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What Penguindrum Can Teach Us About Extremism

by Vinicius Marino Carvalho,

(Warning: Contain Spoilers for Mawaru Penguindrum)

Penguins don't leave their icebergs when they suspect seals are around. They stay put for a long time, waiting until a lone bird is brave or careless enough to test the waters.

This is as close as Mawaru Penguindrum offers to a straightforward explanation of its unusual title. Equal parts heart-warming and mind-boggling, Kunihiko Ikuhara's cult hit is a series about loss, guilt, loneliness, the pursuit of self-worth and the burden of fate. It's also an anime about what holds us together as a society, and what can break it at the seams in bouts of resentment and anger.

When the series was originally released in 2011, it was hard to separate this message from the packaging: one of the most bizarre and traumatic events in modern Japanese history. On March 20th, 1995, members of a doomsday cult called Aum Shinrikyo orchestrated a terrorist attack against passengers on the Tokyo subway. Its leader, Shoko Asahara, was a media personality who had once run for office in the Japanese Diet, in a bizarre campaign that included parades of chanting supporters clad in masks and white robes.

Penguindrum, at its core, is the tale of a Tokyo still picking up its pieces after this horrific turn of events. Ten years later, however, terms like “media personality,” “cult-like mentality,” and “alternative facts” bring to mind an altogether different, and more pressing, reality.

For reasons that still baffle experts, a rabid brand of far-right extremism has recently taken the world by storm. Its protagonists play outside the political rules, utilizing memes, conspiracy theories, and disinformation campaigns to erode people's confidence in the system. Countries around the world have experienced episodes of political violence and a rise in sectarian activity. It's hard to predict where we are headed or estimate how much damage we've already endured.

In times of so much uncertainty, it may be useful to return to Penguindrum, if only in the hope it has anything to teach us about the troubles we currently face.

The Curse of Loneliness

Like most allegories, Penguindrum uses the Tokyo gas attacks as a mere starting point to a much bigger story. Yet, the best allegories are ones that only get better the more we know about the original event.

On March 20th, 1995 Aum terrorists brought bags of the nerve-agent sarin to several lines of the Tokyo subway. The plan was to puncture them with the tips of their umbrellas, then escape the scene. Not all of them, however, followed the instructions to the letter.

On the Marunouchi line, Ken'ichi Hirose, the man in charge of releasing the gas, was spotted by a schoolgirl. He managed to flee the train car and board another train, but the setback left him distraught. When he finally pierced the bag, he ended up poisoning himself as well.

Thanks to the intervention of another cultist, a senior medical doctor named Ikuo Hayashi, he survived. Dr. Hayashi himself carried on a separate attack on another line. He, too, might have wavered: of the two sarin bags he was supposed to puncture, one was found intact after the incident.

Penguindrum, too, features a doctor – Sanetoshi Watase – and a schoolgirl – Momoka Oginome. Just like her possible real-life inspiration, Momoka foils the terrorist's plan, but not without a price. They are trapped in a curse, forced to confront each other by manipulating the lives of others. Like Old Gods fighting a proxy war through the hands of mortals, they exploit the inner conflicts of those affected by the incident, nudging them to either destroy the world or keep it on its tracks.

Conflicts, indeed, are what Penguindrum has in spades. The central trio – Shoma, Kanba and Himari Takakura – are the children of perpetrators of the 1995 attack. As the story progresses, they will be forced to account for the crimes of their parents. Momoka's younger sister, Ringo, believes she can only be accepted by her family if she reenacts her sibling's life. Tabuki, a former friend of Momoka's, broke his own fingers out of fear that his mother would abandon him for being a lousy pianist. His wife, Yuri, was abused and tortured by her father.

These conflicts might seem very personal, yet sometimes it's from little cruelties that great tragedies sprout. Hannah Arendt, a thinker who spent a good part of her life trying to understand how people are co-opted by totalitarian regimes, once wrote in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism that the key ingredient of extremism, as strange as it sounds, is loneliness.

This “loneliness” is not the same as “isolation” – like being secluded in your home. Neither did she mean “solitude” – as in being alone with your thoughts. Rather, loneliness is the feeling of not belonging, of being uprooted from the world; of reaching out to others and meeting only treacherous, deceitful, hostile faces.

Loneliness is the raw material of totalitarianism because politics can only thrive where there is a community, and being a loner hinders our ability to associate with others. If truth itself is up for debate and everyone else is “locked in a box”, as Dr. Sanetoshi puts it, we can rely on nothing but our own guts. Like penguins on an iceberg, we can either plunge to our demise or wait for another unfortunate soul to do so. There's no room for strategizing or learning from others. It's everyone for themselves.

It is fitting that we first hear that analogy from Masako, Kanba's biological sister, when she tries to prevent him from joining the remnants of the cult behind the subway attack. As the episodes go on, Sanetoshi will indeed take Kanba down one such path when he promises a miracle cure for Himari's disease. The price is steep, and eventually pushes the young man to take up Sanetoshi's cause and become a terrorist, too.

Kanba is a tragic hero. Loneliness, after all, can never truly be extinguished. Every society has its margins, every community its share of misfits and pariahs. In Penguindrum, nothing illustrates its consequences more viscerally than the child broiler, an infernal machine that collects “lost children” and shreds them into nothingness. When your own sister is one of the victims, it's hard to believe the world is worth saving.

But the real threat, according to Arendt, is when there is a concerted effort to turn people into loners. Such efforts don't have to be something elaborate like Aum's brainwashing techniques or the propaganda machines of fascist governments. In the age of social media and messaging apps, much can be accomplished with the help of bots, sock puppet accounts, and fake news. Unlike the eloquent Dr. Sanetoshi, one doesn't even need to have a point. Simply “asking questions” is enough if it succeeds, however subtly, in making us suspicious of the world around us.

As suggested in the novel 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami – a writer whose books make a cameo in Penguindrum's episode 9 – a dystopia doesn't need a “Big Brother”. One can do much with “Little People”: pulverized entities constantly gnawing at our sense of reality.

Yet Penguindrum is not a story about succumbing to despair, as much as it portrays the effects of loneliness and alienation like few other works of fiction. There is a secret ingredient woven through its plot and visuals that screams with a message of hope. To understand it, we must turn to one of its most literary (and likely obscure) references.

The Scorpion's Fire

While not immediately obvious to Western viewers, Penguindrum was inspired by a classic of Japanese children's literature: Night on the Galactic Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa.

The story is about a bullied boy named Giovanni who embarks on a train ride through the Milky Way. He is followed by Campanella, his only friend. Near the end of their journey, they pass through an eerie constellation known as the Scorpion's Fire. As a fellow passenger explains it, those stars were originally a scorpion who fell into a hole and was trapped by a weasel. Faced with the irony of being hunted after a lifetime of preying on weaker creatures, the scorpion decides to abandon his ways. He bursts into flames, lighting up the night sky to help other animals avoid danger. The fable resonates with the boys. Back on Earth, Campanella gives his life to save a colleague from drowning. Giovanni vows to learn from his example, “burning a hundred times over” if it means bringing people happiness.

Fans of Ikuhara will immediately spot the similarities between the tale and his previous work, Revolutionary Girl Utena (in which it's explicitly lampshaded). Penguindrum, however, pushes the parallels even further. Momoka bursts into flames every time she activates her powers. Kanba and Shoma suffer a similar fate when they give their lives to save Himari and Ringo. The anime ends with a shot of the boys discussing the meaning of Campanella's actions.

The scorpion's fire is an interesting metaphor because it turns the penguin analogy on its head. It is, indeed, a sacrifice, but one made willingly, and by those who feel they have something to atone for. More importantly, it's a sacrifice that attempts to build rather than to destroy. It's a denial of the dog-eat-dog mentality. It's an act of responsibility towards the other.

“Most children in the world are the same as us,” Tabuki tells Yuri in the last episode. “That's why even once was enough. We needed someone to say “I love you.”

“We were left behind in the world to do just that.”

But Sanetoshi might not have been entirely wrong when he taunted Kanba at the moment of his last act of heroism, saying they were all still “inside the box”. There's something fundamentally wrong with a community that relies on the sacrifices of its members rather than ensuring their welfare.

It's no coincidence that Minoru Betsuyaku, who wrote the screenplay for the anime adaptation of Night on the Galactic Railroad, once wrote that Japanese society was losing its “middle ground.” People perceived the “foreground” of their private lives – the “I love yous” Tabuki and Yuri allude to – as well as the “background” of the universe and its problems. However, they had no sense of community, no feeling of being part of a whole. Forty years later, our society seems even more polarized. The occasional fire of a scorpion may help us navigate its darkness, but doesn't change the fact that we are becoming a community of loners.

Maybe it's high time we get out of our boxes and do our best to restore this middle ground. Lest we have no choice but dive headfirst in seal-infested waters.

Special thanks to Aum expert Sarah Hightower for reading through a draft of this article

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