Note: This article is also available at Ideas Without End HERE
This article, much like my previous retrospectives on Code Geass and Gurren Lagann, is intended to provide a comprehensive look at a much-discussed series and consider it critically. The series in question this time is Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, originally aired in 2011. Madoka provides an atypical look at the crowded “magical girl” genre, a subgenre of superhero stories popular in Japan since the 1960s-70s which has come to encompass a number of expected elements – a mostly female cast of superheroines, usually of school age, having to balance their duties as costumed heroes with secret identities against their ordinary lives and the problems of daily school life.
Note: This article will obviously contain detailed discussion of this series’ plot developments. Do not read on if you are planning to watch it!
The essential storyline of Madoka begins in the vein of any other entry in its genre; an unassuming main character with many personal insecurities and domestic worries is given the opportunity to gain superpowers by a supernatural being – in this case the squirrel-like Kyubey. Madoka is unpretentious about this, plainly calling its superheroines “magical girls” and having them be visually redolent of many of the more recognisable entries in the genre (notably Cardcaptor Sakura). With the assistence of other heroines, in this case the professional and experienced Mami, she matures and eventually masters her powers.
However, from this first point Madoka diverges from expectations; while Mami is presented as an idealised, perfect heroine (physically more mature than Madoka and her friend Miki, able to fight without their help meaning that they do not need to become heroes themselves), it is suggested that things are not as they seem; while Mami is eager to have the girls gain power, other magical girls (usually part of a team who work together) tell them not to trust Kyubey – sowing enough doubt in Madoka’s mind that she holds off from accepting its “contract.” This, in fact, is refreshingly credible; rather than unthinkingly accepting unknown power and responsibility, Madoka is cynical enough to wait – or, as is similarly suggested, too indecisive to know what to wish for. That accepting Kyubey’s contract comes with the granting of a wish is also a curious reversal of a genre staple; normally the gift of power itself is presented as desirable (linked mostly within the genre to growing up) yet in Madoka the power is presented as a serious responsibility that must be sweetened with a wish being granted.
The reason for this is made clear very early on; Mami loses a fight, and dies. Being a superheroine is shown to carry with it genuine risk of death so some kind of compensation for what is effectively military service is understandable. While in most “magical girl” series it is the power granted that allows the heroine to address her personal issues, in Madoka the ability to resolve personal crises is the reward for risking one’s life. This immediately changes the dynamic between Kyubey and the girls it targets; by picking stock superhero candidates (the outcast, awkward and insecure) and offering a way to transcend this, the idea of sacrificing one’s ordinary life in exchange for the chance to solve problems seems more desirable. Were it simply offering a single wish to someone with a contented life in exchange for a life of mortal combat against supernatural beings, it would not have the same power.
That Madoka is not so far defined by insecurity that she needs this power at first means this contract is less appealing; even the death of Mami is not enough to make her impulsively accept. On the other hand, for Miki, it works perfectly. Miki is shown to have a friend unable to play the violin after an accident, and the combination of potentially being able to assist him and to avenge Mami’s death gives Kyubey leverage over her; while melodramatic sub-plots are again a genre staple (often resolved using the heroine’s abilities), here they are a defining criteria for selecting superheroes. Kyubey is immediately set as a completely amoral creature and it is this that makes Madoka genuinely interesting. His granting of wishes is shown to destroy lives (for Miki realises as she wishes for her friend to be healed she now cannot be with him, or even say it was her doing he recovered, for she is now a magical girl with the attendant secrecy and uncertain future) and the power he grants is not a clear-cut thing – it brings with it extreme limitations and signifianct chance of death. It is a refreshingly cynical take on the idea of creating superheroes; while the responsibility of power is a common theme within the wider genre, Madoka takes this further by having its omnipotent figure play on human self-interest and corrupting selflessness.
This sits interestingly alongside the idea of superheroes as a whole; the idea of extrajudicial social outsiders meting out justice based on personal moral judgements or the wishes of a secret organisation is in itself a difficult thing to swallow, and the way in which this pill is sugared is that the moral code of a superhero or the force he represents is incorruptible or at the least readily acceptable (Batman and Dexter taking on criminals with crime, Superman standing up for truth, justice and the American Way). What is presented in Madoka is immature, insecure girls being tricked into servitude of a creature that remains cagey with answers and ultimately lies outright if it suits it to.
When the only explanation of the reason why magical girls are needed thus comes from Kyubey, the whole question of heroism is thrown into doubt. Sayaka’s ultimate demise, being apparently corrupted and becoming a “witch” – the entities magical girls fight – at first appears to be an unfortunate but isolated incident – until Kyubey, in a closing monologue, explains to the viewer that “it’s only natural you would call someone who will grow into a witch a “magical girl.””
The revelation that apparently one being is responsible for the creation of heroes and the enemies they fight via a cycle where one becomes the other marks the point where Madoka gives up pretence of being a traditional superhero narrative. However, by this point Madoka herself has not become a magical girl and Kyubey is no longer trying to convince her to become one, instead destroying her psychologically by rationally explaining his plan. It transpires that he represents a completely amoral civilisation which gain power from the cycle of magical girls turning into witches, and the whole process of exploitation and emotional manipulation is intended to make the inevitable “fall” more tragic. This concept – of an inscrutable, emotionally uninvested observer creating conflict to gain some sustenance from it – almost embodies the appeal of superheroes. The reason for the conflict is immaterial; what matters is that the same story of empowerment and fall is repeated and repeated in subtly different ways each time.
Yet despite revealing his villainy, Kyubey maintains that Madoka will inevitably become a magical girl, and ultimately a witch – despite this making no sense to the viewer. The revelation of how this happens forms Madoka‘s second major arc and explains better her role in the story. While the story of Sayaka’s fall set up the concept of witches and the cycle Kyubey embodies, the second part continues to play with ideas of predestination. It is revealed that unless she becomes a magical girl, Madoka is unavoidably going to die on a fixed date and that the events that have been witnessed so far represent only one iteration of a time loop as another magical girl tries to defy this future. The story becomes a more standard time travel narrative at this point, building towards the inevitable conclusion that it must be Madoka who breaks the loop – not Akemi, the girl trying to save her. Each iteration of the timeline makes it harder to change anything yet if Akemi simply gives up, both her and Madoka will become witches.
The loop is broken in the final episode by Madoka becoming a magical girl; however, while Kyubey was able to trick Miki and Akemi into making selfless wishes he could easily corrupt (Miki’s desire to see her friend healthy without thinking about whether they could then be together, and Akemi’s desire to save Madoka from herself leading to her being stuck revisiting the last days of her life for eternity), all his efforts to break Madoka previously lead to her making a wish that cannot be corrupted in any way. Madoka simply wishes to be the only one who has to fight witches – breaking the cycle in a way which unequivocally defeats Kyubey at the expense of her own life. Previously in the series Kyubey has used the fear of being forgotten to convince others to become magical girls in order to “avenge” the dead (Mami and Miki) but this does not work against someone prepared to accept their own eradication for the sake of others.
Thus, Madoka ends by claiming that the only way to defy fate is to pre-empt it, not to try and evade it. Kyubey has been successful because he lies and leaves the potential for evading the inevitable open, and thus ensares people into making ever more complex deals to try and chase this. Madoka instead accepts what has to be done and outsmarts him – leading into the series’ cathartic epilogue. With Madoka having destroyed the cycle of magical girls turning into witches, Kyubey is powerless – but still needs to maintain the cycle of conflict that sustains his race. As a result, a new enemy needs to be created and this time the setup is a completely traditional magical girl one – inscrutable enemies, and a creature giving girls the power to fight them but now without the catch and inevitable corruption.
That the series ends with the establishment of the status quo of the superhero genre – endless ongoing fights with subtle variation for the appeasement of a distant audience – is telling, and I think what I liked the most about Madoka. The initial arc, focusing on Kyubey’s Faustian bargains and corruption of wishes, had an interesting concept but ultimately failed to make characters like Mami sympathetic or interesting enough to have the intended emotional power. It is the second arc, after Kyubey’s plan is revealed and the only logical resolution to his methods gradually made obvious, that really challenges the superhero genre and the viewer’s motivations for watching. “Dark” takes on heroism, and cynical questioning of the motives of heroes and their mentors, are increasingly common as the idea of noble outlaws fighting for the greater good becomes less universally accepted – and ultimately that is what the opening section of Madoka is.
However, that it then develops this via the plot device of a repeating timeline and the need for Kyubey to keep Akemi repeating her death in order to make Madoka’s eventual fall all the more powerful, makes it stand out. It is ultimately, I would say, a commentary on the efforts made within the superhero genre to keep recycling simple archetypes and broad-strokes characterisations in a little more of an extreme way each time to try and keep people interested past the point where inspiration has expired. It is significant, then, that Madoka ends with the status quo precisely as the viewer expected from episode 1 being established – despite the entire focus being on avoiding repetition and getting trapped in a cycle, ultimately it is the meaningless, iterative conflicts of the superhero genre that people want to keep seeing – and they will create new ways of doing the same thing if one no longer proves successful.