All Aboard the Story Train: Mawaru Penguindrum

The train of the future, today!

I love trains, quite possibly to the level of a train otaku like Banba from Kuragehime. Heck, just recently, I was so drunk last weekend that I bought Drive a Steam Train from Steam’s summer sale. Personally, I find the concept of on-rails travel to be romantic and adventurous. Not only that, but as a storytelling device and framework, there are characteristics of a train that a writer can incorporate into a story for great effect with regards to plot, theme, and symbolism.

In Mawaru Penguindrum, the subway appears in numerous levels, all discussed in length by the aniblogosphere already.  Altair and Vega interpret the train imagery as symbolism for deism and determinism in general.  Listless Ink sees the train as an iconographic fairy tale setting where fashion runs rampant in a symbolic way.  Ghostlightining even points out in the comments that the fashion runway evokes imagery of train tracks.  both are fantastic posts, which you should read if you haven’t done so already.

From a writer’s perspective, the train was used brilliantly as a narrative framework, associating the different plot points in the episode with those of train station stops.  The show even goes as far as using the eyecatch to indicate the movement of the train in between stops on a subway map in corellation to the transition between pre- and post- commercial segments.  Let’s take a look at how the story unfolds through the eyes of a train that runs its course throughout the episode.

Prologue

Before the train imagery kicks in, a beautiful monologue is given by the narrator (one of the main characters, as revealed later on), talking about fate.  The tone of his voice is defeatist and clearly gets his point across about the cruelness of fate, as well as his anger against God.

As the first episode of a series, the prologue is the make-or-break for the first-time viewing audience, and immediately captures their interests on a variety of levels, including philosophy indicated above, and also by providing a bit of understated backstory with the different shots of pictureframes, much like the opening lines in every Fullmetal Alchemist episode, which leads to the OP.  The sequence is beautiful and intense, filled with colour, and immediately thrusts its train and train station imagery at the audience, with numerous signs and signals flying around in the backround.

Station 1 – Breakfast and a Flashback

The main trio sits around at the breakfast table, having a picture-perfect meal with each other.  It’s a good introduction to what looks like a bunch of teens whose moods are completely opposite to the opening monologue.  Cue the flashback, transitioned by a digital sign from a station terminal.

Despair every 1.5 minutes on weekends, and 2 minutes on weekends.

The scene is grave, and the doctor breaks the news to the two brothers, Shoma and Kanba, saying that their beloved sister Himari has little hope to survive.  Their reaction is that of desparation, begging the doctor to help in any way.  The Doctor echoes the opening monologue by saying that he is not God.

The reason why Himari is cheerful is that today’s excursion is dedicated to her, thus ending the exposition scene.

In a neat little interlude leading to the next scene, a pair of kids have a philosophical conversation about an apple, which not only continues the theme of fate, but uses dialogue related to train travel.  The apple “connects this world and the other world…the world Campanella and other passengers are heading to!”

Station 2 – Aquarium

The Tokyo Metro Marunouchi line serves as the backbone of the story's setting.

On the way to their destination, the trio takes a train from Ogikubo station to Ikebukuro station.  It’s a bit understated here, but the journey actually takes a lot longer than what is depicted in the show.  Ogikubo station is the first stop in the Tokyo Metro Maronouchi Line, which spans 25 stops, and ending at Ikebukuro, where the next and pivotal plot event happens.

They spend the entire trip reminiscing about animal imitations that the brothers used to make.  The scene builds on the train travel imagery, starting with a shot that brings the camera through the subway gate, and punctuated by station signs.  It feels very metropolitan.

At the aquarium, the group observes a bunch of penguins, and the red-haired Shoma leaves to take a call from a girl.  Shoma is slightly put off by his brother Kanba’s dealings with females, and brings Himari to the gift shop.  Little do they know they are being watched by mysterious penguins, which provides both a bit of tension as well as humour, due to the coincidence that characters who watch penguins are being watched by other penguins.

Station 3 – Death and Rebirth

The tension goes up even more when Himari collapses off-screen while Shoma and Kanba are at the gift shop register, buying a penguin hat for her.  The shift in between this scene and the last is effectively dramatic, relying on multiple changes in camera angles, and faster and more punctuated plot beats.  Himari is brought to the hospital.  Medics try to save her.  She says goodbye to her brothers and flatlines.  The brothers are left in silence and despair with a haunting zoom out.

Shoma and Kanba have a discussion in regards to Himari’s death, concluding that it was fate that she passed away on Himari Day, and that she was happy.  The conflict between the two brothers suddenly appears when they confront each other as to how they should act in response to Himari’s death.  In an interesting inversion of red oni (passion) & blue oni (logic), the red-haired Kanba suggests that they proceed logically with further estate arrangements and papers, and the blue-haired Shoma snaps at him, criticizing his supposedly cold response.

Red Oni, Blue Oni, inverted

As the conflict heats up to its breaking point, Himari comes back to life, wearing the penguin hat, and announces with purple eyes that she comes from the place of their fate, and acts normal again when the hat comes off.  Nobody knows what is going on, not the brothers or the audience, but the sudden shift is executed perfectly with a bit of mystery, keeping us in track like a train on rails.

Station 4 – March of the Penguins

It is breakfast again, and we’ve come full circle to the beginning.  A great tip in writing is to put the characters in the same position as before, but depict them differently due to the story and character developments that happened in between.  Everyone is happy that she’s alive again, but why is she alive at all?

Cue another flashback aside, also punctuated by the same terminal sign as before, except that in this scene, the Doctor is absolutely amazed by the sudden turn of events and Himari’s sudden resurrection, once again referring to God.

Back to the present, the household receives a strange package, containing three penguins in an apparent state of cryogenic slumber.  The viewpoint character of the three, Kanba, is perplexed, but has to leave for school.  He takes the same Marunouchi line to Shinjuku Gyoemmae, only 10 stops away from Ogikubo (compared to the 25 for Ikebukuro).

In class, Kanba’s internal monologue revisits fate again, but this time his reaction to it is less absolute, instead asking God questions about fate instead of cursing him for determining it.  At the end of it, we conclude that he is grateful for his strange turn of fortune, which foretells the next series of very strange events.

After School, Kanba notices he loses his subway pass and is unable to use the train.  A small penguin appears before him and hands him his pass.  He is confused, but is grateful, going back to Ogikubo.  Again, the penguin shows up before Kanba at a supermarket, giving him a head of cabbage that happened to be out of stock when Kanba visited.  Another twist of fate.

Third time's a charm with the rule of three

The episode fulfills the rule of three by having one last example of the penguin saving Kanba from bad luck, giving him an umbrella when it starts to rain outside.  Kanba passes his breaking point of disbelief, asking passerby strangers about the penguin, only to be told that he is crazy for seeing things that don’t exist.

Kanba snaps, and runs home.  (He doesn’t take the train, because he’s already in Ogikubo.)

At home, he sees two other similar penguins, and is absolutely shocked at the sudden turn of events.  One penguin helps Shoma with preparing dinner, while another helps Himari knit.  Kanba’s penguin returns home as well, putting away the umbrella that it offered earlier.  Kanba and Shoma begin to discuss the situation with the penguin, and are unable to make sense of it, leaving the audience without much information either.  Before we even get a chance to figure anything out, we’re shot right into the next sequence.

Station 5 – SURVIVAL STRATEGY!

Himari appears with the penguin hat, and announces the Survival Strategy, which apparently involves a lot of flashing colours, a transformation sequence, and her purple-eyed possessor.

I don’t remember much of Utena.  It was a long time ago, and all I remember were feelings of FABULOUS that I’ve only since recently relived seen with Star Driver.  Those feelings suddenly come back here in a flurry of crazy shit that was a pleasure to watch.

Rocket trains with stars and snowflakes dazzling the background.

I won’t even bother trying to pretend knowing what exactly happened in full in this sequence, but the major plot points that came out of this is that the entity controlling Himari is from the place of their fate, as mentioned earlier in act 3, but goes on in slightly more detail.  She has come to bring back Himari to life, and to recruit the three siblings to find the Penguin Drum.  Nobody knows what that is, but Himari’s possessor has brought back Himari to help her on that quest, and that she will no longer be of this world when it is over.  In another turn of events, she rips out Kanba’s heart as an addition to the deal.

This sequence is wild, crazy, and chock-full of rails imagery.  The subway gate that was previously shown in the episode is shown a third time (rule of 3!), but in technicolour.  Himari’s transformation occurs inside a vehicle riding on rails, and even though we don’t see the vehicle itself when the brothers appear again, the moving background suggests that the whole thing happens while they’re travelling on the rails itself.  It’s fast-paced and heads towards a wild finish.

Epilogue – Once More with Incest

We’re brought back to the house, and another monologue is spoken, but this time by Shoma. He questions fate one more time, but this time makes concessions to biology, implying the possibility of arguing nature versus nurture, which poses the question of whether or not our existence is deterministic.

I can’t answer that question myself, but all I know is that in the three monologues presented in this episode, the tone of the story has changed from absolutely hating fate to…well, still hating fate, but at least questioning its validity.

All aboard the Chuu Chuu train! (Confirmed for worst pun ever.)

Oh, and Shoma kisses his sister.  Yep.

Conclusion, and Some Extras!

The first episode of Mawaru Penguindrum was chock full of trains, rails, stations, and every other possible image that you can associate them with.  Even more impressive, the imagery was directly tied to a very systematic style of storytelling, making the plot feel like a breathtaking journey, even though we’ve only been through one episode.  We can expect the imagery and style to continue on, since the imagery and references are incorporated into the eyecatches, title logo, and even the episode titles.

While we wait with baited breath for the next episodes, here is a pretty neat picture comparison of Ogikubo station.  See ya again soon!

Ogikubo Station in the anime
Ogikubo Station, in real life
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2 thoughts on “All Aboard the Story Train: Mawaru Penguindrum”

  1. Is the Penguin Queen’s name Nadine? If I’m not mistaken, this name came from a mistranslation of Himari saying “imagine” as she transforms. I haven’t seen any sources on this name.

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