Penguindrum: Destiny, or…?

I’m in the middle of watching Mawaru Penguindrum, which is shaping up to be my kind of show—fantastically weird, formalist and borderline nonsensical.

It centers on three orphaned siblings: Kanba, Shoma and Himari. Himari is, unfortunately, suffering from some some sort of unspecified terminal illness, which takes her life during an outing to an aquarium. However (of course there’s a “however”), a strange penguin-themed hat from the aquarium’s gift shop possesses her and restores her to life. It then tasks her brothers with finding the Penguindrum as payment for keeping their sister alive.

This brings them in short order within orbit of Ringo, a girl with a particular fixation on destiny, a conviction that she has a particular course of life which must be fulfilled at all costs. This leads her to stalking an older man whom she is convinced she must be with, despite all the evidence pointing to this being impossible.

Destiny is clearly one of the show’s main themes, what with all the many speeches its characters make about it, although at this point I’m not quite sure just what anime auteur Kunihiko Ikuhara is getting at here. The concept of destiny is often confused with fate, although it isn’t the same thing: Fate describes something inevitable, an unavoidable fact that must be faced. Death, for instance, is something we are fated for. Destiny, on the other hand, has connotations of purpose and teleology—something that we are, somehow, made for and which brings us to fulfillment. For Christians, destiny is, ultimately, eternal participation in the triune life and love of God, something which will not be brought to complete fruition in this life.

But even in this life, we are each called to our own particular manner in which we live out the gospel, which we can talk about as our destiny or vocation in this life. For a lot of people, this is a straightforward affair: to feel called to marriage, to some form of ministry or consecrated celibacy, and once there to find the deepest flourishing of one’s gifts.

But it can also be a complicated, painful thing. Perhaps you feel deeply drawn to marriage, but due to life circumstances never have the opportunity; perhaps you see yourself being ordained, but get turned down by seminary. Sometimes mistakes we’ve made have closed the door on once-in-a-lifetime chances. Perhaps its as prosaic as just feeling like your talents are going to waste in the career you’ve found yourself in. It’s easy to feel spiritually adrift in situations like these.

Of course, destiny doesn’t just boil down to our convictions about what we think is best for our lives; we’re flawed, limited creatures who don’t have a God’s-eye perspective on our own lives, and if we don’t keep that in perspective, we can get into trouble (the same also applies to advice we may get from others about how we should live). Ringo is a good (if extreme) example of this, as her attempt to force herself into a life which does not suit her leads her into increasingly dangerous and criminal behavior, and at any rate leaves her deeply unhappy.

I also don’t believe that we have just one destiny which we can flub and thereby ruin God’s plan for our lives. That would require us to be more powerful than we actually are. Maybe it’s the case that you could have had a beautiful relationship with that one person, but you missed the chance and the window passed. No matter: God also has a plan for the new situation you find yourself in. We’re never “outside” of God’s providence, even if we can’t grasp the part we’re playing at the moment. There’s something deeply reassuring about that.

I find this reflected in Himari’s character, as we learn that she missed opportunity to join her friends in forming a successful pop idol group due to a series of mistakes. She meets this, not with envy at the life she could have had, but with serene acceptance of the life she does have.

Of course, Penguindrum being the show that it is, I fully expect to have to revise my opinions about everything that’s been going on thematically by the time I reach the end, but that’s part of the fun.

Featured illustration by Luo. (reprinted w/permission)

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