“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” -Harvey Dent
Before we begin, I’ll refer to Puella Magi Madoka Magica (Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica in Japan; literally “Magical Girl Madoka of the Magnus”) as Madoka Magica for brevity. Madoka Magica seems as far removed from the realm of anime that I may typically watch. However, closer inspection finds that Madoka Magica is immensely enjoyable; armed with a compelling story, visuals that might be more at home in a nightmare and music that evokes an aura of fear or wonder, Madoka Magica is built around Madoka Kaname’s life and how radically it changes once magic and miracles are introduced into her life. The series’ nature is not immediately apparent after the first few episodes: Madoka’s world appears cheerful and brightly coloured, and her life is filled with happiness. However, there are subtle hints that this world is superficial, whether it be the presence of sinister industrial complexes or distant skyscrapers, suggesting that appearances alone are an insufficient determinant of how things operate in their world. Moreover, when Mami shows up to lend Madoka and Sayaka a helping hand in the first episode, she plays her role as a magical girl with the hope and idealism as magical girls typically do. The sense of happiness and peace is thus, abruptly and immediately shattered when she is decapitated and consumed by a witch in front of Madoka and Sayaka, the monstrous entities that sew seeds of discord on Earth. The witches’ origins are likewise presented: Mami simply explains that they cause unexplained deaths and disappearances, which imparts on Madoka and Sayaka a black-and-white view (simply, the witches are evil, and the magical girls are good). Following Mami’s death, the atmosphere darkens considerably, as the source of the conflict is revealed. Kyubey explains to the girls that make the contract to become magical girls that emotion drives an unexplained energy source: neither the girls’ ally or enemy, he simply acts out of necessity, withholding information and resulting in much suffering from the girls’ end. There are, simply put, a lot of details in Madoka Magica, that breath complexity into the storyline: while it’s not exactly clear what’s going on at times, the chaotic and tumbling nature of the plot succeeds in drawing the viewer’s interest. When things are revealed with Homura’s story, suddenly, everything falls into place. There is too much to discuss concerning the plot in a single passage; for the present, I will say that very few anime can make a plot this compelling within a twelve-episode span and give it a story that is satisfying to watch in such a small time-frame. Madoka Magica capitalises on its length and makes the most of it to produce an interesting story that allows its viewers to keep up, without leaving them in the dust.
- Hitomi, Madoka and Sayaka, during the opening episode. What initially begins as a clean, pleasant world quickly gives way to a world that is clearly as troubled as Gotham City. Madoka’s hair ribbons act as an important plot device here: her mother, Junko, mentions that looking good is a core part of being female, for appearance identifies the individual. This post is a thirty-image special, and took forever to write. Moreover, it’s been two years since Madoka Magica was released, so I will assume that spoilers are not a problem. If spoilers are a problem, this is a fine time to hit that ‘back’ button on your browser.
- Contrasting the real world, the barriers projected by the witches are crude, chaotic and frightening. These barriers are said to draw inspiration from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, a tragic play concerning the risks and dangers of seeking forbidden knowledge. In the context of Madoka Magica, this ‘forbidden knowledge’ is the power associated with being a magical girl.
- Madoka and Sakaya enjoy tea with Mami, a veteran magical girl and a third-year student at Madoka’s school. She lives alone in a penthouse after the death of her parents in a car accident, during which she was only able to survive by contracting with Kyubey to save her own life. Her magical abilities revolve around yellow ribbons, which can suspend enemies and be manipulated to produce nearly infinite amounts of Tanegashima-like flintlock rifles, as well as also possessing healing magic. Mami is particularly focused on saving those around her, with a traditionally selfless perspective on the role of magical girl, and has a habit of giving names to her finishing attacks.
- Some reviewers believe that Madoka Magica puts its characters into situations that evoke a plot with intellectual value. Madoka Magica, however, does not have any scholarly worth with respect to depicting how the girls’ experiences and personalities are supposed to reflect on the issues that challenge either present or past societies. In other words, the anime cannot be studied to provide more detail about a particular aspect of humanity that is relevant to the society in which it was produced.
- Mami’s weapons are fantastic in nature, but on the virtue of doing its intended task, can be considered both cool and practical. The entire notion of anime having scholarly value is largely a misconception that some fans possess- that anime is intellectually stimulating is probably a justification used to defend one’s interests in anime. Instead, anime that dives deeper into human nature might be said to have literary value in that the plot, associated characterisations and symbol represent something significant about the narrative itself. In this case, the ideas the work present become significant within the context of the work and may have implications about human nature.
- With this concise argument in mind, I do not believe that Madoka Magica says anything about our present society or its beliefs, but rather, it is a work that touches on how ordinary humans might reasonably react to the possibility of magic and miracles, as well as the curses and attendant despair that it brings.
- The reason why I decided to talk about Madoka Magica all in one go rather than do my traditional “first episode review” is because this anime was so captivating that I immediately watched the first three episodes in one go and then picked off the remainder of the over the course of a week.
- Looks can be deceiving: this witch outright shreds Mami despite appearing the most “normal” of all the witches that will be seen in the series. For readers up to the challenge, the manga decides to show its readers what exactly happens to Mami. It’s not as bad as it looks :p
- Madoka Magica balances out the extraordinary with glimpses into the girls’ daily lives, skillfully illustrating how what was once an ideal world gradually is replaced by the macabre and supernatural.
- This image captures the clean, minimalistic and impersonal environments in Madoka Magica.
- Homura’s motivations for dissuading Madoka from becoming a witch are not elaborated upon early onwards: her cold demeanor puts her at odds with Sayaka immediately.
- After Sayaka contracts with Kyubey (her wish being to heal Kyousuke’s hand), she decides to take a white knight approach to being a magical girl.
- Kyousuke and Sakaya: the latter constantly visits the former in hospital. He used to be a violin player, but an accident crippled him and destroyed the feeling in his fingers, making him unable to play an instrument again. Sayaka uses her wish to cure his hand, allowing him to play the violin once more. Despite this, he inevitably ends up dating Hitomi, which causes Sayaka to fall into despair and turn into a witch.
- As a magical girl, Sayaka’s weapon of choice is a cutlass, being able to produce multiples of them at a time. She also has an extraordinary regenerative ability due to the healing nature of her wish. Sayaka insists that her wish is selfless and feels that fighting witches to save people is a bonus, even after witnessing Mami’s death.
- Apparently, I’m really weak where alcohol is concerned, and its effects are rather more troublesome than the problems I’m likely to face. Thus, I contend that alcohol is, for me, an ineffectual means of dealing with things.
Contrasting almost all previous Mahou Shoujo anime, Madoka Magica does away with all of the idealism and optimism of other anime in its lineage, instead, approaching the Mahou Shoujo genre with a more gritty, realistic approach not dissimilar to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Triology. Whereas the previous Batman installments were more whimsical, Nolan’s Dark Knight emphasises the human aspect of the superhero genre, illustrating that the Batman is not invulnerable (in both a physical and emotional sense). To raise an example, in The Dark Knight, it is not Batman, but Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who is impacted after Rachel Dawes’ (Maggie Gyllenhaal) death. Batman is a symbol, and magical girls are symbols representing hope, but taking up the role comes at an immense cost to those who choose to do so. Homura becomes a magical girl after Madoka is annihilated in a previous timeline, forcing herself to relive a time period to try and save her, despite repeated failures. Sayaka’s wish to restore Kyousuke’s capacity to play the violin eventually saps her of her resolve when she realises that her body is a shell; paired with her despair at losing Kyousuke to her friend, Hitomi, she becomes a witch herself. We draw the parallel with Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) fall, where Dent turns to chaos as fair after Rachel is killed as a consequence of the Joker’s (Heath Ledger) machinations. The quote at the top of the page definitely captures that, as Kyubey reveals that specifically, magical girls becoming witches is precisely what provides his people with a power supply. This aspect is unexpected, raising the stakes in that all of the magical girls, the “good guys”, inevitably end up dying in combat or last long enough becomes witches. These distinctly human character means that the heroes remain believable, that they might be capable of the supernatural, but are nonetheless human. This turn to “realistic” heroes is a welcome one, and after Nolan’s reboot of the Batman continuity, it is quite welcome to see this approach being directed towards magical girl anime, a genre previously characterised by an overwhelmingly optimistic and sparkly design.
- After learning that her soul is no longer in her body, but in her soul gem, making her believe that she is a zombie, while her friend Hitomi competes for the love of Kyousuke, she falls into isolation and refuses all help.
- Kyouko is a veteran magical girl who comes to the city following Mami’s death. Her distinguishing features include long red hair, twin fangs and a voracious appetite, almost never being seen without food. Here, she recollects her past to Sayaka: having came from a poor church family, she used her wish so that people would listen to her father’s preaching. When her father learned of this, however, he went mad and killed everyone in his family aside from Kyouko. As such, Kyōko decided only to use her magic for herself from this point on, since using it for others will only cause despair.
- “Endure, Sayaka. Take it. They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point of being a magical girl, she can be the outcast. She can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice.”
- Sayaka eventually succumbs to the same kind of despair that turned Gotham’s White Knight from being the face of hope to being chaos. One of the most haunting moments in the anime occurs where Sayaka takes on a witch with a sort of feral enthusiasm that stands in stark contrast to what the traditional magical girl is about.
- Sayaka and Homura might be considered to be the tragic heroes in their story. Kyouko’s role became a more respectable one after her backstory, and here, shares Madoka’s pain. Kyouko eventually is forced to take on Oktavia von Seckendorff is Sayaka’s witch form. Her Labyrinth is filled with calls for attention (likely to Kyousuke Kamijou). In a brutal battle, Kyouko is forced to self-destruct to take Sayaka down.
- Following Kyouko’s death, viewers are given the full story concerning how everything has come to be. After this episode, I found that Madoka Magica might be ill-named, seeing as Homura could be considered as the true protagonist, having set in motion all of the events in the anime.
- After seeing Homura’s cold, emotionless demeanor, the story behind how she had come to be her present self was most welcome. We have an entire episode devoted to exploring this story; I’m glad we got an episode to see how things came into play, but even if this were done over two episodes, I’m certain it would have allowed for even more to come to fruition.
- This is the barrier projected by Patricia, a witch that Homura fights alongside Mami and Madoka. Contrasting all of the previous barriers so far, her visions are of a school in an eternal sky, suggesting that her greatest desire was to live a bright and happy youth.
- Mami may have been the most composed of all the magical girls, but only because she never knew the truth about the Soul Gems. In the third of the previous timelines, she finds herself unable to accept their fate, attempting to kill all the magical girls, including herself, in order to prevent their eventual transformation into witches.
- In the second and third past timelines, Madoka and Homura are able to defeat the Walpurgis Night, but Madoka transforms into an even more powerful witch in the second, and by the third timeline, Madoka asks Homura to mercy-kill her to prevent such a fate from transpiring.
- As the Walpurgis Night approaches, Madoka slowly comes to terms what is happening and, after convincing Junko to let her save Homura, makes her wish with the full knowledge of what happens to magical girls and an equally strong latent capacity for magic.
- If viewers had not done so before Homura’s recollections, observing her near-obsessive desire to produce a good ending and the ensuing suffering she subjects herself to by reliving the same period of her life repeatedly should draw the viewer’s sympathy.
- Despite unloading enough firepower on Walpurgis Night to sink a battle cruiser, Homura’s efforts come short. Madoka will arrive on the scene, and upon making her wish (“I wish to erase all witches from existence before they’re even born. Every witch in the universe, from the past and the future, with my own hands”), proceeds to take down the Walpurgis Night in a single shot.
- Whereas Amuro Ray simply disappeared after the Nu Gundam produced an Axis Shock, Madoka is clearly seen after her wish is fulfilled. She destroys her witch form and rebuilds the laws of her universe to her image, clearing up any paradoxes and inconsistencies that may have arisen as a result of Homura’s constant resetting of time.
- This last scene on Blu Ray made me immensely thankful that I was afforded some peace when watching this. Before parting ways with Homura, Madoka reassures her that things will be okay, and gives her one of the ribbons from the first episode. After helping the others come to terms with their fate, she moves on, while the remaining magical girls fight demons that produce the same energy for the incubators.
The last few episodes to Madoka Magica stretch things further, so I find it necessary to bring Char’s Counterattack to the table. For the unfamiliar, in Char’s Counterattack, Amuro Ray’s Nu Gundam produces a phenomenon called the Axis Shock as Amuro’s emotions and desperation to save Earth from collision with the Axis asteroid causes his Gundam’s psychoframe to resonate, pushing the asteroid back and causing both Amuro and Char Aznable to disappear. At the climax to Madoka Magica, Madoka disappears after defeating the Walpurgis Night to fulfill the parameters she outlined in her wish. This ending is not the traditional ‘happily ever after’ one we’ve come to expect from magical girl anime, reminding viewers that the world is unfair, and that sometimes, sacrifices are what is necessary to maintain balance. The mechanisms for Madoka’s capacity to make such a wish are neatly explained in Homura’s back-story, setting things up nicely for the finale and tying together loose ends from the beginning of the anime. A solid, moving story, coupled with characters that are as human as I’ve seen, meant that every episode managed to give me the chills at some point. I’ve heard that some anime reviewers were moved to tears by some of the things they’ve seen in this anime, and I understand why. When everything is said and done, we have here a magical girl anime that is serious and realistic: things don’t magically resolve themselves at the end of the day, and people who strive towards an ideal may find disappointment in the fact that their efforts alone may not be fruitful. These elements contribute to my final verdict: Puella Magi Madoka Magica has elements that make it suited for almost anyone’s interests.
It has been awhile since you wrote this, but could you please articulate as to what you meant (or mean, if your opinion hasn’t changed) when you state that PMMM (the series, specifically) doesn’t haven’t scholarly value? It sounds like you’re trying to say that PMMM cannot fit any societal context in such a way that it can give meaningful and new commentary on human existence, yet you don’t define the phrase.
Just to repost the passages for scrolling’s sake:
“Some reviewers believe that Madoka Magica puts its characters into situations that evoke a plot with intellectual value. Madoka Magica, however, does not have any scholarly worth with respect to depicting how the girls’ experiences and personalities are supposed to reflect on the issues that challenge either present or past societies. In other words, the anime cannot be studied to provide more detail about a particular aspect of humanity that is relevant to the society in which it was produced.”
“…Instead, anime that dives deeper into human nature might be said to have literary value in that the plot, associated characterisations and symbol represent something significant about the narrative itself. In this case, the ideas the work present become significant within the context of the work and may have implications about human nature.”
Other than that, this was a pleasant and careful review. I was thinking of the philosophical implications the series has regarding wish-making, and it isn’t as if one cannot apply new (and relevant) new contexts to flesh out meaning in any show, hence my response to the “lacking scholarly value” phrase. Relevance of external contexts, of course, is determined by the anime itself. Multiple scholarly analyses of the show have made that apparent, just so you know.
The date stamp shows that I wrote this review nearly two years ago; I recall writing the figure captions as a reaction piece after watching the anime once, and the rationale for my claims were that other reviewers (and entire anime communities) blowing the Madoka Magica out of proportion. Where I saw a clever use of symbols to convey an idea (for instance, Sayaka’s desires manifest as music-related elements), some fans seem to believe that Madoka Magica made a substantial, novel contribution to the discipline philosophy. Before I go about addressing your query in full, I hope you don’t mind that I’ve merged your comments together: this is purely for the sake of organisation, and I hope that I haven’t diminished your meaning in any way. With that being said, let’s get to the meat-and-potatoes of this here discussion 🙂
When I stated that Madoka Magica was intrinsically lacking in scholarly value, I was referring specifically to the idea that all of the existing analysis out there is really just critical discussion, in which the writer attempts to rationalise the actions and motives of individual characters within Madoka Magica. Thus, what fans are really doing is literary analysis focuses on usage of existing ideas to interpret a work. Conversely, I view something as having academic value when it is driven by research: existing knowledge is integrated with novel ideas with the aim of advancing a discipline and ultimately, society as a whole. An academic approach towards studying Madoka Magica would therefore strive to figure out how each of the philosophical elements (e.g. Faust, Jeremy Bentham, Hegelianism, Utilitarianism, Determinism, Free Will, Death Drive, to name a few), when taken together, yield insights as what Gen Urobuchi is saying about contemporary society.
There is a deep-seated belief in the community that the inclusion of different references to philosophies in Madoka Magica yields a narrative that paints a novel, compelling view of society in such manner as to motivate people to conduct themselves with the aim of improving it. Unfortunately, they seem unaware that Madoka Magica has not done this adequately: the unique combination of philosophical elements in Madoka Magica is not worth studying from the perspective of someone who would be trying to see what the anime implies about the current state of our world, because they do not fit together for that purpose. Instead, the various philosophical elements ultimately provide clues and insights into the backgrounds and attributes of the different characters, playing on the viewer’s ethos and pathos to enhance the anime’s impact: the more involved aspects in Madoka Magica contribute to its effectiveness as a story and to the audience’s connection to the characters, but contributes very little towards the commentary on the human condition as a whole.
I’ve taken a look in my university’s library and academic databases, but was unable to find any journal or conference publications about Madoka Magica. If Madoka Magica were to be worth studying, a journal or conference would presumably understand what Madoka Magica contributes to understanding of society through media and have accepted such a publication. As noted earlier, academic and critical discussion are quite different. A vast majority of contemporary anime (2001-present) about more serious topics make use of philosophy to further an individual’s characterisation and development, rather than to illustrate a point pertaining to society. As such, I find that many anime out there are quite conducive of yielding excellent critical discussion and literary analysis, but lack the qualities that make them meritorious of academic discussion. An example of a film that does have academic value is Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, where the unifying theme of society’s progression at the environment’s expense is directly relevant to contemporary society.
It’s certainly been a long time since the last comment here, but just on the off chance you might still be interested in the topic…
One think I thought was interesting about Madoka Magica in precisely the sense you call “academic”, i.e. as a commentary on human condition, and from which one might learn more about the society in which Madoka Magica was created, is the clear relation the show establishes between hope and despair, and the depiction of depression and despair as ‘witchification’. It seemed to me to be not only an apt metaphor — the depressed person ‘builds walls (= labyrinth)’ around himself and keeps reliving the same traumatic events/topics over and over ‘inside’ said walls (= labyrinth), while now becoming dangerous to others (friends, strangers, good Samaritans) who might approach the depressed person with good intentions — but also to contain more: an actual depiction of stages and processes in the act of falling into depression (it made me realize, for instance, that there are more types of depressive states than I had previously thought) that stresses the connection between (a) external event, (b) individual choices, and (c) human psychology and feelings (desires, wishes, truth and self-knowledge, pulsions, love/hate). I would imagine there is some room for exploring what this show is saying about this topic in scholarly research.
You do mention the absence of scholarly papers on Madoka Magica; but, being myself a scholar (albeit of a different field, linguistics), I wonder if this absence might not reflect aspects of the sociology of the field, such as which topics/sources/genres attract more attention from researchers and which are considered ‘less important.’ Promising topics that weren’t taken up by any researcher for reasons other than their actual worth are not unknown in my field.
From a literary standpoint, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is an excellent work that has numerous elements worth looking at from a literary perspective. Is it a compelling visual portrayal of depression? Absolutely. Does Urobuchi say anything significant about things through Puella Magi Madoka Magica as to drive novel research? This point is debatable: on the topic of depression, Puella Magi Madoka Magica takes the steps of depression as outlined in the DSM-V and then brings them to life. It’s a very well-done infographic: while not revolutionary, it can be helpful.
This is where I draw the line between literary and academic value, and why I argue that the endless Wikia talk pages and Reddit threads suggesting Puella Magi Madoka Magica is of academic significance, especially those that claim this anime does make meaningful contributions to philosophy, are overstated. Having said this, I could have definitely been clearer in my statements, and I should have added that I was specifically speaking to the armchair philosophers and psychologists online. These were the folks who would suggest that Madoka, Homura et al. fit a certain philosophical concept or psychological profile, in turn making Puella Magi Madoka Magica an intellectual’s anime, whereas in reality, all these people have done were regurgitate a definition and demonstrate basic recognition (the equivalent of “it has four equal sides, so that must be a square”). Reading through the so-called internet analysis finds their methods flawed, inconsistent with academic methods, and it is plain that those who participated in such an effort were using a fundamentally incorrect method based on incomplete knowledge.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica could be looked at from an academic perspective, provided that one takes the pain of following vigourous, formalised approaches consistent with academia, such as drawing on primary literature and reviewing things holistically, as opposed to regurgitating definitions and playing a game of ticking the checkboxes. Folks from Fine Arts or East Asian studies certainly would be able to do this and produce papers of merit if there were an interest in the topic: I imagine that for now, the topics in Puella Magi Madoka Magica can be studied without a fictional context and still be of worth. Having said this, the average Redditor, especially if they’ve only ever taken one or two undergraduate courses on philosophy or psychology, is not going to yield anything of value. The bottom line is that, if one has the right training and approaches, Puella Magi Madoka Magica could be looked at from an academic perspective, but outside academic circles, what the internet thinks is valuable analysis cannot be said to have academic value. I hope that clears things up.