The Power of Three: Penguindrum

Penguindrum is one of those thing, like Wonder Egg Priority, that people have been recommending to me, like, forever. Really. Seriously. For ever.

A Certain Retailer had two of the light novels and I gobbled them right up, wondering why the story seemed unfinished. SURPRISE! There are THREE novels. D’oh!

And the anime wasn’t for sale and wasn’t on any of the services I knew how to access, and there are a few of those!

But someone hit me with a clue-by-four on how to find it and now I’ve been watching it. It’s cute and it’s clever. It looks like someone dropped a bunch of acid, watched Paranoia Agent, and wrote up their notes when they came down. I mean, seriously, what the heck is the Penguindrum? (Hint: It’s a McGuffin.)

But, you know, stoned as they were, the writer cooked up something very neat in telling the story.

Okay, if you’ve been reading this blog for the years it’s been running – my fourth anniversary is coming up HARD – and you’ve seen Penguindrum, you know I’m going to tell you that the Takakura kids form a pretty standard, if more realistic than usual, Body-Mind-Soul trio, right?

Right? Kanba is the physical one. He’s the one who gets beat up and he’s the one that rescues Himari’s hat by riding his bike and making other superhuman physical efforts.

Shoma is … well, he’s not the smart one per se, they’re all reasonably bright … but he’s the one associated with intellectual achievement. He’s a schoolboy and attached to the story because one the key characters is his homeroom teacher.

And poor little Himari is sickly AND small. She can’t even go to school for most of the series, but she always stays cheerful and optimistic, does her best to cheer her brothers up even though she’s already died once and could again at any moment.

Boom. Mind-Body-Soul.

From left: Kanba, Himari, Shoma. Plus some penguins.

Now, there are nuances in that we could all list out: Kanba is also strong-willed, and when Himari is possessed she becomes powerful, and Shoma does duty as a pack mule. They transcend their primary roles and, as in other shows that do that, like Samurai Champloo, they become more interesting.

Also, they are each given extra “business” that makes their motivations complex as well. Kanba has taken the responsibility of taking care of the others, especially Himari’s medical bills, and that leads him to engage in some very shady dealings he has to hide from the others. Shoma is the only biological child of the terrorist parents and the guilt of their acts weighs heavily on them. Himari is aware she is dying and also that she is adopted, and that drives her insecurities.

That bit of extra business is what makes them seem real in what is essentially a fantasy and IS a cartoon! They are really well-designed characters!

But that’s not all of what I saw here. Or, rather, that’s not the big thing I saw here from a writing standpoint.

The big thing I saw was that the writers put Shoma at the bottom of the group in terms of dominance. Right? Kanba barely pays attention to him. Himari in her own skin is a good little girl but when she becomes the Princess of the Crystal she gives Shoma direct orders and expects him to carry them out. Even Ringo, screwed up as she is, bullies Shoma by sheer force of personality.

See it?
Kanba is the oldest. He can run around on his own stories and leave Shoma behind.
Himari, as the Princess of the Crystal, can order him around to various places, with Himari’s life as the stakes.
Ringo has something Shoma wants (the diary) and she can make him do anything to get it.
Tabuki is his teacher and a natural authority figure.

Shoma’s the low man on the totem pole.

The really clever thing they did making Shoma the subordinate character was that it meant he could always be available to “watch” the story. Right? He’s the central character. The camera follows him around in the anime and he narrates the novels in the first person while everyone else is third person.

And by allowing all the other characters to dominate him, they let him see what he needs to see in order to allow them to tell us the story.

Since the others all have power over him, they can make him be in the key places in the story and involve him in key events by telling him to be there. That’s a really neat narrative trick that pulls a lot of the story together; rather than having different scenes with different characters expecting us to keep track of them all (like Game of Thrones), Shoma is present for most of the key events. He’s there when Himari faints in school, at the Doctor’s office when they learn her prognosis, with Ringo when she tries to seduce Tabuki and when Tokikago announces that she and Tabuki are engaged.

And so on. Because everyone can tell Shoma where to go, the WRITERS can tell the characters to tell him where to go wherever he needs to be for them to tell the story. The only exception are Kanba’s scenes by himself, because he’s up to something Shoma’s not supposed to know about.

You know, that makes sense, too. Shoma knows MOST of what’s going on, but we, the viewers, know ALL of it. There’s a tension between what we know Shoma knows and what’s really going on.

Ooh … dramatic tension!

And it makes sense structurally, too. Let’s be honest: The plot of Penguindrum isn’t really meant to be an intellectual exercise from the characters’ points of view. They are deliberately kept in the dark on a number of key issues. No, this is at heart a spiritual story, which is why Himari will prevail at some point.

So if it’s not an intellectual exercise, what use are Shoma’s brains? Not much. So he contributes as an observer, not as a participant.

Kind of clever, if you think about it. The sort of thing Satoshi Kon might have cooked up.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Three: Penguindrum

  1. Interesting to see a Shoma-centric analysis of Penguindrum! We see a lot of things through Shoma’s eyes, yet he rarely feels like the protagonist, and feels unlikely to be anyone’s favourite character (I don’t know, some might disagree). Perhaps that’s what makes him so suitable for the observer’s role.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, that’s just it: he’s the central character but he’s not really the protagonist because he doesn’t drive the action. In fact, Penguindrum is really neat because the action is mostly driven from the outside to a large extent by Sanetoshi and Momoka in whatever incarnations they are currently in. So everyone has to respond to them and what we’re watching is mostly the responses. It’s REALLY cool!

      Liked by 1 person

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