One of my favorite sitcoms back when I was a little kid was “The John Laroquette Show” (as with most of the shows I loved, it was a ratings failure and flared out like a supernova). Laroquette is a very funny man who’s lived a very hard and painful life, full of abuse, neglect, and addiction, and his show pulled no punches in depicting a similarly grim reality – played for the darkest of dark comedy – faced by his fictional avatar. On the wall behind that character’s desk hung an old carnival sign that read “This is a dark ride”…
As has been the case pretty much all along, Mawaru Penguin Drum is a show that Ikuhara is making very hard to love, and I’d say the same about its characters. The difference, I suppose, is that for a long time what I felt towards the show and the characters emotionally was apathy, even as I was fascinated intellectually. Now what I feel for most of them is pity, which I suppose is an improvement. This is a dark ride. These are not admirable people for the most part, and some of them are genuinely despicable. Even more, the world they inhabit is almost unspeakably cruel and it’s the kindest and most empathetic of the cast that suffer the most from it. They make it hard to admire them because they do too little, and the ones who do act do so in scurrilous ways. Heroes are hard to come by around here.
I would say that Kanba, at least, has been a consistent presence for me. I never liked him. I didn’t like the way he treated Shouma, and I didn’t like the way he acted as if Himari were an object that belonged to him. But even I’ve been surprised as the ante has been upped every week, more evil deeds piled on top of evil deeds. It may be that Kanba is acting for what he sees as a noble cause in trying to cheat death and save Himari, but it’s not noble – it’s an obsession plain and simple. And no cause would justify the actions Kanba has taken in his single-minded quest, even given the fact that Sanetoshi is manipulating him. There was a possibility for a while that Kanba might be redeemed in the end, but frankly I have a hard time seeing any scenario where that can happen and still deliver a satisfying ending. Any universe in which Kanba is redeemed would have to be a nihilistic one, and for all Ikuhara’s darkness I don’t believe that’s the message he’s going for. Miyazawa Kenji’s “Galactic Railroad”, Murakami’s “Superfrog”, even the flashbacks to Momoka and Shouma and the child broiler – all these tell us that there is goodness in the world, and that selflessness does exist. I don’t think Ikuhara will ultimately reject all that in favor of total despair. If I’m right, it’s too late for Kanba.
It’s funny how Masako has emerged as one of the more likable characters, though her hands are certainly not clean. Given what she’s had to bear – abandoned by an older brother and forced to try and protect a younger from her insane Grandfather – she’s been one of the more noble combinations of action and purpose. And though Kanba – admittedly in what started as an act of self-sacrifice – has all but given up on her in favor of Himari, she’s never given up on him. But like Himari, she seems unable to prevent his being used by Sanetoshi to fulfill his own purposes and meeting his doom, though she follows him in his symbolic descent into Hell, right into the modern catacombs underneath Tokyo. It even appears that she’s decided to die for him –apparently abandoning Mario – though whether that turns out to be the case we won’t know until next week. As Kanba’s henchmen told her, it’s too late for them to surrender – they’ll never be forgiven for all they’ve done. The truth of that statement reaches far beyond the circumstances in which it was uttered.
Sacrifice is a theme we see a lot of in MPD, and this is the siren song that has called Kanba to his doom, that he’s engaged in a noble sacrifice like Miyazawa’s scorpion or Murakami’s Superfrog when in fact he’s acting out of selfishness. Masako’s attempt to save him comes closer to that ideal, which we see most exemplified in what we know of Momoka, who is the real Superfrog of the piece right down to saving Tokyo in 1995. But who will save Tokyo now, with Momoko gone? Shouma – whose own act of saving Himari was the other pure act of selflessness in this story – has foolishly surrendered to his own sorrow and sent Himari into the lion’s den, and himself into despair (is this the box we see young Shouma inside in the preview?). Yuri, saved from what we know now was a knife attack by Tsubasa by Tabuki’s act of – wait for it – sacrifice, has recused herself from further involvement and given her half of the diary to Ringo. In their way, though Tabuki may be dying, those two at least seem to have found their redemptive ending.
If there’s any hope for a redemptive conclusion, it would seem to sit in Ringo’s hands – supremely ironic given where she was as character after ten episodes. Even if she’s set up to be the new Momoka and fulfill her destiny, it’s worth remembering that the other half of the diary is still in Masako’s possession, and Masako may be dying in a hail of bullets underneath the city. The diary which seemed to important has been largely forgotten, an abandoned meander, as has the Penguin Queen and her survival strategy. Perhaps they were too important then not to be important now. If nothing else Ringo is probably the only one who might be able to pull Shouma out of his self-pitying inactivity and spur him towards what must surely be an inevitable confrontation with his non-brother Kanba. At least he’s taken to looking for Himari, which is something. If Shouma is to confront Kanba, then Himari (if she still lives) with her penguin drum or Ringo with her diary would seem to be the most likely to make the ultimate sacrifice. Of course neither Superfrog nor The Scorpion survived – that was what made their sacrifice a selfless one.