Since the end of Mawaru Penguindrum, I’ve seen a lot of people say things along the lines of, “this anime sucked, there was no real story and no explanation whatsoever.” OK, comments may not have been that extreme, but you get the idea. I actually thought that the story was great, and no great story holds your hand through the end. With that said, it’s understandable that there would be some confusion with regards to Mawaru Penguindrum. To try to dispel some of that confusion, I have outlined some of my observations and conclusions here. It is by no means complete and I can’t guarantee it’s what the writer had intended, but it’s how I viewed the series and why I enjoyed it.
I have structured this post so that observations and explanations of small details are listed first. In the conclusion I explain how I viewed the series, and you can just skip to that part if you aren’t interested in the details.
Warning: Do not read further if you have not completed Mawaru Penguindrum (or Revolutionary Girl Utena). The topics that I cover below will spoil the entire series and assumes that you have seen every episode at least once.
The Thread of Fate
As I mentioned in my review of the series, Mawaru Penguindrum is based heavily on classical Greek plays, but it also includes traditional Japanese beliefs. One of the beliefs that the Greeks held (and was present in their plays) was that the power of fate, or more specifically, The Fates was absolute. The Fates spun threads that determined the length of a person’s life and the paths they would take. The outcomes predicted by the threads are impossible to stop or reverse, as proven by failed attempts by tragic heroes in Greek literature.
In the very first scene of the first episode, Shoma’s dialogue states how he hates “fate” because it sets everyone’s future on a predetermined path, making God rather cruel. He ends by stating that they didn’t have a future, alluding to his and Kanba’s inevitable demise. This is a clear reference to the idea that one’s fate cannot be altered no matter what you do.
Further reference to the inevitability of predetermined fate is made using the Red String of Fate in the ending credits. The Red String of Fate is widely known across East Asian cultures as a thread that connects two people who are destined to be together (usually lovers). Red threads are always shown to be connected to Himari somehow in the ending credits, implying that whoever is at the other end is closely tied to her and they will never be apart. This is why Himari’s dialogue in the final moments of the last episode state that she loves fate.
So with everything set in stone, and at least Shoma’s lack of a future confirmed in the first episode, why even watch the series? To give a simple explanation, consider the story of Oedipus Rex, who was told by the oracle that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Based on the inevitability of fate, everyone already knows that he will do exactly as the oracle foretold, but it’s not the ending that entertains, it’s the path that Oedipus took to get there.
One of the defining elements of Greek plays is the presence of a tragic hero. As the name implies, you need a hero character, but he must have the following traits:
Hamartia - a fatal or tragic flaw (Kanba’s love for Himari)
Hubris – extreme pride or arrogance (Kanba)
Anagnorisis - a sudden realization (Shoma’s realization of their fate)
Peripeteia - a reversal of circumstances (Kanba turns into the antagonist while Shoma leaves his role as bystander)
Nemesis – inescapable fate (Kanba and Shoma do not have a future, as stated in the first episode)
Catharsis – cause an extreme change in emotion towards him from the audience (who didn’t feel sad when the brothers disappeared?)
Interestingly, no single character contains all of these traits (not all are necessary), but Kanba and Shoma combined do cover all the bases. This is probably due to them sharing the apple and tying together their fates.
Interestingly, hamartia can also be found in the villan, Sanetoshi. His kindness towards Himari was what caused his downfall. He was the one that sent Himari’s scarves to Double H, causing them to visit Himari’s house and passing along their new album, the last phrase in Momoka’s spell, to Ringo. Honestly, I don’t remember seeing any hints of Sanetoshi’s fate, but I could just have missed them.
Momoka the Witch
One burning question that plagued my mind during the series was who or what was Momoka, and how did she gain such power? The closest explanation I’ve come to is that she is a witch, much like Anthy, the witch in Revolutionary Girl Utena. Both Momoka and Anthy sacrifice themselves in order to protect the one(s) they love, but never complete their goals, leaving them cursed. As to how Momoka came to possess a diary that can transfer fate, I’m still stuck on that one.
Yuri and the Chisel
The episodes about Yuri were easy enough to decipher. As a child, she was repeatedly raped and beaten by her father until Momoka saved her. The pounding of the chisel represented the pounding of another long hard item. I don’t think I need to explain why this kind of trauma would make Yuri go yuri.
Tabuki and the Elevator
I explained this in my review of the series, along with other topics not mentioned here.
Everyone knows the significance of apples in literature as a symbol of knowledge and power, but also one of sin and punishment. Kanba and Shoma shared an apple, implying that they shared the same sin (and therefore must share the punishment). As for what the sin is, I can only guess that it was the knowledge that their parents were going to carry out a terrorist attack and their choice not to do something to stop them.
Based on the last episode, we can assume that both Kanba and Shoma died as children, leaving Himari the only survivor of the Takakura family. From various flashbacks in the series, we can also assume that a family trip to the aquarium was Himari’s last fond memory with her brothers, possibly causing her to associate the two things that made her happy, her brothers and penguins, with each other. Penguins are also cute and look more human than fish.
As many people have pointed out, the penguins are used as a representation of Self as defined in Jungian theory. They revealed the inner emotions of the characters through visual riddles, much like the Double H ads on the train.
A Train Ride
If nothing else, this is one thing I am absolutely sure of. Considering the major similarities between Mawaru Penguindrum and classical Greek plays, it’s not far of a stretch to relate the train rides to travelling down the river Styx (heading to the afterlife). After more thought however, I realized that the constant imagery of travelling on a train referred to something else: Night on the Galactic Railroad. You can read up on the story here. It is considered a classic Japanese novel and is known throughout Japan; there is even an anime loosely based on it called Galaxy Express 999. Throughout the series, Kanba, Shouma, Himari, and Ringo are seen riding an empty train car, heading towards the final stop, which can be assumed to be the afterlife. If you’re wondering why Himari and Ringo are still alive if they were riding a train to the afterlife, keep in mind that in Night on the Galactic Railroad, Giovanni rode the train to the last stop, but was never dropped off in the afterlife, only accompanying his friend to his destination of fate.
Further attempts to tie in the relevance of Night on the Galactic Railroad to Mawaru Penguindrum are made in the final minutes of the last episode. As the ghosts of Kanba and Shoma walk past their old home, Kanba specifically mentions the name “Kenji” and his thoughts on death. Well, Kenji Miyazawa just so happens to be the name of the author of Night on the Galactic Railroad. Coincidence? I think not.
In my view, Mawaru Penguindrum was a merger of a classic Japanese novel with the elements that helped make Greek plays popular even to this day. Much like Night on the Galactic Railroad, Mawaru Penguindrum follows a dream-like setting in Himari’s imagination. When Himari lost her adoptive parents, we can assume that she also lost her brothers at the same time or soon afterwards. What we are seeing in the series then, is the adventure that takes place after death. It is in death that Kanba and Shoma found purpose in life, leading them to find true happiness without altering their fate. The different arcs like Ringo’s arc, Masako’s arc, Tabuki’s arc, and Yuri’s arc can be seen as different stops or adventures along the railroad to the afterlife.
I know some of you still have a lot of questions, but I don’t have the answers to all of them, and I’m too tired to write about the rest (it’s almost 3am and I have to head out of town today). If there’s enough interest, I may write a second post detailing other aspects of the series.
Disclaimer: These are my personal views on Mawaru Penguindrum and may not necessarily agree with other interpretations of the series.