The Strange Case of Madoka Magica

There’s been a lot written and said about Madoka Magica (or Puella Magi Madoka Magica) since it came out in 2011. For the most part people have viewed this series as a critique of magical girl series in general or at the very least a subversive entry in the genre of magical girls and certainly the show can be viewed in this manner.

Wild visuals in Madoka Magica

Since it came out there have been countless other ‘dark’ magical girl stories and almost universally people have either compared them unfavourably to Madoka Magica or just not felt the same kind of emotional punch that Madoka delivered. While it isn’t really fair to dislike a series like Magical Girl Raising Project because it isn’t Madoka, the comparison from the start was pretty much set in stone and unfortunately the opening episodes of that series didn’t have anywhere near the visual or emotional impact needed to sway an already fairly jaded audience.

From reading the reviews, those who stuck with it mostly felt it was a rewarding watch, but many, including myself, abandoned ship early on.

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The recent Magical Girl Spec Ops Asuka also ended up compared, usually unfavourably, with dark magical girl stories that came before it, though at least it had some vague military trappings to distinguish itself and at times managed to focus on the impact of trauma on a character (though ultimately left the audience dissatisfied).

Asuka - Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka - Episode 11
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What I find interesting about Madoka, more so than any comparison we might make to shows that have come out after it, is that it is consistently called a magical girl show. What actually sets Madoka Magica apart from every other magical girl show that I’ve watched and every satire of the genre, is that Madoka isn’t a magical girl. This is an origin story for a legend that will be told by magical girls in the world that is created in the final episode of Madoka, but it isn’t a story about a magical girl.

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If we make the obvious comparison to Sailor Moon we can immediately see the difference. Episode 1 of both shows starts with a flashback or dream sequence to some major conflict and then our protagonist wakes up in the very mundane and ordinary world and goes about their morning business.

These openings are almost perfectly synchronised really and these two aren’t the only ones. Cardcaptor has pretty much the same opening sequence as do dozens of other shows in this genre. Okay, so I’ve just proved Madoka is following along in the path of a standard magical girl show. Where does it change?

By the end of episode 1, Serena has met Luna, been given her brooch, transformed into Sailor Moon and defeated the first villain (with some help and support from Tuxedo Mask). Sakura has released the Clow cards and partnered up with Kuro to hunt them down in Card Captors. If we look at Shugo Chara, Amu has hatched her first egg and had her first character change. In all of these shows, by the end of episode 1 we know our protagonist is special and can use special powers.

So episode 1 of Madoka?

Yes, there are magical girls and Kyuubey has appeared in all his evil cuteness. Madoka has not become a magical girl. Neither has Saya at that point. Madoka remains an observer of the magic in the world.

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And this remains true for Madoka until the very end of the series. The story explores the agony of whether or not to take that final step from the ‘safe’ and normal world into the world of magical girls where you can have a wish granted but the cost it comes with is enormous (and mostly not spelled out in the contract).

To go back to Sailor Moon, this would be like having the story told from the perspective of Molly. She watched her friends transform, doesn’t know the whole story but knows something is going on, wants to help but ends up fretting and hoping from the sidelines. That’s Madoka’s role through the vast majority of the story. The only difference between Madoka and Molly is that Madoka has the chance to change her circumstances whereas Molly is just destined to be a side character.

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This is where Madoka actually does become a critique of the magical girl genre. In most of these stories we are seeing it from the insiders point of view. And more importantly, the initial transformation from ordinary to magical is over in an instant. One episode and done. While the character might later have doubts or second guess themselves, they are already transformed and have power so to not use it would be a tragedy. Their path is set and more or less locked in stone and any protests they may verbally make or threats to quit are more or less futile and the audience knows that.



A truly subversive magical girl series might have a member of the team actually quit for real and not have some epiphany and come back. That would actually really mess with the audience expectations to have them genuinely sit on the sidelines and let the tragedy unfold when they have the power to stop it and they choose not to act.

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Madoka shows us the story almost entirely from the outsiders point of view. Madoka is the outsider and while initially Saya is also an outsider, Saya jumps in to the world of magical girls and becomes yet another case study for Madoka in the tragedy that is unfolding (and one day I will focus on Saya as the definition of a tragic character but that isn’t the point of this post).

This extended belaboring of the ‘choice’ magical girls face finally makes audiences face all those characters saving the world at the risk of life and limb and makes the audience really understand what is sitting beneath all the pretty costumes and love hearts. Madoka isn’t about tearing down the magical girl genre, it is about rethinking the reality faced by the characters and putting a new voice into the forefront of people’s minds.

That Madoka will eventually also choose to step into the world of the magical girls, knowing exactly what her decision will lead to and finding a way to still use that in her favour is a remarkable way to end the show because it combines her transformation, final battle, and transition into legend all into one sequence.

Madoka doesn’t become a magical girl and then fight to save the day. She becomes a magical girl and uses that to save those she has come to treasure, creating an entirely new reality where she exists only as a dream or memory in the lives of those she touched. We never get to see Madoka in her own reality as a magical girl because she never exists as one in the time sequence we follow. We only see her as a magical girl in flashbacks to other realities and in dreams.

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For me, Madoka Magica will always be kind of special. There’s certainly issues with the narrative in places and some of the characters aren’t as well developed as you would like, but it has done its job at reframing what magical girls are and it has done it in a way that doesn’t take away from the tiara wearing girls before it.

Ultimately this is why the so called imitators that have come after have fallen short. And I know some of them aren’t actually trying to imitate Madoka, but they feel like the writer just grabbed the idea of dark magical girl story because Madoka did well without understanding that it wasn’t the shock deaths and darkness that held the story up.

What holds Madoka up is an understanding of what had been missing from all those other magical girl stories and Madoka neatly filled in that gap. This is the origin of a magical girl. This is the agony they face as they leave behind what they know and go to face a monstrous danger. It is also the end of a magical girl as she gives her life and entire being to save the world (with no do-over or last minute reprieve or rebirth).

That is why simply calling it a critique or a subversive magical girl story does not begin to do it justice.

What are your thoughts on Madoka?


Contribution

Thank-you for reading 100 Word Anime.

Join the discussion in the comments.

Karandi James


30 thoughts on “The Strange Case of Madoka Magica

  1. I loved the series, but was never very invested in Madoka as a character. In my mind, this show focused on sacrifice, specifically self-sacrifice to save those whom you love. Each of the five characters did this: Mami sacrificed herself to save her own self-image, the most important being in her world. Homura repeatedly offered her life trying to save Madoka from becoming a magical girl. Madoka gave her life to protect her friends and attempt to change the fate of all magical girls (maybe, see last paragraph). And poor Sayaka took her own life in an attempt to save herself from her own despair.

    To me, the ultimate and most beautifully nuanced embodiment of the show’s theme of self-sacrifice was Kyouko’s suicide to save Sayaka’s soul. She wasn’t even trying to save her physically, as that time had already passed. Kyouko was instead ready to sacrifice her own continued physical life for the chance–the mere chance, mind you–to retrieve Sayaka’s tainted soul from its new form as a witch and restore it. That decision was the height of self-sacrifice explored in a series specifically about self-sacrifice. That storyline was the series’ true apex.

    Honestly, I always thought of Madoka’s “final solution” as a bit hokey. If anything, it seemed like she felt she just couldn’t be bothered anymore, so “I’ll just seal myself away so that I actually can’t be bothered anymore. Did my bit, so y’all figure out the rest!” That sort of feel. So that in truth, maybe Madoka’s sacrifice was really just another instance of self-love, as with Mami and Sayaka. Not that self-love isn’t a real form of love–it is. And it inspires real sacrifice, too. But the story was bigger than that, so I’m still not sure that Madoka was the character upon whom it should have been focused. But that’s just me.

    1. I see where you are coming from. I always felt Madoka was more rejecting a system she had observed destroy the others rather than giving up. Kyubey had told her often enough that she could make any wish come true and so she used her wish to utterly break a system she could not accept the existence or continuation of even knowing she wouldn’t get to be a part of the new world.

  2. Madoka isn’t a perfect show, but it’s a show where everything just comes together. I’d agree that what makes Madoka a deconstruction is that the maincharacter resists being scouted for the nearly the entire show, and when she does sign up, she breaks the system. But the system she breaks isn’t that of a typical magical girl show; it’s a perverted version. It’s that perverted version of a typical magical girl show that gets the attention, but in a sense Madoka herself is a typical magical girl saving the genre from cynicism.

    A little aside: I watched parts of the first season of Nanoha only after Madoka, and I had to laugh: the first episode starts with Nanoha saving a “weasel” and gains magical powers from it. I laughed again later, when I learned that the show’s also directed by Shinbou.

    But apart from the genre exploration, Madoka also had a thematic through-line with the motifs of wishes and contracts. That is there’s a thin red line you can follow to the end. Do you really know what you want? Are you sure you’re honest to yourself? The contracts basically lock-in the wish and serve as the point of no return; that’s what gives the wishes the weight. It’s a simple formula, and you get plot-appropriate characterisation just by varying it for each character, and in the end the one that hesitates the most has the most information.

    One thing I also don’t see people talk much about is Madoka’s mum. Madoka, and her friends, too all look up to her. She’s got a job, comes home late, drunk, from those compulsory drinking sessions she doesn’t like, but that’s what you have to do for a job. They get along pretty well, but it’s clear that Madoka won’t follow in her footsteps. Her “hypothetical” conversation about what she would wish for was interesting, in that regard. And they had a rather important heart-to-heart during the finale. So here’s Madoka and re-affirming the ultra-feminine version of woman-as-caretaker magical girl, but in the context of the show that’s just who she is. But she respects her mum and has a good relationship with there, up to the difficult end. It’s reaffirming the girlyness of the genre, but framing it as an option.

    Aside from the story, there are those surreal witch spaces. They work so much better for me than nearly everything else I’ve seen on that topic. (Yuki Yuuna’s spaces looked pretty cool, too, but not quite on that level.) I think my favourite must have been the shadow-play where Sayaka went berserk. Each space had its own quality.

    And finally there’s the music. The music in this show really isn’t just background: transformation sequences turn into a music video. Witchspaces are all the creepier for it. Yuki Kajiura is great in general, but she had a starring role in this show (I think only Noir puts her into the foreground like that). It’s just so stylish.

    My take on the third movie? Meh. It’s as silly and pointless as Highlander 2. A lot of it felt just like fanservice; all reference and no substance. Then there’s that ending. It made sort of sense to me, but it was so obviously trying to open up the franchise for continuation, when the original series was pretty much self-contained. Magia Record does a much better job, IMO, replacing “wishes” with “rumours”, so there’s a new guiding principle. It’s far from the master piece of the original, but that’s the right way to make a franchise entertaining, IMO.

    (I wonder if you can tell that I love Madoka, too…)

    1. Clearly you have spent a lot of time with Madoka. I did write a post once about wishes in narratives and definitely used Madoka as an example given her wish is so integral to plot and character developement.
      I may be alone on this one but Madoka’s mother has never made much of an impression on me other than representing the safety Madoka gives up when she makes her decision.

  3. Madoka Magica is a 10/10 anime for me. I love magical girl anime, as well as the dark, introspective shows like Evangelion and Revolutionary Girl Utena, and Madoka feels like the best of both worlds. Homura is probably my favorite, I’m a sucker for tragic antiheroes. I’ve tried watching other dark magical girl anime like Raising Project and the spin-off/sequel Magia Record, but none of them had the magic (heh) as the original Madoka for me.

    1. Madoka really is something special. I still remember watching the opwning sequence the first time and just being utterly mesmerised by it.

    1. Kyubey is awesome. He also needs his own post. There’s a lot to discuss in that his morality is entirely different to humanity’s so trying to classify him using terms like good or evil becomes fairly meaningless.

  4. I liked it a lot, but I think I would have been disappointed if I started watching it and expected a typical magical girl series. Sometimes you just want something cute, light, etc.

  5. my view on this show has gotten a lot more simplistic over time. i think it’s a good show that i dont mind suggesting to other people, but i dont think id ever watch it again. also, i wasnt a big fan of the sequel movie

    1. I still haven’t seen any of the movies and don’t really intend to. I was pretty happy with the anime as it was and didn’t really want to mess with that.

  6. I agree Madoka Magica is an incredibly strange case. From the Shinbou influence in the artwork and animation to the “deconstruction” of the magical girl genre. Being a big fan of magical girl shows like PreCure and Princess TuTu. Although I’m kind of getting sick of people calling it a deconstruction. A lot of people say that Madoka never transforming makes it a deconstruction, but neither did Sakura from the amazing show Cardcaptor Sakura. As for the dark magical girl premise, the much more mature Princess TuTu did it much better I belive.

    1. Yes, you definitely have to ask whether Sakura is actually a magical girl under the stricter definition given the lack of transformation or magic outfit.
      Thanks for your comment.

  7. to be honest i havent fully unpacked my feelings about madoka; probably the biggest thing was just how everything worked into the ending

    you could imo draw some comparisons between madoka and The Cold Equations and The Cold Solution, with the physical law of entropy at odds with human emotions and ideals, but really theres just so much in there that anything i said would be shallow

    if you watched yuuki yuuna i would say that show disappoints because it doesnt come up with a solution, just a happy ending

  8. I enjoyed the show quite a bit. The third movie was also excellent. Particularly I like the allusions, musical score (it’s really good), and the unique visuals and attention to detail given to the witch scenes.

  9. Best anime ever! Seriously. Madoka blew me away on so many levels, and it completely changed my view on anime, very much the same way Evangelion did years before. Homura Akemi is one of my all-time favorite characters. I didn’t care much for the movie Rebellion that came afterward, but the original series is my favorite of all time.

  10. Liked the story, didn’t much care for the characters. Which, in turn, made it a tad harder to be impacted by it all. I’m going to re-watch this soon, maybe I’ll have a better (or worse) appreciation of its ambition.

    1. Rewatching is always strange beacuse you can change your view of a show completely depending on what you’ve watched or read since the first watch and depending on your mood at the time. I hope you enjoy it on rewatch.

  11. I have a feeling that upon a rewatch Madoka may become one of my all time favorite anime. I think that a lot of terminology gets thrown around in discussions on the show that either don’t do the series justice or don’t fit the show at all. I’m tiring of hearing people describe it as a “dark take on the magical girl genre” or a “deconstruction” of the magical girl genre. One could arguably consider it to be so, but that terminology hardly captured what the show accomplishes.

    I really like your focus on Madoka as an outsider to the world of the magical girls, and I believe that’s why the show works so well. To me, Madoka is about an ideological conflict between nihilism and optimism for the fate of the human race. Ultimately, the choice of whether to abandon hope or embrace it on mankind’s behalf falls on the shoulders of Madoka. She’s the only one capable of making the decision because she’s an outsider and is untainted by the magical girl world, unlike Sayaka and the rest of the cast. The fact that in the end she chooses hope over nihilism at the cost of her physical existence is fascinating and speaks volumes about the ideologies and intentions of the creators.

    Basically, I think you’re right on. The reason why Madoka’s themes and concepts are able to be executed so masterfully is because the show defies the setup of the typical magical girl series. That is, because Madoka is an outsider. Great post, keep up the good work!

    (As a side note, I did watch MGRP all the way to the end. I definitely wouldn’t say it was copying Madoka, but I’d be hard pressed to say it was worth the watch. I think it was trying too hard to be “a dark take on magical girls”, but in doing so missed the point entirely)

    1. That is definitely the problem with a lot of post-Madoka magical girl shows. They just don’t get that isn’t just about killing off your cast. You actually have to have a point.

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