Trying to grasp Mawaru Penguindrum

Credit to linked pixiv user

Along with Madoka and Steins;Gate, Mawaru Penguindrum has been one of the most praised anime of 2011. Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t like it, but it seems like the fans of it are the ones making the most buzz. Having seen and loved director Kunihiko Ikuhara’s other famous work, Revolutionary Girl Utena, I had high hopes for Penguindrum as well. I liked the series well enough in its early episodes, confident in the fact that the confusing things would “be explained later.” So now that it’s over, why do I feel so…dissatisfied?

Inushinde brought up a good point that there seems to be a fine divide between viewers of Penguindrum’s finale, or as I see it, the entire series in general. On one side are the people who think the show is an overly pretentious, incomprehensible mess that uses symbols to fool viewers into thinking it’s “intelligent” when it really has no definable narrative. And on the other side are people who think that while it is a strange show, all the symbols, allusions, and artistic techniques are what make it brilliant even if explanations for everything aren’t spoon-fed to you. Whichever of the two sides you’re on, I agree with Inushinde that the last episode will mostly likely not change your opinion about the series but will simply reinforce what you already believed it to be – a mess or a masterpiece.

Credit to linked pixiv user

As for me, while I didn’t find the series utterly bad, I’m more on the negative side than the positive. My main beef about it, as others have pointed out, is the over-saturation of symbolism and unexplained plot points. Now, I certainly don’t mind symbolism in a show and leaving things up to the audience’s interpretation. But when, like, 90% of the show is spent throwing out symbol after symbol and vague plot twist after vague plot twist rather giving us a breather to actually explain things and give us some semblance of a comprehensible, linear narrative, that’s when I have a problem.

To me, such an over-saturation of symbolism creates a frustrating blur between what’s really happening in the show and what’s just a symbol of what’s happening. Are the four penguins actual living creatures or just symbols? Is the Child Broiler an actual place that’s somehow existing in the real world or is it just a symbol? Were Shoma and Kanba really locked in tiny cages where an apple suddenly appeared or was that all just symbols? Is there really a magic diary that has god-like powers to alter time and space to change people’s fates that somehow got in the hands of a little girl named Momoka, or was this symbolism again? I think you see my point…not knowing what’s really, objectively happening in the story versus what’s just a symbol for plot twists and character emotions, is probably my biggest issue with Penguindrum. I know Utena had things that blurred the line between reality and symbolism that weren’t fully explained – the Rose Bride, pulling swords out of people, the upside down castle in the sky – but I don’t remember there being nearly as many as Penguindrum, and I found it much easier to distinguish symbol from reality in Utena. My favorite Penguindrum episode was the one where we see Himari’s past relationship with the Triple H girls and she meets Sanetoshi in a library of her own mind – I like this episode because I felt the distinction between symbols and reality was more clear and it had just the right amount of symbolism to make it interesting but not confusing.

Credit to linked pixiv user

For those of you who think Penguindrum is brilliant, if you could answer any of these questions for me, I would greatly appreciate it:
– As I mentioned above, were the penguins real creatures or just symbols? If they were really existing, where did they come from?
– If the two penguin hats were really the split of Momoka’s soul, why did one become this “Crystal Princess?” Why did the hats choose Himari and Mario out of all people? Why did her soul have to split in the first place?
– The diary; is it a real magic book with god-like powers? If so, where did such a thing come from?
– Momoka; I’ve heard it said that she’s actually some kind of witch and that’s why she has this diary? If that’s so, does that make Ringo a witch too? But if she is just a regular girl, why would she have such a diary?
– How did Masako know about the diary’s powers and how does she have these magic penguin bullets that can make people lose their memories? Don’t tell me she’s a witch too…or was it from Sanetoshi?
– Speaking of Sanetoshi, he’s just a ghost right? If so, I was never clear on his motivations or his relationship with Momoka? And why did his soul split into two bunnies again?
– With all those random flashbacks, I just couldn’t piece together the correct chronology of the lives of Shoma, Kanba, and Himari. If someone could lay out a timeline for each of their lives, that would nice. And what exactly did their parents do that made everyone hate them? Was Kanba supposed to carry out whatever “plan” the parents had?
– Like I already mentioned, was the Child Broiler a real place? If so, why would such a cruel place exist in modern Japan? How was Shoma able to save Himari from it, and Momoka save Tabuki? Or again, was it all just symbolism?
– What were those robot teddy bears?
– So the penguindrum was Shoma’s…heart? Why would Momoka (if the penguin hat is really part of her) want it?
– How did the Triple H girls have the words to Momoka’s spell? I don’t remember them having any relationship with her? And if it’s in their song, how would Ringo know which are the right words?
– Where exactly were they in the last episode – they couldn’t have actually been in a train yet that’s where Ringo and Himari ended up? Was it some kind of alternate world, the same world that popped up whenever the “Survival Strategy” sequence occurred? And I can’t even begin to understand what happened with Sanetoshi, Momoka, Shoma, Kanba, and the penguins in the end?

I’ll probably think of more questions but I’ll leave it at that. Now, I know I’m not the best at following and remembering complicated details in anime, and maybe some of my questions were properly answered in the series. But even in the most complex anime I’m able to get a good gist of what happens in the end even if some things are left up to interpretation. But for Penguindrum, I feel more confused by the end than I did at the beginning.

Some people might say to all my questions that “You’re reading too much into it, the fun is to interpret it your own way.” I know that’s part of the brilliance that people associate with the show. Nopy for example wrote a great post pointing out all the symbols Penguindrum has in terms of classic Greek plays and the Japanese novel “Night on the Galactic Railroad.” Despite my own misgivings, I can see why some people like this series. They enjoy musing about the show’s themes of fate and family, and interpreting the various symbols and allusions rather than concerning themselves with how much the story makes sense or whether they really know what the hell is going on. Whether Ikuhara intended this to be the appeal of Penguindrum, or whether he just used the series to have fun with symbols that only he could correctly interpret, I couldn’t say. But I can say that while I see why people like the series, my joy in anime comes from plots and characters I can understand rather than interpretation with few solid facts. That’s mainly the problem I have – most of what happens in the series is symbolism that’s open to interpretation, and only a small amount is real, official fact. With Penguindrum, I felt like I was trying to correctly interpret a piece of abstract art rather than watch and understand an anime.

Credit to linked pixiv user

But to conclude on a positive note and to give the show some credit, I would say I liked it more than disliked it. Despite all the convoluted symbols, the show did have some sincerely good messages to offer about fate, love, family, and just plain human suffering. It had a lot of heart and emotional impact that I probably would have enjoyed more if the confusing symbolism didn’t keep me from being fully invested in the characters. Speaking of whom were good characters despite the fact that some of them – Tabuki, Yuri, and Ringo – did major 180 personality changes in the series that I felt were a bit contrived, but nothing terrible. The three main siblings were fairly likable despite some over-the-top moments (like Kanba chasing the truck), and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the penguins doing their funny little skits that may or may not relate to what their respective characters were doing. Penguindrum was also great to look at in terms of animation and color. If you don’t think too hard about the symbols, they’re great fun to observe. The opening and ending songs were alright though they all started sounding the same to me after a while.

So, to wrap up this longer-than-usual post, Mawaru Penguindrum is certainly a must-see if you like artsy anime that messes with your head. But if you prefer your anime to follow a logical narrative structure that explains more than forces you to interpret, you probably want to pass on it.

43 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. ajthefourth says:

    I’ve been tearing apart (in a positive way) this series for the past 24 weeks, and although I have guesses as to the answers to some of your questions, I’d like to point out something that you said in your own post following those questions:

    “With Penguindrum, I felt like I was trying to correctly interpret a piece of abstract art rather than watch and understand an anime.”

    I’m personally of the belief (frustrating though it may sound) that abstract art has no correct interpretation. It carries with it what you personally bring to the table and want to see/interpret. Penguindrum is that kind of infuriatingly abstract series. Sometimes, especially with a television series, I’d like to be told the answer to the question: “SO WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?” but I never will be with a series like Penguindrum simply because the answer is always, “Whatever you want it to mean.” Is that infuriating or what? ^ ^

    My personal interpretation is that more of the series was abstract than not. “The fruit of fate” or the Penguindrum simply stands for the act of getting to know and love other people. The reason why Double H titled their CD this is that they never stopped loving Himari, even though they were separated from her when the truth about their parents came out. The reason why Momoka’s diary held this phrase in it was because it was all about her love for Tabuki (and presumably Yuri as well).

    Now my interpretation could be completely wrong to someone else, but that’s what I had to take away from the series and all of it’s fairytale, bible, Night on the Galactic Railroad, classic Greek play, Haruki Murakami, etc. references.

    • Yumeka says:

      Thanks for offering your answers/interpretations to some of my questions. They were actually very helpful and I’m inclined to agree with them =)

      That’s also a good thought that the only meaning for abstract art is what the individual makes of it. I actually have a fair understanding of Penguindrum in terms of “What does it all mean?” – like I mentioned, it’s about fate, love, relationships with others, all that good stuff. But while I know this meaning, I just don’t understand the actual narrative that portrays those themes. But like you said, if you think of the series as abstract art, it’s about what you make of it.

  2. Lin says:

    “Whether Ikuhara intended this to be the appeal of Penguindrum, or whether he just used the series to have fun with symbols that only he could correctly interpret, I couldn’t say.”

    Oh, this one I can answer, since Ikuhara himself has been asked this multiple times.

    IIRC, he said he could easily tell what all the symbolism means “for him”, but that would defeat the point, because people would believe that’s the “correct” interpretation, the “canon” meaning. But that’s not it. That’s just Ikuhara’s own opinion. What he wants for the audience is to find there own interpretations, they’re own answers. Even if those interpretations are totally different with Ikuhara’s own, they are still equally valid.

    • Yumeka says:

      Thanks for the info about Ikuhara. I had a feeling it was something like that. His method of using symbolism with no official interpretation is certainly unique, and I can see why it’s brought him a lot of fans. For me personally though, I suppose I simply prefer anime to focus more on understandable storytelling than total viewer interpretation.

      • Audrey Marie says:

        What I’m gathering from this reply, and your rant above is that you want things handed easily to you on a plate with a clear concise answer, but what in the world is black & white ? This anime much like life is not black & white, whats the meaning to life? There is no one answer & if differs for everyone, not much unlike this anime. Some think the the meaning of life is in itself searching for the meaning, and again this anime is set up to make you search for those answers on your own, answers you find for yourself have much deeper meaning then answers given to you, answers given to you is not real learning.

        This anime forces people out of their comport zone because to understand it you may have to dig deeper within yourself, or you’re presented with the challenge of learning something new in order to understand it; which most people do not want to do. The symbolism is not as hard as so many make it out to be, watch it twice you’ll understand all that is necessary to appreciate the anime. If you still don’t, then I’d say your ignorance or inability to grasp innate symbolism is more a direct effect of your lack or willingness to learn something new, or to view things in the “grey”. The world is not black or white & should not be viewed that way, nor should this anime be viewed in such constricted assessments.
        I could answer (at least from my perspective) all your questions, but again answers given to you have no meaning & isn’t something earned (something not earned has no meaning, well to me at least), and this anime wasn’t meant to have clear concise answers that weren’t “earned”.

  3. Myna says:

    I can see why people wouldn’t like this show. It has obvious flaws among other things. But I’d rather see an ambitious entertaining mess over something that I’d be content with, but also bored with. That’s why I like it so much; it’s exciting and kept me wanting more each week. And I enjoy analyzing and trying to interpret things, so Penguindrum is right up my alley.

    I’ll try to answer some of your questions as best as I can, but I’m still not 100% sure on most of these things myself.
    1. The penguins: Not sure. Only the Takakura’s could see them, but they clearly affected physical objects: like when one of them split open Ringo’s legs in school in the second episode.

    2. The penguin hats: Nothing with Mario was ever really properly touched upon, so I can’t really say that. I feel like the Crystal Princess was a manifestation of another side of Himari’s or something along those lines.

    3. The diary: Where it came from, who knows? Maybe it had power because of Momoka?

    4. Witch?: It’s easy to see Momoka as a witch at first glance. But personally, I saw her more as a Joan of Arc. Having magic powers from who knows where, being sacrificed for trying to save people, etc.

    5. Masako: Again, the penguin bullets was never really explained. I don’t believe her knowledge of the diary was ever explained either, at least I don’t think it was.

    6. Sanetoshi: Sanetoshi wants to destroy the world because he thinks the world is broken because people stuff themselves into their own little boxes. He wants to prevent Momoka from saving the world. Before Momoka can finish the spell, Sanetoshi places a Penguin sticker on her head. If I recall correctly, that and the spell’s backlash is what caused her to split into the two hats. I that’s what also caused Sanetoshi to split as well.

    7a. Kanba: Masako’s twin sister – his father (I think it was) died and he’s adopted by the Takakuras – trapped in the box
    7b. Shouma: The only actual son of the Takakura’s – meets Himari, saves her from the broiler – trapped in the box
    7c. Himari: meets Shouma – is saved from the broiler – adopted by the Takakura’s.
    7d. The Takakura parents launched that terrorist attack on the train station. They wanted to save the world. Not by destroying it, but correcting it.

    8. the Child Broiler: I think this was just a really huge symbol. It was most likely a symbol for neglect, loneliness, or feeling/being unwanted. Shouma and Momoka were both able to save Himari and Tabuki from it because they told them that they were loved. They gave them hope and saved them from despair. That’s how I see it.

    9. Teddy Bears: most likely a symbol. Of what, I’m not sure. I’ll let you know if I think of a plausible answer.

    10. the Penguindrum: It was whole when Shouma originally pulled it out, but then half of it dissolved. That might represent half of the fruit he shared with Kanba. And the apple that they shared had a heart around the seeds. The Penguindrum could symbolize their hearts, their love, their shared fates or their shared burden. As to why Momoka/Crystal Princess wanted, it…I’ll think about that when I’m actually awake.

    11. Triple H & the spell: Triple H knew the spell because they told Ringo that it was Himari’s favorite phrase. I believe it was the single/album title.

    12a. Finale: When Shouma and Kanba are in the boxes, it was said that one would be chosen and one wouldn’t. The unchosen one would probably die. But Kanba found the fruit of fate – the sign that he was chosen – and shared it with Shouma. I believe that sharing it was his sin, and why both boys had to pay the price. Instead of dying, they were reincarnated into the two boys from the very beginning.
    12b. Finale: I’m assuming the train everything took place on was in a parallel universe of some sort. When Shouma, Kanba, Sanetoshi and Momoka disappeared, the other world did too and Himari and Ringo were transported back onto the real life parallel train.
    12c. Finale: Sanetoshi and Momoka were both lingering spirits: they weren’t able to leave until they fulfilled their purpose or whatever. Crystal Princess wanted the boys to obtain the Penguindrum. That’s what they did, and so her job was done. (It’s probably more than that, but I’m having trouble thinking right now.) She could move on.

    God, this took me almost a freaking hour to write. I hope some of these answers were sufficient and a little helpful.

  4. Kadian1364 says:

    Even with the same content, I think Penguindrum would have been much improved if the important scenes and flashbacks were simply rearranged in more chronological order. For example, if you follow the division of the apple (clearly a symbol for being chosen by Fate) from Kanba to Shouma to Himari and to Himari again, the direction of the narrative makes sense. But that these important scenes are separated several episodes apart, with the first apple-sharing moment only revealed in the very last episode, makes it terribly confusing.

    Like you, my favorite episode was when Himari and Sanetoshi explored her memories of Triple-H. The whole episode was full of weirdness – the underground library, the puzzle door, Super Frog Saves whatever – but the meanings came through clearly because it focused only on one character, her past, and her dreams and regrets. In other episodes there are multiple plotlines, non sequitur flashbacks, and loaded down with too many fragments of stories and themes that it’s just too much to ask the audience to put together, if some things can be made sense of at all.

    • Yumeka says:

      I agree with all your points. Even though my favorite series, Haruhi, is known for showing episodes out of chronological order, the reason it’s not nearly as confusing is because chronology is kept within individual episodes. In Penguindrum, like you said, so many episodes focused on multiple plotlines in multiple chronologies that it’s just too hard to make sense of in casual viewing.

      Now that you mentioned it, that’s precisely the reason that episode is my favorite too. There was one clear set story it was dealing with so we at least had a base to figure out what the symbolism meant. I recall that’s what I liked about many episodes of Utena – they would focus on one character backstory at a time and it was a lot less confusing that way.

  5. draggle says:

    I think your mistake is that you imagine a difference between “reality” and the world of symbols and the mind, and think that the two must be clearly delineated. In the world of Penguindrum, the two worlds merge and are both equally valid reflections of the truth. I’m guessing you aren’t a fan of magical realism?

    Most of your questions boil down to, is this thing real or is this thing imaginary? From my perspective, the answer to all of them is yes and yes. :)

    • draggle says:

      Also, I like how the show isn’t in chronological order and jumps all over the place: it’s grouped by association, not time, and follows the organization of human memory. I personally thought it made more sense that way.

    • Myna says:

      Good answer. :)

    • Yumeka says:

      Very good points…but in spite of that, I suppose my lack of enjoyment from the show is because it’s just more meta than I care to be. Merging reality and symbols and grouping chronology in such a way, is certainly a creative method of storytelling. But when so much is left up to your interpretation…I feel like I have no foundation from which to start putting things together in the first place, like I’m left with too much to even start interpreting, and I personally don’t find that entertaining.

  6. Draggle has a very good perspective as well, and Mawaru Penguindrum does merges the illusionary and realistic. Mawaru Penguindrum, to me, is a piece of artwork to be viewed and meant to provoke thinking. It is one that is surreal and offers more than meets the eye. I do love to analyze and interpret, so this series was just right for me, and I enjoyed it very much for its beautiful use of symbols, allusions, and visuals. ^_^

    • Yumeka says:

      I agree that the series certainly invokes thinking. But I would say it invokes more interpreting than thinking, the difference being that thinking means you have given facts you piece together, while interpreting means you’re not given many facts and use your imagination to fill in the gaps. I do enjoy anime that make me think and interpret…but to an extent, and unfortunately Penguindrum goes too beyond that extent. But for someone like you who loves to analyze, it’s definitely a series to watch XD

  7. Savo says:

    Having just finished the series today, I came away with a positive impression of the show. Despite flagging sometime after the halfway point, Penguindrum managed to pull everything together for a spectacular final few episodes that were much darker (and consequently more engrossing). The finale was an emotional rollercoaster that had me almost in tears at parts.

    That said, the series was obsessed with being as nonconformist and “symbolic” as possible to the point where the plot received some noticeable damage in parts. My mind is still reeling trying to pull together some of the pieces. For example, what was that bit with the bunnies supposed to mean anyway…

    The colorful surreal weird vibe the series gave off worked more often in it’s favor than against it, but too many times in the last half it feels like the characters are babbling on and on about abstract concepts like the Child Broiler (adoption center perhaps?) Still, the way in which they handled concepts like fate and love in the series were excellently done in my opinion.

    Fiction that relies on heavy doses of symbolism and artistry like Penguindrum divide their fanbases because of how confusing they can be. I believe that the viewers enjoyment depends on whether they can just turn their brains off and go along for the ride, or alternately spend extra time putting everything together. I don’t care so much if I’m not understanding everything if I’m still enjoying myself, but it still is annoying.

    • Yumeka says:

      Good thoughts. I’m glad that you enjoyed the series despite still seeing its flaws. Despite my griping in the post, I agree that it handled its themes of fate and love very well even though, under all that complex symbolism, it goes back to the usual messages of “love conquers all,” “you control your own fate,” etc,.

  8. Logopolis says:

    The idea of wondering whether things are symbols or are of the “real fictional world” never even occurred to me. That’s probably because the central mythology of my personal culture is Doctor Who, which is rooted in alchemical traditions in which the symbol of a thing is in some way equivalent to the thing itself. So I’ve been absorbing this way of watching television since childhood. I think there’s a more general American-British split here too, for instance, method acting, in which the actor tries to become like the person they’re portraying, is bigger in America, while in Britain classical acting, in which the actor just tries to convey things about the person they’re portraying, is bigger. Even down to the things we expect to govern reality; the written constitution tries to state precisely what should happen, the unwritten constitution just acts as guidance.

    But in any case, the result is that I just don’t think of anything within the show as “real”. Ultimately, all the characters and things are made up. It’s their ability to reflect patterns which occur in reality which give them significance. Everything’s a symbol. What you’ve actually got is two ideas being conveyed simultaneously, for instance:

    “Himari gets taken off to a horrible ‘child broiler’ thing to be erased, but Shouma rescues her from it.”

    “Himari (depending on how you interpret the broiler as a symbol, say) loses hope and gives up on life, but recovers the ability to function when Shouma reassures her she’s wanted.”

    But since everything is a symbol, you don’t need to choose. The show is conveying both ideas at this point. They’re both “true”. When thinking about some other element of the show which links to it, you can select whichever of the two matches it better, whichever is closer to the level you’re currently thinking on.

    I’m thinking of the show as a way of conveying ideas about the real world, not an attempt to build a functioning pretend world. So if you’ve got some inconsistency, you don’t necessarily need to explain it. It’s only a problem if one of the things it want to convey was relying on it being consistent.

    There is something rocky about that. Inconsistency is often used as a way of drawing attention to something, as in, for instance, Sanetoshi appearing on that picture. It has the message “this has changed, the meaning of the story should tell you why”. So if you also want to be able to leave things inconsistent so that both versions can be true, because it’s something where different truths emerge if you interpret this different ways, well, you need the audience to somehow agree with you which sort of inconsistency is which. And this is one of those things where you just can’t get it right for everyone, because different people will be going in with different expectations. If you naturally expect a replica world from television, then odd changes in that world are going to look like details of significance you’re supposed to search for the reason for, while someone else might not even notice the shift.

    But actually despite all this, I haven’t payed too much attention to interpreting Penguindrum yet. With shows like this, I like to leave the heavy thinking to rewatches, the first time through, I just sit back and enjoy the ride, leave all the thinking to my intuition, feel all the emotions and the visceral thrills, stare at all the space and colour and shape in the background, and let my mind drift wherever all the parts which work on your subconscious want to take it. That way when I start thinking, I know what I’m most interested in.

    • Yumeka says:

      Excellent thoughts as always. What you said made me realize that one of the things I love about anime is how it builds such believable fictional worlds full of detail and, yes, consistency, that more or less follow real-world logic despite how fantastical they are. So like you said, Penguindrum is totally unconcerned about building such a world and is instead focusing on conveying ideas about the real world. To some, this is outstanding entertainment. But for me who prefers that world/linear story building part of anime, it just didn’t click.

  9. Suzushina Yuriko says:

    If you feel like reading an in-depth analytic post for each episode, the people at have cleared up a lot of things for me. Their writing is very good and I feel like they have grasped the themes at Mawaru Penguindrum’s core.

    I feel like you’re trying to be too literal with your questions, though. Penguindrum isn’t trying to be “realistic”. You can’t really expect every answer to be spoon-fed to you. Ikuhara left the show open-ended because he wanted everyone to interpret and speculate things by themselves and find their own answer.

    In that regard, it’s like Umineko no Naku Koro ni (the visual novel, not the crappy anime), where some people might ask – “What is the point of the fantasy? Are they simply a cover-up for the murders? What really happened on that day? Which one of the eight games are real?” Ryuukishi07 also left it open ended in order for people themselves to use the hints in the story to figure out the culprit and their true motive, and to ultimately tell people one thing – that “Without love, it cannot be seen.”

    • Yumeka says:

      I actually did take a look at Altair and Vega’s post about the final episode. Great interpretations, but I’m more interested in a list of solid facts…but as other comments have pointed out, there really are few facts in the series as it’s all about reality and symbolism merging, and everything comes down to how we individually interpret it. I don’t mind if a show doesn’t spoon-feed answers to me (most of my favorite series don’t do that), but I at least want some “official” answers to exist even if I have to use my brain to figure them out. But again, Penguindrum has little to no “official” answers as it’s all about viewer interpretation. I totally understand that that’s where its appeal comes from. But like I said to others above, it’s just personally not my cup of tea.

  10. Kal says:

    I saw 14 episodes and then dropped it. As you mentioned, it started out quite interesting, but the lack of explanations, and the major changes in the plot, just threw me off. I also prefer anime with more solid plots, and while I like symbolism, and complex anime, I think that one goes a bit too much off the deep end of the pool for me :P

    • Yumeka says:

      Yeah, around episode 14 is when the series started to go the extreme meta route. Even though there were tons of subplots and symbolism in early episodes too, because they were early episodes I didn’t mind as much because I kept telling myself “it’ll be explained later.” But as we got closer to “later” and things started getting more confusing to me, I realized the show just went overboard in terms of the “interpret everything yourself” route, for me at least.

  11. Kate says:

    Symbolism for symbolism’s sake leads to empty clichés, and I’m a little sad that MPD ended with a bunch of these. The introduction of Kanba and Shouma in symbolic boxes in the last few episodes took the story in a direction that hadn’t been predicated by any of the series’ densely-packed plot points and allusions, and I felt a bit cheated. Why were they in boxes, why was Kanba chosen, and why did he share his apple of fate? These points didn’t seem to have any real world reference or relevance so I couldn’t feel their emotional impact. This stands in direct contrast to the episode you referenced where Himari “died” and visited the library, where every visual element was densely coded with intertextual and intercultural meaning and where it all simultaneously resonated so well with the story of a girl who was both acceptant of her fate but still felt loss in her heart. That episode was beautiful and meant something both symbolically and specifically, that escaped its status as cliché. Shouma in a box by comparison felt like an empty symbol – Why was he there? What was its impact on him?

    Because the Rock Over Japan sequences referred strongly to the repetitive and insistant symbolism used in Utena, I had the incorrect assumption that this series too would have a larger story to tell, one that would pull together all the disparate elements to create a giant super-structure. Instead the story went off like Kiga Group’s subway robo-bear attack, a complicated plot with a lot of moving parts that ended in a failed attempt.

    Can you tell that I liked the show, and thought that the animation, art direction, and music were top-class? I did. But it wasn’t the series I hoped it would be and still expected it to be after the first 12 or 13 episodes.

    • Yumeka says:

      I agree with pretty much everything you said. I could sort of see the story Penguindrum was trying to tell – like I mentioned, I could certainly see the messages it was trying to convey at least. But yeah, the story was all over the place and the amount of symbolism was a bit too meta than I care to be.

  12. YugiKitten says:

    Im thinking that the penguins aren’t real creatures but in the same time are
    Kind of… like an imaginary friend that you didn’t create but you see and talk to
    Theyre supposed to represent the people
    And I’d say the link between the 4 people the 3 siblings and the 1 sister (that I was thinking that her difference in penguin symbolized the break in their brother-sister relationship, but its still a penguin so, I guess they’re still related, the bond’s not fully broken)
    In the end they did go after Shoma and Kanba, so its as if they took their relationship and themselves from the fate that they didnt belong to, and maybe go to another alternate universe where they did (dunno xD)

    And they bth became ….” princeses” (mario and Himari)
    Though what i found weird is that Mario’s seemed to know about everything, while himari’s just seemed to “have a hunch”
    And its so she wouldn’t get in his way I’d guess… I mean if u play any RPG its usually the case xD

    I woudn’t say its the diary that has the power, just like Ringo did it, she just knew “the phrase”
    I guess it was just a diqguise, kind of like a trap for those searching to get the power.
    Or a helpful hint for those smart enough to figure out the phrase from it.

    Again, the diary might not be an important thing. Momoka might be a “Fate” as they have in the Greek and Norse mythology. The “curse” might as well be a fate too, so then there’d be one left (3 Fates) so that would be Ringo which would explain her ability to use the “transfer of fates”
    But thats a bit of a far strech huh xD

    Masako, well…. dont forget she has the Mario “Princess”
    Just because it doesnt go into detail about Him/her doesnt mean she/he doesnt know anything
    For all we know the “Himari Princess” might know 1/10 of what MArio’s knows

    Again, Sanetoshi, spliting someones powers means they can’t use it properly/to his/her full extent
    And I’m not sure if this is right but if you look at the animal symbolism:
    “Penguin people are often very organized, thriving on order and control. The penguin is a symbol of agility, drive, and purpose. Penguin medicine teaches the ability to move freely between realities and situations, and to replace chaos with order.”
    Which suits Momoka quite well.
    While rabbits: “Self-sacrifice, humility, family. Rabbit people tend to be soft-spoken and non self-assertive. The symbol of the rabbit is strongly tied to the cycle of life, fertility, death, and resurrection. The rabbit is also a symbol of luck, health, and clear-sightedness.”
    Both taken from:

    I read somewhere that in 1995 or on line 95 there was a poison gas explosion? In japan that killed a lot of people (thats what momoka tried t prevent)
    I guess by the people who see this world as wicked and wrong (and personally I only half blame them, I kinda understand where theyd come from)
    Think about the north pole, penguins, wild life
    Humans disrupt the law of nature (no wonder Sanetoshi was so mad huh xD)
    Chronology wise, the only thing I can think of is, Himari joined first, then kanba after his dad died, but the cages? makes me wonder if shoma was adopted or if the two were kidnaped once or something…. Or maybe the cage was symbolism for the hate they received and hardships they had after theyr parents went trough witht the plan

    And I dont think Kanba was supposed t carry their plan, I think they were supposed t finish the plan by themselves, but failed and then Kanba took over to pay for the meds (Basically Sanetoshi planed it (after they failed) so that Kanba would get more and more involved in the organization until the point of carying out the plan himself.

    Child broiler, i think its symbolism
    Unfortunately I dont know how the life of an orphan is in Japan
    I mean it might be as bad as barely or not having the money to finish highschool , and therefore becoming “beings that will never amount to anything”
    Though it does make me wonder how Momoka saved them though, unlike Shoma, she didnt adopt the two in her family
    Maybe she just gave them a reason to live?

    Robot tedy bears are… yeah
    Maybe yin and yang? Shoma and Kanba?
    In any case the white ones ended up not exploding…. yeah deff confuring

    Hum… I dont think it was his heart
    Maybe his soul? Fate? Future? Life energy?
    Courage even? XD

    Yeah Im still i the dark about the song = words thing
    BTW have u ever noticed that doble H =blue + pink
    while the brothers = dark blue + dark red?
    Do u think they have any significance?

    I dunno where exactly whey were
    But I guess i the end Sanetowhi missed his chance, so he’ll have to wait for another one
    Momoka will go do something (maybe live as a human again?) and maybe shell come back to stop him again xP
    Kanba and shoma gave up on their existence in this world so maybe their off to another world/universe/paralel universe

  13. Cirris says:

    The volume of symbolic moments in the show began to annoy me after awhile. I came to a point where I stopped trying to interpret what was going on. because as soon as a came up with one theory, another symbolic moment would throw my theory right out the window. It got a bit tiring. To be honest, I don’t really think it was all done to be artistic as much as some of it was done to cover up a lack of storytelling.

    I didn’t like the ending. I felt it was way too close to being a knockoff of Magica Madoka’s ending with the two brothers, Shouma and Kanba, sacrificing their existence for the sake of Himari and Ringo. Hell, even the teddy bear letter scene with Himari and Ringo came off like copy of Homura crying over Madoka’s ribbon while Mami and Kyoko looked on. I didn’t really like it at all. I found it way to convenient that the endings of both series felt so similar. Especially since Mangaka have a bad habit copying successful series to play it safe instead of exploring new ideas.

    I don’t think it was “brilliant” like some people say. Also, like I said before, I do think some of the symbolism seemed more as a coverup than actual artistic vision. It also got to the point where it became so cryptic I was beginning to lose interest.

    However, I did enjoy the show for the most part. Even with all it’s flaws, it did have enough thrilling moments to keep me entertained.

    My MAL rating was 8/10

    • Yumeka says:

      Hmm, I never thought of relating the ending of Penguindrum to Madoka. But now that you mention it, they are similar. Except I understood Madoka’s ending a lot better XD

      I too prefer proper storytelling over artistic symbolism that’s too overly cryptic. Like you, I still more or less enjoyed the show even though I could say a lot about its flaws.

  14. Nopy says:

    I don’t have answers to all of your questions, but here’s what I came up with:

    If that’s so, does that make Ringo a witch too? But if she is just a regular girl, why would she have such a diary?
    I recall there being a scene where Ringo was given Momoka’s diary after her death.

    Speaking of Sanetoshi, he’s just a ghost right? If so, I was never clear on his motivations or his relationship with Momoka? And why did his soul split into two bunnies again?
    The doctor had hinted at Sanetoshi’s hatred towards humanity when he was still alive. As for why he split in two, all I can say is that it seems to be a common occurance in Japanese literature when two opposing forces clash (either that or it splits into 7 or 12).

    With all those random flashbacks, I just couldn’t piece together the correct chronology of the lives of Shoma, Kanba, and Himari. If someone could lay out a timeline for each of their lives, that would nice. And what exactly did their parents do that made everyone hate them? Was Kanba supposed to carry out whatever “plan” the parents had?
    My belief is that Shoma, Kanba, and Himari were together before the terrorist attack as shown in the flashbacks. After the attack on the metro system, their parents went into hiding, leaving the three children to fend for themselves. The next part I’m not too clear on, but it seems the parents, Shoma, and Kanba died shortly after. This leads to the beginning of the anime where the ghosts of Shoma and Kanba are watching over Himari and explains the last episode.

    Like I already mentioned, was the Child Broiler a real place? If so, why would such a cruel place exist in modern Japan? How was Shoma able to save Himari from it, and Momoka save Tabuki? Or again, was it all just symbolism?
    I think it was meant to portray “despair” and “hopelessness”. A place where people who have given up on life fall into.

    What were those robot teddy bears?
    Other than them obviously being bombs, I’m not quite sure.

    So the penguindrum was Shoma’s…heart? Why would Momoka (if the penguin hat is really part of her) want it?
    Actually, in my view, it was Himari’s heart (or soul, since the two are the same in Japanese). In my view, Himari was “dying” because her soul had split into 3 to keep the memory of Shoma and Kanba alive. In order to keep her alive, they needed to obtain the penguindrum, which was Himari’s completed soul. This is all just speculation though.

    Where exactly were they in the last episode – they couldn’t have actually been in a train yet that’s where Ringo and Himari ended up? Was it some kind of alternate world, the same world that popped up whenever the “Survival Strategy” sequence occurred? And I can’t even begin to understand what happened with Sanetoshi, Momoka, Shoma, Kanba, and the penguins in the end?
    This is where I thought Mawaru Penguindrum borrowed heavily from Night on the Galactic Railroad and required the least amount of interpretation. Almost everyone in Japan knows the story of Night on the Galactic Railroad, and the last episode was almost exactly like the famous novel with the living returning to the real world and the deceased arriving at the end of the line (or as they call it in the anime, the “destination of their fate”). This was only cemented when Kanba mentioned Kenji’s name (the author of Night on the Galactic Railroad) in the final scenes.

    I certainly agree with you that not everyone will like this series, and there’s probably more thinking than it’s worth. I quite enjoy reading into the details, so I really enjoyed Mawaru Penguindrum.

  15. Den says:
    tried answering some of your questions but in the end it’s not the “everyone’s cup of tea” series.

  16. wendeego says:

    I think you could argue that the central theme of Penguindrum was pretty clearly expressed in the very first episode, in the little speech that Kanba gave just before he kissed Himari–about humans defying their survival strategies in order to love other people. To break out of their Schrodinger’s boxes and offer others the Penguindrum, as it were. To truly live or die, rather than exist somewhere in the middle. Of course, Ikuhara disguises the screen as a shock incest moment that makes the viewer react in horror. It isn’t until the end that you realize that Kanba and Himari weren’t related in the first place, and that what initially appeared to be one thing was actually something totally different.

    Ikuhara does that a lot in Penguindrum, and I think that’s part of what makes it a love-it-or-hate-it sort of thing. Random skunk with a funny symbol on its back? Representation of how the KIGA attacks keep screwing up Ringo’s life, even years later! Seemingly disposable and over-the-top musical number? Allusion to Yuri’s tragic relationship with Momoka! Oh wait, this character just died…PSYCHE! Penguindrum keeps pulling the rug out from under you, even when you’re convinced that you’ve wizened up, that there’s no way the show will ever fool you again.

    Granted this doesn’t always work (still under the impression that Yuri’s almost-rape of Ringo was the low point of the show.) But when it does…well if the strength of something like Madoka Magica is that you KNOW that things are going to get worse, but don’t know how, in Penguindrum it’s almost impossible to predict what will happen next. What I think makes Penguindrum genuinely great, rather than an incoherent mess, is that if you take the revelations from the latter part of the series and apply them to the early parts, they (mostly) cohere. The Child Broiler isn’t really explained until episode 18, but fans start appearing in episode 1, and from there just about every time a character faces true death or abandonment, rotating blades appear. Understanding the show’s visual language can be difficult, but once you wrap your head around it, it’s actually pretty consistent!

    That said, the show’s so uncompromising that I suppose it really isn’t for everybody, in the same way that, say, FLCL isn’t for everybody. Then again FLCL is my favorite anime of all time so I guess I’m biased?

  17. SKIIBOSKI says:

    Ok, i might sound like a retard here, but i had no idea there was symbolism at all, or rather I didn’t consider any symbolism involved. I just watched the show and enjoyed what was being showed right in front of me rather than try to find the answer behind this and that. I admit i did try finding the answer to everything in Steins; Gate (complete mind f**k) but i didn’t for Mawaru Penguindrum because i reckon it explained ‘most’ of the themes in the final episodes, and all it needed was simple logic. Of course there was still some unanswered parts, but lets hope they can explain it all in some sort of extra.

  18. Metis1 says:

    I just finished watching the series.
    Although the anime does leave unfinished questions, I think you have to think more about the symbolic things and expect it to help answer your questions. To be honest, I’m still a little confused but I plan, within a week or so, to rewatch the series and pick up the things I missed. Hopefully, that will help me better, and along with others, understand the entire series.

  19. ADUPRÉ says:

    Fate / responsibility vs. free will / love
    Evolution / biology vs. religion / esotericism

    Hmmmm. Still thinking about it.

  20. Jackson says:

    I think understanding what the story was about and what it was trying to tell the audience is enough (?). It is based in a sci-fic setting afterall, trying to find an answer to everything isn’t possible. What I didn’t like was when something happened on screen, and you have no idea what it is about…which happens a lot in Mawaru Penguindrum. But luckily the main gist of the story is clear…i hope.

  21. PandaJerk007 says:

    I watched the entire series over the last week or so, and I would definitely say that you are able to figure things out a lot easier if you marathon the series rather than if you see 1 episode a week. Maybe 60% of the questions I could answer straight up just by having the show fresh in my mind. Another 20% I could give my opinion/interpretation and answer them pretty well. And the final 20% I don’t really have an answer to.

  22. reveal says:

    I know that this is a fairly old post, but I wanted to see if I could answer some of these questions myself, since I just finished Penguindrum for the first time yesterday. I recommend reading this helpful analysis beforehand:

    I attempted to answer the questions that I had a somewhat passable answer for and that were not described in the aforementioned analysis.

    [With all those random flashbacks, I just couldn’t piece together the correct chronology of the lives of Shoma, Kanba, and Himari. If someone could lay out a timeline for each of their lives, that would nice. And what exactly did their parents do that made everyone hate them? Was Kanba supposed to carry out whatever “plan” the parents had?]
    1. Shouma and Kanba (and Ringo and Masako) were born on March 20, 1995, the day of the terrorist attack instituted by Sanetoshi and the Takakuras, and half stopped by Momoka.
    2. Shouma is the son of the Takakuras and Kanba is the son of the Natsume Clan, twin brother of Masako, and older brother of Mario. The Natsume Clan and the Takakuras are conspiring another attack (it was possibly described but I wasn’t paying too close attention) and during one of their meetings, Shouma meets Himari for the first time. They become friends, meet Sun-chan the cat, etc.
    3. This is the only logical time I can think of during which Shouma and Kanba were in the boxes. Either here or between #1 and #2. Kanba shares the “fruit of fate”/the apple with Shouma. (The significance of that whole flashback is explained later in this post.)
    3. Shouma saves Himari from the Child Broiler and shares his half of the “fruit of fate”/the apple with her.
    4. Kanba leaves the Natsume Clan following(?) his father’s death and becomes part of the Takakura family in return for allowing Masako and Mario to live ordinary lives.
    5. At Kanba’s father’s funeral, Himari plasters a band-aid on Kanba’s face and Kanba vows to always protect her. Kanba officially joins the Takakuras.
    6. Sometime later, the Takakura parents go missing and are hunted as terrorist suspects while Shouma, Kanba, and Himari are left on their own.

    [So the penguindrum was Shoma’s…heart? Why would Momoka (if the penguin hat is really part of her) want it?]
    To quote a nicely comprehensive (and anonymous) comment I found on the penguindrum wiki, “It’s really weird to just say the Penguindrum is the apple. In a literal sense, yes it is the apple shown to us that is shared between Shoma and Kanba, but the apple itself is symbolic. So saying “the Penguindrum is this symbol” doesn’t clear anything up, really. Additionally, the Penguindrum is also mentioned to be “the destination of [their] fate” so in that sense the Penguindrum is also both a place and a time (literally the climax of the series) that Momoka is trying to get back to. Since Momoka and Sanetoshi are “curses” or abstract forces of their personal wills, persisting after their deaths, they are driven to their ultimate confrontation which was cut short 16 years ago, but they are unaware of the details of the course of their fates. In the abstract flashback scene towards the end, Shoma and Kamba find themselves in the isolation of their “boxes” or “cages”. Sanetoshi remarks that in this frozen world, humans live in their boxes where they lose their individuality and identity. Shoma and Kanba were starving mentally, from the social isolation and the feelings of hopelessness pervasive throughout the Lost Decade in Japan, a social issue that is a central theme and topic of commentary in Mawaru Penguindrum. Kamba saves Shoma by sharing with him the Fruit of Fate, a visual symbol of the act of choosing someone. The ideas of choosing and being chosen as a way of saving someone from their hopelessness is also a theme dealt with extensively throughout the series.”
    [How did the Triple H girls have the words to Momoka’s spell? I don’t remember them having any relationship with her? And if it’s in their song, how would Ringo know which are the right words?]
    Double H stated that it was Himari’s favorite phrase in elementary school. They were her two friends, if you recall the flashbacks during the library episode (the matching bows, Himari’s mother getting scarred, etc.). Ringo knew the phrase because Double H specifically mentioned that Himari’s favorite phrase was the title of the song itself, “Let us share the fruit of fate.”

    [Where exactly were they in the last episode – they couldn’t have actually been in a train yet that’s where Ringo and Himari ended up? Was it some kind of alternate world, the same world that popped up whenever the “Survival Strategy” sequence occurred? And I can’t even begin to understand what happened with Sanetoshi, Momoka, Shoma, Kanba, and the penguins in the end?]
    They went to some other alternate universe, although their bodies are still in the real world. This phenomenon happens a lot throughout the series, notably during the “Survival Strategy” scenes. Another post I found on the Penguindrum wikia explains the possible origin of the word “Penguindrum” and some other useful stuff (also anonymous, but most likely by the same person): “It’s possible Ikuhara simply put together three key terms from the story to form a cryptic title, two of which form a cryptic name for a mysterious object, so that the ending of the anime couldn’t be prematurely guessed. The series it titled Mawaru Penguindrum, ‘mawaru’ meaning ‘spinning.’ Spinning and rotating objects are a common visual theme in the series, alluding to the ever-turning wheel of fate. The penguins themselves were intended to be symbolic of humans – being birds yet flightless, but very good swimmers, penguins are awkward and unusual creatures at odds with their environment. Ikuhara has said he likens penguins to humans because both struggle to find their place in a frozen world. Lastly, a spinning drum, or den-den daiko, is an instrument found in Japan and other parts of Eastern Asia. “Drum” also has the meaning of a cylindrical container which can be spun. The name could also simply allude to the penguindrum being an instrument of their fate.
    The Princess of the Crystal (Momoka) used the word ‘penguindrum’ initially. Since she exists as only a ‘curse’ bound to a hat, it’s possible she didn’t know what specifically she was looking for, and was simply driven by undying will or fate to her confrontation with Sanetoshi. I believe the apple could merely be symbolic of a fated encounter. ‘Let us share the fruit of fate’ is a key phrase uttered in reference to fated encounters – encounters that change the course of one’s destiny to lead up to the moment of the series’ climax. Shoma and Kanba share the fruit of fate, as do Shoma and Himari. The phrase is the second half of the spell Momoka used in life to transfer fate. With that in mind, Momoka may have simply been using the word ‘penguindrum’ to refer to her fated encounter with Sanetoshi, or to refer to the point in time the phrase would be uttered in order to complete the fate transfer which was only ‘half cast’ 16 years ago.“

  23. Nina says:

    2015 and I need to watch this….for a third time. The bandaged teddy bear always stood out to me – usually used as a symbol of childhood trauma. Maybe the mental trauma of losing family during the train attack…..idk. Must watch again. The second time around, I tried to watch as if the penguins didn’t exist….it worked for most all scenes; not all. Remember to, no one else can see them – they get stepped on, etc…no one notices them. I really don’t think they existed. I don’t know if penguins could symbolize more than….the cool hat she found at the aquarium. -shrugs- I do agree with the comment left that true abstract art can’t be clearly interpreted. I do enjoy these kinds of things, though. I’m ok that everything isn’t plainly written for me. I can go back and enjoy the series, again and again… if it were day one. Hope you find some satisfying answers soon ^_^

  24. Ling Ho says:

    Hi, I just watched this penguindrum anime and really enjoyed it. But like everyone else I was not satisfied with the ending because I wanted a solid answer. And so I instantly searched for “penguindrum confusing” on google :p After reading all these solutions and perspectives. I think that the more options you use to describe and define the answers to the anime, the more entertainment you would get out of the anime. It becomes livelier and prettier with every ounce of imagination (hence Himari princess’ phrase “IMAGINE!”) think of it as if you are piecing together a puzzle that exists on infinite parallel dimensions or time line. And for the producer to think of enough solutions to have our imaginations converge itself into a single giant story is really interesting.

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