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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.
The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.
What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?
I had some more thoughts on Madoka Magica: Rebellion that I never found a place for in the spoilerful review, so here’s a second article. Spoilers below the cut!
One of the most prominent themes in Puella Magi Madoka Magica is decay. Entropy, obviously is a form of decay, and thus the magical girls/witches are presented as a weapon against decay. However, there are other forms of decay at work: the city steadily degrades over the course of the series, from the bright clean spaces of Episode 1 to the crumbling ruins of Episode 12. Most notably, the mental states of the magical girls themselves decay. This is most pronounced with Sayaka’s descent, but there’s plenty of hints that the other magical girls suffer from severe depression, such as the fountain of Prozac when Mami and Madoka have their heart-to-heart or the way Kyoko constantly eats her feelings. The entire point of the witch system is to get the magical girls to decay emotionally until they become witches; in a sense, all that Kyubey’s system does is shift entropy from the physical decay of the universe into the emotional decay of the girls.
This constant presence of decay ties neatly into the series’ Buddhist roots. The first of the Four Noble Truths (the core philosophical tenets of Buddhism) is the inevitability of dukkha, which translates roughly to suffering. There are three kinds of dukkha, the ordinary, obvious dukkha of illness, aging, and death; the anxious dukkha brought about by trying to hold on to things that are subject to time and therefore constantly changing, and the underlying dukkha inherent in all material things caused by their transience.
This last corresponds more-or-less directly to entropy, the principle that all material things must inevitably wind down. This inevitability of decay sounds like it ought to be a source of despair, but there are solutions. The primary Buddhist solution is detachment–to escape from this world is to escape the karmic cycle of inevitable despair. This is the door Madoka, in her role as the boddhisattva Kanon, opened for the magical girls at the end of the series. But is it the only solution? Is there no way to be happy within this transient world?
Western culture initially answers “no” as well. Christianity offers escape from this world to Heaven as its solution, with the added notion that at some future point God will destroy this world of suffering and replace it with a better one. However, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance a concept arose which gives an alternate path out of decay and despair: putrefaction.
Putrefaction is an alchemical concept, an alternate term for fermentation, but it came to refer to the way in which death and rot bring forth life. Consider a rotting piece of fruit. It is revolting to human senses, black and ugly and foul-smelling, but it is also a riotous explosion of new life such as mold and maggots. These in turn serve as nourishment for “higher” forms of life (remember that European alchemy takes the Aristotelian Great Chain of Being as a given), until ultimately even the most exalted creatures depend on rot for their existence.
This is more than just the life cycle of biology, it is one of the most profound spiritual teachings of the alchemists: Death brings forth life. Rot and creation are one and the same. Decay is evolution.
Or put another way, flowers bloom in cemeteries. One such flower is the red spider lily, a crown of which adorns Homura’s witch form. Because of its red color and the fact that, unlike most flowering plants, it loses its leaves before blossoming, it is associated with loved ones separated by fate and death, and frequently planted in cemeteries in China and Japan. The connection to Homura’s pain, separated from her beloved Madoka, is quite obvious.
However, the act of planting the flowers shows that one still acknowledges the lost loved one; love can endure where material existence has decayed away. Indeed, it is that love–originating in a destroyed universe–that brings Madoka back to Homura’s illusory world. With her she brings two other beings, Charlotte and Sayaka. Both return out of duty and loyalty to Madoka, but later state additional motivations.
Unsurprisingly, given that she has been obsessed with cheese throughout the film, Charlotte comes back for cheese. Cheese is an excellent symbol of putrefaction, being a delicious and nourishing substance that is at the same time essentially rotting milk.Charlotte is not alone in her motivations for return; all three of Madoka and her servants have returned for something valuable that emerged from decay. In the case of Madoka, it is her relationship with Homura, which evolved over the course of multiple timelines in which Madoka decayed from a bright, cheerful magical girl to the largely passive figure of the timeline showcased in the series, while Homura decays from timidity to being completely shut off. Sayaka, on the other hand, comes for her relationship with Kyoko, a relationship rooted in Kyoko’s attempts to reach Sayaka when the latter’s mental state was decaying rapidly.
This is a spoiler-laden review and initial analysis for a movie that so far has had only a limited theatrical release in English, and as such I am operating on the assumption that someone reading this both wants to see it and has not. As such, the actual review is behind a cut. As I said, it is spoilertastic. Consider yourself warned.
In Gnostic myth, the demiurge Ialdabaoth traps its creator, the divine spirit of wisdom Sophia, in the prison we know as material existence.
In Buddhist myth, the demon Mara uses the illusions and temptations of material existence to try to ensnare the would-be Buddha, and prevent the attainment of enlightenment.
Why do they do this? Normally it is assume d that they are simply evil (or in the case of Ialdabaoth, so wildly incompetent as to amount to the same thing). But maybe they have motivations, one that we might find sympathetic if only we could understand the feelings of such vast, cosmic beings. Maybe their motivations are even something we smaller creatures can understand, feelings we ourselves share.
In short, maybe they’re in love.
Throughout the first half of Rebellion, the main characters and their supporting cast are in what seems to be a far better world, for them. They are all happier than they were in the series: all five magical girls are alive and working together to easily take down Nightmares, Mami and Kyouko are no longer alone, Madoka and Homura are able to be friends as they were in the first timeline, and Sayaka is at peace with not getting the boy.
The downside is that no one outside this group is real, which makes sense for a world created by Homura; as I’ve argued before, she is the representative of in-group care ethics in the series, so of course her world only contains her in-group and a bunch of ciphers. Since the series is, arguably, Homura’s story, her in-group neatly maps on to the main and supporting characters from the series (though admittedly, she probably only drew in Madoka’s family, Hitomi, and Kyousuke because of their importance to Madoka and Sayaka).
The movie thus functions as a critique of that care ethos, balancing the critique of consequentialism in the series. Just as, in the series, Kyubey’s excessive consequentialism led him to be willing to torture and sacrifice young girls to stave off the heat-death of the universe, so is Homura willing to ignore the entire rest of the population of Mitadake City to make her friends happy–and that’s only in the first part. Depending on how one reads the remainder of the film after the battle with Homura’s witch form (apparently named Homulilly in supplementary materials), she may be risking the entire universe and overriding Madoka’s own choices in order to keep Madoka in the world she cherishes.
Put another way, Homura’s actions and descent into becoming a “demon” by the end of the film are based entirely on love. She takes care to craft the new world into one where the five magical girls can be happy, and in particular making it match as closely as possible the world Madoka treasures. She is acting entirely in accordance with her care ethos–but in the process is willing to become the living incarnation of evil, destroy the universe, and override Madoka’s preferences and choices for what Homura sees as Madoka’s own good. Just as Kyubey’s actions were correct from a consequentialist perspective and utterly monstrous from a care ethics, virtue ethics, or deontological perspective, Homura is acting correctly from a care ethics perspective and committing the worst possible violation of the others: risking universal catastrophe (consequentialism), becoming evil (virtue), and violating Madoka’s right to self-determination and agency (deontology).
This counterbalances the villainization of consequentialism in the series, because it is not that consequentialism is inherently wrong; rather, it’s that no meta-ethical approach is complete in itself. Excessive adherence to any one leads inevitably to becoming a moral monster in the eyes of the others; balancing them is the key to true morality.
This concept of balance is, of course, yet another way in which the series is intensely Buddhist. In the series, the Buddhist symbolism was mostly given to Madoka, whose story is that of the Bodhisattva Guan-yin (Japanese Kwannon (archaic) or Kanon) even as Homura’s story follows Goethe’s Faust (hence Homura being a transfer from a Christian school at the story’s beginning). In the movie, however, it is Homura’s turn to stand in for a Buddhist figure. As a weaver of illusions who creates a world to trap the Bodhisattva and make her forget her Buddhist nature, Homura is quite clearly the demon Mara, who attempts to do exactly that to the Buddha.
Like Mara, Homura fails; Madoka and the other magical girls ultimately break free of her barrier and return to reality, where Madoka reconnects to her ascended self. Here the series turns away from Buddhism and back to Christianity, and more specifically to the (now regarded as heretical) mystical system known as Gnosticism. Madoka now becomes identified with Sophia, stripped of her power and trapped within the material world by her own creation Ialdabaoth (admittedly, Demon Homura self-created, but used power stolen from Madoka to do it). As Ialdabaoth, Homura has taken up the role of guarding and sustaining the material universe by becoming the mistress of the Incubators.
But is Homura truly villainous now? Ialdabaoth certainly is, being ultimately responsible for all evil and suffering in Gnostic mythology. Gnosticism, however, is firmly world-denying; it opposes Ialdabaoth to Christ, who in Gnosticism is a purely non-human entity from outside material reality who enters it with the goal of liberating Sophia and all human souls from Ialdabaoth’s trap. Or, looking at it another way, he’s an inhuman alien being from an incomprehensible plane outside our universe that wants to destroy the world, rip out all our souls, and carry them back to his realm. In other words, if one regards the material universe as completely corrupt and worthless, Ialdabaoth is a cosmic evil; if one regards the material universe as being good, Christ is a Lovecraftian horror and Ialdabaoth our only protection from it.
Is there any hint that the movie might lean toward the latter perspective? To an extent there is. First, there’s the fact that the new reality is just that, a reality. The series has habitually used changes in art style to denote the illusory realms of the witch’s barriers, and the first half of the movie is no exception–even before Homura begins to figure out that the city is a fake, there are quite a few intrusions of other art into the false city. Despite that the new reality is shown as forming when Homura’s witch’s barrier expands to cover the entire cosmos, it is depicted consistently in the art style of the characters, with the few appearances of witch’s familiars only appearing at Homura’s command and self-erasing almost immediately. It is thus a real thing that Ialdabaoth/Homura is working to protect.
Second, Homura has had extensive character development by this point. Despite her declarations that she is now alone and taking on the role of everyone’s enemy, it is clearly just a role–she still arranges the new reality to be kinder and better for them than any previous universe. She worked alone throughout the series, but at the climax of the movie she demonstrates that she has learned to trust others–she knows that becoming a witch in close proximity to a depowered Madoka will not put Madoka at risk, because she trusts Mami and Kyouko to kill her. This is a Homura who can trust and work with others, who tries to bring some happiness, who has even managed to expand her in-group beyond Madoka to include other friends and allies–she is neither a monster nor a mindless gibbering incompetent, the two traditional depictions of Ialdabaoth. She is, in her interactions with Madoka, once again much closer to Mara, deliberately acting to keep Madoka focused on the world and away from connecting with her Buddha-nature.
Homura, in other words, has not fallen. She is not Lucifer, trying to usurp the power of God and as a result transforming into a creature of pure evil. Homura is a complex character, not a cosmic force such as Madoka became at the end of the series; she is not the incarnation of Love or Evil or anything else, but a person, who has made choices good, bad, and arguable, and now must live and work with the consequences of those choices.
Despite that she has done everything wrong from the perspective of most moral systems, she has also done everything right. From a consequentialist perspective, yes, she destroyed the universe, but now she is the universe’s protector. From a deontological perspective, yes, she overrode Madoka’s choices from the end of the series, but at the same time she has kept the goal Madoka sought intact while allowing Madoka to continue to exist as an incarnate person–she has, in other words, enabled Madoka (and Sayaka and Nagisa, for that matter) to regain their lost agency and capacity for self-determination. In terms of virtue ethics, yes, she embodies Evil now–but also she embodies Love, which most systems regard as being a virtue worth cultivating. And finally, from a universal care ethics perspective, she is helping to maintain the system Madoka established and holds the Incubators in check.
Devil and saint, good and evil, concept and character, demiurge and struggling young woman; Homura is an embodiment of contradictions and opposites, proving ultimately that all these seemingly disparate concepts are really one. It’s hard to get more Buddhist (or, for that matter, postmodern) than that.
So that happened.
I think the best review of Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie 3: Rebellion is the reaction of the theater audience when I saw it: As the credits rolled, they erupted in an outburst of confusion, denial, and outrage. Slowly this died away to silence, and then, after a few minutes, slow clapping started, which accelerated into uproarious applause.
It’s that kind of movie.
Visually, it was of course stunning, combining all the elements that made the TV series so striking and then transcending them. Yuki Kajiura’s music was likewise outstanding, as it was in the series. And it managed both shocking moments on par with the ending of episode 8 of the TV series, battle sequences that easily topped the spectacle of episode 11, and punch-the-air moments on par with episode 12.
I will say that, like the series, it was heavily cryptic. Not ambiguous or confusing (this is Madoka, not Evangelion), but encoded to mean something very different to people who recognize its allusions as opposed to those who do not. However, the allusions are not actually that hard–having read Paradise Lost, and being rather shallowly familiar with Buddhist and Gnostic mythology was enough for me to not share in the rest of the audience’s outburst–instead, I found this a satisfying, appropriate, more-or-less happy conclusion to the series, and am perfectly content for it to end here. On the other hand, if they’re going to continue producing something this good, I have no objection to there being another movie or TV season.
Note: As this is the spoiler-free review, any comments which contain spoilers will be deleted as a courtesy to readers who did not get to see the movie (the availability of which is still quite limited in the English-speaking world) and wish to. If you want to make spoiler-y comments, wait until Wednesday, when my spoilery review and initial analysis will go up.
This post is adapted from the script for Latin Latin Madoka More Latin 2: Thermodynamic Boogaloo, a panel Viga and I presented at Anime Boston 2013. As an adapted panel, it has a rather different structure than my usual essays; also note that some portions are repurposed chunks of the original Latin Latin Madoka More Latin, although most of the content is new.
As promised in the title, we start with that most exciting of topics, thermodynamics. Woo. You may have heard economics referred to as “the dismal science.” Well, bullshit. The real dismal science is thermodynamics, as witness the three basic laws of thermodynamics:
- Energy is conserved. You can never create or destroy energy, only change it from one form to another. You can’t win.
- Entropy increases in a closed system. In other words, energy in a closed system becomes more disorganized and less usable (which is to say, it becomes waste heat) until ultimately everything breaks down in what’s called “heat death.” You can’t break even.
- Entropy drops to zero in a perfect crystal at absolute zero. But the closer you get to absolute zero, the more energy it takes to get closer, and it would take infinite energy to actually reach it. You can’t quit playing the game.
Note that the second law applies to a closed system. If you have an open system—one where energy can come in from outside—entropy doesn’t have to increase. For example, life on Earth doesn’t need to worry much about entropy, because we’ve got a big ol’ giant fusion reactor hanging over our heads, pouring energy onto us.
The problem is that the universe is a closed system, and there’s no “outside” to get energy from—that’s kind of what “universe” means. The universe itself WILL eventually run down into heat death, reaching a state of perfect disorder, a vast cloud of undifferentiated, gradually expanding and cooling gas. Of course, if you could create energy from nothing, that would be basically the same as importing it from outside the universe, but that requires breaking the first law.
Oh, and just to be extra fun—these are the most experimentally confirmed and reconfirmed findings in science. Not even gravity has as much empirical support as these three laws—they are as close to absolutely certain facts as any science can be. And extra, extra fun—Emmy Noether did some very impressive math and proved more than a century ago that “energy isn’t conserved” is a synonym for “the laws of physics change over time.” That’s not a whole lot better—avoiding heat death might not be worth it if it means gravity just randomly turns off some days!
That’s what the Incubators are trying to change, and it turns out that the laws of physics can briefly change or be broken (which is mathematically identical to being able to make energy from nothing!) when magical girls do their thing, and especially when they become witches.
But there’s more to entropy in Madoka than the science…
The theme of decay is everywhere in this series. You can see it in the way Mitakihara City starts clean and beautiful, but ends up ruined by Walpurgisnacht. You can see it in Sayaka’s descent from happy kid—the most playful of Madoka’s trio of friends—and warrior of justice to depression, murder, despair, and ultimately becoming a witch.
It’s also in the way Homura’s every attempt to turn back the clock and fix things makes them worse. In the first timeline Mami and Madoka die fighting Walpurgisnacht, but Walpurgisnacht is defeated and no new witch created. In all other timelines Mami doesn’t live that long, not to mention Madoka becoming a progressively worse witch at the end of each timeline until the fifth.
But the biggest example is the way the characters’ wishes turn against them. They each get what they wanted—Kyubey always honestly fulfills the wish—but soon find that they regret it anyway. Once gained, the thing they desired quickly sours—Kyoko’s father commits murder-suicide, Sayaka saves the boy but loses him to another, Mami survives but finds herself isolated as a friendless orphan, and Homura eventually realizes her attempts to protect Madoka are just increasing her suffering. Everything they wish for rots away.
This theme of entropy or the inevitability of decay is an important factor of Buddhist thought, which is a huge influence on Madoka. Buddhism uses the existence of decay to argue that this world is corrupt and corrupting, an illusion that must be seen past, or else it will use your desires—your wishes—to lure you in, and then trap you when the things you wished for inevitably decay.
Kyubey also talks about karma a lot. 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). And 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. Note that Walpurgisnacht is both where Homura always resets time—binding herself and Madoka more tightly—and where Madoka ascends to goddesshood.
Because, of course, that ascension has a strong Buddhist element, too…
Madoka resembles a figure from Buddhist mythology, the bodhissatva Kwannon. 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, and eventually fused them into a single goddess, the cult of Maria-Kwannon.
Madoka resonates with Kanon quite strongly. Like Kanon, she is an incarnation of compassion and hope, sacrificing herself through all of time and space to help bring others to the same heaven she has attained. Kanon can see Nirvana, but holds herself back from that perfection—how much must that hurt? And she is at every point in time and space, sacrificing herself eternally to ensure everyone else can be with her. That’s pretty much what Madoka does in the final episode.
There’s also Marian elements to Madoka, which makes sense if Madoka, Kanon, and Mary are all versions of the same ideal goddess of compassion, hope, and salvation. For example, the rose is a symbol of Mary, and Madoka has a rose on her bow that blooms when she begins to ascend. The show is also a retelling of Faust (as we covered in detail last year), and Madoka fulfills the roles of both Gretchen (who ends up serving Mary in the afterlife) and Mary in that story.
Finally, the music Kyosuke plays when Madoka and Sayaka watch him in the final episode is Ave Maria, a musical setting of the Latin prayer known to English speakers as “Hail Mary,” requesting Mary to ask for the forgiveness of the person making the prayer.
Moving on to something completely different…
Madoka is a clear example of postmodernism in anime. Postmodernism, as a philosophical and artistic movement, is mostly interested in the ways in which we construct meaning. Postmodern art, generally speaking, is art that deliberately calls attention to the way in which it constructs its meaning; where most art tries to hide the technique and create an illusion of reality, postmodern art demands that you notice its artificiality. The main technique by which it does this is to strip signifiers out of their normal context and then treat them as if they’ll still work anyway. The simplest example is breaking the fourth wall, which pulls the work out of its normal context of existing entirely in an imaginary world, and smashes it against our own reality.
None of the characters in Madoka break the fourth wall to come out of the show, but the witches break it in the other direction—their barriers are in a different art style, and the characters notice and are freaked out by this. It’s the fourth wall breaking into the show instead of out—one of the elements of the show that we’re normally supposed to ignore according to that vile “suspension of disbelief” idea is actually a part of the story.
Another way in which the show calls attention to the way it and other works construct meaning is by bringing up, and then dismissing, common magical-girl generic elements. In essence, it does for magical girls what Neon Genesis Evangelion did for mecha; what fans tend to call a genre deconstruction, though an actual deconstruction is something very different. What Madoka and Eva do is take common elements of the genre and play 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, for instance: 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 shonen 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.
The question, of course, is why Madoka is playing with the form and genre like this. And the answer seems to be that it’s trying to reach beyond itself, to break the fourth wall in a novel way—not the wall between work and reader, but between work and author.
The truth is, I haven’t always been this way. I have often written pieces that didn’t have a perfect ending, but by the last chapter the protagonist would still possess a belief that “Although there will be many hardships to come, I still have to hold on.”
But ever since I don’t know when, I can no longer write works like this.
I have nothing but contempt for the thing men call happiness, and have had to push the characters I poured my heart out to create into the abyss of tragedy.
For all things in the world, if they are just left alone and paid no attention, are bound to advance in a negative direction.
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.
By having the non-diegetic space of art style invade the diegetic space of the characters’ awareness, a bridge is formed between inside the story and outside. By raising and dismissing generic elements, Urobuchi can stress-test them, and discover how strong they really are. In short, by redeeming her universe Madoka can prove to Urobuchi that he still has the power to write a happy ending; she has redeemed not only her universe but her creator.
In this sense, the series serves as a leap of faith for Urobuchi. The leap of faith is originally from theology, and originates with “Lessing’s Ditch,” which posited that there is no way to make a rational, evidence-based argument for Christianity, but it can be generalized to any moral belief system. Basically, Lessing’s Ditch argues that the is-ought problem—that there is no way to logically get from “here’s how things are” to “this is what you should do” unless you start having some kind of beliefs already—is insurmountable; you cannot ever know what action to take or what to believe in based on facts or evidence alone, but must have some kind of moral principles or values you take on faith. Kierkegaard then took this a step forward by introducing the “leap of faith”—though he originally called it the leap to faith–the idea that, upon reaching the ditch, one can consciously choose to leap across. That, in other words, one must make a decision to believe in something before one can make any other meaningful decisions.
This is exactly Urobuchi’s problem that he tackles in Madoka: he is aware of the nature of the physical universe, and it leaves him paralyzed, in despair, unable to write anything but misery. In Madoka, he creates something he can believe in, and now can take action—even though, ultimately he created his belief, leapt to faith.
Speaking of morality, we’re going to wrap up by discussing the characters as examples of different approaches to morality, starting with Kyoko. Kyoko is a hedonist; she lives for pleasure. Originally she pursues immediate gratification like food and games. At this stage she is completely selfish, willing to sacrifice people to familiars so they’ll grow into witches and provide her with Grief Seeds. However, her interactions with Sayaka slowly leads her to become less selfish, and to start to crave more enduring pleasures such as friendship. Ultimately, she dies betraying her own principles, acting entirely selflessly as she sacrifices herself not even to save someone, but just to ensure that Sayaka is not alone.
Mami is hard to place, but she may be a deontologist—that is, someone who follows a set of rules, principles, duties, and rights in determining right and wrong. In particular, she seems to be driven largely by a sense of duty. However, she has so little screen time it’s hard to be sure.
Sayaka is a study in virtue ethics—that is, instead of following a set of rules or principles, she tries to act consistently with certain virtues or follow the example of some ideal person. She basically has a picture in her head of what a hero is like, and she tries to imitate that image. However, because she is fixated on imitating something that isn’t her, she loses sight of her own needs, and falls into despair. She is unable to cope when her self-image doesn’t match reality, first when she learns she’s basically a zombie, and later when she appears to have murdered the two misogynistic jerks on the train.
Kyubey is a utilitarian; he believes that the right thing is what does the most good for the most people. This leads him to conclude that it’s okay to cause great suffering for a few people and to treat others as livestock instead of people, and this leads directly to his downfall: Because he didn’t care, it never even occurred to him (or his people) to try to find some other way of circumventing entropy, or even just to get the full informed consent of the magical girls! He doesn’t understand why humans value such things, but he clearly knows that they do, or else he wouldn’t know which information to keep secret until after the contract is done. But because things like respecting the values of others, obtaining consent, and being honest are not factors in a utilitarian decision, which only ever considers what creates the greatest benefits, he creates a situation in which Madoka rewrites reality and forces him into a less efficient path to saving the universe.
Madoka and Homura are two approaches to care ethics. For both of them, right and wrong are emotionally determined; we see both of them carefully considering their options, but that consideration is not purely rational; it’s a combination of reason and feeling, and compassion and empathy for others are key parts of their motivation. Both of them value other people as individuals; the main difference is that Homura practices an in-group care ethics, where she only cares about the people closest to her, while Madoka cares about and feels empathy for everyone she meets. This is key, because ultimately compassion, empathy, and hope become cosmic forces. Madoka, of all the characters, is the one who comes across as the most moral, because she wants to make people happy—not in the utilitarian sense of clinical, detached decision making, but in the sense of wanting to know the people she encounters and put an individually crafted smile on each of their faces.
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.