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This entry is adapted from my portions of the Latin Latin Madoka More Latin panel I will be giving at Anime Boston this weekend. As a result, it is a bit disjointed compared to an essay. It is also shorter than the previous LLMML entries because of a change of collaborator and therefore collaboration strategies. In the first two panels, Viga and I made the panel by sitting down and brainstorming the entire panel, then I wrote it all up. This time around, Kit and I divvied up panel topics and went off to write our own, so all I have for you is the topics I’m covering.
Regular readers may find some of this familiar from The Very Soil and the Rebellion review.
Spoiler Warning: Puella Magi Madoka Magica and the Rebellion movie.
The first three episodes of Madoka Magica can be understood as a struggle of sorts between the fairly standard magical girl series it originally pretends to be, and the dark meditation on hope and despair that it actually is, the kind of show that would have Magia as an ending theme. Mami is at the center of that struggle; just as the first act of a witch, before we ever see one, is to tear apart the anime art style and replace it with something creepy and strange, Mami’s first act, before we ever see her, is to create a safe space around Madoka and Sayaka where the witch cannot harm them. Her approach to fighting witches is flashy and visually appealing, and includes a signature finishing move with a called attack, all stalwarts of the genre for at least two decades.
She is also an instance of the Yamato Nadeshiko, the traditional Japanese ideal of the feminine—loyal, an excellent hostess, wise, mature, and humble, but with a core of steel. Like the traditional magical girl, she exemplifies these feminine virtues in a way that empowers her, but she’s not *too* empowered—she is continually subject to the male gaze, especially during combat sequences, with the camera focusing on her breasts, hips, and upper legs much more than for any other chaslideracter. Nonetheless, she is feminine, nurturing, and a leader and warrior, the classic combination for a magical girl.
Thus, it falls to her to fight to keep the “Magia” version of the series at bay, and it is only when she’s killed that it is able to take over. And again, her return at the end of the series to give Madoka her costume designs signals that the series is reintroducing some of the core magical girl themes it had deliberately abandoned, most notably hope.
By contrast, Homura is in many ways the harbinger of the Magia version of the series. Her function is to disrupt the status quo—her appearance in Madoka’s dream and school is the first strange thing to happen to her in the main series timeline, and though she fights to protect Madoka from the eerier elements of the series, she inevitably is a source of eeriness herself and ultimately makes things worse for Madoka.
She does not behave or look like a normal magical girl. She has elements of the “dark magical girl” that sometimes appears as the heroine’s rival—such as Pixy Misa in Magical Project S or Princess Kraehe in Princess Tutu—but notably she is not empowered by the villains, nor is she Madoka’s rival. In those first three episodes, she is positioned much more as Mami’s rival, with them nearly coming to blows multiple times.
Additionally, for most of the series she is the character least subject to male gaze, with none of the breast-and-hips focus Mami gets, and her costume lacks the bare midriffs, tube tops, and boob windows of Sayaka and Kyouko. Really, other than her transformation sequence in episode 11, the camera consistently treats her as a character to be watched rather than an object to be ogled, very unusual for a post-Cutey Honey magical girl.
She is actually very much like a witch throughout the series, in that her arrival always means something strange, serious, and probably mysterious is happening. She deforms the narrative by her presence, with even Kyubey noting that she is “wrong,” an outlier.
Even her power over time is consistent with this role, when we consider what time really is:
The three laws of thermodynamics are among the most solid and fundamental findings in modern physics, more certain even than the law of gravity. They are: 1. You can’t win. Energy can be changed from one form or another, but never created from nothing. 2. You can’t break even. Entropy always increases in a closed system; in other words, over time, the energy in a closed system converts into more chaotic, less useful forms until it becomes heat, which requires more energy to use than you get by using it. 3. You can’t quit playing the game. Entropy drops to zero in a perfect crystal at absolute zero… but to cool a system to absolute zero requires infinite energy.
Entropy, in other words, is a measure of the disorder in a system, and it always increases; all things decay. Interestingly, not only is this an inevitable process, it is the actual scientific definition of time; “the future” is *defined* as the direction in which entropy increases.
Now, most of the time this isn’t that big a deal. Life on Earth, for example, is able to keep running because it’s not a closed system; we have a giant energy source that hangs over our heads all day every day, just pouring free energy down onto us. As long as you can get energy from outside the system, you can keep entropy at bay.
But the universe has no outside; it *is* a closed system, which means that every second of every day entropy is increasing. Eventually, if nothing else destroys the universe first, we will reach the state known as heat-death: all energy in the universe will be heat, all forms of organization will be impossible, everything will decay into a slowly expanding cloud of slowly cooling gas, and nothing else will ever happen again, forever.
However! If you could break the first law of thermodynamics, and create energy from nothing, that would be the same as bringing energy in from outside the universe. Even if all the energy native to the universe has succumbed to entropy, you can use that outside energy to maintain structures and keep the universe running—and if you had a steady supply of that energy, you could keep doing it. Of course, it’s impossible to violate conservation of energy—unless, of course, you’re using magic.
Entropy is not the only form decay takes in the series, however. Emotional decay is also a quite prominent theme, particular the descent into despair and depression. Most obvious is the breakdown of magical girls into witches, as we see in Sayaka’s arc. What’s interesting here is that their magic is explicitly stated to come from wishes, i.e., hope, and as they consume it they descend into despair, which descent Kyubey uses to combat entropy. In other words, the entropic decay of the universe is being explicitly connected to depression and despair, and the magic needed to overcome it is likewise emotional. There’s a real resonance here with comments by Urobuchi in the Fate/Zero author’s notes, where he discusses the inevitable decay of the universe and connects this with a decay in his ability to write happy stories. He concludes that only a “pure soul” could reverse entropy and save him from this mounting despair that is beginning to threaten his ability to write at all.
This brings us, believe it or not, to a third kind of decay present in the series, spiritual decay. In Buddhism, the first of the Four Noble Truths which form the philosophical core of the religion is the inevitability of dukkha, or suffering. One of the three types of dukkha is the inevitable decay caused by the passage of time, because all material things are transient and eventual break down and are lost—entropy, in other words. Unfortunately, the weight of karma traps us in the material world, and we are thus unable to escape dukkha unless we can do something about karma.
Now stop me if you’re heard this one: A young girl achieves a state of transcendence, allowing her to escape the confines of the material world and free herself from suffering, but in an act of supreme self-sacrifice, she instead takes pity on the suffering of countless others, taking their suffering and karmic burdens onto herself so that they can transcend the material in her place. That is, in essence, the story of the Chinese boddhisatva Guan-yin, known in Japan as Kannon, and the clear inspiration for Madokami. She rescues and redeems her friends and her world—but remember what I said about the relationship between entropy and depression and Urobuchi’s previous writing. The TV series does, more or less, end happily, or at least with a better world. The implication is that even the author, unable to write happy stories because of the entropic decay of his own emotional universe—because remember, the world in which these characters live is the inside of his head—has been saved.
[elided bits Kit is covering regarding the movies, precisely what is meant by “Rebellion” in this context, and the power of story]
So, during the climactic battle in Rebellion, Nagisa and Sayaka reveal why they volunteered to leave the perfect bliss of Madoka’s nirvana-like Magical Girl afterlife for this difficult mission. Sayaka of course did it because she regretted leaving Kyouko behind, and Nagisa, in an apparent continuation of a running gag throughout the movie, did it so she could eat cheese. But that’s in itself interesting—if she loves cheese so much, how come her afterlife doesn’t provide her with any?
The answer, of course, lies in what cheese is—decayed milk. There can be no cheese in a spiritual plane devoid of dukkha, because without decay cheese cannot be created. There are good things, in other words, things that some of the magical girls love, not found in Madokannon’s world because they are the creations of decay.
In medieval European alchemy, one of the most important concepts was the process called putrefaction. In practical terms, this is just a form of fermentation, but spiritually it was related to the idea that life emerges out of rot. A piece of rotting fruit is disgusting and revolts the human senses, but it is also a riotous explosion of life, molds and maggots that nourish other living things, up and up the food chain until eventually all the natural beauty, all of life, depends on rot for sustenance. The alchemists regarded this as a profound spiritual truth, and that same spiritual truth, whether derived from alchemy or not, is key to the reason BOTH magical girls returned. Without putrefaction there is no cheese for Nagisa. Without the decay of Sayaka’s mental state and Kyouko’s resulting attempt to reach out to her, there is no friendship between the two of them. Everythign they shared, is a product of decay.
In other words, the cheese gag is actually far more than a gag; it is evidence that Madoka’s system is imperfect, that some of the magical girls she saves are unhappy in a world without decay. Death and decay are part of life, a part that Madoka is trying to deny. Only time and the inevitable sequels will tell if Homura’s system is any better.
We started the panel by discussing the opposing significance of Mami and Homura. That representation still holds in Rebellion; Mami is once again in the position of defending the status quo, the happier, safer world within the barrier with its traditional magical girl team and cute mascot characters and always-survivable monsters. And once again Homura is questioning and challenging that world, introducing new and uncomfortable elements from the alien genre of conspiracy thrillers, such as the notion that one of them is a traitor, that their memories are false, that what they’re perceiving isn’t real. Their fight, which was teased throughout the first three episodes of the series, becomes inevitable here, and Mami emerges as the clear victor. As of course she must be, because Homura is not bringing everything she has to bear; that part of her which is already a witch is trying to maintain this happy world, because she herself created it, so Homura is fighting herself as much as Mami.
At the end of the movie, of course, Homura declares herself to be a demon, earning nicknames like Akuma Homura and Homucifer. And of course, there are references to Paradise Lost hidden throughout the movie, just as references to Faust were hidden throughout the series. Put another way, just as the series is in many ways a Buddhist Faust, Rebellion is a Buddhist retelling of Paradise Lost. But does that mean Homura is Satan?
In the series, even though Madoka was the main character, it was a supporting character, Homura, who took the actual role of Faust, Similarly, in the movie, even though Homura is the main character, someone else is Satan. Homura’s rebellion, after all, is NOT against God, but rather against herself; the real rebel against Godoka is Kyubey, who like Satan in Paradise Lost believes that he is more qualified to run things, doesn’t understand anyone else’s motivations, gets his butt kicked in a war that tears apart Heaven, and is trapped forever in a Hell that exists inside him. In other words, just as he was Mephistopheles in the series’ version of Faust, he’s Satan in the series’ version of Paradise Lost.
But the real question is, is Homura good or evil? And the answer is, yes. Homura is a spectacularly morally ambiguous character. She reunites Madoka with her loved ones, returns Sayaka and Nagisa to worlds where they can get what they want, is working to end the magical girl system once and for all, is acting out of love, and holding the Incubators in check. These are all good things! Of course, she also destroyed one universe and is prepared to sacrifice another if she has to, has very clearly taken on the role of the Buddhist demon Mara, whose job is to use illusions and material things to distract people from their true potential to transcend this world—watch again that scene in the school hallway with Madoka. She deliberately taunts the other girls, forcing Kyoko to waste food, breaking a teacup behind Mami in an echo of the Charlotte fight, and erasing Sayaka’s memories, she’s motivated entirely by her own selfish desires, and she controls all the familiars and probably also witches. Her moral status is incredibly complicated—and so, like the movie itself, we end on an ambiguous note.