|In one of the less-remarked instances of queer subtext in
Madoka Magica, Mami gives Charlotte head.
If nothing else (and it is much else), Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a meticulously structured series. Every moment of it is carefully placed to advance a complex story with extensive character development in a surprisingly small space. One example of that meticulous structure is the symmetry throughout the series, the way in which moments large and small repeat at precisely the right time to reflect one another.
Two episodes utterly transform the series. On a first viewing, these two episodes stand out as moments when what appeared to be a show about one thing suddenly becomes a different show entirely. As in a mirror, they are at precisely opposite ends of the series, the third episode and the third-to-last. This is the first of these episodes.
The episode opens with hints to the second and longest of the series’ three major arcs, focusing primarily on Sayaka and Kyouko. Sayaka is visiting a boy, Kamijo, to give him the CD she and Madoka went shopping for in the first episode. As the two listen to it together, we see Sayaka remember her first encounter with true beauty and with the human power of creation, when she saw Kamijo perform when both were small. We never learn precisely what is wrong with Kamijo, only that he has lost some mobility in his hands and can no longer play the violin; regardless, what matters is that the beauty Kamijo could once create is now beyond his reach, trapped in the past. This is the earliest emergence in the series of one of its major themes, a clear marker of its Buddhist influences: the inevitability of decay and loss. The beauty Kamijo creates had to be lost sooner or later, because everything is; time is the destroyer of all. The loss of Kamijo’s music is not qualitatively different from Mami’s family’s death in a car crash or the destruction of the universe by the unrelenting march of entropy; they differ only in scale.
But thankfully, the opening credits are here to save us from such melancholy thoughts! This is still the false Madoka, after all, the safe, comfortable magical girl show with only occasional hints of darkness. Either the credits or Mami herself will always step in to save us before things get too dark.
But like teeth on the edges of the frame, darkness is creeping in around the show. Mami’s flashback to her wish, to save her own life, contains so much unstated: Mami lives alone, with no clear source of money, and she was clearly in the backseat of the car that crashed. She wished hastily, to live, and now she counsels Sayaka and Madoka to think carefully about their wishes and be absolutely certain they are wishing for what they want.
She wished to live, you see, when she could have wished for her whole family to live. The paratext (particularly the series guidebooks) suggests that much the same is true for Charlotte; she wished to share one last cake with her mother, when she could have wished for her mother not to die.
But Charlotte is far from Mami’s only parallel here. Last episode, we saw Mami’s magical girl transformation paralleled with Junko’s transformation into a different kind of warrior, the ambitious corporate climber. This episode, we see Junko laid low by an inevitable part of the life of the typical Japanese salary(wo)man: the after work drunken bender. As she staggers into the Kaname home, she both foreshadows that Mami will shortly fall to an inevitable part of the life of a magical girl, the messy death, and provides the impetus for A crucial conversation between Madoka and her father.
This is the moment at which Madoka kills Mami. The joy that Mami feels at knowing she is no longer alone causes her to showboat even more than last episode. She underestimates the threat Charlotte represents, and in so doing ensures her death. More importantly, just as with Kamijo’s music, her joy cannot last. It must end, decay, turn sour, because that is the inevitable consequence of existing within time.
Except for one thing: cheese.
We know from the paratext and from the Rebellion film that Charlotte is obsessed with cheese, searching for it endlessly. And what is cheese if not something good and life-sustaining that comes out of decay? It is rotten milk, raised into both a culinary delight and source of sustenance. It is a perfect example of the alchemical concept of putrefaction, the physical and spiritual notion that death is a source of life. Decay is repulsive, and yet the ugly, squirming mass of mold and maggots is teeming with life, able to sustain more beautiful and lovable creatures; without that decay, there would be no life.
In devouring Mami, Charlotte finds her cheese. This death and decay brings forth a new life, because it is the moment at which Madoka Magica transcends the norms of its genre and begins to fulfill its potential. Only a few short minutes after Mami first attacks Charlotte, everything has changed: Mami is dead. Homura has saved Sayaka and Madoka. Kyubey offers no comfort as they sob in the hospital parking lot. And as “Magia” finally takes its place as the true ending credits, one thing is clear: Madoka Magica has begun.
Next week: Miracles cures and suicide pacts.