The Infinite Zenith

Where insights on anime, games, academia and life dare to converge

Distant Wishes: The school rooftop in Madoka Magica as a visual metaphor for the implications of being a magical girl

“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.” —Alan Turing

While it may be a subtle component within Puella Magi Madoka Magica, the architecture and interior design aspects within the anime have a substantial role in setting the mood. Previously, the architecture within Tari Tari was the central focus, and Madoka Magica was briefly mentioned as another example of where architecture is able to impact the atmospherics within an anime. In Madoka Magica, however, the architectural elements are used to both deceive the viewers and alienate the characters from their settings to emphasise the anime’s point: that magical girls become highly detached from their surroundings. Beginning from the warm, brightly-coloured settings in the series’ openings and the girls’ frequent hangout spots, to the mechanised, predominantly metal construction in the industrial areas, the settings serve to draw a juxtaposition between the girls and their environment. This use of architecture and interior design is nowhere as apparent as in Mitakihara’s school rooftop, which Madoka and her friends frequent during lunch hour. The unusual combination of familiarity and distance come together at this unique location, acting as a visual metaphor for the intermediate stage of doubt and mystery that Madoka and Sayaka experience after befriending Mami and learning of the existence of magical girls.

  • I have an inkling that readers often do not read the main paragraphs and choose to stick with reading the figure captions. They aren’t the entire post! Returning back to the image itself, Mitakihara is a relatively modern city, featuring buildings of a relatively modern design. Despite being similar to that of the Mega City in The Matrix, the Mega City was intended to create a sort of hyper-reality with its massive urban build-ups such that the inhabitants did not challenge their living environments. In Madoka Magica, the city’s size allows the writers to constantly alter the mood as things gradually worsen, presenting different sides of the city as the story calls for it.

  • In the series’ beginning, Mitakihara is presented with predominantly blue lighting to emphasise that, contrasting the greys and greens of the Mega City within The Matrix, Mitakihara is set in the real world. At this point in time, things are reasonably normal, and the characters (Madoka and Sayaka) lead normal lives as ordinary middle school students.

  • The Neo-Classical design found at the school rooftop bears some resemblence to Pietro Perugino’s Delivery of the Keys; the keys are supposed to represent the power of forgiveness and the right to enter heaven. The original painting gives the sense of an infinite world that stretches across the horizon, giving the sense that everything in their world is visible from their perspective as responsibility changes hands.

  • Madoka Magica probably drew inspiration from this painting to give the series a similar feeling: the keys depicted in Perugino’s painting are represented by contracts and magic, while the sense of space is conveyed by a vast cityscape rather than hills and trees. Here, Madoka and Sayaka wonder whether or not they could make a meaningful wish because their lives have been reasonably trouble-free insofar.

  • The deliberate inclusion of vast fences reminiscent of Renaissance architectural forms suggests that Mitakihara Middle School’s rooftop was deliberately intended to be a gathering place for students; the fences prevent any students from accidentally falling off the roof. The general architecture brings to mind the forms that Renaissance-era cathedrals took. Associated with the Church and the sort of mysterious higher powers, cathedrals were grand places of worship.

Given that the school rooftop is a highly prevalent location in anime, it is not unreasonable to surmise that the location might hold some significance. In typical anime, the school rooftops are used as a location for solitude by students; in Kanon, Yuichi and Mai train using bamboo swords on the school rooftops, while CLANNAD has Nagisa asking Ryou about joining the drama club. Students hang out on the school rooftops for lunch in Azumanga Daioh, go out there to vent off steam (K-On! Movie), or even discuss what it means to be idols (Locodol). Why the school rooftops are chosen is probably to confer some solitude, offering a tranquil spot amidst the hustle of an urban locale for individuals to relax or look back on things. In densely built areas, especially in Japan, the skyline might be visible, providing a distant backdrop for the events that occur in the school rooftop. This forms a juxtaposition; the school is a well-traversed, familiar location, but beyond their world is another, one that is perceived to be more unfeeling and detached. In Madoka Magica, when Madoka and Sayaka discuss their wishes up there, the locale immediately gives the impression that the girls are considering things that are equally as distant in a relatively friendly setting, subtly mirroring the fact that individuals become a part of that “distant” world once their education is complete. It would therefore be logical to be discussing the future (in this case, wishes) in a location where the familiar and the unknown are simultaneously visible and become things that must be considered.

  • Mitakihara Middle School is probably composed of multiple structures: the student classrooms, main entrance and other areas of the school take on a Neo-Futurist design, and the rooftopis nowhere to be seen from the main entrance. In the original TV series and Blu-Ray release, the school rooftop had significantly less detail, having a pure white surface. In the movie, the environments are far more detailed, although for the most part, the dialogue and flow of events have remained unchanged.

  • Sayaka and Madoka find their world has completely changed following Mami’s death. With its impact still sinking in, they remark that their school feels completely foreign to them. The school’s interior, with its minimalistic glass classrooms are highly modern, although this sort of minimalism serves to distance Madoka from her surroundings even earlier on in Madoka Magica, before she becomes entangled in the world of magical girls.

  • This image captures the level of detail in the fences that enclose the school rooftop. I’ve actually been meaning to do this talk for quite some time now: when I first watched Madoka Magicathe school rooftop immediately struck me as something worth mentioning, although for the longest time, I could not put my finger on why it was worth mentioning. Thoughts of this topic fell from my mind, but upon visiting a similar part of my campus, I soon found an answer, and this post began taking shape.

  • After Sayaka takes a day’s absence, Homura confronts Madoka. The school rooftop is shrouded in shadow, darkening the atmosphere and sharply juxtaposing Madoka’s comfort level when she speaks with Homura with how she feels when speaking with Sayaka; typically, Madoka and Sayaka’s conversations are under sunlight, even if their topics are darker, showing how Madoka may trust Sayaka to a greater extent before Homura reveals the truth to her.

  • Readers are probably wondering if I would make a contract and wish, provided I had the same level of knowledge as Madoka and Sayaka by episode two: the answer would be no. I do not make decisions until I am reasonably satisfied that I have enough information to make an informed, rational choice. Given the limited information Kyubey and Mami have provided, I would probably inquire for more details and make my decision from there. Given Madoka Magica‘s outcome, I would imagine that deciding against making a wish is probably the best course of action.

Ultimately, Madoka and Sayaka do not come to a final conclusion here, as Homura interrupts their conversation. The next time Madoka and Sayaka spend time together up on the school rooftop is after Mami’s death by Charlotte’s hands, and it is here that the setting truly becomes disjoint: as Madoka later learns, no one else will know of Mami’s death. The world is indifferent, apathetic to Mami’s fate, and this sense of detachment is reflected in the architecture, which coldly adjourns the scene. It is from here that Madoka Magica steps away from a traditional magical girl series and begins to depict the magical girl’s role as one of tireless, thankless effort, rather than the idealistic, optimistic approaches taken by more traditional anime. This element is subtly enhanced by the choice of architecture within Madoka Magica; locations gradually become more industrial and minimalistic as the series progresses to emphasise that the girls are alone. Their settings (and the people that inhabit them) will only observe without compassion, leaving the magical girls alone as they struggle to come to terms with what their decisions led to. These visual elements are seamlessly integrated with Yuki Kajiura’s “Sis Puella Magica!” (Let’s become magical girls!) in several scenes. “Sis Puella Magica!” is a cold piece that accompanies scenes explaining details behind the magical girls, to give the sense that being a magical girl entails much more than is immediately apparent, and like the song, is a role filled with enigma that, paired with the visual elements, produces an atmosphere that leads even the viewers to ask themselves: is there something you want so badly that it’s worth putting your life in danger for?

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