Exploring Mawaru Penguindrum (2011) from a Historical, Cultural and Literary Perspective
Mawaru Penguindrum (2011) unfortunately falls into the strange category that contains the likes of Shinsekai Yori (2012): anime that are masterpieces, but are not as well-known as they should have been. Some of the clues to fully understanding the anime might also be lost in translation, resulting in Western audience scratching their heads, blinking in confusion, or just dismissing the show as nothing more than being intriguing and entertaining. The purpose of this article, hence, is to introduce elements relating to Japanese history, culture and literature that are essential to understanding the greatness of this overlooked piece of gem.
**Warning: major spoilers ahead**
Nowhere men: the birds that can’t fly
Before we get into the historical context, it is important to keep the symbolism of penguin in mind, as this relates to our further discussion. In an interview, director Kunihiki Ikuhara explains:
“They have wings but they cannot fly; they can swim but they cannot stay underwater for too long. In that case, where do they really belong? They’re not common animals (mammals) like cats and dogs. They’re birds that don’t look like birds at all. The idea that they seem to have come from another world and have no place of belongings ignite his imagination.”
The penguins can be seen as a reflection of the characters’ loss of identity in the anime, be it Kanba’s struggle to hold his family (whether his real or surrogate one) together, Shouma’s struggle with his interpersonal relationship (his guilt of being close to Ringo, knowing that his family was the reason behind her family’s dysfunction), Himari’s conflict of her haunting past and her present dilemma, or Ringo’s struggle between living as Momoka or as herself. Like penguins, they struggled to find a place that they could feel at ease. Common sense entails that the place was ‘home’, or ‘family’, but where could you go when your family was the very the reason why you were trapped in the past?
The penguins were omnipresent in the anime. They were spotted on various company or investigation team logos, as if saying that everything was under the same chain. One might wonder if this also meant that the whole society was monopolized by one big organization. Figuratively, it might also be a critique of the capitalist society, where a number of big organizations are actually in control of our everyday life. It isn’t uncommon for writers to write about one’s sense of alienation and loss of identity in a capitalist world (cue Haruki Murakami – which I will discuss later). The subtle critique of capitalism, especially in post-war Japan, casts a frightening image of the cute-looking penguin.
In another way, the penguins in the show indicated what their owners were like, for purposes of both comedic reliefs and reflection of the owner’s personality. Penguin#1, for example, liked to look up ladies’ skirts and read adult magazines, reflecting Kanba’s reputation of being a playboy. Penguin#2 was always seen killing cockroaches and eating food. The former seemed to be suggesting Shouma’s preference for cleanliness, much like his personality in the show. The latter, however, was more thought-provoking. A bold guess might be that it related to the time when he was trapped in the cage and was suffering from hunger (before Kanba offered him half an apple), hence Penguin#2 showed no hesitation in consuming any food that it spotted as an automatic response. Penguin#3 fit Himari’s personality of being a ‘good girl figure’ of the show – a quiet, gentle being that was seen knitting and cooking with Himari many times. The penguins, hence, could be seen as what the characters were really thinking, despite the fact that their actions might entail otherwise. There is not much to discuss further, however, since there weren’t many clear clues on what the penguins’ roles really were.
20th March, 1995 – The Day that was Promised
This particular date kept repeating itself throughout the whole anime. Viewers learn that it was the day that Kanba, Masako, Shouma and Ringo were born. We also learn that it was the day Shouma’s father executed the attack that was the backdrop of the whole series. However, if you ask any Japanese about this particular date, they would likely tell you that it was the date the whole nation could never forget, the incident that became known as the ‘Subway Sarin Incident‘.
On 20th March, 1995, members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, under the order of their leader Asoko Asahara, released sarin gas in five subway lines in Tokyo, killing thirteen people and injuring a thousand more. This incident was the single most serious attack to have taken place in Japanese soil since World War II, adding further despair to the Japanese people who were experiencing the Lost Decade (1990s Japan) after the economic bubble burst in late 1980s.
The motive behind this attack was rather bizarre. Aum Shinrikyo, established in 1984 and promoted values combining yoga, Buddhism and Christianity (though it acted more like a personal cult of Asahara), had been linked to several high-profile murder cases before. Having received news that the police would raid Aum Shinrikyo’s headquarters on 22nd March, Asahara and several top members decided to plant a sarin gas attack on 20th March in hopes of diverting the police’s attention. Their plans failed, as the police quickly arrested members of Aum Shinrikyo and held them responsible for the sarin gas attack (Asahara was sentenced to death, but to date his execution was still kept in prison; in 2012, the last suspect on the run was arrested).
Mawaru Penguindrum, perhaps out of respect, did not directly address the 20th March 1995 attack in the anime as being committed by Aum Shinrikyo. Instead, it creates a fictional terrorist organization in place of it. The focus of the show was also not on how it affected lives at the time, but how it affected the lives of children of the involved parties. If Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) was about how teenagers struggled to make sense of their existence in the 1990s, then Mawaru Penguindrum was about children living in the aftermath, or continuation, of the Lost Decade.
Battle Hymn of the Cultural Old
The Subway Sarin Incident caused a public panic and added to the society’s despair when the deteriorating economy was making people suffer. Even more shocking, many Aum Shinrikyo members were young graduates from elite universities. This prompted a wide discussion of what factors led to seemingly ‘better people’ in society to commit such acts. There was also discussion of how the education system, poor economy and dysfunctional family relationships all contributed to the occurrence of this event. Bit by bit, Mawaru Penguindrum tried to address and dissect these issues by providing us characters haunted by their own pasts.
Keiju Tabuki appeared to be just an ordinary senior high teacher, with the only thing distinct about him was that he was dating a famous actress. However, as the series went on, viewers learned that Tabuki was actually a victim of a perfectionist mother, who had an obsession with musical talents in people. She even divorced her first husband after reckoning he lacked talent, and married a promising composer, giving birth to Tabuki’s younger brother. The goal of Tabuki’s mother was to train the brothers into becoming pianists, preaching the idea to Tabuki that he lived for music and music only. After Tabuki deliberately injured his hands in hopes of earning his mother’s sympathy for once, she simply turned her back on him, since Tabuki could never play the piano again.
Here, it seems like the writers were playing with the stereotypes of Asian parents being Tiger Mom – in other words, perfectionists who think their children must excel in everything. It is commonly known that Japanese people value exam results a lot, which result in the popularity of tutoring centers and adding pressure to teenagers’ shoulders, since failing to be admitted to a top university would bring bad reputation to the family. Back in 1990s Japan, the situation was not that different. Everyone believed firmly that children were to follow orders of parents, that parents were doing this only for the benefit of the children in the future. However, they did not consider the emotional state of the children, thus putting an intense amount of pressure on the children who feared nothing more than failing their parents’ expectations. Like the representation in the anime, Tabuki was a bird trapped in its cage. His sense of self came solely from his mother’s perspective, and his rebellion of going against his mother’s will only proved his theory that his mother liked talents, not people. Tabuki never won against his mother, and when his mother abandoned him, he was doomed to utmost despair and a loss of self.
Formation of a child in a patriarchal society
Next, we have Yuri Tokikago and Masako Natsume, both victims of patriarchal society. Yuri’s father was a famed sculptor who only saw ‘beauty’ in his eyes. Curiously, though, his definition of beauty seemed to be those of masculine qualities only, with tall, erect sculptures that psychoanalysts liked to consider as representation of male sexual organ and symbol of power. Notably, his female sculptures were all broken in some way, as if suggesting that females could never be beautiful by all means. He constantly fed a young Yuri the idea that she was ugly, and that he would ‘fix’ her with his ‘love’. The implied sexual molestation further intensified the idea of him trying to manipulate Yuri’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions. If not for Momoka’s eventual intervention, Yuri would never be freed from her father’s absolute control. (Some fans also speculate that Yuri is actually a woman born with male genital, based on the vague monologue she has about her body, hence why she is told that she needs to be ‘fixed’.)
Masako also suffered from male suppression in her family, in her case by her grandfather, a traditional man whose obsession with absolute power made Masako’s father leave the family. Her grandfather despised ‘weak beings’, and aimed at training Mario, Masako’s younger brother with a weak body, to be a useful, strong-willed man to succeed his corporation. An interesting point was that her grandfather never seemed to consider Masako as a potential heir to his corporation, despite her talents and strong will. In his mind, Masako was a girl and hence not ‘suitable’ to take over his work. Even though Mario was weak and (stereotypically) more feminine than masculine, he was determined to make him a capable man by intensely training him with his traditional, masculine method. In his eyes, Masako was never a feasible choice. Even after the grandfather’s death (ironically, of overconfidence), Masako could not get rid of his shadow, for she had become a heartless utilitarian just like him.
Japan had long been a patriarchal society, granting men the power and rights while diminishing women’s status for centuries. In 1990s Japan, things had improved, but the idea of male dominance was still very prevalent. Here, Mawaru Penguindrum was not specifically criticizing 1990s Japan but the culture as a whole. The old, conservative males had dominated the political sphere for decades, and their failure to bring fresh changes bothered many Japanese. In society, the old-fashioned hierarchy also prohibited refreshing ideas from blossoming, because instead of wanting new ideas, they just wanted obedient followers. The traits that people worshiped – masculine traits such as competitiveness, independence, aggressiveness – were the reason why they could not break out of their own dilemma.
As the prosperity of 1980s became past tense, the adults were eager to equip their children with the best skills to survive. When that backfired, like the case of Tabuki, the children were deemed worthless, and were succumbed to the fate of being the ‘nobodies’ in society. Mawaru Penguindrum offered a highly dramatic, yet deeply haunting, solution to that: the ‘Child Broiler’.
The Child Broiler worked like a concentration camp, where children abandoned by parents/society gathered. It would crush the children and remodel them, making them transparent like a glass, hence they would become ordinary people on streets that you would not spare a glance at, them being fully alienated from society. This kind of existence symbolized the ‘ideal’ image of children that society expected them to be. Individuality and disobedience were not tolerated. Like a traditional East Asian culture, conformity was triumphant. The child was supposed to follow the lead of others and not breaking traditions.
Recall the Subway Sarin Incident, where those involved in orchestrating the attack were young elites with a supposedly bright future in big companies. They were, in a way, people who had followed the norm for a long time. Even though metaphorically they were not sent to the Child Broiler, it did not mean they were content with their lives. They felt hopeless about the future since they struggled with the meaning of existence when all they could do was to mimic others. It was with such a psyche that cults like Aum Shinrikyo sounded appealing, for they saw a possibility of changing their lives and changing the society that they were so discontent with. In the anime, the people who staged the 1995 attack also knew about the Child Broiler (as seen from Shouma’s later conversation with his father), and their way of fixing that brutal flaw of society was to transform it with the purity of fire, hence rebuilding a new world by destroying the old.
The Child Broiler ties back to the symbolism of the penguins that belonged nowhere. The only outcome for the nobodies was that they would be molded, by the education system and society, into becoming just another salaryman on streets. They had no purpose of life, for it had been taken away from them long time ago. They had nowhere to go, and even survival, the universal animalistic instinct, sounded like a dreadful idea. Were they really living when, like all the background characters of the show, they did not even possess a face?
The Frog on the Shore
In episode 9, Himari was seen in the library, trying to find a book about a frog that saved Tokyo. In the background, many different books were displayed, but one that clearly stood out went with the name of Underground (1997), the author’s name being clearly stated as Haruki Murakami (b. 1949).
The story that Himari was looking for was actually a short story written by Murakami, after the Great Hanshin earthquake that killed more than 6000 people. (The earthquake took place on, not surprisingly, 1995.) The story was called ‘Super-Frog Saves Tokyo’, about a frog that fought an evil earthworm in order to save the people of Tokyo. The story was bizarre, but the point it tried to emphasize was the belief in the self that could make a difference. Any ordinary person, like the protagonist in this frog story, dared not to dream of saving the world by himself or herself, but in this story the frog convinced the protagonist that he could actually make a difference by stepping up. Given that episode 9 was about Himari’s past with Triple H, was this her fantasy of what her life would be like if she decided to stay in Triple H? It was hard to tell.
Underground was Murakami’s attempt to interview survivors of the Sarin Subway Attack. Apart from learning the perspectives of ordinary citizens involved in that shocking incident, he also managed to interview several members of Aum Shinrikyo and tried to get their point of view on the matter. (In the Japanese edition of the book, the interview with the cult members were published in a separate book, titled The Place that was Promised.) It was an important piece of journalistic work that criticized the public’s attitude of questioning what happened, instead of asking the proper question of why it had happened. In the anime, viewers knew that an event took place in 1995 that affected all the characters, but what exactly was the event about? Why did the people do that? What social factors attributed to the occurrence of such event? These are the questions that Mawaru Penguindrum asked, and one that we were left to ponder on.
The Scorpion Fire: The Real Penguindrum
The beginning and ending scenes of Mawaru Penguindrum featured two kids (implied to be reincarnation of Shouma and Kanba in the latter) discussing what ‘Kenji’ was trying to say. ‘Kenji’ here refers to Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), one of Japan’s most celebrated authors. His most famous piece of work, Night on the Galactic Railroad (1927), is a well-known story among Japanese, and one that has many references in Mawaru Penguindrum.
Night on the Galactic Railroad featured a poor, gentle boy Giovanni, who found himself on board of a train with his good friend, the kind and caring Campanella, after he took a rest on the hill. The train turned out to be one that traveled in the Galaxy. Throughout this journey, they encountered different passengers, who each had a story to tell. After learning their stories, such as some travelers whose ship had just crashed into an iceberg (implying the real life event of the Titanic in 1912), Giovanni and Campanella made a promise to never part from each other. However, Campanella soon disappeared from Giovanni’s eyesight when the train approached another station. Giovanni woke up, and in reality he heard the news that Campanella had sacrificed himself to save a drowning classmate. The train that rode through the Galaxy turned out to be one that transported people to their afterlife.
The character designs of the main protagonists of Mawaru Penguindrum, Shouma and Kanba, were based on Giovanni and Campanella. Like Giovanni, Shouma was a rather passive character who cared a lot for other people, and eventually he became a strong character who could stand for himself. Kanba was modeled on Campanella, who was born in a rich family and was raised as a caring person with a knight spirit of self-sacrifice. From the beginning, Shouma and Kanba contrasted each other much in personality, but like Giovanni and Campanella they showed great concern for each other, to the point that they knew they could not live without the others faring well too. Throughout the anime, even though Shouma and Kanda did not agree on everything, they still cared a lot for each other, with Kanba being Shouma’s ‘person of destiny’ and Shouma trying to save Kanba at the very end.
The story also had a parable of the Scorpion Fire, which symbolized the spirit of self-sacrificing for the better good. This paralleled the very idea of ‘penguindrum’, which was not to give up lives easily, but to be the light in times of darkness. The passion for life and the intrinsic motivation to heal others directly linked to the sharing of life, just like how the apple of destiny was shared among different characters in the anime. In the last episode, Ringo was originally consumed by the fire, but Shouma took over and let the fire consume his life instead. Such was the spirit of the Scorpion Fire that Miyazawa entailed.
Conclusion: beyond entertainment value…
Mawaru Penguindrum discusses many social problems in the story – child abuse, child negligence, family disharmony, discrimination, among many others. We easily think of events such as the Subway Sarin Incident as individual events that only happen once, but we fail to comprehend the roots of such events, which is why the social problems keep recurring without a pause. More importantly, like the Jacks in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996), these ‘terrorists’ as we know it are actually very normal-looking people standing walking past us every day. Mawaru Penguindrum tries to deliver the message that love is still the essential element in life that we should all share with each other, much like how Kanba, Shouma and Himari offered each other the apple of destiny.
Mawaru Penguindrum is known to be a difficult anime (personally speaking, I cannot say I understand it 100% either), with many more topics to cover than the ones listed here, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid trying to understand it in its given context. We cannot treat it as just an entertaining show and let it slip from our mind. It hopes to make us think, make us challenge the status quo, and see if we can figure out how it can be improved. We do not want something as ridiculous yet metaphorically realistic as the Child Broiler to exist in our society. It is a pity if we simply treat it as an entertainment show and do not think about the underlying message behind its complexity.
What do you think? Leave a comment.