PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA

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Yeah, yeah, people’ve been after me to review this forever. I’ve been watching the recap movies so what the hell, might as well get on it.

So there’ve been endless terabytes of pixels spilled over this show, about how it subverts the magical girl genre and whatnot, blah blah grimdark very popular with male nerds due to said grimdark/subversion, etc etc.

You know what, though? Those fucks are wrong. Puella Magi Madoka Magica stays absolutely true to the genre.

There’ve been analyses to the tune of the series being essentially misogynistic in its portrayal of teenage girls as ticking time-bombs who inevitably become psychopathic evil forces, and apparently the writers and producers might’ve said something to indicate sexist intentions (?)–I’ve never really delved into those and can’t find the relevant quotes. But let’s say the author is dead and go from there.

While Kyubey is an alien, it is coded more or less as male–and the structure with which it selects victims for contracts patriarchal: it and its fellow incubators (there are others, apparently, though dunno if the gazillion manga spin-offs are canon and maybe there’s a female incubator somewhere) choose only young girls to harvest energy and stave off universal entropy. The view of female emotions and passions as frightening and explosive closely mirrors that of our own society, where women are meant to be meek from birth to death. There’s limited to no support for teenage girls who undergo difficult experiences. Instead, their emotions are dismissed and trivialized as too sensitive, hysterical, ridiculous, and laughable. Women are barely real people, teenage girls even less so.

Given this, it’s apt to view the transformation of girls into witches as a response to that unbearable tension. Living in the patriarchy as teenage girls is traumatic, and some girls can and will lash out. Puella Magi literalizes this idea. The girl retreats into her internal safe space, the witch barrier, while lashing out at the world that has failed her; she is then destroyed by a magical girl, who has internalized patriarchal pressure and seeks to subdue other girls who are “acting out unacceptably.” The most powerful witch Walpurgis Night, according to an interview with Urobuchi:

It has the destructive power to bring about natural disasters powerful enough to blow away an entire town, but originally it was a single witch. It’s a witch that has grown from the combination of countless other witches. Walpurgis Night combines with other witches in the same way two powerful tornadoes are able to combine and become larger. It’s essentially a “conglomeration”-type witch. Because it’s so powerful, it rarely shows itself.

I’m tempted to make a joke about Walpurgis Night being an allegorical magical girls’ rights movement that drew those girls together to destroy both the world and hopefully the alien species that’s perpetuating the contract system. In one of the timelines, if Madoka hadn’t purified Homura’s soul gem at the last minute the two of them would have become the next pair of world-destroying witches. Homura explicitly tells Madoka, “How about we both become monsters and break this world until there’s no more evil, no more sadness, nothing at all?” Even in the “final” timeline where Madoka has removed the witches, Homura continues to view the world as tragic and evil as evidenced by the ghosts that she must fight–she recognizes that the world’s still an awful place and it’s still terrible to be teenage girls, but she’ll protect it out of love for Madoka, in her name and using her weapon.

Witchhood is typically associated with women: the third stage after maiden and mother. Madoka girls skip the motherhood part since they’re never allowed to reach adulthood before Kyubey’s contract destroys them, but they remain constrained by the remaining roles: the innocent maiden and the powerful crone/witch–and since female power is to be feared, the witches are of course “evil.” Kyubey keeps the transformation from magical girl to witch a secret, instructing the girls he recruits that the witches are irredeemable monsters rather than the product of PTSD. The narrative of course doesn’t offer possibilities for a reversal from witch to girl; as far as we know they are beyond being reasoned with, pure monstrous ids that destroy and consume–Madoka’s final witch form tries to annihilate earth itself, though like all other witches it has a specific vision:

Witch of salvation. Her nature is mercy. She absorbs any life on the planet into her newly created heaven–her barrier. The only way to defeat this witch is to make the world free of misfortune. If there’s no grief in this world, she will believe this world is already a heaven.

Madoka’s witch doesn’t destroy mindlessly; she wants to impose her inner utopia on an outside world that’s deeply hostile to women.

It’s of some interest that official sources choose to call the witches’ dimension “barriers”–whether or not this is intentional it does carry the connotations that they exist as the witches’ defenses, adding to the idea that they are the witches’ safe space. The witches don’t leave their barriers ever–they can’t even seem to stay too far from these barriers’ center: if they can find the exit, magical girls can escape with relative ease. Familiars operate in these barriers to enforce the witches’ sense of security and to reinforce their vision of utopia, whether it is tea parties or rose gardens symbolizing the witch’s/girl’s coping mechanism.

Several viewers consider adulthood in Puella presented as terrifying–but what’s really terrifying isn’t so much adulthood itself but the fact that, as teenage girls, reaching adulthood can be terrifying due to a lack of support and cultural denial of sympathy or empathy.

Of the main characters, the girls who fall into despair tend to have no support network and their problems result directly from men: Kyoko’s father was an unstable fanatic who murdered his entire family, Sayaka centers her life around a male crush who treats her like trash and her moment of breakdown is instigated by faceless men being assholes about the women they’re exploiting (“dumb slut,” “You just can’t treat women like rational human beings”). She specifically lashes out at misogynistic men who confirm that the world, containing scum, isn’t worth protecting–and she is narratively demonified: she becomes a witch.

Madoka, in contrast, has a loving family and more importantly a mother who’s close to and cares for her (possibly Madoka’s mother is the only adult in the series who has something useful to say, though like adults tend to be in media with child protagonists she is essentially ineffective)–she’s the only one throughout multiple timelines who remains the most idealistic to the bitter end. Homura, though without a support network, finds a home with the other magical girls and a raison d’etre in Madoka. These two are motivated by their bond for one another and they are the only two who successfully escape the cycle, Madoka by ultimately erasing it. How well that’ll turn out remains to be seen later this year when the third movie comes out, but it does stand that Madoka overthrows a system that specifically targets young girls and literally becomes an omnipotent deity who uses her cosmic powers to save all the girls that have been victimized by it past, present and future.

It’s a celebration of the heart of the magical girl genre: the intense, deep bond between girls that makes anything possible–even godlike powers that rewrite the universe.

Madoka’s ascent to godhood reminds me of Elaine Belloc’s; both girls become the ultimate omnipotent force and both alter timelines to find happiness for people closest to them–Madoka’s and Elaine’s mothers, Madoka’s and Elaine’s closest friends. Where they differ crucially is the source of their power: Yahweh directly hands over his to Elaine while Madoka’s comes from the weight of accumulated misery created by Homura’s constant alteration of timelines. Elaine’s power is inherited from a male source, Madoka’s from a female one, however inadvertent. Moreover, Elaine’s godhood is approved by men (Yahweh and Lucifer) whereas Kyubey neither expects nor approves Madoka turning into a cosmic concept that wrecks his species’ energy-harvesting scheme. So while Elaine has an arguably easier time of it narratively, she still works within a men-approved system. Madoka outright breaks it.

It’s still only an accidentally feminist show in the sense that I doubt any of the people involved with it set out with a specifically progressive goal (and there’s some amount of fanservice), but it lends itself surprisingly well to a feminist analysis–pretty obviously, so it’s not like you need a degree in gender studies to see it, though I’ve probably got one of those lying around somewhere. Plus, taking a feminist hammer to it makes for a hilarious FUCK YOU, NERDS gesture to loser fanboys.

By the way, official art includes things like this. You still see people screaming that Madoka and Homura are JUST REALLY GOOD FRIENDS. I know I tie my hand to my platonic friend’s with a red ribbon of fate all the time while blushing furiously. Don’t you?

20 thoughts on “PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA

  1. This is a cool analysis of the show. Most of the writing on Madoka I’ve seen tends to just wank over how edgy and “subversive” it is or whatever.

    “You know what, though? Those fucks are wrong. Puella Magi Madoka Magica stays absolutely true to the genre.”

    See, this is what I’ve always thought since I watched the show but very few people seem to agree. It’s certainly true that it’s darker than the first episode would have you expect and That Scene in episode 3 is obviously set up to be shocking, but it’s really not all that dark. And let’s not forget the ending, which is about as idealistic and up-beat as you could possibly get given the preceding episodes (incidentally many people hate the ending for “betraying” the gritty grimdarkness of the show that seems to exist mostly in their own minds).

    Also worth noting, Urobuchi has apparently stated on numerous occasions that he didn’t actually intend the story to be a subversion or deconstruction of anything, just a well written and somewhat different take on an established genre.

    • “Also worth noting, Urobuchi has apparently stated on numerous occasions that he didn’t actually intend the story to be a subversion or deconstruction of anything, just a well written and somewhat different take on an established genre.”

      I remember reading that he said he intended to make a happy anime for once. I haven’t watched his other stuff, but I believe him.

      I think the show is considered grimdark because it hurts young girls and their dreams, which seems to be a requirement in grimdark stories if they include girls or women. This has something to do with the idea of masculinity triumphing over femininity, the young girl’s trust and hope – and the associated liking of sparkles – being a weakness that the ‘real world’ will exploit and teach her a lesson about. It doesn’t work if a girl’s trust and hope erases the punishment inflicted on other girls and herself, if she never stops trying to achieve her dream and caring about those other girls.

  2. Hmmm, speaking of takedowns on anime I found this

    http://animediet.net/reviews/anime-reviews/attack-on-titan-mikasa-is-shockingly-beautifugly

    review on Attack on Titan’s awesome female character Mikasa. The author loves that she’s a strong female character…as long as she doesn’t show her six-pack. Mikasa is the number one ranked soldier in the AoT world and damn, I think one of the first realistic athletic females in anime-dom to be drawn with muscles. So, of course it squicks out the viewers because super athletic women fail to be fap material like the good little sexual objects they are supposed to be. I think I would be willing to pay you to take down that asshat. As long as you don’t mind crafts and/or peanut butter cookies.

    Man, I knew from the beginning that Kyubey thing was creepy as all get-out. I’ve only seen a couple of episodes so now I’ll have to go and watch more of it. Thanks for the awesome dissection of Madoka Magica.

    • Kinda wondering how strong a character (in a feminist sense) Mikasa actually is. Yes, she’s pretty much the single most dangerous combatant in the main cast. However, it’s a plot point that she has a disturbingly codependent attachment to the main character, Eren (as in, the story subtly points it out in a ‘yo, this is kind of fucked-up’ way), and she pretty much tries to self-destruct when she believes he’s dead.

      AoT has a far greater number of competent and prominent female characters than is normal for shonen, and the fanboy outrage over ‘how dare professional soldiers have visible musculature’ is deeply gross, but it’s not without its problems. Ymir, for instance, may be slightly more complex than the standard ‘psycho lesbian’ archetype, but she’s still the only canonically non-straight character in the cast, and still ends up betraying her allies and working with the bad guys because of her obsessive crush on another girl.

    • I love how the author automatically assumes the commenter who says there should be more body diversity for female anime characters only thinks so because they OBVIOUSLY must be a girl with six-pack abs. Like, WUT?? How could they even infer that from their post?

      Also, if memory serves me right, AnimeDiet is an open pedophile who only went to Japan to become an English teacher and prey on underage girls…then again, I’m probably confusing him with some other weaboo fanturd who’s internet-infamous.

      • Yeah, that’s a pretty bad article about the lack of ‘sexiness’ a gal with six-pack abs has. (Dude also slams Sarah Conner from the Terminator movies for the same ‘crime’ as Mikasa :P . )

        Btw, AnimieDiet isn’t one person, it’s a group of like 12 people blogging under that banner. The opinions of that post’s writer, MonsieurMoe, should be considered as just his opinions, not necessarily that blog’s opinion on Mikasa’s abs. For a different take on AoT and Mikasa, here’s something written by AnimieDiet bloggerMortiheil (I think that’s the write spelling here): http://animediet.net/reviews/attack-of-common-sense
        Dude(ette?) raises some interesting points about some of the themes in this series.

  3. Yes! I don’t want to read feminist intent into the creators, but this is the reading that jumped out me as I watched the series. Homura and Madoka break my heart and then lift it up; Sayaka’s despair was pretty obviously tied to men breaking her illusions of their worth – her crush, the strangers, Kyubey. Kyoko’s father became a murderer because he couldn’t handle that his ego was hurt. Then Homura gets wings made out of the space stuff that was wrapping around them during her last talk with Madoka, and fights in her name.

    The genre isn’t perfect and I’ve come to look at it differently over time, but this is why I’ve always had a weakness for it.

  4. Ooh, very cool writeup. In particular, Kyubey-as-patriarch casts the whole ‘we must exploit these weird, unique, and scary teenage girl emotions’ angle in an interesting light.

    It is an interesting question of whether or not Urobuchi was intentionally setting out to address feminist subjects – this is a show that’s exceedingly heavy on the metaphor (just check out Kyoko and Sayaka’s death scene), and is clearly trying to address broader themes, it’s just a question of what those themes are. Of course, death of the author, so what themes it actually addresses are more important (as is how successfully it ends up addressing them), but I still think it’s kind of fun to speculate.

  5. Interesting writeup. I mostly looked at it as a Faust reference. (Goethe’s version, since that’s the one I’m familiar with) Which is itself kind of interesting (since Faust is something of a male archetype) Given that it clearly borrows from Goethe’s Faust, I wasn’t really surprised by the ending. (although there’s a striking difference in that when Faust sacrifices himself it is for, essentially, strangers, while Madoka is more tightly intertwined with the other characters)

    I do agree that it’s not particularly subversive (although it has some great art design) it’s vaguely more violent, but Magical Girl shows has done a lot of stuff like that before (heck, Utena did it). My mind wasn’t really blown by the show, though I did like it well enough.

    • Actually, as I recall, it was eventually revealed that Homura was Faust, with Madoka being Gretchen, the woman who redeems Faust and frees him from his deal with Satan (i.e., Kyubey) through her love. There are plenty of hints, but they make it explicit with the Madoka-witch’s name, Kreimhild Gretchen.

  6. This series is great but the manga….man, the manga is just pedophile fan-service, especially the spin-off, it’s just a bunch of 13 year old girls traipsing about in lingerie and stilettos, like…ew…I kinda puked in my mouth when I found it at Barnes and Noble.

    • It does seem to be an unwritten rule that manga spin-offs of anime-first series tend to be significantly creepier than their source material, yes. Not quite sure why that is.

    • The main series does have its failings, like the fact that Mami’s boobs are emphasized by her costume, which is creepy as fuck. But yeah, the Kazumi spin-off is HOLY SHIT gross city, like it was drawn by pedo for pedos.

  7. Thank you for writing this review! I’ve seen this anime touted to the skies across the web and always been suspicious–I suspected male fans were just loving seeing underaged girls in lacy costumes being brutalized, and using artistic meaningfulness/quality as an excuse to support doing so.

    Your review convinced me to watch it, and I’ve enjoyed it. I think there’s still a lot that’s wrong (sexualizing costumes, girls losing their clothes entirely when deep emotive sharing is required, that take on f/f relationships as both scandalously dirty and pure/cute that I’ve seen in other manga and anime…), but the clarity of the metaphor, with the male contractor pushing the girls to literally sell themselves to a system that takes their hope for love, meaning, justice, and the future and dashes them, was remarkable. And I loved that Madoka’s mother gets a few scenes, including one with another adult woman, in which to express her own struggles with her roles in life.

    It was very nice to see a series ending with a woman becoming God–and, specifically, a god of hope for women. It’s still not quite on in its message that the only way to deal with young women’s hurt and disillusionment is to have it–and even their bodies–erased, or at least absorbed into another plane of existence where they can be soothed and not disturb the primary world. Homura seemed like the only magical girl who was allowed to keep her pain and act in the world using it.

    • I suspected male fans were just loving seeing underaged girls in lacy costumes being brutalized, and using artistic meaningfulness/quality as an excuse to support doing so.

      Same.

      girls losing their clothes entirely when deep emotive sharing is required

      Movie version puts magic dresses on both of them. I’m of two minds about that actually, since it reinforces the “see? they’re NOT sexual at all!!!! NO HOMO NO HOMOOOO” and the original naked space hug has them featurelessly naked rather than titillatingly naked, so.

      It’s still not quite on in its message that the only way to deal with young women’s hurt and disillusionment is to have it–and even their bodies–erased, or at least absorbed into another plane of existence where they can be soothed and not disturb the primary world.

      Yeah, it’s bothersome in that the girls Madoka saves still die. About the rest, I’m kind of willing to hold out for the third movie to see what happens.

  8. Good point about the nudity. It’s the only way to unequivocally drive home how intimate they are, and how much they are open to each other and love one another–to suggest sexuality between them. My discomfort comes from that part of me that sees images of women in physical intimacy and wants to go find any male viewers looking at those images just as erotic/voyeuristic objects and jab them in the eyes with a stick.

    I hope the third movie pulls through with the theme. Homura’s a fabulous character, and I’d like to see her push for even greater change and succeed.

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