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Redeeming a broken world: The Oresteia, Murakami’s Underground and Mawaru Penguindrum.

Joji Sakurai photo
Joji SakuraiLondon
Redeeming a broken world: The Oresteia, Murakami’s Underground and Mawaru Penguindrum.
The first in a multi-part essay on the anime Mawaru Penguindrum.

The legends say, writes Robert Fagles in his majestic essay on The Oresteia of Aeschylus, that from the bloody wounds of Ouranos, god of the sky, came both the Furies and Aphrodite, vengefulness and love. The great scholar and translator of Greek antiquity is referring to the Theogony of Greek poet Hesiod, a kind of genealogy of the gods, and the tale is strange and violent enough to merit dwelling upon, as we attempt to link Aeschylus’ ancient masterpiece to a contemporary Japanese anime that often seems to approach the tragic trilogy in violence and certainly strangeness.

As Hesiod has it, Ouranos loathed his children born to Gaia, the earth, and so trapped them in a cavern. Earth created a sickle and gave it to her son Kronos, identified by the ancients with Time. As Sky descended upon Earth, “desirous of love,” Kronos hacked off the father’s genitals and flung them over his shoulder. From the blood that sprinkled the earth sprang the Furies, and from the froth that foamed forth from the testicles, adrift in the seas, a girl was born. Her name was Aphrodite.

The birth of tragedy itself might be seen reflected here in its two root impulses, love and vengeance, along with its essential tragic condition: Time. And this original sin, committed by god not man, entwines with the next primordial sin, in which wanton Time devours his own children, the Olympian gods, and is forced to vomit them up, to begin the cycle of retribution (and ultimately regeneration) that will be the story of The Oresteia, and, as we shall see, the curious animated television series called Mawaru Penguindrum. The originality of the anime is to borrow from ancient storytelling to deliver a searing critique of today’s Japan. Its grinding pressures, anonymity and consumerism. Its cult of perfection and rigid paternalism that (the story suggests) bleeds its children dry, elements that came to a head in the hubris of the bubble era and created fertile ground for groups like the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult. The cult’s real-life attack on the Tokyo underground in 1995 haunts the anime as its own mythical original sin (translated within the work as a fictional subway bomb attack) _ and like the chain of primordial sins in The Oresteia, it will need to be redeemed before the story is finished.

There is nothing odder in this world than the Greek myths, and there is no taboo that is not flaunted in these stories with the relish of a flasher in a park. As odd as this may sound, anime has some claim to being the closest thing we have in the present day to storytelling that rivets equally with strangeness and profundity, and provides compelling archetypes for navigating the tragedy of being. Many viewers will react, as this writer did, to Penguindrum’s aesthetics with a certain bewilderment _ and there are moments that call for a willing suspension of distaste. Yet the rewards for such a suspension are great. Among Penguindrum’s many audacities, this is possibly its greatest: to flirt with ridicule and vulgarity, to present an impression of disorderly parody and pastiche _ and yet dare to consider itself art, even tragic art. This may sound rather like dramatic lèse-majesté, but Aeschylus did something comparable with The Oresteia: It is hard to grasp this now (for with more than two millennia of distance we are merely staggered by the poetry), but Athenian audiences would have seen Aeschylus’ work as very strange indeed, due to its elements of epic parody and what Fagles calls the tragedian’s “eccentricities.”

“He uses them so freely,” Fagles writes, “that at times he is bizarre, his metaphors grotesque. ... The far-fetched plays on words, the muscle-bound constructions ... led most classical critics to call him ‘incoherent.’”

Eccentric, bizarre, at times grotesque. A propensity for far-fetched comparisons, a semblance of incoherence. This is the universe of Penguindrum in particular, and of anime in general, and it is precisely because the work can provoke revulsion that it often manages to be daring and profound. Penguindrum, at first viewing, comes across as disordered for reasons similar to those cited by Fagles, granted in ways that the Greek master would never have imagined. And yet, this essay will argue, Penguindrum is a work of exemplary coherence that can shake one to the core.

Indictment of anonymous, pressurized culture

What, then, is Mawaru Penguindrum?

The first attempt at an answer is that it is an exceedingly cute story filled with blood guilt, incestuous love triangles, juvenile rape, infanticide, parricide, lesbian sex, curses and rampaging Furies. In essence, it’s a story that has all of the elements of Greek tragedy. Yet beyond possessing these ingredients it is a work of astonishing complexity and symbolic force that, consciously or not, amounts to a profound updating of The Oresteia _ driving a dagger of mercy through the heart of Japan, and more broadly, our world today.

One story is set in the legendary mists of antiquity. The other in the very ordinary neighbourhood of Ogikubo in Tokyo. One is peopled by kings, warriors and gods. The heroes of the other are schoolchildren who live in a wooden shack on an anonymous street. Stripped of the veil of circumstance, however, the stories are essentially the same: Both are about a curse upon a house, which engenders cycle-upon-cycle of revenge, until a conversion happens by which the power of human compassion, disguised as supernatural intervention, is able to redeem an imperfect world.

And both are meditations on the nature of fate, in particular how to convert preordained fate into self-determined destiny. The ancient work is concerned with becoming “free of fate’s rough path,” as the Chorus says in The Libation Bearers (the second play in the Oresteian trilogy); the anime’s challenge is to “change the track of destiny.” And the notion central to both works of fate as a fixed pathway, which must be altered through the force of human will, finds its symbolic expression in Penguindrum in the rail-tracks on which commuters hurtle toward their rendezvous with terrorism. 

The Oresteia is the only tragic trilogy to survive from antiquity, and it is thus the most complete vision of tragedy that we possess. An outline of its story will be useful here for elaborating the arguments of this essay. Beyond the titanic original sins discussed above, there are three original family sins that spur the curse upon the House of Atreus, led by Agamemnon, king of the Greeks. The first is committed by Tantalus, Agamemnon’s great-grandfather, who invites the Olympian gods to a banquet, and in order to test Zeus’ omniscience, cuts up his own son Pelops and serves him in the stew. The next is carried out by Atreus, Agamemnon’s father, who invites his brother and rival Thyestes home from banishment _ feigning forgiveness _ and proceeds to serve Thyestes his murdered children (hacked to pieces and boiled in a cauldron) at the banquet. When the heads, hands and feet of the children are rolled in to show Thyestes what he has consumed, he promptly vomits, and places a curse upon the House. Agamemnon personally executes the third outrage, at least in the version told by Aeschylus. He runs a knife across his daughter Iphigeneia’s throat, a sacrifice to appease the goddess Artemis, who has stopped the winds carrying Agamemnon’s fleet to Troy. This cycle of the destruction of children _ of outrage against innocence _ becomes a driving force in the story of the Japanese anime, and, as we shall explore, its symbolism is tied closely to these ancient myths.

The action of The Oresteia begins with Agamemnon on the way home, triumphant, from ten years of war. It has been a decade in which another war has been playing out, night after night, within the heart of Clytaemnestra, his queen. She has taken a lover, Aegisthus, son of Thyestes, and together they plot the murder of the king, revenge for the killing of her daughter (and for Thyestes’ grisly banquet.) As Agamemnon steps into his bath, Clytaemnestra traps him in a garment of net _ a central symbol of both the tragedy and the anime _ and strikes him once, twice, and when he is already down, a third time for good measure. Her next victim is Cassandra, daughter of the Trojan king, and Agamemnon’s lover. Carrying strong associations with Iphigeneia, Cassandra is a critical figure in The Oresteia and an avatar of our contemporary Japanese myth. She is an innocent and a shaman, and her own personal curse is that she can tell the future, but nobody will believe her.

The next play, The Libation Bearers, continues the cycle of vengeance. Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, has been banished by the queen to rid herself of a future avenger. Three years after the regicide, Orestes returns home, in disguise, to carry out precisely the act Clytaemnestra had feared. Before his father’s grave he is reunited with his sister Electra, who will help him in his task. She recognizes him due to a strip of weaving on his clothing that she knit herself (“Work of your hand,” Orestes says, “you tamped the loom.”) Already the fatal garment, woven by the threads of destiny, which represented doom in Agamemnon, is being converted in The Libation Bearers into a symbol of redemption, and the very same symbolic conversion of nets and knitting will be enacted in Penguindrum. In this play, Orestes grapples with the dilemma that his father faced over the sacrifice of Iphigeneia: “Pain both ways,” the king says in the earlier play, “and what is worse?” It is the key ethical question hovering over both stories: What to do? In the ancient tragedy, Orestes murders his mother, and goes mad.

Nets of fate converted from symbol of doom to symbol of redemption

In the last play, The Eumenides, Orestes is put on trial by Athena for the matricide. The prosecution is led by the Furies, spurred on by the ghost of Clytaemnestra, who rises up from hell to whip them out of indolence. She is the curse who drives forward the curses. The champion of the defence is Apollo, who first gave Orestes the order to avenge Agamemnon. The extraordinary twist is that the Furies are so powerful, so persuasive, that it is the gods themselves who appear to be on trial. We will find this symbol of the trial, and of the gods standing in judgement, to hold central importance in Penguindrum. Ultimately, Athena’s wisdom, her spirit of mercy, converts the Furies into the Eumenides _ the Kindly Ones _ who will be the guardians of Athens’ new golden age. The curse upon the House of Atreus, which has drenched its sons and daughters in the blood of vengeance, is broken by a kind of miracle _ critically one of human will, even though its agents appear to be supernatural _ by which the lex talionis (the ancient blood law of retribution) is replaced by a new law of mercy, compassion and civic responsibility. Orestes is acquitted, but only with the Furies’ blessing.

Mawaru Penguindrum is a television series that ran on the Japanese network TBS in twenty-four episodes in 2011. The house in question is a dilapidated shack in the Ogikubo district of Tokyo, a far cry from the glamour of Ginza (or of ancient Greece.) It is inhabited by the three teenage siblings of the Takakura family _ twins Kanba and Shoma, and their little sister Himari. The parents are mysteriously absent, and we find out about halfway through the tale why this is: They were the idealistic leaders of an underground organization that, on the day the twins were born, set off bombs in the Tokyo subway in a belief that this will purify a sinful world. In this way they evoke the title of a noted book about Aum Shinrikyo called Destroying the World to Save It _ and 95 (the year of the Aum attack) becomes one of the anime’s recurring symbols. This is the slaughter of innocents, Agamemnon-like in its conflict between private guilt and higher purpose, that triggers a curse upon the house of Takakura. There is one innocent in particular who is sacrificed in the father’s act of war upon society: a girl called Momoka, who has powers to alter the blighted fate of those she loves, but in exchange must accept a punishment for her compassion. This central figure is Iphigeneia-like in her acceptance of a penalty on behalf of others, and Cassandra-like in being the shaman who _ to borrow from Fagles _ represents the story’s “redemptive heart.” 

Momoka: Sacrificial redeemer

On the day she is slaughtered, her sister is born _ a girl called Ringo, apple in Japanese _ and this twins her both to the fate of the lost girl and the princes who enter the world just as their parents are attempting to destroy it. It is one of the myriad symbolic enactments of the word "mawaru" _ to turn, revolve _ of the anime’s title, evoking cycles, and ultimately the Nietzschean notion of eternal return.

(Part II is here.)

##anime #penguindrum #aeschylus #tragedy