Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Punch Line anime.
You think that a show that front loads the first-time viewer with shots upon shots girls flipping up their skirts wouldn’t have anything sophisticated to say. You would be mistaken though, because it’s Kodaka Uchikoshi of the Zero Escape game series that’s behind the show’s writing. You’d also be off, in my opinion, assuming that Punch Line’s narrative strength ends at being a compelling mystery. The popular mystery game writer has inserted strong sleuthing elements to the show, to be sure, but the show’s ultimate puzzle pales in complexity to the games of his that I’ve played before. More than its mystery and certainly more than its panties, the depth of Punch Line lies in how well it sets up its commentary on how people are attracted to and fall into cults.
Portrayals of manipulative and millenarian religious cults have featured fairly frequently in anime ever since the 1995 Sarin Gas attacks on the Tokyo Subway line by the notorious Aum Shinrikyo. In the aftermath of those attacks, novelist Haruki Murakami put together a book containing an essay on his musings about the event and interviews he conducted with those involved in some capacity with Aum Shinrikyo: Underground. It’s the same book that I referenced a while back in a write-up on Psycho-Pass and the muted Japanese reaction to developing disaster. Compared to Psycho-Pass ‘ treatment of the average citizen, I’m more interested in the embattled cultists of Punchline, and most specifically Guriko. How is it that of the experimental orphans three, Pine, Chiyoko, and Guriko, Guriko became the antagonistic cult leader? In contrast, Chiyoko and Pine became heroes and protagonists. Didn’t they grow up together? Weren’t they once all good friends? How did they become so different?
Pine, Chiyoko, and Guriko are all orphans, and when they were little, once upon a time, they were lab rats at a clandestine laboratory. They were held captive and studied invasively for their Uber-fy superpowers. They were corralled with each other quite often during this time, and their close proximity and shared hardships turned them into fast friends. As their experiment regimen became increasingly traumatizing, they resolved to escape together from their laboratory prison. With the help of a kindly scientist experiencing conscience pangs, the three attempt their escape and get separated in the process. Years later, they re-encounter each other under new aliases.
Chiyoko becomes Mikatan Narugumo, a hero who uses her superpowers to dispense justice in her spare time.
Pine becomes Yuta Iridatsu, a person who dons a superhero alter ego at various points to protect his friends.
And Guriko becomes QMAY cult leader Ryuuto Teraoka. The three of them began their lives in the same place, sharing the same unfortunate backgrounds.
They were orphans, test subjects, and prisoners. They were good friends. The first two become heroes who work with and protect each other. The third becomes a villainous cultist willing to walk over her old friends to achieve her aims. With this drastic a divergence in their worldviews and personalities, something significant must have happened after they separated. Something must occurred in the intervening years before their reunion that led them to a change that drastic.
In the aftermath of the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks and the subsequent raids and arrests of Aum Shinrikyo properties and members, a couple of compelling questions were floated by pundits in the public discourse: (1) what compelled people to join the Aum Shinrikyo cult, and (2) what compelled key Aum Shinrikyo figures to make attacks on the public? Counted among Aum Shinrikyo’s members were working professionals and skilled scientists. No one without a brain could have managed the number of businesses that Aum Shinrikyo possessed at the height of their power. No one who was completely dumb could have cultured biological weapons or manufactured an even imperfect form of sarin gas.
Guriko as she is now is, in many respects, a brilliant person. She climbed to the top of her cult movement and shepherded her organization’s explosive expansion. Her agents occupy key positions in powerful ministries. In most time loops, she confidently manipulates otherwise good-hearted characters into advancing her apocalyptic plans. It’s likely that, if it weren’t weren’t for plot-important shenanigans in the form of supernatural hindsight and a reset button, the world would have been irreversibly destroyed, and Guriko would have become its ashes’ queen. The world is full of corruption. Her actions will help wash away its filth. The new order that she will establish atop the purified ash will be just.
Given that most people — and many people as brilliant as Guriko of QMAY and so certain Aum Shinrikyo members — are not paranoid cultists bent on destroying the world in order to save it, what set them on the path to becoming cultists?
In a word, alienation. Interviews with and analyses of former Aum Shinrikyo members in Murakami’s Underground and other research publications revealed that they were outcasts and misfits of some kind. They did not match neatly into any respectable societal role in Japan. They felt that they did not belong anywhere in the world. Even working professionals and skilled scientists can perceive themselves when they fail to meet society’s high standards — either because they were considered societal underperformers or found societal expectations superficial and chafing. Uncomfortable with where they were and uncertain about where they should go, these people became vulnerable to the salvific promises of the cultist crier — a place to belong, a role they can find fulfilling. Their faith is prioritized as the price for entry, and their skills are bonuses gladly lent. They isolate them even further from the world, stress upon them that only they can trust each other. They feed suggestions into their ears, give them specific literature to consume. Their suffering is not their fault. It’s society that’s to blame. It’s the world that is filthy and corrupt.
For some cults, like the People’s Temple of Jonestown infamy, in this life or the next, separation from the world is enough. For other cults, like Aum Shinrikyo, the world must endure a revolution. The world must change, with violence if if necessary.
Chiyoko, Pine, and Guriko were separated during their escape attempt. Chiyoko and Pine succeeded. Guriko did not. Chiyoko and Pine met all the right people, people who they loved and reminded them that the world isn’t all bad. Guriko met the wrong ones; she ran into people caused her pain, and people that turned her suffering into external rage. Chiyoko remained with their scientist friend, who later sacrifices himself to prevent his ward’s capture. Pine was rescued by kind strangers, who later adopt him as part of their family. Guriko was apprehended by their pursuers. She was tortured more, experimented on more brutally. In a way, human beings are slaves to anecdotes. Their perspectives are informed by experience, myopic as it may be. Without Chiyoko, without Pine, without their scientist friend and kindly strangers, Guriko fell into existential despair. Guriko became vulnerable, and in that state of vulnerability, the QMAY cult reached out to her and fed her an alluring narrative.
How you were treated was messed up, and it’s messed up because the world is messed up.
Help us revolutionize this horrible edifice.
Help us raze this terrible place.
Help us rebuild everything anew.
Help us. Join us.
As a reflection of the warmer feelings she shared with them in better times, Guriko explains herself to her old friends. She asks them to help her, to join her. They refused, and her bright memories with them weren’t enough to cover the intervening years of alienation.
Punch Line’s depiction of cults is rather simplified and stereotypical, but the show captures one important factor behind why people join them. The show demonstrates this not only in the tale of the three orphans, but in its two major foil characters of Guriko and Pine. Guriko’s villainous origin story stands in contrast to Pine’s heroic arc. Guriko is alienated from others at every turn in her backstory. Pine is pushed at every plot turn to connect more closely with the occupants of Korai House. Guriko despises the world and wishes its destruction to create it anew. Pine sees value in the world and saves it with the help of his friends.
From the beginning, the three were all so similar. They shared similar backgrounds and similar hardships. They were separated from each other on that fateful day. Two experienced love. One felt utter alienation. Chiyoko and Pine found places in the world to belong. Guriko didn’t and vowed to punish the world for its depravity. Chiyoko and Pine became the world’s defenders and heroes. Guriko became the cultist that wanted the world’s destruction. More than half-decent mysteries, supernatural shenanigans, eccentric characters, and ladies’ underbottoms, Punch Line is about cults, and how one of three characters falls into one.