What Penguindrum Means to Me

If everything is already set in stone by fate, then why are we even born? There are those born wealthy, those born of beautiful mothers, and those born into war or poverty. If everything is caused by fate, then God must be incredibly unfair and cruel.

Because, ever since that day, none of us had a future. The only thing we knew was that we would never amount to anything.

It dawned on me the other day that, despite speaking for literally 2 hours about Ikuhara, I never really discussed what made his work important to me, especially in regards to Penguindrum, which is my favorite of his works by such a significant margin that the others don’t even come close. Everything I have to say on its historical context, its place in Ikuhara’s broader portfolio, its intertextual relationships, and its higher themes can be found in my video. Here, I simply want to discuss why it’s one of my absolute favorite anime.

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The quote pasted above is one that encapsulates the questions of the entire show. Is everything driven by fate? Well, the answer to that, in the show’s view, is a profound: mostly. Fate is very real, but it’s not merely some abstract predestination which demands what each and every person does. Fate, rather, is the social conditions in which someone exists. It’s not God, at least in any religious sense, who puts the Takakura’s on the path towards terrorism, but rather the Big Other of capitalism which dooms them to poverty and the world at large to intense suffering. Yet, Momoka’s actions against Sanetoshi demonstrate a further point: we all possess a unique subjectivity even in similar social conditions. Fate, in other words, may constrain us, but it does not doom us solely to one path. It’s an overused line, but as Marx said, “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.”

This is best demonstrated by the Takakura siblings. While all were born in different situations, they all came together despite fate’s mandate that they should be split up (and in Himari’s case, sent to the Child Broiler). Even then, once they live in the same environment as one another, and are thus fated to the same lack of future, they each take separate paths. Himari is fated to die, but instead lives, while the brothers are fated to live, and take separate paths that still end with their deaths in able to provide Himari’s future. Yet, the fact that they must die to ensure Himari doesn’t makes it clear that they do not break fate as they please. Ikuhara’s work is, of course, very focused on the impossibility of toppling restrictive social structures on your own, and the need to escape and carve the greatest niche you can out of that. Sometimes, that means intense self-sacrifice.

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This has always meant a lot to me, beyond the ordinary extent to which the death of any character I’m invested in would affect me, and this has only increased over time, culminating in its changed meaning in light of my recent conversion. See, what makes Ikuhara work is that his works are optimistic despite their recognition of great structures, demonstrating a belief that individual acts of resistance, while not a revolution in themselves, will inspire any future attempt to topple these systems for good. Kanba and Shouma’s sacrifice, then, is not simply an individual act done to save Himari, but instead upends the entire system of fate which dooms her to death in the first place. There is a material effect to their actions, ending the distorted attempts at liberation by the terrorists and allowing Himari to go forth and live her life, perhaps saving other children from the Broiler and building a new world.

It might not seem that way a lot of the time, but I’m ultimately an optimist at heart, and I’m honestly not sure I would be were it not for anime like Penguindrum. In early high school, when I watched it (and other series that changed my like Aria), I was fairly pessimistic about the ability to change the world. No matter how constrained the siblings may be, they recognized that the only way to change fate is to do it yourself, not to wait for the future, and this is what I needed to hear and still need to hear on those days where the light of the future is hard to see.

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So, conversion. The quote at the start specifically says that “If everything is caused by fate, then God must be incredibly unfair and cruel.” In all honesty, this was my greatest barrier to religion for quite some time, as I’m sure it is for many. The problem of evil is a classic issue, and I’m certainly not equipped to provide a realistic theodicy in this post. After all, I wasn’t converted because I found a totally convincing argument about why evil could exist while God is all good and all powerful, I simply came to understand that this wasn’t in contradiction. This is another reason why Christianity above any other religion called me to it: Christ, in sacrificing on the cross and dying Himself, legitimates God’s temporary acceptance of suffering by experiencing His own suffering. God is not simply up in the heavens, fating people to suffer and die without benevolence.

Instead, He came down to Earth and died himself for our sake’s. And while this didn’t immediately inaugurate the Kingdom of God in its entirety — the fact that a show like Penguindrum can exist is proof of that much — He has opened the path towards it and given us a mandate to see it through. Kanba and Shouma’s sacrifice, then, is similar to Christ’s. Like Him, they do not immediately establish a Kingdom where those fated to death like Himari will be free from suffering. Capitalism, alongside other social ills and even biological ills like death itself, continues to plague us. Yet, their impact is nonetheless materially, ideologically, and spiritually real. I feel it regularly, despite the fictionality of the events portrayed. That’s what Penguindrum means to me. It reminds me that the oppressed are not simply abandoned to their fate, that our constraints can eventually be broken, and that the Kingdom, whether you take that in a religious or secular manner, is soon at hand. Not many shows mean that much.

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