GUEST POST – Boxes: Revisiting Mawaru Penguindrum

 

“I realized one morning … That I hate this world. 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 inside the box, they eventually forget: What they looked like. What they loved; who they loved. That’s why I’m getting out of my box. I’m one of the chosen. That’s why I’m going to destroy this world.”

“Human beings are such inconvenient creatures. Why, do you ask? Because they can never escape the box called “self”. Those boxes don’t protect us. They take things precious to us away. Even if someone was next to you, you can’t tear down the wall and bond. We’re all alone. We will never gain anything inside our boxes. There are no exits. No one can save you. So, we can only destroy… the boxes, the people, the world!”

Sanetoshi’s opening and ending monologues, Mawaru Penguindrum 23: The Destination of Fate

The boxes in the finale of Mawaru Penguindrum are one of those images that I can’t forget. Those harsh, metal boxes that cage the starving Kanba and Shouma are central to the most devastatingly emotional moment of the show. They ring with meanings that are threaded throughout Mawaru Penguindrum and all of Ikuhara’s works. With his new show Sarazanmai incorporating boxes even more prominently, it seems like a good time to dig into the boxes in Mawaru Penguindrum.

There are two interpretations I want to focus on in this post. Sanetoshi’s first monologue points to being boxed in by society. That is, a person being forced by the rigidity of the world to conform into an inauthentic self. The second monologue identifies the box as self. That is, the barrier that makes me a distinct individual and prevents me from connecting to others – described by Sanetoshi in a way that aligns closely with Evangelion’s AT fields. Looking at these two interpretations will make up the two parts of this post.


Part 1: “This world is made of countless boxes” – The boxes of society

The idea that social pressure limits a person should be entirely familiar. Society has a need to label things; to reject what is uncertain or ambiguous; to treat people as objects, as uniform, as consumable; to stuff people into categories or roles that hurt them. I want to talk about boxes as societal limitations in three ways: (a) self-expression, and (b) invisibility, and (c) a person’s future.

Firstly, the limitation of self-expression, which also means conformity, lack of visibility and lack of individual identity. From the outside, a box is a box. A person inside a box is an object, stamped with a brand. It’s destructible, it’s cheap, it’s replaceable, it’s indistinguishable from others of its kind, it’s owned by a company, it exists only as far as it can be used. It represents someone who is valued only as an asset, not as a human being.

“But at the same time, who would ever think, ‘I’m an unimportant little person and if I end up a cog in society’s system, gradually worn down until I die, hey – that’s okay’? More or less, all of us want the answers to the reasons why we’re living on this earth, and why we die and disappear.”

Murakami – Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

The visuals in Mawaru Penguindrum and throughout Ikuhara’s work reinforce this. Generic street-sign icons for people. The three penguins that embody the souls of the Takakuras, packed into a frozen box. The Kiga followers carrying out Sanetoshi’s plan also embody this: dressed the same and marching in unison, each box containing a bear bomb, they’re visually overshadowed by the Kiga logo. They weren’t able to escape their boxes and express themselves. Instead, they’ve chosen to give themselves up completely and become part of a greater whole.

In Yuri Kuma Arashi, we have the tessellating doves and lilies cast over the entire student population, with a harsh spotlight singling out anyone who deviates from the rules. In Utena, the students in their coffins are practically indistinguishable. There’s also a strong focus on Utena’s self-expression, and the denial of it, through the outfits she wears and is forced into. The visual order of stacked, identical boxes is possible only through suppression of individual expression.


Closely tied to lack of self-expression is the fear of becoming invisible. On a basic level, boxes make their contents invisible. A person inside a box is no longer visible as a human being.

“We will be crushing you into pieces now. There is nothing to fear. You will just become indistinguishable from another. You will just become invisible entities.”

The Child Broiler, Mawaru Penguindrum 18 – So Please Be There For Me

One interpretation of being invisible is being outcast from society. The invisible people are ignored by society, with no safety net and nobody caring enough to reach out to them. The abandoned children in the Child Broiler; Himari’s fading penguin when she is close to death; Sanetoshi himself left in darkness at the end of the series.

Sanetoshi represents the ‘curse’ from the 1995 terrorist attack, that can be seen in its effects on Ringo, Tabuki, Yuri, and the ‘punishment’ bestowed upon the Takakuras. It represents a pain that was boxed away, never properly seen and reckoned with. As Murakami writes in Underground, “Some strange malaise, some bitter aftertaste lingers on.  … Most Japanese seem ready to pack up the whole incident in a trunk labeled THINGS OVER AND DONE WITH”.

“I never amounted to anything. No, I finally gained power. I’m going to take my revenge on the world that never needed me. I finally will become visible.”

Black Bunnies, Mawaru Penguindrum 23

“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.”

Sanetoshi, Mawaru Penguindrum 24 – I Love You

Another interpretation of becoming invisible is dying without leaving any trace in the world. This ties back to the lack of self-expression. By choosing destruction, Sanetoshi and Kiga have decided to stamp a mark on the world, even if that mark is a terrorist brand. By Sanetoshi’s reasoning, this is the only way to “become visible”.

But episode 24 clearly rejects Sanetoshi’s reasoning. It tells us that simply loving, simply opening up your life to another person’s will be enough to leave a presence behind. Even with Shouma and Kanba erased from the world, Himari and Ringo bear the physical scars of their sacrifice.


Lastly, I want to talk about how society limits a person’s future. The destruction / determination of a person’s future occurs in a material sense and in a psychological sense. The material sense is fairly straightforward, the psychological sense – losing “the power to imagine the future” – is less so. But it’s a message that I believe is at the core of Penguindrum, and all of Ikuhara’s works. I’ll try to explain it how I see it, though really it’s a fool’s errand to explain in words what Ikuhara conveys through anime.

On a material level, the ‘fate’ imposed by society could mean being constrained by your socioeconomic background, your family, or any other factor within your situation. In Mawaru Penguindrum, there are parents who are missing, dead, abusive, and imprisoned. Himari loses the opportunity to become part of the idol group Double H due to her illness. Kanba and Shouma need to skip school to look after Himari; Kanba is driven towards Kiga in order to make money. The mystical talk of curses and fate manifests in the very real problem of a person’s outcomes in life being predetermined by their situation. These factors tie together to ensure Shouma and Kanba’s status as “lowlifes who will never amount to anything”.

On a psychological level, losing your future can mean losing the ability to imagine a different world. When you suffer for a long time, you become accustomed to it, and it requires more and more energy to believe that things could be different.

“This is our punishment.”

“This is fate.”

“You will never be happy.”

To keep on going in the face of suffering can mean believing in a miracle. Such miracles appear in Penguindrum as the spells and fate transfers used to restore Himari’s life. For the characters of Penguindrum, who are cursed by the fate of the world itself, holding onto hope means believing in something that violates the rules of the world. That’s why the Princess of the Crystal shouts “Imagine!” as she transforms Himari into the third member of Double H, letting her seize the future that was denied.

Losing hope means accepting that there is nothing beyond the world. There is no better society. What has always been must always continue to be. It means accepting that present suffering will stretch indefinitely into the future, down through the generations. It means accepting that a happy future cannot exist.

“You know that a great many students commit suicide. I think they’re unable to imagine a happy future. To put it more bluntly, they look at their mothers and fathers, who should be motivating them for their future, and they can’t imagine they will grow up to be happy.

… Through this, you may be able to imagine a happy future, or through this, you might be able to go on living happily…

These are the sorts of things I wish to portray.”

Ikuhara in an interview about Utena, 1997 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAqIQ0glElA

“This is also a possible world. One possibility that’s in me. The me right now is not exactly who I am. All sorts of me’s are possible.” […]

“When you think of it that way, this world of reality might not be so bad.”

Shinji and Misato in Evangelion 26 – “Take Care Of Yourself”

In Sartrean terms, human existence is the ability to transcend, to open up possibilities, to nihilate what ‘is’ and look towards what is not. It is the opposite of being constrained by the facts of the past or the present. Though I may be trapped within a box, I will never be a box. A box has no possibility to become other than itself. I, a human being, have limitless possibility.

Ikuhara ends his shows with the protagonists escaping their society to roam some free, transcendental plane. The ‘better world’ depicted in these endings is always vague. It offers little guidance for our present society.

However. If the goal is to give people the ability to imagine a happy future, it is useless to merely show people what that looks like. A ‘happy future’ is not the kind of thing that can be neatly boxed up, presented, possessed and consumed. It’s the power of a person to be more than whatever box or boundary they are placed within. It must be a kind of transcendence.

“Revolution means gaining “the power to imagine the future.””

Ikuhara on the commentary for Utena 39 – “Someday, Together, We’ll Shine”

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Part 2: “I Want To Be Connected, But I Want To Lie” – The Box Called “Self”

“Human beings are such inconvenient creatures. Why, do you ask? Because they can never escape the box called “self”. Those boxes don’t protect us. They take things precious to us away. Even if someone was next to you, you can’t tear down the wall and bond. We’re all alone. We will never gain anything inside our boxes. There are no exits. No one can save you. So, we can only destroy… the boxes, the people, the world!”

Repeating this Sanetoshi quote because you’ve forgotten it by now, and because it’s so good it deserves to be repeated.

Being an individual necessarily means being separated from others. My identity as an individual lies in my unique personality and experiences; in private thoughts, fears and shames that I never want to share. All these aspects of ‘me’ are hidden away inside a box. This box functions as the distance between me and others. The box is the outward presentation I adopt which protects the vulnerable parts of my self.

As we see in the first episode of Sarazanmai, truly connecting with another person means baring your self to them. The more you open yourself up to someone, the more likely you are to be hurt. There’s the fear of rejection. There’s the fear of being relied upon. There’s the shame surrounding your own existence. In Sanetoshi’s view, it’s impossible to escape the box called “self” and connect to another person. Yet we need connection in order to keep on living. Human being is a painful, paradoxical situation.

In episode 4 of Evangelion, Ritsuko speaks of Shinji in terms of the hedgehog’s dilemma. This analogy describes the need for people to connect to one another, but the more connected we are the more vulnerable we are. The hedgehogs must huddle for warmth, but they cannot avoid hurting each other with their spines. For Shinji, the fear of being hurt outweighs the warmth of connection, meaning he is left to struggle alone.

Speaking from my own perspective, the scariest part of connection is others seeing who you are. Everyone has aspects of themselves that they’re ashamed of, and maybe even despise. Hiding away these things is a normal part of human existence. For someone else to see those parts of you, even if they accept you, is terrifying. The deeper your sense of shame and self-hatred, the more important it is that nobody ever makes contact with the real you.

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Kazuki, packing his ‘secret’ back into his box in Sarazanmai 1, “I Want To Be Connected, But I Want To Lie”

At the same time, those parts of yourself aren’t something that you can get rid of. The shame exists precisely because those things are ‘you’. The awareness of self and the feeling of shame are one and the same. No matter what you do, no matter who accepts you, you can never cease being yourself – unless you cease to exist. In this sense at least, the box truly is inescapable.

The villains of Evangelion and Mawaru Penguindrum try to change this situation through radically transforming the world. In Evangelion, the AT field is a protective barrier manifested by the soul. Like the box called “self”, it protects the individual and keeps others out. The Human Instrumentality Project is one that removes all the barriers between individuals, dissolving the AT fields into a flood of life force. People would become ultimately connected, without the pain involved in human relationships, at the cost of their own identities.

Sanetoshi’s goals are simpler in comparison. In his view, the fact that each person is trapped to suffer alone is simply the fate of the world. Thus, the only possible resolution is to destroy everything. This is both an act of revenge against the cruelty of the world, and an act of liberation. The followers of Kiga carry bombs within their boxes. They are escaping the box by exploding it, through the release of their inner selves: their suffering and anger transformed into a destructive force.

In the ending of Evangelion, Shinji ultimately decides to choose life. Like Sanetoshi, he could have chosen to destroy a world that he could not escape. Or he could have followed SEELE and Gendo, becoming one with all of humanity as a transcendental mass. Instead, he chooses the pain and beauty of human connection. He chooses to be himself.

In the ending of Penguindrum, Kanba and Shouma meet each other for the first time as they each lay starving. Trapped in their own boxes, at a distance, they are powerless to help each other.  But Kanba discovers an apple in his box. Unlabelled, bright and beautiful, it represents a hope that allows him to keep on living. Through immense struggle and sacrifice, it’s possible to attain just the barest moment of true connection with another person. Just the slightest touch is enough to transform a person’s life, and consequently, the entire world. That’s the ultimate thesis of Mawaru Penguindrum.

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Extra Comments & Links

Hi, I’m Jenny, @jennyyangat on twitter :> I love Ikuni and Maddie ❤ ! Thanks Maddie for letting me post this on her blog and thank you for reading!!! :>

There are other interesting interpretations of the boxes, some of which I didn’t find much to say about, or didn’t feel applied as strongly in the case of Mawaru Penguindrum. The box as a person’s material condition; the box as the body; the box as commodity. I’m sure these themes will ring strongly in Sarazanmai.

In Sarazanmai and Yuri Kuma Arashi, we see boxes as also a place where something precious is stored. It still relates to the box as self, and is still limiting, but strikes a different tone from the cages of Penguindrum which are undoubtedly negative.

The translations I used were gg fansubs’ – perhaps slightly edited – done by 8thsin. His posts at the time about his translations can be found here: https://8thsinfansubs.wordpress.com/tag/mawaru-penguindrum/page/4/

Haruki Murakami’s essay in Underground, “BLIND NIGHTMARE: WHERE ARE WE JAPANESE GOING?” – https://publicism.info/history/underground/9.html

Altair & Vega’s episodic ‘Colloquia’ on Mawaru Penguindrum. Although the site is down now, the old pieces can be accessed through web archival – https://web.archive.org/web/20160819185043/http://altairandvega.net/2011/12/24/colloquium-mawaru-penguindrum-episode-24-end/

Also by ajthefourth, atelieremily’s post on Murakami’s ‘Underground’, Zankyou no Terror, and Mawaru Penguindrum. I pulled a fair number of quotes from here as I don’t have my copy of ‘Underground’ with me at the moment. Check out her cool pieces on Sarazanmai and all of Ikuni’s shows 🙂  https://formeinfullbloom.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/lisa-mishima-and-the-place-that-was-promised/

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