Andrew Osmond on the sublime truth behind Penguin Drum
There are few stories which can’t be made more palatable with a cute penguin or three; and such is Penguin Drum’s philosophy, judging by the extraordinary turn it makes at its midway point. If you’re new to the show, you should skip to our introduction here. If you’ve seen the first box-set (SPOILERS below!), then you’ll know its shock revelation about the main siblings, Himari, Kanba and Shouma Takakura. Namely, that the trio’s missing mum and dad have been accused of being part of a Japanese terror group which caused an atrocity in Tokyo. And not just any atrocity; an attack on the city’s subway system, in 1995 (hence the prominent “95” in the titles).
In other words, we’re talking about the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack, in the context of an anime about penguins. It’s a bit like a Shrek film teleporting the ogre to an American airport on September 11th. Penguin Drum may deal with the real events indirectly (see below), but their emotional fall-out runs through the show. It’s not just the siblings who’ve been profoundly affected by what happened, but most of the other main characters. 1995 may be “history” – Penguin Drum was broadcast in 2011 – but not all the characters are ready to forgive and forget, or assume it couldn’t happen again.
In the real world, Aum Shinrikyo (“Sublime Truth”) was a religious movement, with strands of Buddhism, Hinduism and apocalypse fervour. It was responsible for the only terrorist attack in modern Japan. On 20 March 1995, in morning rush hour, Aum members boarded subway trains in central Tokyo. Unlike the terrorists in London a decade later, they weren’t carrying suicide bombs, but plastic bags wrapped in newspapers. In the bags was liquid sarin, a chemical agent twenty-six times more deadly than cyanide. The Aum terrorists punctured the bags with the tips of umbrellas, left them on the floors of the trains – in, remember, the middle of Tokyo’s morning rush hour – and made their exit.
It’s clear that their hope was mass murder on a scale beyond even 9/11. In fact, they killed thirteen people that morning, and injured hundreds. The train carriages were quickly evacuated and the packages disposed of (though some of the station attendants who removed them were killed by the sarin). Here’s a contemporary news report:
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In the following months, more horrors emerged. Aum members had murdered many other people: victims included an anti-Aum attorney, his wife and baby, as well seven people killed in a ‘test’ sarin attack on a residential neighbourhood. According to a Guardian report, some of Aum’s victims were “incinerated in purpose-built microwave ovens.”
It sounded like a lurid manga plotline, and manga itself was judged guilty by association. According to Frederik L. Schodt’s book Dreamland Japan, the revelations about Aum Shinrikyo contributed to the negative Japanese image of otaku culture. “The sect members were publishing and using anime and manga as a proselytizing tool; worse, they seemed to be lifting many of their more outrageous ideas from them too.” The Aum members seemed to be drawing on Akira, for example, in their apocalypse teachings, and on Space Batteship Yamato.
As Schodt points out, this reflects how manga and anime had become convenient reference points for the proselytizers, a way for them to popularise the kind of end-times rhetoric that’s been around for millennia before anime. You don’t have to look far for other examples of how SF and anime have been used to push fringe doctrines, though we should stress these are not doctrines linked to terror; for instance here, here and here.
Unsurprisingly, fear and fury toward Aum persisted in Japan through the years, as emphasised in the Guardian report dated 1999. “Aum members have been hounded or evicted from several properties,” it said, “in one case after the cult acquired a Tokyo apartment in the same block as a woman whose husband had perished in the subway attack.” Penguin Drum seems to directly tap that traumatised zeitgeist. Schodt himself recalls seeing two small boys on bicycles a few months after the attack, talking loudly about how Aum’s founder, Shoko Asahara, should be hanged. (As of writing, Asahara has been on death row for nearly a decade.)
Rather remarkably, the group still exists today. The Japanese government did its best to bankrupt it, and arrested anyone suspected of involvement in the murders, but Aum was never outlawed, as it would have surely been in Britain or America. Reportedly it’s now reduced to a few hundred members, repudiates the events of the 1990s, and goes under a new name, Aleph. Only last year, though, the arrest of the last people suspected of involvement in the subway attack made national Japanese headlines. Ironically, the final suspect was caught in a manga café, perhaps reviving the association between Aum and otaku culture in the public mind.
It’s a grim story, but worth keeping in mind when you watch the second half of Penguin Drum. Notably, the series never refers to Aum by name; rather, Penguin Drum seems to be set in an alternate world where something very similar happened in Tokyo in 1995. This might sounds like a cop-out, but the real-world reference is so obvious to Japanese viewers that naming Aum would be arguably redundant. (A parallel is the American film Elephant, directed by Gus Van Sant, which was clearly based on the school shooting in Columbine without saying that name.)
Moreover, the indirect approach fits the series. From its start, Penguin Drum was heavily stylised (its stick-figure background characters, for example). The second half takes that stylisation to extremes, and they’re often disturbing, subversive extremes. The show often flashes back to the past in ways that are ambiguous. The flashbacks use cartoon metaphors – one character has an abusive father who’s seemingly built a patriarchal statue of himself the size of a skyscraper. Another is shown in a workhouse-cum-orphanage where kids are sliced to bits, only for him to be saved by a magic girl.
Given we’ve already got used to intelligent penguins and magic headwear in the show’s first twelve parts, the second half makes it hard to judge where the “metaphors” end and the show’s “reality” starts. On one level, this is an elegant statement of surrealism, muddying the lines between what’s real and what’s not. There’s another way to look at it, though. It could be suggesting how the world looks to someone who’s involved in an organisation like Aum Shinrikyo.
Penguindrum 2 is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.