Content Warning: depictions of homophobia (condemned by the text); child sexual abuse; terrorism; poverty; cults.
Spoilers: Detailed discussion of all of Penguindrum.
Penguindrum is a challenging show, in all senses of the word. In it, Takakura Shoma, Kanba, and Himari, whose parents committed a terrorist attack out of economic desperation, confront others whose lives have been touched by systematic oppression over something called the Penguindrum, which they believe can magically transform their lives. Through these stories of survivors of abuse, child homelessness, and a terroristic cult fighting for the Penguindrum, Penguindrum indicts how society abandons the most vulnerable. In spite of this, Penguindrum is hopeful about our ability to heal from trauma together; most of its characters end the story having grown in some way, letting go of unhealthy attachments–Masako lets go of her attachment to capitalism, Shoma lets go of the guilt he feels about his parents’ actions. Most powerfully, Himari, the adoptive daughter of those same parents, fully accepts her past of homelessness and illness and embraces her adoptive family. At the climax of the show, Himari pulls her brother Kanba from the brink of replicating their parents’ act of terrorism, breaking the cycle of trauma.
This is not the case with Yuri, a Takarazuka star who suffered violent abuse at the hands of her father until she was rescued by her first love Momoka and the Penguindrum. In one of the most disturbing scenes of the show, Yuri, a closeted lesbian, graphically drugs and rapes Ringo, Momoka’s little sister, and then shows little-to-no remorse over the act. Ringo, on the other hand, seems to barely register the event, with her story moving on as if it had never happened. In the penultimate episode, the two meet, but only for Yuri to give Ringo her sister’s diary, without any acknowledgement of the horrific violence she inflicted. If it is a sign of remorse, it is wildly inadequate. Her act of violence against Ringo is left unresolved.
Yuri’s assault of Ringo is emblematic of how the tensions and arguable flaws in Penguindrum point to larger tensions and unresolved questions in our movements for transformative justice, abolition, and queer liberation. The struggle, if not impossibility, of finding true healing in the aftermath of trauma when the injustice that produced it has not ended is the tension that animates the show, and, I think, the work of organizing for justice.
Transformative vs. Punitive Justice in Penguindrum
Penguindrum is a show that makes explicit its critiques of punitive justice. Punitive measures are over and over again described in Penguindrum as a curse, one that visits itself not only on the generation that committed the harmful act but exponentially on the children of them and down the generations. The show argues that the punishment often forces people to reproduce the harm, creating a never-ending cycle.
The director, Ikuhara Kunihiko, makes this most clear through the story of the Takakura siblings. Conditions of poverty and exploitation under capitalism made their parents susceptible to being recruited into a death cult modeled after Aum Shinrikyo, the cult that committed the Tokyo Sarin Gas Attack–a place where they were given a sense of false consciousness and community. Then, because of the fallout from the attack, their children are forced into the same conditions of poverty and exploitation as their parents, with Kanba eventually joining the same cult to try to protect his sister. All of this, as Shoma sees it, is a result of punitive, carceral logic: as the Goddess puts it in the story he tells–a thinly veiled metaphor for the story of the three siblings–“Punishment must be the most cruel.”
This leaves the show in a complex place with Yuri and Ringo. We know that putting people in prison does not solve the problem of sexual violence. Prison merely displaces the violence into a space that we do not have to see, and creates a power structure so those in prison cannot fight back against it, particularly when it is committed by corrections officers themselves. In fact, quite often, the carceral system of prisons and police punishes those who fight back against sexual violence. This makes clear a need for transformative justice—work that transforms the circumstances of oppression that produce harm, transforms the community towards safety, and transforms the people who do harm. Much of the most important work with transformative justice has been done both by and for survivors of sexual violence–whether you look at the work of Creative Interventions, Survived and Punished, or the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, the transformative justice movement has long been working to end sexual violence and support survivors.
Penguindrum does not know what to do with rape. There is no attempt on the part of any of the characters to hold Yuri accountable for what she does, to engage in any creative intervention to protect Ringo after the event happens. There is no attempt to address the trauma that the rape did; Ringo and the people around her continue through the story as if it had never happened. It is just left there, a horrifying incursion in the narrative, with little sense of resolution or even acknowledgement, as if it was an afterthought.
Even if we imagine a different trajectory for this story, if characters had tried to hold Yuri accountable, would she have consented to be transformed? True rehabilitation requires the consent of the party being transformed–and Yuri has shown no true remorse. With all these questions in mind, it becomes challenging to imagine what justice would have looked like for both Yuri and Ringo even if the story had gone differently.
Dilemmas of Representation of Queer Childhood
To get at the question of justice for Yuri and Ringo, you have to consider the dilemma of representation of queer life, especially queer childhood, because much of Yuri’s arc hinges on childhood experiences which serve narratively to explain her actions in the series. The explanatory function of the violence that Yuri experiences growing up is underlined by its placement in the narrative–before it is fully resolved whether or not Shouma is able to save Ringo from being raped. Yuri’s experiences as a child are clearly intended to answer the question: “Why is she like this?”
Yuri’s childhood is brutal and disturbing, the most laser-focused representation of child abuse in a show rife with it, and always with the underlying implication that she is being abused because she is queer. Over and over again her father emphasizes to her that she is ugly, ugly things do not deserve love, and only he can make her beautiful, all through a process of breaking–he literally takes a chisel and uses it to break her bones. Given the reality of torturous gay conversion therapy, trans children denied gender-affirming care, and the quotidian quality of parents kicking queer children out of their homes, these scenes hit hard. There is no doubt that the thing that Yuri’s father finds ugly in her is at least in part her queerness, which he will do anything to eradicate. Through experiences like these, queer children learn more painfully than anybody the message of Penguindrum: to be unchosen is death.
This process of breaking is then replicated in how Yuri then treats Ringo, who, in her drugged state, tells Shoma, “I’m going to be broken.” Yuri must break Ringo to make her worthy of love, in the image Ringo has always wanted to become: Momoka.
The painful question that this raises is whether or not this is replicating narratives about queer people as inherently broken from trauma. In creating a childhood trauma narrative of so much explanatory power, even going so far as to use words like “breaking” and “broken” to describe the trauma inflicted on Yuri which she passes down, is Ikuhara reinforcing the idea that queer people are so broken by our trauma that we are doomed to pass it down? This is particularly troubling in a time when many queer people are being accused of being psychologically broken groomers who are out to molest children.
It’s often said, “hurt people hurt people.” This statement is wildly overdetermined and fatalistic, pathologizing survivors and assuming we’re all just abusers in waiting. However, we should not take that statement’s problems as a reason to dodge the topic of intergenerational trauma. Consider what Yuri’s father tells her to trap her in his cycle of abuse: “Ugly things can never be loved.” Does our fear of what a cishet audience will think of us make us unable to actually sit with the ugliest aspects of queer experience under oppressive regimes? After all, the queerphobic traumas that Yuri endured, for all of their metaphorical weight, are ultimately real, as are all the ugly ways they can disrupt a queer person’s journey towards setting boundaries, loving themselves, and caring for others. Can we not find love and tenderness in brokenness, rather than distancing ourselves from it?
Reclaiming Brokenness; Refusing Disposability
To understand both Ringo’s arc and Yuri’s arc, it’s worth looking at who Momoka is and what she represents. Momoka, who it must be emphasized is herself a child, attempts to give those around her the kind of unconditional love that every child needs to thrive. First meeting Yuri during a portrait drawing exercise, she tells Yuri that she finds everything in the universe beautiful, including her. She does not stop trying to protect Yuri even when Yuri pushes her away, parroting her father’s words about anybody who loves her other than him being out to manipulate her. Momoka tells Yuri that if she does not escape from her father, he will kill her.
Momoka offers Yuri an escape, a change in the track life has put her on. By sacrificing herself, she liberates Yuri from her abusive, murderous father. In this, Momoka is seeing the ways that Yuri has been broken, literally, by her father, and puts her own body on the line to protect her.
Momaka, it should be reiterated, is a child.
Momoka’s way of looking at Yuri loves her in her brokenness. What would it mean for Yuri, or any survivor of sexual violence, to look at ourselves this way? To love the parts of ourselves that were so shattered and destroyed by violence that we come to a point where we can accept them as part of us, and who we are now? For us to have any amount of self-love, this is what we have to enact, as healing is a life-long process, and never finished. Piepzna-Samarasinha describes how survivors often are categorized as good or bad depending on how quickly they heal, how quickly they can mend and cure their brokenness–and those who cannot mend themselves quickly enough are disposed of.
The world of Penguindrum is quick to dispose of children. The Child Broiler is explicitly designed for this task, as a warehouse where all the children of the world who have survived the violence of being unloved and unwanted are shuttled along a conveyor belt into a shredder’s mouth. It is a metaphor, in many ways, for the Child Welfare System, the homeless shelter system, the juvenile incarceration system, poverty, any system that would dispose of children who are harmed by capitalism and violence rather than care for them. Ruth Wilson Gilmore refers to systems like this as organized abandonment–how capitalism shuts away, imprisons, extracts from, and ultimately leaves to die all those it deems surplus to the production of capital.
However, Penguindrum is also full of children refusing the logic of the Child Broiler. We see the spirit of Momoka in all of the most pivotal moments of choosing to resist disposability, in Shoma and Kanba giving themselves over and over again for Himari’s sake, Masako sacrificing herself for Kanba and her brother, or Ringo burning herself to protect the diary. This resistance comes with a terrible sacrifice–Masako and Ringo nearly die, and Kanba and Shoma are erased from existence. Even Momoka dies in the subway attack. No child–or even adult–should be forced to do this to protect somebody else, yet this kind of sacrifice is a reality of life for so many under capitalism.
For Those Who Do Not Consent to Transformation
All of what Penguindrum has to say about disposability and brokenness leaves Yuri a paradox. For all of her experiences with violence, all of her trauma, she still must remain accountable for the consequences of her actions–she so desperately believed Momoka was the only one who could love her in her brokenness that she raped a girl to try to re-experience that love. That fact remains. And the violence she did to Ringo, in any real circumstance, would create a trauma that could not be healed over the course of a short anime. Yuri is no longer a powerless child–she has built a career of stature and influence as an actor that allows her access to many young girls like Ringo.
In this way, the lack of resolution in Yuri’s story, more than anything else, asks us what we do with abusers in our community who themselves have been through so much harm and abuse, but do not consent to be transformed. At a certain point, we do have to define our communities as much by what we create within them as by what we do not tolerate. This may mean we have to eject certain members, especially those who would harm children. That is not reinforcing a politics of disposability, unless we are okay with those who these people harmed being disposed of instead.
I myself have witnessed many adult Yuris in my time in the queer community. And I have had to ask myself how I would protect myself from them while holding their humanity in my mind. I have had to acknowledge that I am not Momoka, partly because they are not children–I must hold them accountable for the harm they have done to me. Survivors of sexual violence should not have to break themselves in an attempt to give their abusers unconditional love, lest they replicate the scene of Yuri breaking Ringo. Even as we reject carceral feminisms, we are right in our anger, in our rage, in our desire to never see the person who hurt us again. It is a choice to not consent to be transformed, and a choice that must have consequences.
But that does not mean we cannot try to create a world in which the Yuris of the world might be transformed–where the violence that Yuri and all those sent to the Child Broiler experienced is not the norm for queer children; where trans children are not denied access to life-saving care; where corrective rape is completely unheard of; where no child is homeless; where conversion therapy has been abolished. Perhaps we can even imagine a world where Yuri might herself heal, hold herself accountable, and change. This is why, despite its problems, Penguindrum remains my favorite anime, one I return to again and again—through its incompleteness, it calls our attention to the unfinished business of our liberation. Until the day of its completion, Yuri’s story will happen again and again, and will always remain unsatisfying.