Plot Design and Mawaru Penguindrum 3

Today, I’m not going to talk about the third episode specifically, but instead talk about the last three episodes of the show. The third episode was largely that of dramatic exposition and character development. Naturally, there’s a lot to be talked about in that, as well, such as the Takakura family photo flipped over by Kanba when Ringo chose to come over, the diary and Ringo’s role in the grand scheme of destiny, and FABULOUS MAX. Not to mention the blatant Utena references (the cow costume and Nanami, anyone?) that showed up in this episode. Ikuhara continues to pile on the mysteries.


What I want to talk about today is the idea of sense. While I had the intention to do this post later in the series, the third episode has arrived to the point where I must talk about this now, since I’ll be using aspects of this post in my later posts. To first do this, however, let me go off and first explain plot design. Bear with me here, since this is some good stuff if you haven’t seen it, and it might be a good refresher if you have. And yes, this does run deeper than what you learned in eighth grade, trust me.

You have to remember, before I begin, the founding idea behind Freytag’s triangle. It is wholly arguable how many acts are in a plot structure, and that’s not the point. The point of the triangle is to remind you that a plot always has a beginning, middle, and an end. There is always a build up until the initiating action, a build up of tension and conflict, a climax, and the resolution. Also, I feel that clarification is necessary for the term “plot”, as many people have the term misconstrued due to it being schooled incorrectly into (fuck you, split infinitives) them from a young age. The term plot is used to define the writer’s choice of events in a story, and how they are arranged in their presentation. This is not always linear, as I will go into later. Also, note that Slice-of-Life shows do not fall under any of the following three major plot designs. They fall under what I like to call the “no plot”. It is exactly as it says: there is no plot besides life as it is presented in the show.

Yuno what it is.

In grand course of plot structure, the most largely recognizable is the classical plot structure. This is what you learned in middle school, and has been drilled into you ever since. This the structure you will observe in 70% of any story that you partake in. It’s the structure you see back all the way in ancient literature (the Epic of Gilgamesh and Don Quixote) to modern film (Inception, The Dark Knight, Iron Man) to modern anime (Rose of Versailles, Code Geass, Death Note, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood). But what exactly does the idea of the “classical structure” mean? The classical story design is contains the following elements: an active set of protagonist(s) that share the same goal and motivation, an active external set of antagonist(s), a chronologically ordered plot, an established set of rules that the reality of the story must and will follow, reasons for things happening, and an ending that completely satisfies all character motivations and leaves nothing important to the characters up to question. It’s notable that in anime, these tend to be the long 24 episode or even three-four cour shows.

And before you get your nickers in a bunch about me listing Inception and Code Geass with “an ending that satisfies all…nothing up to question,” let me explain to you why, in the following sentences, they are classically structured. [MASSIVE SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE TWO, SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON'T WANT SPOILERS]. It doesn’t matter if the end of Inception is a dream or not; all that matters is that Cole doesn’t care, as long as he can be with his children. He’s reached his goal, is content, and you should be as well. If you’re one of the ones that likes to bicker over whether it was a dream or not at the end, you’ve missed the point of that beautiful ending action completely. As for Code Geass: Lelouch is dead. And even if he wasn’t dead, which he is, he has achieved his goal by the end of the story, and like the example with Inception, you’ve missed the point if you argue HE’S ALIVE or HE’S DEAD.

We need to go deeper.

The second most popular plot design in usage today is the minimalistic plot design, which I would say takes up about 25% of the stories currently out there. Like the name implies, it is a minimal version of the classical film structure. But what about it, exactly, makes it minimal? The largest factor is that it, more often than not, has multiple sets of protagonists, each with separate goals and motivations. The reason it is minimal is that it carries the same weight as a classically designed story, yet it puts less attention to the small things and only briefly goes over the bare minimum necessary. The largest conflicts present themselves in the internal level of the protagonists, although external antagonist does play a role, and thus the protagonists are generally more passive than ones of classically designed plots. The most distinguishing aspect of the minimalistic plot is that it carries what is called an open ending. An open ending is not to be confused with a plot hole. An open ending is an ending which, for whatever reason, points of the plot are left open to interpretation and the characters’ actions by the end can be carried in multiple ways. All interpretations must be able to be logically inferred and supported by the show’s own internal logic. Aside from documentaries, such as Waltz With Bashir, it is incredibly rare to find a purely minimalist plot, but when I say 25%, I generally mean mixtures between minimalistic and classical plot design that lean closer to minimalism. Examples of this mix from anime include Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Samurai Champloo.

We need to go wider.

The third, rarest form of plot design is the  anti-classical plot. The anti-classical plot design is exactly what is written on the tin: it is opposite the classical design. If you would like to think about it so, he classical design is logical and tightly pasted together. The anti-classical design takes that logical design plan of the classical and rips it apart, morphing the subject matter to the discretion of the writer. The three major hallmarks of an anti-classical plot design is that the story is plotted in a blurry and erratic line of temporal continuity, reasons for events are not necessarily a reason and may even be fully disconnected from the events at hand (coincidence), and that the rules of the world that were established are repeatedly broken – characters often contradict earlier developments and plot events may be transformed from sensible to nonsensical. However, these are all intentional on the part of the writer. It is too often that the inconsistent reality of anti-classicism is mistaken for plot holes. Every choice made by the writer is made not to reflect “natural” story circumstances, such as in the classical design, but to express a message or serve as pieces of the writer’s imagination manifesting itself concretely in the story. Most of the actions taken by characters here are symbolic in nature, or completely exaggerated to express a message. Dialogue is usually awkward and unnatural. In short, this is an abstract reflection of the writer’s idea of life. These works are held consistent by their inconsistency. Most works that are deconstructive, satirical, contain aspects of magic realism, or postmodern readily fall into this type of plot design. Some great examples here from film are 8 1/2, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Memento. From anime, you can observe films such as Paprika, or shows such as Serial Experiments Lain and Revolutionary Girl Utena.

Of course, these are not mutually exclusive. For example, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a wonderful example of a show, which is a deconstruction (yes, in the truest sense of the word, and not the definition by which Puella Magi Madoka Magica is considered a “deconstruction”), that belongs as a mixture between the classical, minimalistic, and the anti-classical. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a mix between minimalistic and classical. Clannad contains both the no plot and the classical. Kara no Kyoukai as a series is classical and anti-classical.

Now, which do you think is the “best” type of story design? The truth is, they all have potential for greatness. It’s too often I see, especially in the newer generation of “critical thinkers”, that people consider the anti-classical the greatest way. These kinds of shows lend themselves to the “elite” who can understand it, and thus in some way facilitate elitism. They openly denounce shows that aren’t “deep”. Trust me, there are incredibly deep classically designed works, such as Ikiru, that are not overtly symbolic the way they like it. On the same vein, there are those who don’t want to take the effort to understand the implications of many anti-classical works, and thus declare them as “pretentious”. I absolutely loathe that word. It seems that the word has passed into the common usage as almost synonymous with symbolic. The word means: “attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed” – in other words, a work that is symbolic for a internally consistent and purposeful reason is not pretentious. And yes, it is a negative term.

While it’s true that different designs appeal to each viewer, people fail to understand that neither is greater than the other. For example, I love, love, love symbolism and the nuances of literary and cinematographic analysis. This is one of the reasons why one of the only two shows I have ever given my highest assigned score is Revolutionary Girl Utena. I love works like The Sound and the Fury, and Ghost in the Shell. However, for me to say that they reach the cinematographic brilliance of Citizen Kane; the emotional power of Casablanca, The Grave of the Fireflies, or Arcadia; the level of the gentle yet thunderous conflict in Princess Mononoke; the genius of visual novel medium that is Ever17; the sheer gripping power of Muv-Luv Alternative or Full Metal Alchemist; or the humanity present in Ikiru and Time of Eve would be a horrible lie. All of the works I just listed are mixes of classically and minimalistically  designed masterpieces.

So why did I write the above 1772 words, without even a mention of Mawaru Penguindrum until the end? Well, let me tell you why: because to understand how Ikuhara does his works, you need to understand anti-classical plot structure. And, that Mawaru Penguindrum is subtly (or overtly, depending on how much you can suspend your disbelief) anti-classical in nature.

Case 1: The Penguins

This is something I’ve been keeping track of ever since the penguins arrived. What exactly are the circumstances in which the penguins may make contact with the “real” world? I say this because it’s rather nonsensical, if you’ve observed it up to this point. For example, in episode two, Shoma’s penguin actively touched  Ringo’s friend’s derriere. However, she felt that contact, and yet could not feel the penguin she was stepping on under her foot? What’s up with that? How do the penguins carry physical equipment such as flashlights and cameras, and are unable to be seen by anyone other than the Takakura siblings? Wouldn’t anyone notice that food is disappearing, magazines are floating around, and cameras are flying through the air?  The point where I knew I had to point this out was when the penguin hit the cat in episode 3, grabbed its fish, got attacked, and rolled into Ringo, tripping her over and causing a great turning point in the story in which Ringo and Himari are now good friends.

Clearly, the logic of the penguin’s interactions with the physical world are inconsistent. But, if this is truly anti-classicism at work, why is Ikuhara intentionally making the interactions so inconsistent? I believe the answer lies in the fact that the penguins are a force of Ikuhara’s “destiny” and “fate”. Remember, certain notions of “destiny” declare that the road up to the final destination may be altered, but the ultimate end is always the same. Note that nearly all events important to the plot for meeting new characters with the siblings has taken place with the presence of the penguins and their direct interaction with the world. So, what’s the overall idea? The reason why the penguins’ interactions with the physical reality are inconsistent is because they only exist in order to push events towards the destiny, forcing events to happen that will lead to an ultimate outcome. The interpretation of destiny in this work is clearly that the “road” to the “destination” can be taken several ways, and its in these moments of choosing the “fork in the road” that the penguins intervene physically. The penguins are the Fates, and Ikuhara is using anti-classical elements to accent this.

Case 2: Episode 3's Transformation

OK, hold up. WHY in the world are Kanba and Shoma considering that Himari’s work is that of an illusion, now, of all times? Judging from the reactions inside the scene, it can’t be just chalked up to “being a test”. This should have happened by the second transformation scene, if it were to happen in any case. Actually, isn’t it entirely possible that this scene isn’t in the chronological order, and that it originally is supposed to be the second transformation scene that the brothers have witnessed? Judging from the interactions, this seems entirely possible.

So, why are we being shown this now, of all times? I believe it is simply to further the audience’s confusion. A general sense of confusion, delayed. Odd, but I’ll see where Ikuhara plans to go with this one.

9 thoughts on “Plot Design and Mawaru Penguindrum 3

  1. A couple of issues:

    1) The physics of Looney Tunes is very similar to that of the penguins in Mawaru. That is, it basically gets manipulated as a plot device.

    2) Don’t you think if you look at series like Utena and Lain from a distance, and having watched them from beginning to end, they turn out to be classical after all? I feel that way a lot. Utena and Lain have tons of subversions when you look closely, but take a step back and it’s classic all the way…is my sense.

    • 1. Yes, you are indeed correct. And you make me want to revisit my childhood by watching Looney Tunes again. :( However, the difference in the usage is the consistency. For the best example, let’s look at Bugs Bunny. If you recall, some of the physics that emerged between Elmer Fudd’s “wabbit hunting” and Bugs Bunny’s continual escape were that, as a rule of that reality, Bugs was able to escape down immensely small rabbit holes, or escape down rabbit holes that never led to anywhere when Fudd would go down them, and yet appear at different places. He would never, ever be caught this way. Another example from Looney Tunes is Wile Coyote and the Roadrunner. It is a rule of the show that “fake tunnels” made to trick Roadrunner into running into walls would never be solid against Roadrunner, but always solid against Coyote. Likewise, Roadrunner was not caught by this method. The physics in Looney Tunes were always internally consistent throughout every characters’ interactions and used as a plot device in that fashion.
      Looking at Mawaru, the distinguishing factor is that the penguins’ interactions are not internally consistent, as we can observe in the fact that the penguins can be touched by Ringo’s friend’s butt, but not be felt BY her when she steps on him, and yet still be able to carry physical objects without being noticed.

      2. Lain is by no means plotted in the classical design, no matter what angle you view it from. In the show, it’s unique to note, the reality of what’s going on is challenged not on the surface-level but the metaphorical level, which takes the visual style and camera angles and warps perception of the viewer. The Wired itself, as a world and yet still not a world, is a living testament to how skewed reality can become in the show, if one adds Lain’s control over everything. I believe Lain, while not without classical elements (because a slight bit of classical design goes into every design), is largely anti-classical and partly minimalistic, what with how much the show forces interpretation of action and events upon the viewer instead of explaining it.

      Utena can rightly be argued to have large doses of classical elements in it. This is due in large part because Utena itself is Ikuhara’s postmodern fairy tale, and fairy tales by nature generally carry classical design. The reason that I say it belongs more in the anti-classical is primarily because of the interactions forced upon the characters. The great majority of the actions in the series are symbolic by nature. Such as each member of the Student Council’s roses and their colour and their reasons for dueling Utena (for example, Saionji’s green [envy] in the first episode with Anthy and the confrontation between Utena’s blank rose to that with colour). I personally feel that Utena is more anti-classical than classical because it asserts Ikuhara’s messages and imagination more forcefully than its own natural progression.

  2. This is some serious blogging right here. Everyone who didn’t “get” this series should read this.

    The classical structure is still used today because it works. This is proven over and over again. It IS the most common and sometimes very predictable, but there sure are many great stories under that category. I think those who openly denounce it as inferior or boring is, excuse my language, pretentious :P

    The “minimalistic” design, I think, is the hardest to execute. I don’t think I have yet to see a good anime in this category, because frankly, anime is generally not made toward the crowd who like this type of story structure, and even when they actually make one, the budget or production time (or even the competence of production staff) are simply not enough to match the quality seen in Japanese live-action movies, where this type of plot design is very common. The best and possibly the only “really good” anime I’ve seen in this category is ‘Kamichu!’, although there are many good “mixed” designs.

    As for the anti-classical, I tend to find these to be hits or misses. I guess the riskiness of it is why most writer play it safe with the classical :| To be honest, I still struggle to see the greatness in ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ after two and half attempts, but many of my favorite anime series do have unorthodox story structures. ‘Mawaru Penguindrum’ is certainly heading into that direction!

    • “Pretentious” is actually a good way to describe people that say they “can’t be suffered” to watch something that isn’t “deep”. It just shows how little said people understand about what CAN be accomplished, rather than what they perceive IS accomplished.

      You are definitely correct about the minimalistic design. It is incredibly difficult to see a series that is overwhelmingly minimalistic, for the reasons you pointed out. People just don’t want to go plot point -> plot point -> plot point when they watch anime. Viewers, most of the time, want to have fun moments where you get to see the characters and bond with their silly, inconsequential moments. I certainly do sometimes, as well. Not only that, but passive protagonists and open endings are difficult to write well; the former often comes off as boring and the latter often as laziness. As you pointed out, Japanese cinema is incredibly good at this, however. They have the skills and the drive to write and direct incredible minimalistic works.

      Anti-classical works are definitely the most hit and miss. I’m sure you’ve noted this, but the reason why is because they stress the mindset of the writer. If you subconsciously don’t click with the writer, you most likely won’t click with the show. NGE is an odd one, and it’s definitely hit and miss. It’s not so much the anti-classical elements that kick it into my love, for me, but rather the portrayal of character in that show. Each of the three main characters are instinctively recognizable within ourselves, even though we don’t live in a world like theirs, or share their pasts. Shinji, our fear of our own shortcomings; Asuka, our exterior and interior; and Rei, our expectations and depending on the viewer, our sense of the primal “right and wrong”.

  3. Hi! My friend sent me your first Mawaru Penguindrum review, and I read the 3 of them and loved to see your point of view. My friend and I love Utena and now we’re enjoying Penguindrum a lot.
    I’ve noticed on your second review that you said the name of the entity may be boushi-sama. Actually, 帽子 (boushi) means only ‘hat’, the noun, it isn’t a name or something.
    Also, do you have an my anime list? I know you’ve probably answered this before so, sorry.

    I’ll keep on reading your blog from now on, very cool : )

    • Oh no, I just called her “Boushi-sama” because Shoma called her that. And since “Nadine”, which I thought its name was before, was an incorrect translation. Sorry about that. He/She/It needs a name :(

      I don’t have an MLA list mainly because I don’t want to put up the list of all my anime. That would take way too long, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten quite a number of shows that I’ve already seen. Perhaps I will, sometime. It’s just going to take me a really long time to do so.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. I always had an impression that anti-classicism is just the negation of classicism, like everything that is not classicism by nature. On my recent post my interpretation of Mawaru Penguindrum is that it’s the combination of nonsense—because there’s an excess of meaning in some unexplainable acts and also because I don’t think they’re living in a fantasy world, plus the riddle-like effect of the penguindrum to its viewers, and formalism—pretty much similar to anti-classicism but it’s more of the director tries to conceive the reality and present his own version of the universe (forms and structures). That being said, it’s an interpretation from someone who has no extensive knowledge about Ikuhara and who just only relies on Penguindrum alone.

    • Anti-classicism holds the definition of your impression outside of the literary and philosophical zone, that is, semantically. However, like postmodernism, anti-classicism is an intentional diametrically opposed situation, an active rebellion against what classicism stands for.

      I particularly liked your insight on the show, especially the fact that you brought up formalism and nonsense. You don’t need to know about Ikuhara to talk about him, and what you said in your post is perfectly valid. In fact, I would go so far to say that in the anti-classical design, nonsense and formalism make up two large core aspects and are intricately entwined.

      In the art of the tug-of-war of inconsistency in anti-classicism, the nonsense can come to make sense precisely because of the idea of formalism. One of the things about formalism and anti-classicism is that formalistic philosophy is readily apparent in anti-classical design. The reason being that the “meaning” behind the anti-classical is insignificant besides to those that believe it is insignificant, and vice-versa. Is the meaning actually there? It isn’t for those who don’t see it, it is for those who do; this is one of the reasons that different interpretations for the same events arise when talking about symbolism. As a large catch for the anti-classical (as opposed from classical and minimalistic) it is largely from nonsense (inconsistency) that meaning arises for those who see it. Anybody that reads into a show is getting ready to dip their hands into the pot of “reading too deep”. However, what matters to the viewer is that whatever “it” is, “it’s” there for them. Author’s intent, as I always like to say, is just as important as somebody else’s logically derived analysis: they are both truths.

      It’s definitely true that Ikuhara is projecting his own forms into the world he has crafted – complete with the fantastical and even illogical. I find that this is the reason why I find the show so fascinating.

  5. Pingback: Colloquium: Mawaru Penguindrum Episode 5 | The Untold Story of Altair & Vega

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