You’ve seen the banner for years. You knew this was coming. No big secret that I was going to set this near the top.
Big surprise. What could possibly compel Doll to put this near the top of her lists? Tragedy, darkness, lesbians, magic and a literary theme construct that is among the best in anime history? Can’t fathom why.
So, a nod to a senpai: Much in the same way RedLetterMedia did the definitive Star Wars review, I feel SFDebris’ review of Madoka Magica is one of the most complete, thorough constructs there is in terms of what a reviewer gleans from it. He’s a little short on the literary symbolism, but one can hardly fault a reviewer for that. I’ll be just as short, I feel. But I would point you to his series on this anime, which mirrors many of my points. He’s also quite excellent at pointing out the symbolism of the series, of which he maybe hits 1/3 of the nuance. I won’t be focusing on symbolism unless it reinforces a specific point, because you could build an entire wiki out of the references and hidden meanings in this series. But I want to point out his review because, well…everything’s been said already. And that’s from some asshole who isn’t much into anime. It even earned his distinction of “the series most recommended” out of everything he had reviewed to the time. Outside perspectives are important, and he delivers a nice balance. So for your consideration! I’ll probably echo a lot of the basics, but when it comes to the characters you can expect my personal spin on things.
And yes, we’ll be talking about Rebellion. I really don’t -want- to, but the stuff there has come to just overshadow SO MUCH that it really has to be addressed.
So I have a confession. When I first saw Madoka, I was not impressed. I admit it.
The big reason was this: Everyone praised it as this SUPAH DARK series. It was wicked and evil and tragic and twisted deconstruction. Every fan, every reviewer said the same thing. “ULTIMATE DARK DECONSTRUCTION! OMGORZ!” I had EVERYONE in my social circles prodding “WATCH IT! WATCH IT! WATCH IT!”
So when I sat down to watch it some two months after it had aired and hype was at an all time high, I was let down. Because Madoka is NOT a dark series. No, you want a dark series? Well that’s coming next. But Madoka pales in comparison to truly awful heart-fucks (hashtag heartfuck) that exist just to laugh at the tragedy unfolding on screen, and drive the spike in deeper.
It took a little bit of distance to go back and accept the series on its own terms. There is darkness in Madoka, no argument from me. But it is not overwhelming. It is merely present in an environment where we do not expect to see it, which I think is what magnifies it in many people’s minds. But in general, the series is quite balanced in how it presents dark circumstances with ever present hope. Many of the “dark” aspects people talk about aren’t even dark, they’re just complicated, and because they’re grey suddenly “DARK!”? If you are so overwhelmed by the dark elements because they seem over the top, I must wonder what small bubble you live in. No, honestly, get me tickets. I’ll have a LOT of fun there.
As an aside, this experience is the big reason I do not do a lot of research or cross-commenting on series I am planning to watch. And it’s the big reason why when you see me take a series like Blade and Soul, I try to praise what’s good about it and give it even treatment to the best of my ability, even though it is so obviously bad. Even the series I loathe I try to give balance lest my voice ever induce someone to have a similar experience with any other show (Though comparing Madoka Magica to Inou-Battle is pretty insulting no matter how you slice it). It’s probably why everyone thinks I’m this big anime Debbie-Downer with KILL la KILL and Noragami and its ilk, but I want you to have the most informed expectations, not hype hype hype or trollish hate.
I am kind of dreading heading way out of my league. This is a franchise worth at least half a billion dollars. It has just about as close to a perfect rating on any anime site you can find. This like a plumber being asked to design the international space station, I am out of element, but will strive to do my best.
So let’s get into this. We’re in for a long one, kiddies.
Do You Want to Sign a Contract?
Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica is the story of protagonist Kaname Madoka, a middle schooler with a rather happy life. One day she is drawn into the world of magic and witches, urged there by the magical mascot Kyubey. She and her friend Sayaka save the white rodent thing from a new transfer student, Akemi Homura, a magical girl, but intent on killing Kyubey for some reason.
They are rescued by Mami, senior magical girl with immense power, and a close friend of Kyubey. They explain that Kyubey has the ability to turn them into magical girls to fight Witches, beings of immense darkness that lure innocent victims into reality traps known as labyrinths. In exchange for any one wish, Kyubey will grant them the power and responsibility to destroy Witches. But the catch is: One wish, that must be thought over. While they mull over their choices to make the world a better place with their wishes, Madoka and Sayaka decide to tag along on Mami’s Witch hunts, helping in whatever small ways they can.
But Homura is not willing to let her grudge with Kyubey go. She seems to have an unusual interest in Madoka in particular, just like Kyubey…
Silly, But Dressed So Well
So let’s examine the premise of this series in straight terms. Aliens, aliens so powerful that their technology appears as magic to human beings, want to harvest the tears of teenage girls to save the universe from heat death.
That. Sounds. Ridiculous.
And yet the series sells itself so well that this absurd premise is glossed over, nay, taken COMPLETELY SERIOUSLY by the fanbase because everything around it is so developed and sophisticated.
It is admittedly a flimsy justification for why we’re here. An excuse to lace the series in the trappings of the magical girl genre, while not directly BEING of that genre.
I said in the Lyrical Nanoha review that Nanoha was a series distinctly inside the magical girl box. Madoka is a series less so. Nanoha as a series would lose a significant portion of its atmosphere if it was about vampires and zombies and fighting them with shotguns and salt. Madoka, on the other hand, would probably read the same. It certainly might lose a lot VISUALLY, which is probably why the magical girl trappings were selected in the first place. But structurally the story could just as easily be demons and exorcists, or aliens and mech pilots, or anything with a speculative bent to it, really, and still function perfectly well. It doesn’t carry a lot of the traditional tropes of the magical girl genre, which is why I count myself among those who really don’t see it as a magical girl series. It’s just a really strong series, the aesthetics are purely that.
It is the opposite of what Akuma no Riddle was. That series dressed itself up as grim-dark and had no real substance. Madoka dresses pretty, but there is soul and depth underneath it to underpin everything that we see. And much like even through the skin, we could see Akuma no Riddle was basically a slice of life series with ninja combat in it, so too is Madoka an introspective series about moral ambiguity and hard choices, dressed in a silly pink dress.
Deal with the Devil
Perhaps my favorite Kyubey explanation is the spin on that old gag.
I showed the DVD box to my girlfriend. She saw Kyubey on the cover and said “Oh, he’s adorable!”
“That THING is an abomination and incarnation of pure, malevolent evil.”
She laughed; I didn’t.
Probably the strongest literary allusion in the series is Faust. So much of the series takes its cues from that story. Homura is the general candidate for that character, as well. Endlessly traveling, until she finds happiness. And the object of her affection, Madoka, has a witch form named Gretchen, Faust’s love interest, and in some versions saving Gretchen’s soul is the point of his journeys.
But really, let’s examine that thread. Kyubey in this scenario is clearly Mephistopheles.
At the heart of Kyubey’s moral conflict is the issue of whether or not he lies.
The statement that he doesn’t lie is only true insofar as he is never directly caught stating a fabrication. At least, on the surface.
But let’s examine three very important examples, because they demonstrate this aspect pretty strongly.
Kyubey DOES admit to being a conman. The term “con” has emerged as its own word, but the actual ROOT of it is being shorthand for “confidence man”. His discussion with Madoka after she discovers the truth shows this aspect. What does a conman do? He approaches you with an offer, often a very legitimate kind of offer. His INTENTIONS are not honest, but quite often the venture capital (as is customary) or charity he purports to be helping does exist. These aspects are much like the wish Kyubey offers. “You could be rich (happy)!” “This is for a good cause!” And to that end it is true. But, to a conman, it is YOUR fault for being a sucker, and Kyubey’s words slip easily into that framework as easily as if he had taken 2,000 dollars for a start up coding business. While, yes, perhaps it is partially the mark’s fault for not investigating all the paperwork, when was the last time you heard someone argue that the con artist had the moral high ground?
And that’s just real life con artists. Kyubey drags 12 year old girls into a Labyrinth, purposefully putting them in mortal danger to make a contract or die. They don’t have TIME to engage in all the ins and outs of the deal because of the high pressure situations he puts them in, much like a con artist finds someone in a desperate situation looking for a savior.
Further, he definitely does lie. He compares the way the Incubators treat the magical girls as superior to how Humans treat livestock. But we see that isn’t the case. They DO treat Humans as livestock. In the final/previous timeline, when Madoka’s Gretchen form is powerful enough that Kyubey COMPLETELY filled the quota to save the universe from heat death, he tells Homura “Well, it’s your problem now.” He takes no responsibility for the actions he took which led to the creation of a witch powerful enough to destroy the human race in ten days. The Incubators leave us to our fate, the cattle having served its purpose. There is no respect for Humans as sapient beings. In fact that’s pretty obvious, because if they did respect humanity, they would not need to work in the shadows, hiding themselves from society. They could have an honest conversation, instead of sneaking around behind the backs of the authorities. So the fact he tells Madoka that humans are better off than cows is an absolute lie. He simply doesn’t have to prove it to Madoka so he can SAY it is a truth, until the point he doesn’t need her approval anymore.
The second example to study is Kyoko. And the aftermath conversation with Homura. While it is true that Kyubey does not specifically tell her untruths (The closest is “It wouldn’t surprise me if you found a way to save Sayaka”, which squeezes by because as an emotionless being he doesn’t -feel- surprise emotionally), he does bend his information to accomplish the same as a lie. Kyubey is NOT confused by the route his actions will take. He tells Homura, EXPLICITLY, “If her death served no purpose I would have convinced her not to pursue it. But it did, so I allowed it to happen.”
If Kyubey simply did not divulge information because it was not in the form of a direct question, that would be one thing. That way, he might have an argument. But Kyubey HIMSELF makes the distinction that the circumstances dictated his responses. He would have been more forthcoming with information about Kyoko’s plan being foolish, but because he saw a profit in her death, he withheld as much as he could so she would blindly walk to her end. If Madoka was not so ridiculously powerful, Kyubey would have saved Kyoko’s life. If you went into a doctor’s office, asking if there was a way to save you from your cancer, and the doctor attending you said “There’s no cure” and left it at that, is he lying? Not technically. But have his words led you to a conclusion that your cancer cannot be treated? Most likely. In this way, his truth is accomplishing the same as a lie. Such it is with Kyubey. And don’t say a doctor is different because they are in a trusted position of authority, because if Kyubey is nothing he IS that in the realm of magical girls.
The third is his final conversation with Homura. And this is the conversation that proves Kyubey is a liar. Kyubey’s biggest moral defense is “You never asked.” But when he has information that will tip the scales in his favor? He outright goes to find Homura and gloats, hanging it gleefully overhead like catnip. He starts a conversation with Homura that the latter has no interest in. Constantly Kyubey is a being of few words of his own. Often he silently observes, calculating. The act of APPROACHING Homura to exposit a scientific theory is almost out of character for him. Almost. If he wasn’t a dick.
Remember, Kyubey asserts with Madoka that he can’t be expected to freely offer any and all information. It is on the magical girls to ask. Not so when it comes to Homura, because he knows that by revealing Madoka’s ever increasing power is Homura’s fault, he knows that it’s the best way to turn the master of time into a witch. This is information that the “prime” Kyubey probably knew when he originally offered Homura her wish. He likely saw a chance that Homura would be able to wrap Madoka into a karmic powerhouse with her abilities as soon as her wish was made, which is likely why she was allowed to have her own power to travel back in time over and over again, rather than being given a single chance. After all, as soon as Kyubey understands that Homura isn’t fighting the Incubators, but protecting Madoka, he comes to this conclusion.
And it was always in his power to come forth and say so. He only stepped forward when it gave him a clear tactical advantage.
So between that conversation and the one with Kyoko, is the statement “We do not understand what you mean by ‘trick'” really valid? Incubators are fully capable of steering people to conclude a falsehood, isn’t that actually a trick?
Kyubey is crafted in the mold of a trickster spirit. A living monkey’s paw, if you will. He always tells you the shape of a truth, but what he means is not in sync with the girls’ intent, and he admits to knowing this.
We can therefore conclude, erego, Kyubey has indeed lied AT LEAST once. And he is very capable of deceit, he admits this, but some people still want to argue he can’t.
Kyubey has the moral high ground no more than those Europeans who had native americans unwittingly sign away land (historical note: only a handful of tribes didn’t have a concept of ownership, do not interpret the previous statement as blanket). When Walt Disney fired the guy who first drew Mickey Mouse, and then claimed it was his creation, he was technically correct as it was under the studio he owned. But we also generally regard this kind of stuff as underhanded. It is certainly never taken as the “enlightened” position.
In short: This position needs to die. Kyubey is not the hero, or secretly the hero, or objectively the hero, or any of that bullshit. No, not even objectively. We only have proof of humanity, and incubators. As far as we know? This is an “Us vs. Them” story. If Madoka was a Star Trek type universe with millions upon millions of species throughout the universe, maybe you’d have an argument. But there is no evidence of this and we must assume only the two races we see definitely exist. There is no greater good because to accomplish it, the Incubators are willing to kill off the only other sapient species we know of. To assume there are many other races when Kyubey says “All the beings in the universe” is to fall into the same semantics trap as the girls.
So, now that we’re done eviscerating our mascot, let’s talk about the girls a bit.
Madoka is an interesting character, and not least of which is because as the titular magical girl she only attains such status at the very end of the series. Another reason I don’t hold Madoka at large as a magical girl series.
As the only girl whose story arc is drawn out over the full twelve episodes, her development can seem a little lackluster.
Admittedly, this is to be expected when your character is designed to be a goddess.
And Madoka ALWAYS is that goddess, make no mistake. In the original timeline, the one that started this whole mess, Madoka used her wish to save the life of a cat hit by a car. I bring it up here because it’s extremely important: Madoka is the purest form of the magical girl ideals, both sides, at once.
For the noble side of what magical girls SHOULD be (but aren’t), Madoka is extremely sensitive and caring. She makes a wish for another living thing, a small precursor to what she would later do. She had a grasp of the significance that she had just thrown away her wish for a cat, but she did it anyway, even if she was embarrassed and hid it afterward.
But even in this selfless wish, she is the ideal that Kyoko strives towards. She is utterly selfish with this wish, which is why she suffers no negative consequences from it. Madoka saves a cat because SHE wants it to be alive. No altruism, no high morals, only one girl trying to alleviate the sadness in her OWN heart that her own empathy caused.
And that is why she is the special snowflake here. Only Madoka could make such a wish again. Only Madoka could legitimately feel for her friends so much that sacrificing her existence to make their lives better is what she genuinely DESIRES. She sacrifices nothing, because she gets exactly what she wants.
Madoka, despite her hesitation to don the pink, is not a coward. She frequently throws herself into danger to save people, such as with the TV witch. She is merely extremely sensitive and has a very diminished sense of her own self worth. This is why she leaps at the opportunity to become the Madokami entity.
And this is why she is the one who breaks into Homura’s shell. Even in the original timeline, Madoka REALLY does think that Homura is cooler than she is. She is legitimately excited to spend time with her, and I think this is why she leaves such a strong impression on Homura.
And yet, in the “third” timeline, we see Madoka can be self aware enough to be “the leader”. The Madoka who lays there, dying, lamenting all the beautiful left in the world to protect, the one who, basically, orders the girl devoted to her to save her soul, has a very authoritarian air about her. Of all the different iterations of Madoka, this one is the most assertive and dominant. This perhaps stems from the fact she was the one forced to kill Mami, perhaps she was hardened by this experience and the knowledge of the Incubator’s true intentions. But we see in her that these qualities, ability to lead, her conviction, are still there. They’re merely traits bubbling under the surface that need a spark to bring them forth through the layers of self-doubt and indecision.
I don’t hate Sayaka. Really, I don’t. I probably rank her even with Kyoko: Not especially drawing, but endearing.
That’s probably partly because of what she represents. Sayaka is a hero, and arguably, she’s the only fucking hero in the show. She’s considerate, she thinks of others before herself, she believes in saving lives without any reward. She’s honest, brave, relentless, and uncompromising.
And as Homura points out, this is what makes her EXACTLY the wrong type of person to become a magical girl.
The magical girl system does not reward heroes. The closest is Mami, but oooohhh, I have words for her.
And I think this is why I like her, for representing this. Sayaka is the weak link, even compared to prime Madoka, but that never stops her from taking up a fight. In this she is the anti-thesis to the Incubators.
This is why, thematically, she makes a bad magical girl. The Incubators didn’t design magical girl powers to fight Witches. That is nowhere NEAR their priority. Sayaka is a warrior, but she’s a weak magical girl because those qualities do not translate into that creature’s function.
I think people miss this about the series. It’s so easy to dissociate the fact that it is laid out for us, subtly and overtly, that the Incubators couldn’t give two shits about whether or not the magical girls fight Witches. The closest we get is when Kyubey refers to the life of a magical girl as “a life of hunting witches”. But that is merely their sustenance, which should not be confused with your function. To say YOUR life is a life of eating pizza and drinking bourbon could be true, but hopefully you view your FUNCTION as being a gamer, a top programmer, a caring wife, a loving father. Your food is not your function, even though you MUST do it regularly or you wither away and die.
But be it egging Kyoko and Sayaka to blows (repeatedly), giving fraudulent advice, or even the ENTIRE EPISODE 9 MONOLOGUE, we should realize magical girls weren’t designed to fight witches. They are powerful enough to stay alive against a Witch, because from what we know there’s no benefit from dead magical girls like Mami, but in the end that isn’t as important as making sure their power source is tied to their emotions and burns out as quickly as possible. Soda gives your body calories, but it is NOT designed to be part of a balanced breakfast. Just because it has that secondary effect doesn’t take away from its purpose.
Just because Sayaka gets in deep doesn’t make her weak, either. I rather thought that was the POINT of her story. If the events of Sayaka’s life had occurred not because of magic, but because Sayaka’s uncle was a brilliant surgeon and she pulled strings to get Kyosuke an operation, and things transpired as they did, perhaps Kyosuke friend-zoning Sayaka in favor of Hitomi? I think she would have gotten pretty down in the dumps.
But you and I, we can come back from that. Darkness is only passing. But the magical girls are playing a video game, a finite number of hit points that hits below a certain level of depression and they snap. Or they’re Mami and snapping is more literal. You trip and have a bad day, and it’s game over. That’s what makes this so horrible.
After all, not EVERYONE is trapped in a Faustian/Sisyphic pilgrimage, the only thing it requires is to lose hope. And how many times have YOU lost hope since you were 13 (actually Charlotte was like 9 wasn’t she?)? Yeah. A lot. That’s what makes it a tragedy. Sayaka represents the thousands of other girls who fall prey to this system after joining the fight for high ideals. Our cast is full of outliers, except her.
As I said I am not particularly DRAWN to Sayaka, so there isn’t a lot to go into about her, frankly. Her story arc completes during the slow portion of the series. What’s most important about her is her wish, honestly. She makes a wish for someone else in her head, but in her heart, it was for herself. It’s a component that comes into play when I’ll be talking about Madoka’s wish.
Regardless of how you feel about her of course, it is a fact that she got upgraded to badass in Rebellion. If you didn’t feel a chill of awesomeness at the Oktavia reveal with Homura, you are a fucking liar. That’s a fact. And as the last resistance to Homura’s illusions, it gives her a big feather in the power department.
So I was charitable to Sayaka. And this is the Number 2 series! Wait, Double D, why are you prefacing a new section with positive things like disclaimers?
Yeah, I hate Mami. I despise this character.
Mami can be seen as heroic. Usually by Evangelical Christians without an ounce of self awareness. I don’t mean that offensively but that’s the best parallel to Mami.
Lifting a quote from Babylon 5, “If you do the right thing, for the wrong reasons, the work becomes corrupted.”
That is Mami to me. Mami is so incredibly powerful because, unlike Sayaka, she has no doubts. She is all positive smiles and pew pew. She attacks familiars with no regard to resource management like Kyoko counsels, or as we see visibly drains Sayaka.
On top of this, we see Mami’s devotion to the “cause”. She buys the whole magical girl life, hook, line, and sinker. Kyubey squirts honey at her, and she drinks it up (Mami…that’s not honey). The timeline we see where she goes off the rails is not the exception, as Homura tells us, it’s the rule. Mami is SO devoted, so self assure of her crusade, that when the facade comes tumbling down it just breaks. Mami has no family. Her magical girl life has left her with few friends. Being a magical girl, much like Sayaka when her life fell apart, is all she has left. It is her identity, and when that’s challenged she goes on a murder spree.
“Wait,” I already hear you frowning at your screen, “How is she so different from Sayaka? I mean they both are the traditional magical girl heroes”. The difference IS in that reaction. When Sayaka learns that Kyubey’s been dicking with her, she stays true to her cause. Even when Madoka, Kyoko, Homura, and the little shit bunnycat are telling her to stop. “I am going to BE a hero. I’m going to prove that my good intentions aren’t corrupted by your cynicism.” Mami? Mami just snaps. But why? Becuase she is just like Kyubey. She sees the greatest good for the greatest number means to commit evil, and that is moral to her.
I’ll admit that part of this is guilt by association. The little credit I want to give Mami is ruined by her cult followers who seem to miss this aspect. It infuriates me, even more than the Sayaka thing. I think because the ignorance not to see Sayaka’s theme is an analytical thing. It’s a connection the story doesn’t necessarily draw for you and is open to interpretation. With Mami? The show outright tells you what her flaws are, and to ignore those is absolutely infuriating. Both of these characters are morality tales, but one of them is worshipped and the other scorned.
Mami is a devoted fanatic, which is why her FIRST answer is to do evil. At least if we’re all on board that killing magical girls is a bad thing. If you think that’s a moral thing, then fine, whatever. There’s really no way to argue someone off that point.
She is saved slightly in Rebellion, showing off some cold reading that puts scam artists to shame. It helps in balancing her mental faculties against her physical ones.
But this is not to say I think her a bad character, just a bad person. Structurally, she’s great.
If you tried to predict Madoka based on the first two episodes, it would seem like Mami is the seasoned magical girl initiating our two leads, Madoka and Sayaka, with Homura set up as an antagonist for the series.
Her death in Episode 3 is perfectly timed. It leaves the girls rudderless in a suddenly scary environment, and leaves Homura as the only mentor figure as it becomes apparent Kyubey is not all he seems. The world has suddenly become more random and absurd, and it is, without a doubt, the defining moment of the series for all these reasons.
And, quoting SFDebris-senpai, “This is the scene where the show turns to the audience and says, ‘You think you know magical girls? Fuck you.'”
In that same vein…the scene that truly solidifies my dislike of Mami is her conversation with Homura, where she threatens her to stay away. If we accept Kyubey as the antagonist, that makes Mami his dragon. Ignorant of it or not. Anakin-Vader in Revenge of the Sith is this same way, deluded and tricked into obedience. Yes Mami is as much a victim, broken and tired of her long fight, but being a victim and being a villain is not mutually exclusive.
Like Sayaka, this isn’t a character I am especially drawn to, but don’t see anything wrong with her.
Kyoko’s most important function is blatantly spelling out for us the magical girl on the border of becoming a witch. Kyoko has almost no humanity left by the time she’s introduced. She is callous, has a disregard for humans, and is only interested in farming witches for their grief seeds, willing to sacrifice humans to the familiars so they themselves evolve into witches.
But even in this, she can still make her way back towards the forces of good. Once it’s revealed how the Incubators are manipulating them, she very quickly sides with the heroes, inviting Sayaka to hear her story.
Kyoko only really survives her tragedy through her eating disorder, and this makes her an extremely effective combatant. But as she warns Sayaka, trying to show her the ropes like some kind of asshole sith lord by beating her up, she eventually succumbs to her own compassion.
So much like Sayaka, when Kyoko felt heroic enough to risk her life that she might bring Sayaka back, when she loved her (I’m allowed to say that after Rebellion!) enough to die with her, it cut her life short. It is perhaps even more tragic if one considers that Kyoko may have even known that killing Oktavia would have driven HER to become a Witch, which is why she has no choice but to sacrifice herself. She is literally doomed by her own compassion for Sayaka.
The big one. The protuhgohnist herself. The Nutcracker. Sisyphus. Faust. All are the beautiful frames in which our dark haired damsel is framed.
Homura begins the series as almost an antagonist. But it very quickly becomes clear not everything is as it appears.
She occupies that same space as Kyoko: between witch and magical girl. She has desensitized herself so much that she refers to herself as inhuman, and is unapologetic that everything she does zeroes in on Madoka. If saving Sayaka will help Madoka not make a contract, Homura will do that. If killing her will lead to the best possible future, she will do that, too.
The most obvious allegory for Homura is Faust. She is on a journey where she has sold her soul for the chance to attain her happy ending. And in the original tale of Faust, he was a man who was presented as doomed to failure because he disregarded the spiritual (or, divine) truths in favor of material connections, be that knowledge or pleasure. Much how Homura has chosen Madoka over divine fate (even more appropriate following Rebellion).
Faust’s love interest, Gretchen, is ruined by his meddlings and eventually killed because of them, but is often presented as entering Heaven in later versions, and pleading for Faust’s redemption. The parallels to Madoka are self-evident, even more so that her witch form is named “Gretchen”.
The Sisyphus allegory is just as strong. The king who defied and displeased the gods who must push a rock up a hill for eternity. And the difference between hero and victim is purely in his spirit: Does Sisyphus continue to try, or has he given up?
That is very much the presentation Homura has. The Incubators granted her this power, true. They are constantly stacking the game against her, true. The witches are powerful and Walpurgisnacht is too powerful for any single magical girl to kill, true. But she continues. She starts pushing the rock back up the hill each time, always trying to come at the problem from a slightly different angle.
Interviews confirmed that Homura has been repeating time for close to 100 cycles by the start of the series. That’s a lot of rock pushing to do, and it speaks all the more to her dedication and love of Madoka. And I do mean love, regardless of whether or not you attach romantic feelings to it (even discounting Rebellion), there is no denial on that point.
Homura’s third allegory is the Nutcracker, shown in Rebellion. Its elements are present in the series, too, and it’s weaved quite strongly in Rebellion so you can’t even say it was part of the eleventh hour plot. The broken soldier that none of the children appreciated, that did not get to enjoy the pleasures of life, and yet in the darkest hour must stand up and lead the toys against the rats. Rebellion opens with this, the opening sequence on the carousel showing how Madoka brought life back into the world, but all that Homura felt was loss at the thing she wanted most.
One of the things that isn’t really important, but I always thought, was that Walpurgisnacht had to be Homura. She had to be.
The best evidence is Gretchen, who forms the other half of the hourglass, something the creators have explicitly said is intentional.
But Walpurgisnacht. The clockwork witch. We don’t know her name, Walpurgisnacht is just a code word, a generic title for any witch that has grown so powerful it is several different witches in one entity. It seems, to me, most logical that Walpurgisnacht is the final form of the Homulily entity.
Her familiars are the shades of magical girls. And not random ones, but the dead cast members in particular. It’s possible these images are drawn from Homura’s memories, but what if they aren’t? What if they’re static? What if Walpurgisnacht knows those forms because she encountered them before? The only way that could be true for Sayaka, Mami, and Kyouko at once is if she were Homura. Or an Incubator, I suppose, but that seems unlikely.
And even though Homura is so obnoxiously powerful, why can’t she defeat Walpurgisnacht? Perhaps because Walpurgisnacht is that strong. Or, perhaps, she knows what Homura will try to do because she IS her. And to destroy her would create a paradox.
So, let’s discuss the ending. That’s all anyone wants to talk about when we get to this anyway, right?
Now, if you weren’t aware, the eleventh hour twist in the plot was added to the script at the eleventh hour. Originally, the story was drafted that Homura is taken away by Madoka and lives happily ever after.
That would have been terrible.
First are the minor character points. If you think a last minute “Oops, sorry we’re late” covers all the sadness and subtle heartscrews that we have been receiving the past hour and a half, that’s a perfectly valid opinion. But I don’t think a pat smile at the end is enough. Remember, we’ve spent all this time watching the last great trial of Homura. Remember the clara dolls following her around, “God is dead. God is dead.” All that rage and sorrow and grief that has colored Homura the entire movie, knowing secretly, deep down, that she had been abandoned by Madoka. I don’t think the resolution to that was sufficient, but again, this is entirely subjective. Structurally, it was resolved fine.
But also, structurally, it makes sense as it ended up. This turns into the last straw for Homura. And it suits her character arc quite well. Homura spent the entirety of Rebellion blaming herself for Madoka’s fate, even if Madoka herself chose it, and even though, time after time, she made that wish with Homura lying broken, bloody, and spent. Forces far beyond her control conspired to bring about the Madokami entity, and STILL, Homura shoulders all that guilt on herself. In the proper series she took the burden alone, isolating herself and taking all the responsibility.
To finally take agency, to take control away from the randomness of the universe (oh look, more Nietzsche!)? That is completely in character.
But where the happy ending fails STRUCTURALLY is the 5 ounce bunnycat in the room: The Incubators.
Look at the havoc they caused. ON THEIR FIRST TRY. You think the Incubators are going to give up? Really? Yeah, I can tell by the way they totally just gave up in the series proper on turning Madoka into a magical girl.
Really think about what the Incubators had to go on regarding Madoka, or “the Law of Cycles” as the girls took to calling her. They didn’t even KNOW that she was an entity, their only evidence for this was an anecdotal story by one emotional teenage girl. They devised this elaborate trap to witness Madoka in action. And they were only thwarted here because of Homura.
Otherwise known as: The ONLY living person who knows of Madoka’s existence.
What happens next time? When some random magical girl who has no concept of Madoka or Witches becomes the next test subject? Do you really think the Incubators won’t make good on their promise to study, and one day control (destroy) the Law of Cycles?
No, this threat cannot go unanswered. To do so would be incredibly short sighted, which as we discussed, has always been a warning of the series. It would have been wholly irresponsible of the narrative to ignore that threat. And don’t say the Incubators were entirely destroyed, either. Even IF we assume every single one was assembled for the experiment, which is far from allowing, how do you then make new magical girls? What do the Wraiths do when, slowly, the magical girl population withers away and dies? That’s just as irresponsible, and casts a poor light on Madoka at that point.
Though it could have been a heartwarming compromise for Homura to become the new Incubator deity side by side with Madoka.
Too Evil or Not Too Evil?
Misleading section title. Homura’s choice is far too complex to simply label it right and wrong.
Most obvious and absolutely: Homura is finally taking from the universe she has given to so much. There’s no doubt that her act of “splitting” Madoka was at least in part because she finally snapped at being denied the one thing she ever seemed to want. Similar to what I said in the Shinsekai Yori review about Maria and only seeming to want to be with Saki, Homura is similar with Madoka. And, I would be lying if I said it didn’t taint the purely selfless attitude she had in the series proper. After all, in a series where karma is a major plot force, isn’t something due her for all her sacrifices? It is understandable she would get fed up and turn to a selfish, ruthless act to set the universe “right” in her own mind. And it can also be argued she has done this in part to absolve herself of guilt, guilt she has clearly been struggling with since the opening credits.
But the question must then be asked: Is that a bad thing? Is it believable, is it moral of US as an audience, to elevate Homura to a demigod pedestal of unerring virtue? Should we REALLY expect her to remain static and honest and true as a THIRTEEN YEAR OLD GIRL (admittedly, mentally she has more under the hood) when, of all the major players, she is the human one? Kyubey is immortal, Madoka is a god, but Homura is just Homura. A finite existence who is still growing and changing. Of all the literary allusions in Homura’s character, Faust, Sisyphus, all of them are mortals struggling against divine fate. In other words: flawed, not archetypes of virtue. But heroes nonetheless. Just like the Nutcracker….okay so 2 out of 3 isn’t bad. But again, the Nutcracker. The broken toy.
So even if Homura turning evil is a fact, I don’t think it’s fair to say it is a structural problem. It might not appeal to you PERSONALLY, and that’s fine. But objectively speaking it is in line with the series.
But let’s address the other issues at play: There was SOME altruism in this act.
First, it was never Homura’s intent to destroy the Law of Cycles. She clearly says this in her conversation with Sayaka-Octavia. “I only took the part that was Madoka.” She always intended to grant Madoka the mortal life she sacrificed, while keeping the power intact. That scene in the hall, where Madoka begins to glow, you can clearly see the “Oh shit” look in Homura’s eyes as she realizes she failed. And she quietly accepts that this respite is destined to be temporary. But, her intentions were always to leave the physical law of the Law of Cycles intact. The fact she overestimated her power to bring about such a change isn’t exactly her fault. After all, not even the Incubators understand Madokami, and THEY are the ones who developed the magical girl powers. So the fact that she miscalculated is perhaps a bit reckless, but hardly villainy in and of itself. And we don’t know where that line is drawn, either, so we can’t make a guess about it. Is the ENTIRE being of Madokami trapped with Madoka? Or is she simply still tied by a thread of fate to that power? We don’t have the information to call that one way or another.
Second, Madoka’s desire has remained quite static. In Episode 1 she tells Homura she wouldn’t change her life for anything. In Episode 10 a past iteration says that becoming a magical girl brought her so much pain, but the world was full of plenty to protect and love. And in Rebellion, when Homura exposits the past series as a dream she had, Madoka embraces her and tells her she would never leave her. This makes it quite clear to us that Madoka would never have made her wish unless she saw no other way. And, again as I’d like to think, backed into a corner to save Homura. So Homura is effectively trying to give her that chance. That alternate way out, that absolves Madoka of the responsibility and shoulders it on herself. Yes, on herself, because that brings us to our next point…
The Incubators. We already discussed why leaving them alone would have been a terrible, terrible idea. But remember, Madoka’s job was to destroy soul gems before they became corrupted. But in the last scene (where Homura is performing the “drawing down the goddess” dance) we see where Homura has channeled that despair and witch-energy. Into the Incubators. The creatures who wanted to harvest the tears of little girls are now forced to reap all that despair and anguish. And from the looks of things, they are not handling it well. She says the Wraith are still out there. So that means she hasn’t re-channeled the despair of humanity. It therefore makes more sense when she was tapped into Madoka’s powers in that instant, that just as Madoka could only absolve Magical Girls of their despair, Homura can only channel that same despair. And the image of it swirling in Kyubey’s eyes is too good for the little shit.
This completes a circle of the pair’s story quite well. In the beginning, it was Madoka who had rescued the awkward Homura, and she did so by being a magical girl when Homura was ordinary. By the time the series opens those roles are very reversed. And then when the stakes raise, it was, again, Homura who was helpless against Walpurgisnacht, another witch. And to save her, Madoka became a god, when Homura was just a magical girl. This is another role reversal, just as Homura became a magical girl to be alongside Madoka and save her, so she becomes this dark deity to do the same.
So, seeing as her intentions and indeed actions were -responsible- (if not a bit selfish), I have a hard time badmouthing Homura for this. That does not mean this wasn’t risky. But she does seem to have made a concerted effort to cover the bases. It just seems that part of it blew up in her face (and presumably a fourth movie would entail the rest of it doing so as well). But, logically, her plan works. It only fails because of hubris.
The reason Homura proclaims herself evil is the same reason she blindly wanted to destroy the witch who created the fake Mitakihara: Even though it was joy wrapped in a labyrinth, it spit on Madoka’s sacrifice to end the witches for good. That is what made it unforgivable in her mind. Some witch was making a mockery of Madoka. But presented with the chance, Homura saw a way, a way that said she knew better than, and without using hyperbole here, the goddess she idolized.
On top of this, I think it’s a positive thing that Homura admits she’s resorted to evil to deal with this crisis. Now, her delivery of it makes it sound as if she’s pleased for it, and perhaps she is. Particularly if she’s still actually a witch, I mean she is something in between the two forms.
And that is nothing if not a type of fall. Let’s also be clear though, a god who made a decision as a thirteen year old girl may not have been full of wisdom. (I know I know, Japan, power of youth and all that). The question must be asked: Was Madoka right?
Hope For The Future
Finally, do we take Rebellion’s word for it that Homura and Madoka will become enemies?
Personally I hope so. I want a grand tragedy out of this. Sorry, but I do.
There’s no doubt that Homura has drawn a line in the sand. She has made a declaration that her desires must be recognized, and she will only allow that to be pushed so far, no further. She is demanding compromise after a lifetime of sacrifice and absence of the one thing she desires.
But would it really be her Madoka if she didn’t put her duty first?
Either way, citing my senpai, I do think there NEEDS to be a continuation. The pieces have been scattered and the story is left rudderless, even more so than before. The new setup was the point of the old reset button. But the new reset button seems to lead to more, so we must get something else.
Not that the Madoka team needs my help, but I would finally break this relationship (if you don’t already think it’s broken). The line in the sand has already been drawn by Homura. Madoka probably SHOULD decide that her place is on the other side of that line. They do not have to hate each other. It would actually be far more engaging if they confessed their deep love before they draw bows and familiars.
And, you know, there IS a possibility that, since Madoka is omni-present, Homura is actually STILL a Witch. She might have tapped Madoka’s “grid” and spread her labyrinth throughout the universe. She may not know it, but the opportunity exists. And just like her love for Madoka kept her from turning into a Witch when she, by rights, should have long ago, the elation she has keeps her from entirely turning in her own labyrinth.
Objectively speaking, Madoka Magica is a contender for greastest anime of all time. Certainly of the decade. It may just be the best series…ever. It is meticulously planned, beautifully designed, and ruthlessly grey in its morality.
Ah, but this was never an objective list, was it? No, subjectively, there is still a series I like more.
No cryptic hints this time. Old followers may have guessed a series I mention frequently but has not yet appeared. But there will be no spoilers. No clever turns of phrase. Just a series that I love at number one.
So, I leave you with thoughts on Homura.