Episode 20 of Mawaru Penguin Drum was cryptic and full of mysteries, and as always raised new questions with every one it answered. But as a whole, the emotional impact was as powerful as any episode in the series’ entire run.
Maybe it’s my tryptophan and wine-addled mind that’s the cause, but this ep really hit me hard (in a good way). So you’ll have to bear with me if this Thanksgiving blog post isn’t my usual flawlessly coherent (heh) style, but I’m more inclined to talk about the depth of feeling in the episode than to microscopically analyze it. A number of factors contributed to that effectiveness for me. The music, a soaring and stirring power-up from the series’ usual BGM. The visuals, with every close-up of Sho and Himari (and Sunny) and every background shot of a grimy condo complex in the snow, were gorgeous. And finally, seeing Shouma finally step forward from his impotent observer role and take his place at the visceral heart of the show, where he’d always seemed destined to be.
Shouma, from the beginning, has been the character in MPD that felt most like a whole person, despite his relatively minor role in driving events. He’s unfailingly kind, which has been the source of much of his pain, and far too eager to blame himself for the ills of the world (which he’s still doing). It now appears that not only was Shouma the only true Takakura child, but that he chose Himari even before she went to the child broiler. Outside a run-down condo complex, he found an abandoned little girl waiting for the mother that would never return. Much as Momoka did for Yuri, he became Himari’s only lifeline to the world of the living – and like Orpheus he followed his soulmate into the underworld to return her to the lands above. It appears on the surface that Shouma and Himari’s tale ends more happily than Orpheus and Eurydice’s, but I’m not so sure. In any case the sequence of events outside that condo, with Sho, Himari and the abandoned kitten, was the most heartbreaking of the series for me.
Again, as always, new questions of born from every answer. Inside that condo what would later be renamed the Kiga Group was meeting secretly, planning the subway attacks. It appears that Kanba and Masako are indeed siblings, as has been speculated, though I’m not ready to accept that at face value just yet. This certainly explains many of Masako’s actions, but then how did Kanba end up a Takakura? Why wasn’t he present in Masako’s flashback to her childhood at her Grandfather’s mansion? And then of course there’s the matter of the Kiga Group’s motivations themselves. They speak of cleansing the Earth, creating a world where mankind uses only what it needs. An eco-terrorist group of sorts? They’re clearly a doomsday cult as well, as Sho’s father Kenzan speaks of a coming judgment day – both in flashback and in the present. When Himari disappears and leaves him a note saying she’s going to the child broiler, Sho asks his father about it – and Kenzan speaks of the broiler as a sin against mankind, a terrible thing, and of the many children it was consuming every day – almost as if the actions of the cult were going to prevent that in future.
Not to be forgotten in all this is the mystery of Sanetoshi and The Penguin Queen. Sanetoshi is seen trying hard to push Himari towards some sort of consummation with her fated one, presumably Sho. The metaphor of eating the fruit is peppered throughout his speech, so it’s impossible not to think of him as the snake in Eden – not least because Shouma asked Himari if she knew the story of Adam & Eve, and offered to share a Kiga Group apple (which she refused). It’s also impossible not to wonder why it’s so important to Sanetoshi that Shouma and Himari (presumably) are united, and whether Kenzan and the Kiga Group are indeed working towards the same ends he is. The implication then is that The Penguin Queen (Momoka?) is pushing in the opposite direction, and perhaps even trying to push Kanba and Himari together expressly to keep her away from Shouma. It’s worth remembering that way back in episode 9 Sanetoshi made reference to the fact that Momoka refused to play along with his notions of remaking the world more to his liking.
It appears to me that we’re rushing towards a conclusion where Shouma and Kanba are forced to do battle with each other – not over Himari, but over the fate of the world itself. The reference to “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” last week makes more sense when viewed in that light, it being the story of a conflict between brothers at least in part – a story in which the elder brother perishes. But what is Ringo’s role – the character who once seemed at the center of everything, but now seems increasingly a supporting player in the events to follow? It’s fascinating that Shouma and Himari were largely observers and abstracts rather than instigators in the first cour, but now both have emerged as the key players in the second. We now have a direct link between Shouma and Momoka and between Himari and Yuri, and it runs through the child broiler. There are even hints here that the broiler may in fact be a physical place, and not just a metaphysical state of consciousness – if so, could it be that anyone could go there if their will was strong enough?
The child broiler, however you interpret it, was at the heart of why this episode was so gut-wrenching. I tend to look at it as a combination of many things – a Buddhist hell, a physical place, and a metaphor for the way modern society desperately wants not to have to look at those “undesirables” who don’t fit with the vision of the world that society wants to see. Even Japan isn’t immune to this (though it’s less plagued by it than many other nations) – there are homeless, and mentally ill, and immigrants, all of whom are an unwanted blemish on the image of a united society where the good of all is always of paramount importance. This world is a cruel place for the helpless, and no one is more helpless than an unwanted and abandoned child. For every Momoka or Shouma – or Superfrog – who take it upon themselves to do something merely because it’s the right thing to do, there are countless others who prefer to simply look away, or to foul their karma (and that of the world) by responding to injustice with the lust for revenge. I felt all this very deeply when watching this episode, all of those ideas personified in the little bodies of Shouma and Himari, and that made it one of the best anime episodes of the season.