“What’re you gonna do when you graduate?
I’m going to high school, of course.
No, I mean in your future.
Haven’t decided yet.
I wanna be an actress.
Do you really believe you can pull that off?”
-”The Shadow Girls,” Revolutionary Girl Utena, Episode 39
One of the signature elements of Kunihiko Ikuhara’s direction is the borrowing or adopting of classic stage elements and putting them to work within his series, giving the audience a grander presentation of the story. One of these key elements is the idea of a Greek chorus: an informed perspective on the story being told that often hints to overall thematic elements presented in the performed piece.
To anyone familiar with the series Revolutionary Girl Utena, the Shadow Girls or “Kashira Girls” play the Greek chorus in that series, offering small shadow plays in each episode that abstractly hint at various themes that are introduced or discussed in that particular episode. In Ikuhara’s latest series, Mawaru Penguindrum, we see a bit of the same thing from the highly successful remnants of Himari Takakura’s ill-fated idol group, Triple H. As Double H, her former friends, Hibari and Hikari, have created an overwhelmingly popular idol duo that present episodic themes in animated placards on the Marunouchi Line trains that our main characters use daily.
Now that we, as an audience, are a bit more informed as to what’s going on in the series (although still not technically informed, knowing Ikuhara) I thought that it would be fun to go back and take an in-depth look at the messages of wisdom that Double H have been trying to impart to us. This will be the first in a series of three posts, covering six episodes each, for a total of 18 before the next episode, 19, airs this coming Thursday. Let’s begin!
Episode One: “Garbage goes in the garbage bin.”- Immediately in the first episode, Penguindrum is seemingly alluding to the sorting of things, which is given a backdrop of life and death thanks to Himari’s death and rebirth. This is the slogan that sets the tone, not only for this episode, but for the series at large, planting the thematic elements of throwing things away, as well as death and reincarnation. This is reinforced by the image of a child in a wastebasket as the symbol for the Child Broiler, a terrifying metaphysical place where unwanted children are thrown out, shredded, and (according to the Child Broiler staff in Episode 18) turned into something uniform, represented by falling glass/mirror shards.
The penguins that follow the Takakura siblings are first introduced to us in trash containers; recyclable (Penguin One, Kanba’s), burnable (Penguin Two, Shouma’s), and non-burnable (Penguin Three, Himari’s) bins. It’s an indirect way of giving a bit of insight into their characterization and the roles that they will play throughout the series. Himari is the non-burnable trash since she is seemingly indestructible throughout the series, in spite of having died (or nearly died in the case of Episode 18) three times, and being a generally sickly girl. It also implies that even if Himari does eventually die, that she will somehow live on regardless, either in the twins’ memories or in an actual afterlife (perhaps the Hole in the Sky Library). Kanba as recyclable is an allusion to what Sanetoshi and the Princess call his “Scorpion’s Soul” which he will repeatedly burn over and over again in order to save Himari’s life; no matter what the consequences, he will reuse himself to save Himari and his brother. Shouma as burnable trash is potentially the most interesting allusion, since we’ve seen Shouma as a passive character up until Episode 18 (usually when he tries to take action he is held back by circumstances, his penguin, or his own guilt). “Burnable” doesn’t seem like an especially auspicious adjective to be assigned to; however, and it hopefully isn’t alluding to Shouma only having one large action to take that will cost him his life.
The idea or phrase of “garbage going in the garbage bin” is also repeated by Shouma in Episode 17, when the three siblings are eating takoyaki in Himari’s hospital room, returning the siblings to their assigned roles one more time before Shouma’s epiphany in Episode 18.
Episode Two: “Molest and be arrested.”- The second episode follows the hijinks and trouble that Kanba and Shouma go through in order to tail Ringo per the Princess of the Crystal/Himari’s instructions. This slogan is introduced immediately before Penguin Two (Shouma’s) accidentally gropes one of Ringo’s classmates, inadvertently introducing the Takakura siblings to Ringo. The rest, they say, is history. Interestingly enough, it’s Shouma’s penguin in this scene playing the role of a pervert, which will later be occupied throughout the majority of the series by Penguin One (Kanba’s). It’s an interesting choice that shows off Shouma’s more “pure-pure boy” characteristics when he gets flustered in spite of the fact that he didn’t grope the girl who accuses him, requiring Kanba to swoop in and charm the girl. It’s an excellent display of their characterization as siblings and how they relate to each other. “Molest and be arrested” also takes on another meaning when it is revealed at the end of this episode that Ringo is stalking Tabuki; the “be arrested” part of the slogan hinting at how Ringo’s stalking dreams will not lead her down the right path for her.
Episode Three: “Stop ‘physicurry’ odor.”- At first, this slogan would appear to be fairly self-explanatory. Ringo boards the train with her magical curry of destiny to share with Tabuki and annoys her fellow passengers on the train with its pungent odor. Upon reviewing this slogan, it’s startling how it becomes a direct allusion to the 1995 Tokyo Subway Attacks. Many passengers on that day who were affected first complained of a sickly-sweet smell. Some described it as vomit, others as paint thinner, others as onions or rotting vegetation; the smell of the sarin as it leaked from the punctured packets on the floors of the train cars. The manner in which the passengers address the smell of Ringo is eerily similar as well with their casual remarks of “Is it me, or does something smell?” and “Why would it smell like that [curry] in a subway car?” This slogan definitely adds a dark and irreverent element to what, at first, appeared to be a rather innocuous remark.
Episode Four: “Beware of luggage theft.”- Episode Four is a much-maligned and generally silly episode, involving Ringo’s misguided attempts to hit on Tabuki only to nearly drown herself. Shouma’s attempts at stealing Ringo’s diary are equally misguided and about as successful as Ringo’s seduction of Tabuki. What is interesting about this episode is that the “luggage theft” in the slogan is broadly applied to Shouma as he is trying to wrangle the diary away from Ringo, and can also be foreshadowing Yuri’s successful theft of the important half of the diary in Episode Eight. Even more vaguely, it could be referring to Shouma “stealing” a kiss from Ringo (when he performs CPR on her to save her life) and how, as the story progresses, Shouma will supplant Tabuki in Ringo’s heart.
Episode Five: “Borrow responsibly, don’t fall into a debt spiral.”- This is the first indication of how dirty Kanba will be willing to get his own hands in order to preserve his family. Initially, it only points to how Kanba is involved in a shady side business, where he is earning enough money to keep his uncle off of his back so that the three can continue to live in their parents’ house. In Episode 18, it was revealed that Kanba had not only been sacrificing himself for Himari, but how he had also been protecting Shouma as well; by being the corrupted sibling, he left Shouma in the dark so that Shouma would be free to sort his own issues out without dirtying his hands as well. What drives Kanba is the preservation of his family at all other costs, and he’s not afraid to taint his own image to do so.
Episode Six: “Watch out for the painful trap by your feet.”- This slogan could be referring to any, or all, of the large hints we are given in this episode as to where conflicts will arise later on in the series. The most obvious one is also represented by Shouma tripping as he attempts to move Ringo’s stuff from her old apartment to her “new apartment” underneath Tabuki’s house. It’s also interesting to note exactly what he trips over; plush dolls of a kappa and an otter, which were shown as Ringo’s mother and father respectively in Ringo’s childhood flashbacks. In order for Shouma to get closer to Ringo, she’s going to have to get over her own issues with her parents first. Kanba also has a painful trap by his feet, as he notices the spent cartridge from Masako’s crossbow at his feet in the hospital. I get the feeling that we still haven’t fully seen just how Kanba and Masako are related, so I’m curious as to where this little piece of foreshadowing may take us.
Well, that’s it for the first six episodes. As you can see, there is still a lot to glean from these slogans, especially viewing them after having seen the majority of the series, and having been exposed to some of its main thematic elements.