A panel I gave at Anime Boston 2017, talking about narrative structure in anime.
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The first three chapters of Animated Discussions cover the same topics in greater depth. Buy it any of the sites listed at that link!
Just on the off chance anybody reads this but not my Twitter, Tumblr, or Patreon…
Video: Puella Magi Madoka Magica; Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie 3: Rebellion
Song: Blake Inc.–“Our Darkest Dreams” (used with permission)
I’m going to be at Anime Boston this weekend, April 3-5. I have about seven hours of panels! So if you’re there and want to see me talk about anime, here’s when I’ll be doing it:
- 10:30 a.m. – 12 noon, Panel 208: Latin Latin Madoka More Latin IV: The Voyage Homura: Probably the last time I do my annual AB Madoka panel. Topics this time around include kamishibai, the history of magical girls and witches, manga spinoffs and why they tend to suck, and Homura as Faust, Milton!Lucifer, and the Nutcracker.
- 12:30 – 1:30 p.m., The Fens: Postmodernism and Anime: A brief introduction to postmodern techniques anime tends to use, and then discussion of some anime particularly notable for their use of it.
- 10:00 – 11:00 a.m., Panel 206: Tengen Toppa Evangelion: Aim for the Top!: Traces the use of repeated motifs and themes across four decades of Gainax mecha anime, from Gunbuster to Evangelion to Gurren Lagann to Rebuild. (Not on the schedule at the moment due to an error, but AB panel department assures me it’ll be added before the con.)
- 9:00 – 10:00 p.m., Public Garden: Reading Too Much Into The Slayers: If you’ve been following my posts on the show…. yeah, that.
- 1:00 – 2:30 p.m., Panel 208: Big Eyes, Small Mouth: The Anime RPG: Take 2! The audience participation segment at AUSA was a flop, so I took it out in favor of more storytime and just walking through making a character.
I’m pleased to announce that The Very Soil: An Unauthorized Critical Study of Puella Magi Madoka Magica is now on sale! It is available on Smashwords (all major ebook formats), CreateSpace (dead tree), and (a first for one of my books, though the others will be following shortly) Kindle store right now; over the next few days it should show up on Amazon, B&N, iTunes, and so on.
This is a thoroughly revised and expanded version of my blog series of the same name, including four entirely new chapters (three on spinoff comics, plus “Against Kyubey” in the Rebellion section), and extensive updates, corrections, and alterations throughout the rest.
Also one hell of a spectacular wraparound cover by Viga, as you can see at the top of this post.
Thanks to Kit Paige for her excellent job editing! Go back her Patreon or Kickstarter, she’s good people and creates good stuff!
- The e-book MSRP is $3.99, while the print version is $9.49. (Prices may vary depending on where you buy it.)
- The print version is 144 pages. My favorite is 38, because it has the best sequence of citations: The Golden Bough, the D&D Monster Manual, Harry Potter, and Addressing Rape Reform in Law and Practice.
- The e-book shows up as 494 pages on my phone, but that means little. It’s the same text as the print version, anyway.
- If you are receiving this book through my just-completed Kickstarter, I’ll be sending that out tonight. (Please allow shipping time for print copies, e-books I’ll be e-mailing you a 100% off coupon.)
- I’ll also be adding the e-book of this to the list of reward options for the $10 tier of my Patreon.
I’m not going to go into much detail because they are going to be book-exclusive chapters on them, but here’s some quick mini-reviews:
- Different Story is really pretty good. It’s not as good as the series or Rebellion, but then few things are. It’s a nice exploration of the two magical girls that probably got the least development in the series, and does a strong job of maintaining the general tone and depth of character that defines the series.
- Oriko Magica is all right. It’s not the best, but it’s not too long and has some nifty bits. It stumbles a bit on characterizing the new girls, but keeps up the tone well, and Kyouko focus is always welcome.
- Kazumi Magica is unmitigated crap. It goes on seemingly forever, has far too many characters, most of whom are so ill-defined as to blend together, utterly lacks any kind of thematic cohesion, and looks like bad fan-art. It’s clearly a product of a kitchen-sink mentality, with characters and concepts crammed in without any regard for how they interact or whether there is anything interesting to do with them. Also, it’s got Male Gaze all the way up its ass, frequently literally..
The precise moment at which Rebellion turns us against ourselves is about a fourth of the way through the film. Up until that point, it has depicted the happy world that, as any viewer with a trace of empathy must concede, the characters have more than earned. Throughout the series, we followed these young women, suffered with them, hoped against hope that they would be able to find some form of happiness.
Thus, the series places the viewer into the position of the magical girls. Pursuing our desires for the series leads to it becoming tragic. Our wishes transform into curses as down the spiral we go, until we find ourselves, at the climax of the film, wishing for Homura the witch to tear apart the world–and then when she does, we must live with the reality created by that wish.
By turning us against ourselves, and showing how our wishes for the series betray us, the film makes one last effort to push empathy onto us. Like the series in its first few episodes, it offers spectacle and fanservice to draw us in, and then, once the trap is baited, it makes us feel for the characters. Even more so, however, it makes us feel as the characters–empathy as opposed to sympathy–by placing us into a situation analogous to theirs. That moment of confusion, of alienation, of wrongness when Homura pulls Madoka apart? That is a small taste of what it feels like to be a magical girl.
I said above that this is a series about entropy and decay, depression and despair, and it is. But it’s easy to forget that it’s about other things, too, and by turning us against ourselves it reminds us of those other things.
This isn’t just about Buddhism, or German literature, or the magical girl genre. It isn’t just about entropy and suffering, or just about thematic complexity or the possible psychological issues of its implied, gestalt author. It isn’t even just about characters, blobs of light and color created by animators and voiced by actors. It’s also about us.
In the end, as in the beginning, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a story about people.
You’re gonna carry that weight.
There is a recurring image throughout the Madoka Magica movies, one we have briefly mentioned before: a rather sweet tableau of two white chairs on a grassy hill, Madoka and Homura sitting side-by-side in them. In the opening credits of the first two movies, they cuddle, sweet and adorable, and innocent. In the third movie, the image turns rapidly rather less sweet.
As she goes through the process of becoming a witch at the climax of the second arc of Rebellion, Homura returns to the chair scene. But this time, Madoka stands and casts herself sideways off the chair, splattering into a pink stain on the grass while Homura reaches for her helplessly. Homura crouches beside her, eyes wide in shock and horror, while a crowd of tall, attenuated Homuras surround her, gazing down. And then the vast fist of a raging Homura smashes the crouching Homura, railing and weeping beside the remains of Madoka.
Madoka is gone, her coherent identity replaced by a diffuse abstraction. Homura failed. Now Homura stands in judgment over Homura, and finds her wanting. Her rage and grief at last unleashed, she smashes her own identity to become an abstract and esoteric being herself: a witch.
Just like Sayaka, and presumably every other witch, before her, Homura’s witch form is an endless cycle of self-flagellation, a psychodrama in which she acts out the events that brought her to despair and punishes herself for her failures. She tries to shoot herself, and the self she shoots becomes the Madoka she had to mercy-kill. She cannot die, does not deserve to die, the way that Madoka did, because she has failed to save Madoka.
Not only failed to save her; Homura is the reason Madoka is gone. Her looping through time empowered Madoka to become the Law of Cycles, which erased Madoka from reality. Her discussion of Madoka with Kyubey gave the Incubators the information they needed to construct the trap now closing on Madoka–and they used Homura to create that trap. Homura is Madoka’s greatest liability.
Homura’s witch form is among the most literal. She has the peaked black hat, the prominent nose and chin–other than being a skeleton hundreds of feet tall, she looks rather like the standard Halloween costume of a witch. Homura knew about witches and where they come from, and yet she still failed to avoid that trap, even embraced it deliberately in a bid to foil Kyubey. Unlike Sayaka, who believed herself a knight and so still looked like one as a witch, Homura knows what she is choosing to become. Likewise, she is deliberately sacrificing herself, as she tells Kyubey: she trusts Mami and Kyoko to kill her. Thus her familiars lead her to the guillotine, the mechanism of her sacrifice and instrument of judgment for her crime.
At the same time, she is surrounded by imagery related to the nutcracker. One type of her familiars is giant teeth with nutcracker jaws. Another resembles toy soldiers, but with their high fur hats resemble the traditional Christmas nutcracker as well. An image of a grinning mouth clenching a walnut in its teeth appears when she first starts to realize that she is the witch in whose labyrinth the magical girls are trapped. And she loses half her head, leaving only the lower jaw–a mirror of the titular nutcracker of E.T.A. Hoffman’s story and Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet based on it, who lost his lower jaw. The doll-like appearance of many of her familiars and prominence of clockwork also recall the original story of “The Nutcracker,” in which the Nutcracker led an army of dolls from a clockwork castle.
At a basic level, the image of a nutcracker without a jaw is an image of uselessness, an object without purpose. There is a deeper resonance here, however, if one recalls the tale-within-a-tale of the origin of the nutcracker in Hoffman’s story. The nutcracker was once the chosen one, described in prophecy as the only one who could rescue a princess cursed by the Mouse Queen. He had to perform a complex ritual to save her, but just as he completed it, he tripped over the Mouse Queen, and so the curse fell on him instead. This is Homura, relaxing because she believed she had helped Madoka escape her fate, only to discover that she’d failed in the end because of the intervention of that little rat Kyubey. It is, in other words, yet another way to blame and punish herself.
But the magical girls refuse to cooperate. They refuse to join Homura in judging her. They refuse to hate her and refuse to kill her. Instead, they work to free her, break the labyrinth and the Incubators’ trap so that Madoka can take her off to magical girl heaven. Despite her raving and her pleading, they insist on forgiving her. They reject Homura’s judgment, and demand that she reject it as well. They want her to forgive herself and free herself.
But Homura has been fighting Homura from the start of the movie. Throughout the first arc of the film, Homura seeks the mysterious and invisible tyrant who rules the seemingly happy world in which the magical girls find themselves, with the intent of destroying it. It is the discovery that she is that tyrant which leads her to call down a curse on herself and transform fully into a witch; all of this is part of her rebellion against herself.
That rebellion has not ended by the end of the film. Homura describes herself as evil and embraces the role of the scantily clad, black-winged devil-woman. But what difference is there between saying “I am evil” and “I deserve to be punished?” This is simply another expression of her guilt, a new way of tormenting herself.
She has elevated herself to a cosmic being, a demiurgic entity who appears to have near-unlimited powers over material reality and the people in it: she can rewrite Sayaka’s memories, bring back the dead, construct an entire new history for Madoka’s family in order to reverse the first episode. And yet she chooses to make a world where she is alone, isolated from the friendships she was starting to build with the other magical girls. She chooses to let Sayaka tell her off before the memory erasure.
The only real emotion Homura shows in the new reality she created is panic, when Madoka threatens to reconnect with the Law of Cycles. When, in other words, Madoka nearly brings about the return of a cosmic entity of hope and forgiveness, capable of ending Homura’s suffering. Above all, Homura cannot allow that; she must suffer for failing Madoka, making things worse for Madoka. She must preserve Madoka eternally in a state of innocence and safety, cut off from her potential, because protecting Madoka is Homura’s only concept of “good”–and so her failure to do so is her only concept of “evil.”
It could have ended. If the other magical girls had simply killed her, she would be beyond further punishment, and her suffering would have ended. But they, in their cruel mercy, forced her to go on, forced her to find another way to keep protecting Madoka and punishing herself. She hates them for that, for failing to hate her as she hates herself. In her new world, she expresses her hatred by passive-aggressively mocking its targets. She breaks a teacup behind Mami. She taunts Sayaka as her memories decay, mimicking Sayaka’s loss of self when she became a witch. She tricks Kyoko into wasting food.
And, in the stinger, she throws herself off a cliff next to a white chair, mirroring Madoka tipping off of it earlier. Her hatred for herself has not changed. All that has changed is that now she has the power to make the magical girls hate her, to position herself as their enemy in the hopes that they will finish the job.
Ever since the movie aired, there has been debate over Homura’s new status. Is she hero or villain? Here, then, is the answer to that question: Yes. Homura is both the villain of Rebellion and the hero battling that villain.
And here, also, is the answer to that question: No. Homura is the villain’s victim, whom the hero must rescue.
Her witch’s barrier expanded to encompass the universe. She is the entire story, now.
Next week will be the final post of The Very Soil.
|The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of a Hell, a Hell of Heav’n
How you have fallen<sup class="crossreference" value="(A)”> from heaven, morning star,<sup class="crossreference" value="(B)”> son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, “I will ascend<sup class="crossreference" value="(AK)”> to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights<sup class="crossreference" value="(AN)”> of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” But you are brought down<sup class="crossreference" value="(AQ)”> to the realm of the dead, to the depths<sup class="crossreference" value="(AS)”> of the pit.<sup class="crossreference" value="(AT)”>
The English term “morning star” is being used to translate the Hebrew Helel. We can imagine the mythology here fairly easily–the brightest star in the sky, refusing to share its place with the other stars, and instead jumping up into the sky at dawn, ahead of the sun. Then at sunrise it is wiped away, only for the story to repeat the next day, an endless cycle of celestial hubris.
Of course, most of us are more familiar with another translation, the King James, and another variant of the myth, which uses the Latin name for the morning star: Lucifer.
And that’s it. That is the entirety of the Biblical story of Lucifer. Everything else is folklore and tradition, which is to say, fanfiction: that Lucifer was an angel, that he is the entity referred to as Satan in the book of Job, that he is the serpent in Genesis, that he is the Beast or the Dragon in Revelation, none of this is actually stated in the Bible itself, which just gives the story of a proud figure who rises up and is cast down. (There is nothing wrong with this, of course. Sacred texts are just one element in the complex of ideas, behaviors, and institutions that is a religion.)
If we are to look for such a figure of hubris in Rebellion, Kyubey is pretty clearly that figure. He explicitly states that his goal in placing Homura within the barrier is to “interfere with”–that is, control and usurp–Madoka, who created the present universe, and as a result he is furiously punished by Madoka’s herald Homura for his crimes. The result is a new universe in which, the stinger seems to imply, Kyubey’s power has been almost completely stripped by the presence of Homura as an active and engaged demiurge.
There is another read available, however, if we look at one of the most famous “fanfiction” versions of Lucifer, Paradise Lost. In discussing Milton’s epic poem, however, it is important first to understand what an epic poem is. Understood cladistically, we can view the epic as a genre mostly descended from the works of Homer; the usual definition provides a list of common generic traits in terms of subject matter and structure, of which the most important for our purposes are that it involves events occurring on a national, cosmic, or global scale; follows the exploits of a larger-than-life, often supernaturally empowered hero; and utilizes a distinctive style that elevates it above normal discourse. In addition, epics usually start with an invocation and declaration of theme, begin in medias res, and contain lengthy monologues, often at least one flashing back to describe events prior to the opening.
Part of what makes Paradise Lost such a fascinating read is that Satan is consistently an incredibly vile character, a lying, cheating, self-serving manipulator–but he is also the epic hero upon whose adventures the story focuses. He is capable of being extremely charming and persuasive, to the point of convincing some very important critics (most famously Blake, who opined that Milton’s was “of the devil’s party and didn’t know it”) that his cause is actually right. Keep in mind, said cause is the conquest of the world and enslavement and extermination of humanity! (All of which he succeeds at. Satan’s son-grandson Death and daughter-bride Sin create a bridge from Hell to Earth at the end of the story, the Fall subjects humanity to Sin, and Adam and Eve are punished with mortality, which they pass on to their descendants, killing them all.)
So Rebellion is an epic. But more than that, it is the epic of how Homura went from being Madoka’s “very best friend” in Episode 12 to calling her an enemy at the end of this movie. It is the epic, in other words, about how the closest and most loyal follower of the closest thing Madoka has to a goddess fell to become a demon, and at the same time conquered the material universe with the stated intent of shepherding it to its destruction–yet throughout, remains a morally ambiguous figure, such that debates still rage across Internet fora as to her moral status.
Spoilers! Rebellion has still not had a wide theatrical or home-video release in the U.S., so I will continue to put all Rebellion-related content behind a cut as a courtesy to those who read my site through feeds and don’t want to be spoiled.
|The enemy. Obviously.|
Names have power.
There is an interesting pattern to the people Homura draws into her labyrinth: the magical girls make sense, as the main figures in her life and, at least in the most recent timeline, her teammates. Madoka’s family are slightly more of a stretch, but they are people important to Madoka and therefore to Homura. Still more of a stretch are Hitomi and Kyosuke, but again, Hitomi is important to Madoka and Kyosuke is important to Hitomi, so it’s not entirely unreasonable. But what possible reason could she have to bring in Kazuko (the homeroom teacher) and Nakazawa (an apparently random classmate)? And she does draw them both in–Nakazawa and the other magical girls are the only people seen to have normal faces when Homura begins doubting the reality of the people around her in math class, and both Nakazawa and Kazuko are shown unconscious on couches when the labyrinth is finally broken.
The answer lies in folklore: a witch who knows a person’s name can use it in workings of magic against that person. Consider again who Homura brings into the labyrinth, and then consider the series a a whole; setting aside witches, does any other character even have a name? Homura has drawn in everyone who can be drawn in, everyone who was a name. (Admittedly, Madoka’s father’s name is not spoken onscreen, but Madoka calls him Papa, and as there is no other living father in the series, “Papa” functions well enough as a name.)
Names have power because, in magical logic (which is, by and large, narrative logic), there is no signifier-signified distinction. The name is, in some sense, the thing named, and so to manipulate the name is to manipulate the thing. It follows, then, that if two things have the same name they must therefore be in some sense the same, that one can stand in for the other.
All I which is a roundabout way of saying that, when Homura grabs Madoka’s arms and tears Madoka-the-girl out of Madoka-the-abstraction, it is an act of rebellion not just of Homura against Madoka, but of Rebellion against Madoka Magica.
And why shouldn’t the film rebel against the series? Once, if a person wished to tell stories, they got up and told stories. Spoken aloud, these stories were ephemeral, changing with every telling. There were traditions, to be sure, but storytellers could be confident that their creative departures would not be seen as errors or betrayals but as the embellishments of a virtuoso performance.
Mass literacy struck a mortal blow against this form of storytelling, and radio, film, and television finished the job. This kind of storytelling lives on (as no art form ever really dies), but only as a curiosity, something to gawk at at a Renaissance festival or take your children to at the public library. Mostly, when we want a story, we reach for a packaged one, a book or a DVD.
This creates a challenge when an author wants to tell a cycle or series of stories, reusing the same characters or setting. The author wishes to explore and create, and in the age of oral tales was free to do so–no one particularly expected that the tales of Renard the Fox must be consistent with one another or complained, “Hey, when he seduced Leda, Zeus was a swan, how come he’s a golden shower now?” After all, if the story of Leda can change with every telling, why expect it to still be the same when you hear a completely different story?
Oral tales are living, growing, changing things. By contrast, a written or filmed tale is dead, nailed to the page or screen, unable to change or grow, fixed permanently as it was in a single telling. The audience is permitted to change and grow, so that their perspective on the tale can alter with time, but the actual creator of the tale is denied that. Even when it comes to crafting a sequel, audiences–“geek” or “cult” audiences notoriously so–demand continuity, which is to say they demand fealty to the tyrannical reign of dead stories. It is a wonder that more creators don’t rebel!
So Rebellion pays lip service to the series. All the events of the series clearly happened here and are given what the continuity-obsessed consider “respect,” which is to say the letter of the law “Thou shalt not contradict the events of earlier entries” is slavishly obeyed. Even the structure of the film apes the structure of the show: it splits neatly into three parts, the first of which establishes a pretense of being a “normal” magical girl show that abruptly falls apart in a violent confrontation with Mami. The second (which, admittedly, has a stronger overlap with the first than in the series) then follows a magical girl as she slowly comes to the realization that she is what she fights against, and has been a witch from the start. Finally the third involves a tremendous battle against a city-scale witch, after which reality is rewritten and a new order established.
However, where the series followed Madoka, the film follows Homura, and therein all the difference lies. Madoka is a patient, careful, but very optimistic character–she waits until the very end of the series to act, but when she does so, it is decisively, and with every intent of ending what she sees as the primary problem of her universe absolutely and with finality. Homura is cynical, headstrong, and confrontational; she flings herself into conflict after conflict, until finally her own mirror of Madoka’s actions is to create a world in which Homura’s primary problem–Madoka’s penchant for self-sacrifice–must be dealt with continually and continuously.
Even then, however, Homura does not act on her desire to undo Madoka’s sacrifice until very late in the movie, because up until that point she has no opportunity to do so. The character who is actually in rebellion against Madoka, and therefore against Madoka, for the majority of the film is Kyubey, who has orchestrated the entire situation in an attempt to usurp control of the Law of Cycles and bring back witches. It is worth remembering here that in many respects Kyubey is an (unusually unflattering) authorial stand-in, and as such it makes sense that his rebellion against Madoka is the creators’ Rebellion against Madoka.
Kyubey’s rebellion, however, is unsurprising–he is, after all, the villain of the series, and an unrepentant villain who is still around in the sequel can be assumed to at least try to resume their villainous role. Homura, by contrast, is spectacularly, obsessively loyal to Madoka, and so the film takes pains to meticulously lay out all the elements of her rebellion: She has motivation, in the form of her conversation among the flowers with Madoka and realization that she “never should have allowed” Madoka to sacrifice herself. She has inspiration, when Kyubey reveals that Madoka can choose to re-enter the world after all, and Sayaka reveals that Madoka’s Buddha-nature, her memories and powers as the Law of Cycles can be held in storage by another. And she has opportunity, when Madoka descends to take her life and prevent her from becoming a witch in the “real world”–as Kyubey says, that which can be perceived can be interfered with.
And so Homura rises as a devil-figure, tearing “God” from her heaven and bringing her down into the world. She is the ultimate bad girl, identified by Paradise Lost-quoting graffiti and Nietzsche-chanting, tomato-throwing familiars as Satan herself. She has claimed the labels “demon,” “evil,” and “enemy” for herself, and made clear that she plans to act them out–which brings us to yet another rebellion. But that’s another article for another time…