It’s ironic that for most of this series’ run, I’ve admired Mawaru Penguin Drum technically and felt somewhat detached emotionally. Because as we enter the final arc, Ikuhara has thoroughly captured my emotions, but I can’t help but think that the show has gone slightly off the rails from a narrative perspective…
There’s no denying the bleak and depressing nature of this episode, as befits one which centers on the emotional state of the least likable cast member, Kanba. While I do appreciate that Ikuhara has restrained his surrealist tendencies in the last few episodes and that the show has connected emotionally because of it, it feels to me as if everything is just taking too long to fall together. I’m really wondering now if everything we saw in the first cour was a misdirection and/or a lie. The lies are obvious enough – none of the relationships are what they seemed, first and foremost. But while I do enjoy a little dramatic subterfuge I also like a writer to play fair with their audience, and right now – and I freely admit the last arc could prove me wrong – almost everything that happened feels like it was part of a different show. Ringo’s craziness, the Penguin Queen, the Penguin Drum – where does any of it fit into the big picture? Is there any way an intelligent viewer could have predicted from the first cour what would happen in the second?
I’m certainly aware that some of this is quite intentional on the writer/director’s part. Ikuhara is showing us not to trust anything we see and hear at face value, and there’s merit in that. Ikuhara’s is not a mind that thinks in straight lines, I know (the subway map is a beautiful metaphor for this and so much else) but I’d like to think that everything that happens in MPD is at least connected, and not just by a deux ex machina at the end to try and tie up all the loose threads. There’s still time, but he’s set himself a challenge that’s going to be difficult to meet. Again, it’s so ironic that as the show has become more linear and less slick when the episodes are viewed singly – and in doing so become much more engaging – it’s lost some of its cohesion and narrative flow when viewed as a whole. Ikuhara links the episodes using that subway map, but in this I’m reminded instead of a meandering river. Sometimes after much wandering, the bends of a river connect, and the meander is “abandoned” as the river now flows by the more direct course. Could the first cour be an abandoned meander?
So color me conflicted, because despite those concerns I’m more emotionally involved with the characters (especially Himari) than ever. I think it was inevitable after last week that things would devolve into a conflict between Shouma and Kanba, though I didn’t expect it to be quite so soon and quite so literal. In addition to their conflict as brothers, I believe theirs is no less than a clash of competing world views, with the stakes much greater than Himari herself. At this point I can only assume that Kanba’s conversations with his “parents” in the ramen shop have been no less than full-on hallucinations, though perhaps there’s a more mystical explanation. There’s no question based on what Himari and Tabuki saw that the parents are dead, and the conversations make sense in the context of an adopted boy wanting to hear from his parents that he’s their favorite. it would disappoint me if that’s all it was, though Kanba is probably a troubled enough soul for it to make sense.
The practical aspect seems to be that Kanba is indeed heading up the Kiga Group himself, or at least powerful enough to have people (in this case the reporter) murdered on his command. Relativism is at the heart of his philosophy, much as it with Kiritsugu in Fate/Zero – everything boils down to an equation of gained vs. lost. Now that Souma has seen the truth and knowing what we know about him, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll ever be able to forgive Kanba for what he’s done, which seemingly precludes an ending where both of them are still standing. And Himari – kicked out of the house by Souma in what seems a transparent attempt to punish himself for his perceived failures – is already living under a death sentence, more than ready to sacrifice herself to save Kanba from himself. Her alliance with Masako (seemingly confirmed irrefutably to be Kanba’s sister) is an interesting one, because we don’t yet know the full meaning of what Masako meant by telling her that “Out of concern for me and Mario, Kanba abandoned everything and stayed by my father’s side”. What is their father’s connection to Shouma’s parents – was his involvement with them the reason Masako’s Grandfather kicked him out? It seems as if their father felt he’d erred in choosing Kanba – choosing over over Mario, perhaps, or even Masako? And finally, just what is the place in the story of Mario and his own penguin hat? Is that another lost thread from the first arc, never to be satisfactorily reconciled?
Just as things seemed on the verge of a redemptive finish for Tabuki and Yuri, their story seemingly came crashing down around them in the abandoned ramen-ya at the hands of a Kiga attacker. As for Sanetoshi, he seems to have confirmed that he’s the head of the KIga Group, and that his aim is to finish what he started 16 years earlier. He’s also the former assistant of Himari’s doctor, and oh by the way, he’s also apparently dead. This is another instance where we’re not quite sure how literally to take anything in MPD, which sometimes feels as if it’s trying to set up an ending where everything can be explained scientifically and rationally, and sometimes feels like it’s a purely fantastical story where religious and mystical elements are as real as rocks and trees. In that sense, it’s reminding me more and more of Murakami Haruki, who likewise never lets you feel quite comfortable as to whether what you’re reading is literal of symbolic. Any comparison to Murakami is praise, and for all my concerns about this show I don’t dispute its formidable virtues. It’s a confusing and sometimes exasperating mess, but there’s no denying it’s art.