“This world is made of countless boxes. People bend and stuff their bodies into their own boxes. And stay there for the rest of their lives. And eventually, inside the box, they forget: what they looked like; what they loved; who they loved.”
Welcome to another anime rant, my friends! Of the major works to date of Kunihiko Ikuhara, the one I’m most familiar with is Mawaru Penguindrum. It might not be my favorite, but it’s what I’ve watched and researched the most. So today, my post is about Penguindrum. The issue is that there’s way too much in that anime to unpack even in two or more posts. That’s why, rather than some kind of comprehensive analysis, this article will focus only a few topics in Penguindrum. Mostly, it’s about a scene in episode 24 (the boxes scene), but it will also touch on the Fruit of Fate and the concept of punishment in the Penguindrum universe.
Before we get right into it, let me make something clear. Penguindrum is about the ideas over the details– the feeling over the logical reasoning. Not everything makes sense, and very little is explained with clarity. There are hundreds of possible interpretations of various parts of the anime. So keep in mind that my post is just one more interpretation, not to be treated as the one “real” absolute meaning of anything. Now then, we can proceed.
The Box Scene
“None of you will ever escape the curse, as I could not. Residents of the boxes like you could never gain anything. You will all simply disappear without leaving anything behind in this world. You won’t even leave a fleck of dust behind – you will never be happy!”Sanetoshi Watase
In episode 24 of Penguindrum, we see the final flashback about the Takakura brothers. It’s the famous “box scene,” where Shouma and Kanba are dying inside of jail-like boxes. This happens ten years ago from the time of the anime, which means 2001. In the timeline of Penguindrum, this is the same year that Himari and Kanba joined the family. So, what’s happening here? If they had finally all formed a family, why were Shouma and Kanba in a terrible situation like this?
To begin with, I think this is a metaphor. Kanba and Shouma were not literally dying. To make sense of it, remember Sanetoshi’s quotes about boxes. He says that people force themselves into boxes, twisting themselves to fit, no matter how poor a fit it may be. And these boxes are what “kills” us. In other words, we force ourselves to fit into the box that society dictates. As we do this, we lose our true selves and a part of our minds and and hearts die. As if to make the point clearer, Sanetoshi later says that there is no way to have a happy or meaningful life as long as people stay within their boxes.
We all have our boxes that hold us within. Time, money, demographics, illnesses, and transgressions. These are examples of boxes that can trap us and prove difficult to escape. The reality of our individual limited circumstances is one of the meanings in Penguindrum that can speak to many people. But what about Kanba and Shouma specifically? They are trapped in some kind of role that’s causing a kind of spiritual death.
Recall that their father, Kenzan Takakura, was one of the leaders of the terrorist group that orchestrated the attacks on the subways. Kanba and Shouma are the sons of mass murderers. Long before they have any idea of why, the Takakura sons are suffering because of the position they were put in by their parents. Already, the world is telling them that they will not amount to anything. They are cursed children.
On the topic of the boxes, there’s still more to explore. But we will need to cover a few other things in the anime in order to understand. Let’s come back to the boxes scene after a brief review regarding the Fruit of Fate and the idea of retribution seen in Penguindrum.
Punishment in Penguindrum
“Why are people born? If people are born only to suffer a hard life, is it meant as some kind of punishment? Or a cynical joke?”Kanba Takakura
Punishment is a theme that comes up quite a bit in Penguindrum. Although at different times, the Takakura brothers framed their misfortune as the random unfairness of the universe, they also feel quite deeply that they are being punished by some sort of fate or god. This is especially true of Shouma, who internalizes the sins of his parents as his own, and believes he alone deserves all the punishment.
You might recall the sad fairy tale in episode 12 where the deity exacts punishment on Mary by sacrificing the smallest and sweetest of the three lambs. This is reflective of Shouma’s belief that Himari’s fated death is the world’s punishment on the Takakura family. Kanba believes the same, but internalizes it less than Shouma, instead taking every kind of direct action to save Himari by putting the “punishment” on himself. He can and will forsake everything, including ethics and his own life, to be the family sacrifice.
It’s clear that penance is a key idea in the lives of the characters once they discover and accept the crimes of their parents. However, at the time of the box scene, Kanba and Shouma were not aware of the truth. Yet they were very aware of suffering. So is this slow death punishment or not? Related to our discussion is another, slightly more subtle motif in Penguindrum: that life itself is a painful chastisement. After the world is changed, when the reincarnated brothers are talking outside, Shouma tries to explain things to Kanba. He says, “Being alive was the punishment.” Although this sentiment is probably uncomfortable to many, life is certainly full of pain. That seems pretty grim, but there is a little more to this idea I haven’t explained yet. We will return to this dilemma in the final section, after reviewing the Fruit of Fate.
The Fruit of Fate
“This world is divided into the chosen and the unchosen. To be unchosen is to die.”Himari Takakura
Fruits that resemble red apples are visual motifs of Penguindrum, and they are equally important to the story. As seen in episode 20, Shouma gave the Fruit of Fate to Himari when he rescued her. Himari then gave the fruit to Kanba when he joined the family later that year. And in the box scene which we are discussing today, Kanba shared the fruit with Shouma. The two boys were going to die from starvation, but Kanba found the fruit within his box. He split it and gave half to Shouma, saving both of their lives. The last episode reveals that the Fruit shared by the children was the Penguindrum needed to save Himari all along. Kanba used his half to restore Himari’s life, and Shouma used his half to ensure Ringo’s survival.
Besides being the Penguindrum, what exactly is the Fruit of Fate? There are several meanings ascribed to it. To start with, the fruit symbolizes shared destiny. Those who share it are forever connected. Another meaning of the fruit is love. In Penguindrum, it’s mostly familial love, but I think there was also romantic love involved when Kanba gave his half of the fruit to Himari. Either way, the common denominator is love. A third possible interpretation of the fruit is life itself. After all, the fruit is what saved Himari’s life once and for all.
For our purposes, the Fruit of Fate symbolizes all three of these concepts in one. More specifically, to receive the fruit is to be chosen for these concepts: chosen to live, chosen to be loved, and chosen to be connected. In episode 20, young Himari tells Shouma that everyone is either chosen or not, and that to be unchosen is to die. Since her mother abandoned her, Himari’s fate was to die at the child broiler. (Even if you interpret that place as metaphorical, Himari would still suffer as an unwanted child and, as Kenzan said, “become invisible” to the world.) But Shouma changed everything by choosing Himari. He gave her love, connectedness, and life itself. He made her “a chosen child.” Now, as we return to analyzing the box scene, keep in mind the nature of this fruit.
The Box Scene Revisited
Earlier, we raised the question of whether life is some kind of punishment in the Penguindrum universe. Let’s return to that dilemma. In episode 20, when Himari was rescued by Shouma and adopted into the family, she thought to herself that it must be wrong in the same way as Adam and Eve sharing the fruit in Eden. But for Himari, her thought was “Even if it’s a punishment, I still want to be with Shouma.” And at a different point, Himari makes this idea even clearer with another quote.
“As it turns out, living was a punishment. I’ve been punished in small doses, living as a Takakura. But, still, we were together. We took all the punishments, no matter how small and trivial. They’re all precious memories. Because the only reason I felt alive was because you two were there.”Himari Takakura
So it seems that for the Takakuras at least, life was indeed meant to be a penance of sorts. The fate of all three children was to suffer. Kanba and Shouma eventually found a way to break free of that future, combining the power of their sacrifice with that of Ringo’s spell. The world took a different direction afterward where Himari could live a happy life. But the important point here is that even if that hadn’t happened, Himari was already content. Perhaps some god or fate intended to punish her, but she found a way to treasure her life nevertheless. It’s because Kanba and Shouma were there with her, always loving and supporting her. Even if life is overall a painful and punishing experience, we can, like Himari, find ways to maximize the good moments, learn whatever we can, and appreciate existence.
It’s also important to note that reality and the nature of the universe and life are somewhat subjective in Penguindrum. So even if life was punishment to the Takakuras, the same doesn’t go for everyone. We learned this early in Penguindrum by seeing the perspective of Ringo. Unlike the Takakura boys, she loves the concept of fate. Because of the existence of fate, she reasoned, everything happened for a reason. Life wasn’t pointless. The views of Momoka were similar. She believed life and the world were beautiful, although she wasn’t fatalistic like Ringo. Rather, Momoka believed that negative fates could be changed. She proved it with her powers. In conclusion, life in Penguindrum doesn’t have to be a punishment.
Since we now understand all that, let’s review what happened in the boxes scene and put it into perspective. At that time, Shouma and Kanba were suffering and slowly dying (at least metaphorically) as was their fate. They suffered from being inside societal “boxes,” in roles they could not escape. They suffered because theirs was the family that brought a curse on the world: the terror attacks on the subways.
By sharing the Fruit of Fate, the boys changed their fate somewhat, but in a way that had unforeseen effects. The two halves of fruit they used to provide themselves with sweet life and connectedness were meant to be given, one and whole, to Himari. But nobody knew this. All Kanba and Shouma knew was that they had found relief. Even if it was temporary, this bit of fresh life was sweet. Even if their lives became punishment for this, Kanba and Shouma wanted to live and be in each other’s company. And so they did for quite a while.
That concludes my analysis of the box scene in Penguindrum. Hopefully the discussions about the Fruit of Fate and the concept of punishment were relevant and interesting, too. There’s so much substance to the Penguindrum anime, and so I continue to enjoy it on the year of its tenth anniversary. Thank you so much for reading, and please join me again soon for the next Anime Rant!