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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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?
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