ajthefourth: There’s something inherently fascinating and romantic about train travel. The idea that a train stops at numerous destinations, offering numerous possibilities and yet is unable to expand beyond where its rails take it is one that makes the train an excellent image to work with in regards to themes of life and death. Rife with train imagery, Mawaru Penguindrum is the latest anime series to address these themes and it does so with confidence, style, and substance.
Specifically, Mawaru Penguindrum uses many references to Night on the Galactic Railroad, a novel by Kenji Miyazawa. In Night on the Galactic Railroad, Giovanni, a boy who has dealt with hardship for the majority of his life, and his friend Campanella board a train into the Milky Way. While on board the train, the two friends meet other children who are essentially being shuttled to the afterlife.
‘You can stay on with us, ’ said Giovanni, unable to hold himself in. ‘We’ve got a ticket that goes on forever!’
’But we have to get off here, ’ said Kaoru, sadly. ‘This is where you get off to go to Heaven.’
’Who says you have to go to Heaven? My teacher says that we have to create a place that’s even better than Heaven right here.’
-Night on the Galactic Railroad
The above quote by Giovanni is directed towards a pair of children, Kaoru and Tadashi, who have been asked to leave the train at their specific stop. Tadashi attempts to stay on longer; however, following Giovanni’s invitation, Kaoru responds that they have to get off at this stop in order to get to heaven. This exchange devolves into a small argument about the validity of Kaoru’s god versus Giovanni’s own. After all, Giovanni’s god wouldn’t want Kaoru and Tadashi to leave, therefore Kaoru’s god must be wrong. In addition to this, Giovanni also makes the claim that what one could experience in life is better than any afterlife, provided that you willfully create such a place. This idea of fighting against your fate and God is exactly what the Takakura brothers are introduced as trying to do in their attempts to save their ailing sister Himari who only has days to live.
Upon her death, Himari is revived by a mysterious entity who orders the brothers to find the “penguin drum” in exchange for the extension of Himari’s life. The spirit makes the claim that she has come from the destination of the brothers’ fate, and her introduction begins with the words, “Survival strategy!” which, aside from being a cute catchphrase, also describes exactly what the brothers are currently trying to do with Himari. This reinforces the idea that, like a train on its tracks, Shouma and Kanba Takakura may stop at a variety of destinations, but are bound to a single fate. Their confrontation with the spirit possessing their sister serves to make it abundantly clear to the brothers that Himari’s life should have already ended, and what was described to them as a miracle by the doctors is now a service that they must apparently pay for.
vucubcaquix: As I watched this last night with my viewing partner, the very first minute of the show had the main character railing against the cruelty of Fate, which had me recalling a few things I read about Deism. Specifically, the notion of the Clockwork Universe Theory that was so popular amongst the Deists of the 18th century. The basic gist is that in the beginning, God designed everything in the universe to behave according to the natural laws that he designed. He wound everything up with all of the energy that would ever be needed in the history of existence, gave existence a little flick of his finger, and stepped back to see the universe proceed perfectly forward like clockwork, never to interfere again. The Deists were enamored with that particular view of the universe when they saw that Newton’s laws of motion not only explained how falling apples behaved, but heavenly bodies as well. Everything behaved according to a certain immutable set of rules, unable to be broken, fated to fulfill whatever grand goal or machination had been set for them since the beginning of everything.
— Vuc (@vucub_) July 8, 2011
That is Predeterminism and Causality. The idea that nothing in this universe has ever occurred without first a cause preceding it, and those causes are themselves the effects of causes that preceded them, all the way until the very beginning. This even puts the idea of free will under strain (or at least the common perception of it) since if everything that ever occurs is a result of a preceding cause and so on, then I’ve never chosen to do anything under my own volition ever. Why am I writing this? Because I downloaded this show. Why did I download it? Because I enjoy anime. Why do I enjoy it? Because I’ve enjoyed animation since I was a child. Why? My parents purchased animated VHS tapes for me. Why? Because it was an easy way to occupy my time for two working parents.
Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Because. Because. Because. Because. Because. For every single choice you make, if you truly examine its circumstance, you can find a preceding cause that made it so. It even extends to our personalities, since our thoughts and worldviews are the result of the sum of our genetics and the experiences that comprise our lifetimes. Thus each moment that occurs, moment to moment, is itself causing predetermined effects for the future that lead us on unfeelingly to our fates. Everything that will ever happen has a predetermined cause, a meaning that was never really our own to assign.
But that is what the Takakura brothers rage against. They hate the word fate. They choose to believe in a more existential notion that the world and their lives do not have predetermined meanings, but rather ones that they themselves assign. I believe that the narrative thrust of this show is going to focus on that effort, the first inklings of that effort manifest themselves in that quite shocking final image.
ajthefourth: This juxtaposition between the existentialist leanings of the brothers and the Deist trappings of the series (especially with Himari noting in the next episode preview that she loves the idea of fate) is a confrontation that the series likely will concern itself with throughout its run. This is wonderfully summed up by a conversation that two children have while walking by the Takakura household, which is shown above. Their analysis of certain themes in Night on the Galactic Railroad, and their inability to understand each other due to their different viewpoints is a fantastic microcosm within this episode; the idea that the world is just beginning upon death pitted against the idea that there is no afterlife and the world is what you make of it in the here and now.
This clash is accentuated in the visuals. The train imagery reinforces Night on the Galactic Railroad as well as the idea of a train’s inability to deviate from its tracks, much like one supposedly cannot deviate from one’s fate. Specifically, all flashbacks are shown as destination/arrival tickers, all destinations in the series itself are shown through actual train signs.
Apples are shown throughout the series, including both the OP and ED reiterating the conflict and possibly representing the more romantic ideal that the first boy addresses in the video above. Contrasting this are the vibrant, almost garish, appearances of the interior and exterior of the Takakura house. Even at night or on a rainy day, the whimsical house seems to explode outward into streets, startling both the passerby and the viewer. In addition to this, it’s worth noting that the most vibrant pops of color are always when the three siblings are together in a scene; the interior of their house, the aquarium, riding together in a noticeably empty train car, or in the dazzling sequence that transforms Himari. What is most interesting about these visuals is how they are almost vulgar in their overtness, especially when they are used in sequences where traditionally a duller color palette would be used.
vucubcaquix: There’s a lot of playing around with the sense of composition and color. For every scene where the three siblings are present and the world is vibrant there are scenes where the color palette is noticeably skewed in one direction instead of the cornucopia of colors usually present.
vucubcaquix: The way the series plays with color to convey meanings and themes with a sense of both whimsy and just the slightest amount of dread reminds one of the very best fairy tales used to scare children into behaving in a bygone era. Mawaru Penguindrum is seeking out to craft a modern fairy tale about the struggles of three young people who strike out against the fates that have been laid out for them, helped along with the most adorable trio of penguins you’ll see in anime, and forces beyond the comprehension of the protagonists.
ajthefourth: Well, David, it seems like we’ve had a large amount to say in regards to this first episode of Mawaru Penguindrum. I was excited about this series before the season started, due to its director’s pedigree, and now have discovered a myriad of reasons to continue watching thanks to this excellent first episode. How about you?
vucubcaquix: Well, I know for a fact that I’m going to be watching this. In fact, I think I’m going to have to start Utena as well, heh heh.
ajthefourth: I highly recommend that you do so. The same time next week?
vucubcaquix: It’s a date.
*edit: “Ringo” was initially used in this entry as the name for the entity possessing Himari. Thanks to some sleuthing by Raph, it seems that our research was incorrect and Ringo is actually a completely different character. Sorry about the mistake.