In cased you missed it, some pretty major changes to the blog are starting today, with more on the way. See last night’s post for more.
This article is adapted from a panel on the anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica I gave with Viga Gadson at Anime Boston 2012, hence its very different structure from my usual posts. It assumes the reader has watched all 12 episodes of the show, and contains unmarked spoilers. Headings roughly correspond to slides in the presentation.
Magical Girl Evangelion
A lot of people have compared Madoka to Neon Genesis Evangelion, and I think that is a fair comparison. Certainly, when I watched it, I found it an equally mind-blowing experience, if not quite so trippy. It has owned my brain like nothing since Eva; I want to take it apart and grok it entirely, and the more I do, the more I find.
But it also fills a similar role to Eva (infamously a deconstruction in both the fandom and academic senses of the mecha genre) as a deconstruction of the magical girl genre. A genre deconstruction is a work that takes the normal tropes and elements of a genre and plays them as straight as possible, while removing the narrative conveniences that make them work. Eva deconstructed the super robot genre by showing how psychologically devastating it would be to place the fate of the world on the shoulders of a child and force them to face monsters. Madoka does the same with magical girls, as well as showing the isolation their superhero-esque roles and secret identities create. Mami’s death has this effect–she dies against a third-episode monster of the week, proving this is not the sort of magical girl series where the girls have plot armor, or where the big Final Attack always works.
At the same time, just as Eva ultimately returns at the end to the core shounen theme of a young man embracing hope and self-determination to cross the threshold into adulthood, Madoka embraces the core magical girl theme of a young woman evolving into a powerful, maternal goddess-figure able to protect the world. It takes the genre apart, but puts it back together again as something new, and in so doing sets a new benchmark, a new standard of what the genre could be. I suspect that for quite some time to come, the test of the best magical girl series will be, “How do they stack up to Madoka?”
Madoka as a Feminist Work
Magic is frequently used as a metaphor in many works–that is the entire basis of the magical realism genre, for example. Magical girl shows are no exception: in them, the magic is often a symbol of female empowerment. The magical girl is an empowering figure, a girl endowed with the ability to resolve her problems, protect others, and ultimately (at least, in many series), ascend to a sort of goddess role, some more literally than others (for example, Princess Serenity in Sailor Moon, or Sakura surpassing Clow Reed at the end of Cardcaptor Sakura). The magical girl is able to escape the confines of a traditional female role and take on the traditionally male role of the warrior, without sacrificing any of her femininity the way an Amazon character might (as in “Pretty Warrior Sailor Moon,” the literal translation of the Japanese title). The transformation sequence is symbolic of the way she must transform into something other than “a girl”–a usually passive role symbolic of innocence and weakness–to achieve her full potential.
Madoka subverts all of this; the magical girls become liches, sacrificing not only their femininity but their humanity, as victims of a predator who uses pubescent girls for his own purposes. Middle school girls are the perfect targets for his plan; they have the extreme emotional highs and lows of any adolescent, they are inexperienced and thus gullible, and girls tend to be trained more than boys to worry about others’ feelings and put others’ needs ahead of their own. Where a boy’s social training might lead him to feel perfectly fine about wishing selfishly, a girl is likely to be trained to feel guilty about pursuing her own needs and wants, and thus either makes a “selfless” wish and regrets making the wrong wish, like Sayaka or Kyoko, or wish for her own needs like Mami, and then feel guilty that she didn’t wish for others, too.
In the end, however, Madoka is able to find the right wish to achieve that godlike status, and so this is another sense the series deconstructs, and then reconstructs, the magical girl genre. But Madoka not only deconstructs magical girls, it also deconstructs the vile moe aesthetic that has been steadily corrupting the genre for the past decade. Happily, it makes no effort to reconstruct it, and leaves it ultimately behind.
Moe is the fetishization of vulnerability, weakness, and suffering. The (usually male) viewer is supposed to feel a protective impulse toward the (usually female) moe character as the basis for an emotional attachment that is depicted as an idealized form of love. As in all forms of White Knight-ism, the essential paradox of this fetish is that the moe fan does not care about the character before they suffer or demonstrate weakness, and wish for the character to be safe, non-vulnerable and non-suffering; they want–need–the suffering to happen in order to fulfill their fantasy of swooping in to save the day.
Madoka starts with main characters that fulfill standard moe archetypes. Madoka is your typical moe-blob; Sayaka the happy tomboy hiding pain and a need for love; Kyoko a tsundere; Homura a Rei Ayanami clone. It makes them cute, puts them in frilly outfits, and generally makes them as moe as possible.
Then it starts to hurt them. A lot. In the least sexy ways imagineable. Their suffering is depicted realistically as possible, not just pain but despair, loss, grief, suicide. Their vulnerability is not endearing; it is horrifying. You do not want to swoop in and comfort them so that they will love you; you just want it to STOP; it seeks to evoke real empathy, rather than the fake, objectifying, self-serving pseudo-empathy of moe.
This is a huge chastisement to moe fans and creators. It is saying, “You want others to be unsafe for your gratification. What about them? No one would ever wish to be vulnerable, but you do not care about them, only about how they can make you feel.” It accuses moe fans and creators of violating (in spirit, given these are fictional characters, but still) the categorical imperative to treat others as subjects, as people with wants and needs of their own, as ends in themselves, rather than as objects to be used as means to satisfy one’s own desires.
Allusions and References
But Madoka is about more than just other anime. It is chock full of references to other stories, works, and ideals as well.
For example, Madoka heavily references the Russian folkloric character Koshchyei Byessmyertnuy, in English Koshchei the Deathless. Koshchei is an evil wizard who menaces young women, usually the hero’s love interest. He cannot be killed by normal means because he has removed his soul from his body and hidden it in an egg (sound familiar?) He hides the egg inside a duck inside a hare inside an iron chest buried under a green oak tree on an island in the middle of the sea. If someone takes the egg, Koshchei becomes a weak and powerless husk (sound familiar?) If someone tosses the egg around, Koshchei will be flung around too–remember Kyubey causing Sayaka pain by hurting the egg? And if the egg is destroyed, Koshchei dies.
The Soul Gems in Madoka are clearly based on the Koshchei legend. They are often compared to the phylacteries of Dungeons & Dragons’ liches (which are also based on Koshchei), but the fact that they are egg-shaped and that damage to them is felt as pain by the girls suggests that they are more directly taken from the older legend.
Of course, as many fans and critics have noticed, one of the series’ main sources of references is Goethe’s Faust, to the point of being arguably a retelling. Faust is the retelling of an old legend that has been repeated many times of a man who makes a bargain with the devil, most well known from the English play by Christopher Marlowe, the two-part German play by Goethe, and the French opera by Gounod based mostly on part one of Goethe’s version. Faust, an old man who is a wise sage but finds no joy in his life, makes a deal with the demon Mephistopheles to become young again and try living his life differently. Mephistopheles agrees to show Faust all the pleasures and joys of life he missed, but in return, if Faust ever experiences a moment of perfect happiness so great that he wishes to stop time and make it last forever, Faust will immediately die and go to Hell. The first part (published 1808, revised 1828) mostly follows Faust as he woos a young woman named Margarete (sometimes also known by the short form Gretchen). After he kills her brother, he leaves for a while to celebrate Walpurgisnacht, when German folklore says witches and demons have an orgy on Mt Brocken. (Night on Bald Mountain, both the Mussorgsky piece and the Fantasia segment based on it, are depictions of the Ukrainian version of this legend.)
He returns to find Gretchen is now mad and in prison, and she gave birth to his child but it was taken away. He tries to free her, but she is so delusional she cannot understand what is going on and he is forced to leave her behind as he flees the guards. Part two (published 1832, the year of Goethe’s death) is much stranger: Faust is now getting old again, a successful and wealthy man and a powerful sorcerer, and he has time-travel adventures, has an affair with Helen of Troy, saves the German economy by inventing fiat currency, and wins a war by bringing in an army of demons. At the end, he finally does something motivated solely by the good of another, instead of himself, and experiences a moment of perfect happiness. He dies, but because it was doing a good deed, he goes to judgment instead of immediately to Hell. Gretchen pleads with the Virgin Mary to let her guide him into Heaven, and Mary agrees.
From the start, Madoka is littered with Faust quotes, showing up as graffiti and as cryptograms inside the witches’ barriers. But more importantly, the story itself has many Faustian elements. Walpurgisnacht, for example, while it is referred to as an immensely powerful witch, appears to actually be an event involving many witches engaging in an orgy of destruction, just as in Faust. The witch’s barriers are prisons created by overwriting reality with their own despair and madness, just like Gretchen experiences near the end of Faust Part One. A moment of perfect happiness leads directly to Hell for Faust, and this happens to multiple characters in the anime: Mami goes in moments from the blissful discovery that she has friends and allies to her brutal death; Kyoko’s father is happy to have a congregation that listens to him, only to commit murder-suicide when he discovers how Kyoko made it happen; Sayaka experiences the happiness of knowing she has saved Kyousuke, only for that to turn out to be the beginning of her descent to despair and witch-hood.
Even moreso, the story of Madoka is arguably a retelling of Faust. Kyubey is clearly Mephistopheles; he first appears as a cute animal, and is soon revealed as a frightening, powerful predator who offers wishes in exchange for souls. Just as Mephistopheles wants Faust to experience a moment of happiness and then descend forever into Hell, Kyubey is preying on the emotional highs and lows of the magical girls, and wants the energy released when they descend into despair and become witches.
Since Kyubey’s primary target is Madoka, it might be tempting to see her as Faust, but that would be a mistake. The anime more readily compares her to Gretchen; her witch form is named Gretchen Kriemhilde, for example. Kyubey spends most of the anime trying and failing to get her to take the contract, before finally succeeding, just as Mephistopheles’ is frustrated in his first few attempts to corrupt Gretchen so that he can make her fall for Faust. Finally, her wish to guide magical girls away from being witches parallels Gretchen’s wish to guide Faust into Heaven. Madoka also takes on a role similar to that of the Virgin Mary; the end of Faust Part Two describes her as a goddess who presides over Heaven and guides people there, which is very much the role Madoka finally takes.
If not Madoka, who is Faust? Homura is a fairly close match. Like Faust, she makes a bargain with the devil to turn back time and correct the mistakes she believes she has made. More literally in Homura’s case, but then again Faust eventually time-travels, too. Her closeness to Madoka and desire to rescue her also reflect Faust’s feelings for Gretchen, and her power to stop time may be a reference to the conditions of Faust’s curse. Finally, like Faust she eventually learns that her attempt to turn back the clock has only made things worse.
However, Madoka also subverts Faust. In the end, Homura’s wish is not a mistake but key to breaking the cycle, and Madoka/Gretchen appeals to Kyubey/Mephistopheles, not Mary, to gain the power to guide others to Heaven. That is because Madoka is neither a character from Faust nor a Christian figure at all. Her true role is as a character from another mythology entirely.
Despite its connections to the Christian legend of Faust, Madoka is a very Buddhist story overall. One of the central tenets of Buddhism is that desire leads to suffering, and this is very much the case in Madoka. All wishes lead ultimately to pain and despair; emotional highs are balanced by emotional lows. The series also talks about karma quite a bit. Karma is a very complex concept, and different sects view it very differently. The Buddhist view can be very loosely summed up as cause and effect: action plants seeds which grow (maybe in this life, maybe in the next) into consequences. Good actions lead to good consequences and bad to bad, but either way, it has the effect of trapping you in the cycle of karma, because those consequences lead to further action which leads to more consequences.
The magical girl happiness-despair cycle works the same way, dragging them steadily down to witch-hood. The weight of karma also binds people to a cycle of rebirth, forcing them live over an over again, facing the burdens of the karma from past lives. Episode 10, in other words. Enlightenment, the understanding of the true nature of the world, is the only way to escape karma–and it is only on the last cycle that Madoka learns both of Homura’s time travel (the cycle of rebirth) and precisely what the Incubators are doing (the nature of karma). Finally, Walpurgisnacht strongly resembles a lotus blossom (a symbol of Enlightenment) while at the same time the gear motif reflects the ever-grinding wheel of karma.
Buddhism also traditionally divides the universe into six levels of being, those of Gods, Asuras, Humans, Animals, Preta, and Hell. The God-realm is occupied by devas, beings far more powerful than those of other realms, with powers of telepathy and illusion, and one class of deva are passionless and sexless, just like Kyubey. The demigods of Asura, meanwhile, are more powerful than humans, characterized by jealousy and desires, and reborn as a consequence of good intentions that led to bad results–the magical girls. Lastly, the Human realm is actually the closest to Enlightenment, the one from which it is possible to step directly into Nirvana–and it is in timelines that Madoka spent almost entirely human that she attains her highest level of being.
As noted earlier, Madoka resembles a figure from Buddhist mythology, the bodhissatva Kwannon (traditional Japanese), also called Kanon (modern Japanese) or Guanyin (Chinese). Kwannon was a young girl who nearly attained nirvana, but stopped just before she reached it. She transcended space and time to reach out to others and help them to Enlightenment, before finally ascending to nirvana herself. This helps explain the Virgin Mary connection, as well–people who syncretize Buddhism and Christianity often identify Kwannon and Mary together, and when Christianity was illegal in Japan during the Edo period, underground Christians disguised statues of Mary as Kwannon.
Thus it is that after saving everyone across time and space as a bodhisattva, Madoka then crosses the threshhold to the next level. She becomes a force of nature, an incarnation of hope, dissolving her consciousness, and attaining Nirvana.
Hope and Homura
Madoka represents hope, but a particular kind of hope. She is the hope that a higher power will help you, the hope that the universe is an orderly and friendly place and things will ultimately work out for the best. She is also hope in human goodness. Series writer Gen Urobuchi once wrote:
No matter what we do, we can’t stop the universe from getting colder, either, and on the same principle. This world is only maintained in existence by a series of logical, common-sense processes; it can never escape the bondage of its physical laws.
Therefore, in order to write a perfect ending for a story you must possess the power to break the chain of cause and effect, invert black and white, and act in complete contradiction to the rules of the universe. Only a heavenly and chaste soul, a soul that resounds with genuine praise for humanity, can save the story; to write a story with a happy ending is a double challenge, to the author’s body as well as the mind.
At some point, Gen Urobuchi lost that power. He still hasn’t recovered.
But Madoka was able to restore that hope, even for her author; by restoring her creator’s hope, she recreated her universe.
Homura is a different kind of hope. As the writer and philosopher Vaclav Havel put it, “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.”
Homura has no sense that things will work out, but she still carries on, because they *must* work out. and in her moment of despair, she gives birth to still greater hope. As Havel said, “Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.”
Consider the circumstances of Homura’s encounter with the world of magical girls, depicted in episode 10. The background of that scene is clearly heavily influenced by Picasso’s Guernica. Guernica shows the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians. Guernica is a town in the province of Biscay in Basque Country. For over three hours, twenty-five or more of Germany’s best-equipped bombers, accompanied by at least twenty more Messerschmitt and Fiat Fighters, dumped one hundred thousand pounds of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the village, slowly and systematically pounding it to rubble. It is a symbol of the brutality of war. However, The light in the center of the painting represents hope in a disaster, as small light sources traditionally have done in many paintings.
A reference to the painting is shown beneath Homura as she walks towards her first witch. It is not actually part of Guernica, but clearly references it with the similar cubist style and monochrome palette. For Homura this can represent her chracter arc fighting a war against Madoka’s fate and Kyubey. At the time it showed up in episode 10 she was also at conflict with herself. Or it could just be the animators having a good time, but that’s a boring option.
According to Urobuchi, Homura is Madoka’s “evangelist,” the one who knows about Madoka and tells others that she is watching over and protecting them. Since magical girls’ bodies are being constantly healed, it is possible Homura lives a very, very long time; the final scene with her is suggestive of a post-apocalyptic future (possibly also hinted at by the appearance of a Mad Max character in the episode 4 next episode preview illustration). Perhaps she wanders the world, telling all magical girls of Madoka, helping to spread the hope.
In that final scene, she sprouts witch-like wings. According to interviews with the creators, the storyboards had those wings white, but the animators changed it at the last minute to be more mysterious. There thus appears to be no intended meaning. However, if you combine it with the mention that, in the new timeline, Sayaka “used the last of her power” to kill a witch, it may represent a sort of limit break, where a magical girl uses all her magic in one blast, beginning the transformation into a witch, but then Madoka kills/saves her. We thus get to see the end of Homuras journey, where, urged on by Madoka, she protects the world one last time before moving on to peace.
Despair and Destiny
If only every magical girl were so lucky in every time line. Sayaka represents a version of despair. She wishes for the benefit of another, but is really just being dishonest. What she wants is for Kyousuke to love her back, but that is not what she wishes for, with tragic consequences. She is unable to bear the price of her wish, and descends into a deep depression. She becomes self-hating and self-destructive.
Another way to look at it: She makes a sacrifice to try to be with her prince, but he instead falls for another. In her despair, she loses her form. Sayaka is the little mermaid (the original version of the fairy tail, where she dies), hence the tail on her witch form.
Kyoko is another version of despair. Like Sayaka she wished for another, but where Sayaka lost everything because the person she wished for had no idea what she had done, Kyoko lost everything when the person she wished for found out what she had done. She pretends to feel no pain, and throws herself into hedonism, doing whatever she wants without restraint, as if this will make her feel better. Ultimately, just like Sayaka she is unable to live with her isolation, and dies to be with Sayaka.
The last major character, Kyubey, represents destiny. He perpetuates the cycle of despair that traps the magical girls and witches, and incubates the karmic seeds of the girls wishes into full witches. He claims to be emotionless, but this is absurd: He has goals, therefore he wants something, therefore he has emotions. What he lacks is passion and emotional empathy–he has intellectual empathy (the ability to know what someone is feeling; absolutely necessary to successfully manipulate someone), but not emotional empathy (the ability to share what someone else is feeling–feeling sad when you see someone cry or glad when you see them smile). That is the definition of a sociopath. Just as he implies that, by his species standards, humans are all mentally ill, by human standards, so is he.
Kyubey is actually working toward a good goal, however. He seeks to avert the heat-death of the universe. This is a reference to the laws of thermodynamics, and specifically entropy. Entropy is the measure of disorder in a system, which always increases until the system breaks down. The only way to keep a system running is to bring in energy from outside–for example, life on Earth is able to defy entropy locally because it has a steady supply of energy from outside the Earth in the form of sunlight. The reduction of entropy in turning dirt and air and water into a tree is more than balanced by the increase of entropy in consuming the Sun’s fuel supply to make the light that fed that tree. (Sound familiar? It is just like the hope/despair balance of magical girls.)
Since there is no outside the universe to get energy from, eventually the universe will run down. The universe will attain a state of perfect disorder, an enormous cloud of slowly expanding and cooling gas. This is known as the heat-death of the universe.
The emotional energy of magical girls is able to defy entropy and create energy from nothing, effectively bringing it in from outside the system of the universe. This allows the Incubators to delay the end of the universe, presumably saving billions of lives. It is also why some wishes can defy time: entropy is the difference between past and future; in physics, the future is defined as the direction in which entropy increases. If you can overcome entropy, you can defy the arrow of time.
A Clash of Ethics
Kyubey thus represents the perfect utilitarian. Utilitarianism is the belief that the right thing to do is whatever most improves the well-being of the most people. Utilitarianism is very much a rationalist ethics; it is all about dispassionately gathering data and weighing outcomes to determine what does the most good for the most people, like a mathematical formula. In this case, even if delaying the end of the universe requires making a few girls suffer horribly, it is worth it for the greater good. To the Incubators, this is a perfect bargain, and since they cannot conceive of any other moral scheme, they cannot understand why anyone would object.
Madoka represents care ethics. Care ethics is the belief that the right thing to do is determined by empathizing with and caring about other people on an individual level, guided at least partially by emotion. Making the magical girls suffer is a violation of empathy, so, even to save the universe, it is wrong. Because Madoka is emotionally unable to accept that saving the universe requires sacrificing innocent people, she contnues searching fo ranother way where the Incubators have concluded there is not one–and she finds it. It is less efficient at saving the world, and therefore wrong according to utilitarianism, but it is far, far better from any remotely human perspective.
In the end, it is Madoka whom the series depicts as clearly morally superior, and it is difficult to imagine anyone favoring Kyubey (already notorious as one of the most hated villains in anime) over her. In the end, Madoka is nearly as damning a condemnation of utilitarianism as it is of moe.
To be continued eventually when I find the notes for our Anime Boston 2013 panel, Latin Latin Madoka More Latin 2: Thermodynamic Boogaloo.