This post contains spoilers for Puella Magi Madoka Magica/Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica (魔法少女まどか☆マギカ) and Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie (劇場版 魔法少女まどか☆マギカ) Beginnings (始まりの物語), Eternal (永遠の物語), and Rebellion (叛逆の物語). Please watch the show (or first two movies) and Rebellion before continuing.
Everyone has some contrarian opinions, a prevalent example of this being to claim that the Star Wars prequels were actually good. While I’m sure that I have plenty of these opinions laying around myself, the one that always seems to throw me off upon being reminded of it is that Madoka Magica is actually a pretty decent show1. Actually, I don’t think there’s much use in using such weak wording here, I didn’t just think it was “decent” I thought it was really good to the point that I, whose average rating on MyAnimeList is 4.952, gave it a 9/10. If you look at my list you might even draw the conclusion that I only gave it a 9 and not a 10 for essentially just not being Neon Genesis Evangelion.
One might ask then “why did you like the show so much?” And a few might also be compelled to ask why this is even a contrarian opinion. It’ll be a lot easier to address this latter question first, and to describe why I think a lot of the critiques of this show are absolutely incorrect. Before I get into either of these questions even, I’ll go over the show a bit to provide some context. Of course, if you ignored the spoiler warning at the top of the page, this is a good time to put in a reminder that this post will contain a lot of spoilers for the Madoka Magica series and movies; if you haven’t seen them then I guess I will basically be explaining the whole thing to you.
The show follows Kaname Madoka (鹿目 まどか) as she decides whether or not she should accept the contract offered to her by Kyuubey (キュゥべぇ) to become a magical girl. While contemplating this decision, she is encouraged by her friend, Miki Sayaka (美樹 さやか), and an upperclassman who shows her the life of a magical girl, Tomoe Mami (巴 マミ); she is also discouraged by the actions of Akemi Homura (暁美 ほむら), another magical girl who is attempting to convince her not to accept the contract.
As a magical girl, it is a girl’s responsibility to fight witches. A witch is the manifestation of human despair, the create labyrinths that they trick people into entering, where they are trapped and consumed. Fighting them is very dangerous, as Mami points out to Madoka and Sayaka multiple times before ultimately exemplifying this herself by dying in front of them; it is, however, necessary for magical girls to defeat the witches both as the simply part of their contract and due to the powers of the Grief Seeds that defeated witches drop. A magical girl’s power comes from her Soul Gem, but as she uses it this becomes clouded, the only fix for which is to touch it against a Grief Seed.
The incentive to accept the contract, despite all this, is that you may have a single wish granted. The power of such a motivator is shown by Sayaka as she, despite seeing the death of Mami and the pain caused by being a magical girl, becomes a magical girl herself to help the boy she likes.
It is at this point that we can begin to ask how exactly any of this differs from other magical girl shows, what exactly about this show is subverting it? The trivial answer is in the tone. For a more in-depth answer we must first discuss the genre it is said to be subverting: what is a magical girl show?
While technically the only requirement to be of the magical girl genre is that a show contains girls (and this is arguably not restricted by gender) that have some magical powers, there are trends that become stereotypical across the genre, as is typically the case. One such trend in the magical girl genre is that there is some evil that is to be fought by these magical girls. Another is that, especially since this is typically a genre intended for younger audiences, the tone and framing of the magical girls’ actions are that of graceful heroes that enjoy saving the world from the aforementioned evil.
Madoka Magica subverts both of these quite well, which is admittedly why I chose them as examples of trends in the genre. Firstly, the evil that is being fought in the show is (spoilers) actually created by the magical girls themselves, they are all trapped in a system where by fighting this evil they eventually become that which they fight. It is through Homura’s character that we are shown the conclusion that those who created and maintain this system, the Incubators, are the true evil that should be fought against.
Second, as the true nature of the Witches is revealed, the framing of the actions of the magical girls is no longer necessarily that of heroism. This is wherein the common critique that the show is using edginess as its entire basis for genre subversion originates. The show does not present these girls as graceful heroes, but as tortured souls. We are especially shown this through Mami, who attempts to give off an air of majesty to give Madoka and Sayaka more confidence in the work of a magical girl, but is in reality suffering due to the difficulty of the work required of her. I will concede that there are points where the show is definitely trying too hard to make this point, including some lines that are quite “edgy.”
Finally, I can begin to get the point of this whole essay. In the end of the show, after finding out the truth about the magical girl system, Madoka finally decides to make a contract with Kyuubey. If a Soul Gem is not cleansed with a Grief Seed it eventually clouds over completely and the magical girl becomes a Witch. The Incubators (Kyuubey) use this system to harness the energy that is released by this conversion, but as Madoka is empathetic towards the pain experienced by the magical girls, her wish is to break this system such that the magical girls do not become Witches.
This wish creates what is then called the Law of Cycles (円環の理), a new system embodied by Madoka herself. She transcends not only the current system of magical girls but the current universe itself, rewriting it such that the magical girls are not made to suffer as their Soul Gems are cleansed by the Law of Cycles rather than becoming Witches. It is this idea that reminded me of the essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus, in which Camus discusses the Greek myth of Sisyphus and establishes the idea of accepting the absurd. Camus describes the situation Sisyphus finds himself in, that of rolling a boulder up a hill, watching it fall back down, and then repeating the process, as simply the unchanging reality of Sisyphus, something that he can and must accept. This is furthered by the fact that Sisyphus is not forced into this labor by chance but rather as a consequence brought to him by the gods that he had infuriated.
If we substitute the rock for the Law of Cycles, the clever trickery against the gods for the wish, and the gods for the Incubators, we can easily draw a parallel between these two stories. We see that, just as Sisyphus was set to eternally roll a boulder up a hill, Madoka is set to eternally purify those magical girls who would turn witches.
Madoka is the absurd hero, she exists as a consciousness trapped in an unending cyclical task as the result of her own actions. Because she chose this, we can easily imagine her happy.
Homura, however, exists as the natural consequence of such a godly power spawning from nothing: an opposing power. Rather than accept the absurdity, she rewrites the fundamentals of that absurdity, abolishing it by its own first principles.
What distinguishes Madoka from Sisyphus is that there exists a coercive force that would, if he were to somehow manage to break free from his current state, reestablish the status quo for Sisyphus, whereas no such thing exists for Madoka. If anything, Madoka’s position exists in opposition to what may be considered the gods in her story (the Incubators). Her situation exists as a result of a fundamental shift in the rules of the universe, which indicates that within the universe as is there is no possible change to it. However, if the universe could be amended once, without any change to that which allowed the amendment it could be amended once again.
That last assertion may actually be irrelevant here given the methodology by which Homura alters Madoka’s situation, but it indicates the possibility of such an action within this universe. What Homura does is take advantage of the separate existences of Madoka and the Law of Cycles, splitting them such that they may exist exclusive of each other. In essence, we can view this as Homura automating the Law of Cycles so that Madoka may live unburdened by its labor. Therein lies the issue one must take with the Myth of Sisyphus, that while we can accept the absurd (imagine Sisyphus happy) we can also in many cases alter the absurd such that more people are allowed to be happy than just our hypothetical Sisyphus.
While Madoka may be functionally similar to our absurd hero, she is not also equivalent to our proletarian of the gods. This key difference is something that Homura clearly takes advantage of. Since Madoka is not held in her position by any higher power than herself, changes can be made to the principles defining her position without also petitioning some higher power. The Myth of Sisyphus may provide a perfect example of a situation whose horror is remedied simply by embracing the absurd, Madoka Magica presents a situation that (while not wholly realistic) analogs the sort of nuance that one would find in more realistic situations.
I begin to wonder whether or not the critiques of this show are even as common among the actual audience as they are among some niche group of reviewers, since according to MAL my high rating of 9 for the show is actually only 0.55 above the average. Now, it is a very distinct possibility that this is actually a very common critique, but that this disagreement over whether or not the show sufficiently meets the requirements for good genre subversion does not affect people’s opinions on the show itself. If I’m to make the assumption that this is true, then I would have to make a correction to my earlier statement and say that my opinion is contrarian in that I believe that the show serves as a great example of genre subversion. ↩︎