. This fits into the pattern but is difficult to use because that scene takes place in a male dominated alternate universe.
However, this pops up again. Shouma, perhaps the most apt example, tries to save Ringo in the same episode but instead trips on a bottle and passes out, continuing his tradition of doing jack shit. Compare that to his appearances during the crazy-fun-time transformation sequence, which amounts to balking at possessed!Himari’s claims, and then falling into a pit. Worse, Keiju’s mother makes his life full of misery (not that, as with Yuri’s backstory, fathers are much better) by rejecting him for his lack of talent and he eventually rejects her in return. And so if we look back at Yuri’s mother in this context it might be better that she didn’t stick around.
Except, that’s excluding Chiemi, who manages to do what the brothers cannot, delay Himari’s death. Chiemi does one thing of immediate value in Penguindrum, stop a mirror from smashing over Himari’s head. This tiny instance of instinct and love transfers Himari’s fate, and in doing so, Chiemi has a similar role to Momoka. Like Momoka, she takes all the punishment for Himari’s petulance, scarring herself in the process. Foremost is the aspect of survivor’s guilt, as Sanetoshi speculates that Himari told her friends the truth because “she wanted to punish herself.” All further references to “punishment” involving the family are linked back to the broken mirror, audibly and visually.
Chiemi’s fate transfer isn’t as cataclysmic as Momoka’s, and so we don’t have to worry about two Jesus metaphors running around. Instead, we see that fate transfer, and the ability to change fate, can come from the tiniest and instinctual of decisions. So while Chiemi doesn’t necessarily change the world, her small gift of life is as significant as a shift in reality. The example doesn’t vindicate all mothers, but Shouma’s efforts start to look like a prolonged emulation of his mother’s sacrifice, especially towards the end of the series as the final punishment is given. Love and sacrifice are the only necessities in changing fate.
And that’s my roundabout way of getting to a discussion on freedom from convention. Penguindrum goes quite a long way to build up its narrative on how to change fate, but it all starts with birth as Himari is reborn in the first episode. From what I’ve encountered, the transformation sequence equals birth metaphor is required knowledge to understand the series as a whole, especially as it lays the spine to its message.
I wish I could display it, but because the sequence is 90% a music video for an ARB cover band, King Records takes down any copy it can find. For those who aren’t intimately familiar, I shall defer to my betters, as the colourful poetry blog does a pretty good job of laying it out.
With that metaphor in mind, Ikuhara takes birth (which any lady or fine purveyor of the Miracle of Life documentary can assert, is messy and painful) and changes it into a hilarious cornucopia of flashing lights and a pop-remix of a 70s rock anthem. He transforms the ugly into moe, and in effect we see what it means to be born in Japan.
Above it all, transformation is fairly literal as a process of change.
“This strange space in which Himari’s transformed self attempts to change fate, namely her sickness, suggests the opposite of the deterministic type of fate that is so pronounced throughout the series. It is in these transformation scenes that we learn first about the diary and the fact that Kanba has tried so hard to keep Himari alive. Fate, as represented through transformation, is not predestined, but rather controlled by the decisions an individual makes.”
That conflict between social determinism and freedom is highlighted in this transformation too, as it is this sequence that the viewer first realizes the bizarre realities of the main characters. Deterministically, it demonstrates some of the bad habits of anime, fetishizing a young girl, or trying to display incest as wacky fun. Yet, it highlights their freedom as their family structure is tested on screen. Shouma is dropped into the rift and rejected, Kanba has his heart torn out, and Himari becomes the dominant figure. It’s the first, and definitely not the last time, we laugh at pregnancy and creation. Of course, we laugh because it is so shocking, especially compared to the bland infographic people in the world around them. Essentially, it shines a light on their choices that don’t agree with society’s or fate’s path, and once it ends, the characters must face the full brunt of fate.
Mothers, maternity, and monsters, Mawaru Penguindrum takes all of these and transforms them into a modern Japanese fable. Fate in all its forms puts pressure on these characters, and challenges them morally and socially. Unfortunately a full analysis requires us to look at both sides, male and female. It’s not so much women that he brings into question, as it is the state of family life in Japan. He doesn’t reject past traditions, styles or actions. In Ikuhara’s words, “I want to show […] the feeling of: “We still love our mother and father who did those things, even if they may have been wrong to do them.” So cuteness can stay, and we can still laugh at it, even if the stuff around the rim isn’t great. Key is that all people should be able to try to determine their fate based on truth. No lying to yourself that pregnancy will bring happiness. No keeping your sister around, long after she’s dead.
I rewrote this article several times before I got to a point where I gave in. Better to have this done than work on it for a month… For future articles I’m just going to pick specific sequences and talk about those. That’ll keep me on target. And hank you Kylaran for existing, and thank you to the altairandvega, draggle, 8thsin for their long in-depth analysis, without which I would be more lost than I am.
Next up, the female form and Lupin the III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine!