It is a fairly common moment in stories where a character will make a wish for strength or power or to undo something terrible that has happened or even wishes to save a friend. While the vast majority of these wishes will go unanswered leading to some kind of tragic moment the character must overcome through non-magical means, occasionally a character will be granted their wish. But does this lead to a satisfying story for the audience?
The answer to that really depends on how the wish is framed within the narrative and the results of the wish. For example, a story like Aladdin kind of requires a few wishes to be granted. Without the genie and magical wishes you kind of don’t have a story at all. Then again, it can also be used as the cheat card, particularly in Christmas movies.
The plot ties itself into ridiculous knots and then a character usually looks up at a star and makes a wish squeezing their hands together earnestly before a miracle happens and somehow everything works out okay. While this might make for a feel good scenario it also kind of makes all the effort or attempts by any of the characters to resolve the situation prior to the wish feel mostly futile.
Make a wish…
Today I want to look at some examples of anime that deal with wishes and the different ways they are used. Yes, this post was definitely inspired by the final episode of Juni Taisen and yes, there will be spoilers for the anime below so if you are concerned, thanks for reading this far and please check out some of my other posts.
I’m going to start with the easy one, xxxHolic. This one is easy because it plays on one of the most common tropes of being careful what you wish for and the idea that nothing comes for free. While this theme is heavily embedded in all of its stories, the super obvious one with the story of the Monkey’s Paw. Now you’ve probably heard this story before because it does the rounds as an urban myth and has been used in almost every collection of strange tales ever but essentially a character finds a tube containing a monkey’s paw and it gives them five wishes, one for each finger that of course break with an ominous snap after each wish.
Which would be all well and good except that the wish maker in this case, and in most cases with this style of story, makes wishes for selfish reasons and doesn’t really think through the consequences of their wishes. Ultimately their wishes lead to the death of another and finally they are killed.
Much like Aladdin, the story here wouldn’t exist without the wishes coming true, albeit in a horrible manner in this case. It isn’t a cheat to solve a plot problem, but rather it is the problem or the source of conflict that will ultimately drive the story. So while you might accuse this of being cliché, it fundamentally works as a narrative.
On the opposite side of this, we have a story like Ah! My Goddess that also starts from a wish, only in that case the wish is granted without tricks or traps. It still does have the pitfall of poor wording and not quite thinking through consequences even if ultimately things work out.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Keiichi is down on his luck and kind of a doormat but has a real love for working with mechanical objects. When left to look after the dorm one day he receives a phone call from a Goddess who claims she will grant his wish before she appears through the mirror in his room. After his initial skepticism is met with upbeat and positive answers, Keiichi makes a fairly rash wish that a goddess, like the one before him, would stay with him. And just like that heaven grants his wish and Belldandy, the Goddess, is now going to stay with him.
It isn’t all smooth sailing as Keiichi is thrown out of the dorm and they at first struggle to find a place to stay. Other goddesses and even a demon show up and at times really cause issues for Keiichi. At one point, due to a computer error in heaven, the wish is lost and Keiichi needs to use the exact wording to remake the contract with Belldandy but can’t remember what he said on the spur of the moment.
The point however is, that once again, the wish is what kicks the story into gear. There’s no other reason for a goddess to be bound on earth and living with this ordinary guy and so none of the story that follows could happen without the wish. What I do like about Ah! My Goddess is that even though Belldandy and the other goddesses do have some significant power, there are some incredible restrictions on the use of that power on earth. Many issues come up during the story and for the most part when they are mortal issues they are dealt with through mortal means with magical solutions being reserved for more magical problems.
So despite the wish itself not having strings attached or some moral message about not making wishes, this story looks at the aftermath and how just having a wish granted isn’t enough to solve all your problems as new problems will continue to arise and it is only by facing them one by one that progress can be made. The wish is again fundamental to the operation of the story and the themes being constructed.
But what both of these stories have in common is that they uses wishes as a catalyst for the story. What about anime where the wish comes later in the series and we have two very good examples of this in Madoka Magica and in Juni Taisen.
Starting with Madoka Magica, making a wish is what makes the contract with Kyubey to become a magical girl. If you don’t make a wish you can’t become a magical girl and Madoka, our title character, can’t decide on her wish. More importantly, the longer she delays making her wish, the more she learns about the consequences of wishes and of being a magical girl.
Sayaka, Madoka’s friend, jumps in early at making a wish and uses it to heal a friend who has been in hospital. She clearly has deeper feelings for her while he sees her as just a friend, but she uses her wish on him and becomes a magical girl. Because of the nature of her wish, Sayaka has incredible self-healing power but is otherwise fairly inexperienced as a magical girl.
Imagine her surprise then when the boy she literally gave her soul to bring happiness to ends up accepting a confession from another friend. Emotionally unbalanced, she swiftly descends and falls from being a magical girl to become a witch.
Much like xxxHolic, there’s a lot of warnings about being careful of wishing for things and realising that nothing is truly free. However, Madoka’s wish doesn’t come until the very end. When things are at their worst and we know Madoka can make the most powerful wish ever which in turn will lead her to become the worst witch ever, and you have to wonder how the writers are going to pull out of this loop they’ve written themselves into. And then Madoka literally breaks the world with her wish.
If this had been done poorly it would feel as much a cheat as a Christmas miracle but Madoka’s wish has some great writing backing it up. We already knew that Madoka’s potential was beyond any other magical girl and the audience knew she could make a truly amazing wish. We also knew the fundamentals of how the magical girl/witch system worked at that point and so Madoka wanting to save magical girls from becoming witches would of course require the entire system to be rewritten.
The wish also didn’t come without a price. Madoka saved the girls from becoming witches but didn’t save them from dying and she also didn’t save herself as she isn’t in the new world that has been created.
Foreshadowing coupled with a decent price levied for the wish that was made ensured this didn’t feel like a cheap plot device designed only to bring the show to an end on a high note. It felt like everything had led the audience and Madoka to that moment and it was the perfect solution to the complications presented by the story.
And that then brings us to Juni Taisen (big spoiler ahead if you haven’t watched and don’t know who won).
Now, there are all sorts of issues with Juni Taisen in the way it executed its story, but the story itself does work. 12 warriors come together every 12 years to fight a battle royal and the winner gets a wish. It is simple and could have worked quite spectacularly. While I’m not going to get into what I felt when wrong with Juni Taisen here (I’ll save that for my actual review) I do want to look at the wish aspect of the story.
Very much like Madoka, Rat can’t decide what to wish for. He’s been given (or earned through the battle) a wish and the audience is told he can literally wish for anything. The mechanics of how or why someone else can grant any wish (including apparently resurrection) is something the show isn’t interested in getting into so unlike Madoka we never really know why such a wish can be granted. And so Rat begins to go through 100 options for his wish and for each idea he comes up with he sees an obvious down side or consequence and quickly dismisses the idea.
It is kind of the opposite of all those other stories where characters make rash wishes without thinking through the consequences, and was almost novel enough as an idea to work. All these characters competing for a wish and the one who wins it doesn’t know what to do with it.
Ultimately, Rat’s decision didn’t sit well with a lot of viewers. He wished to forget. Forget the tournament and the deaths and the 100 paths he had to take to find victory. For some this wish seemed horrible given it essentially wasted an unlimited wish and for some viewers it seemed like it invalidated the deaths of the other warriors.
I actually really liked Rat’s wish as I kind of felt it fit the show thematically in that so much of everything was pointless and unexplained and none of it was going to bring happiness or contentment to a traumatized teen who had just experienced his own death 99 times. It was one of the few moments where I kind of felt a grudging respect for a choice the story had made.
However, like or not, does Rat’s wish work within the narrative?
I’d have to say it probably doesn’t work as well as a conclusion as Madoka’s wish did. With Madoka, we have spent a whole season with her as a character and seeing her learn about the consequences of making a wish and what it will cost and learning who she is as a person. With Rat we have two episodes really where we learn very little about him other than he has a general apathy toward life before he makes his wish. Also, while the wish at the end of the tournament is announced early on, the audience is never made aware of the mechanics of the wish or how it fits into the world being constructed.
So, yes Rat’s wish does end the story and the tournament in a way that we were told the tournament would end with a character getting a wish. But, it doesn’t leave the audience feeling satisfied with the overall story. The wish doesn’t address what the story was about but simply gives some closure to a character we’ve had insufficient screen time with to really care about whether they get closure. Of course, it probably isn’t the wish’s fault that the ending feels lacking and probably more a sign of deeper issues with the anime as a whole.
And this post got a lot longer than intended so I’m going to leave it there. Four examples of anime that all use wishes and for the most part integrate the wishes well into their overall narrative structure. What are some of your favourite examples of wishes in anime? Or do you find wishes a narrative cheat that you could do without? Let me know in the comments below.
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