Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains major plot spoilers for the Puella Magi Madoka Magica anime.
I can’t say that I ever liked Sayaka Miki much throughout my initial watch and subsequent re-viewings of Puella Magi Madoka Magica. I suppose part of it may have to do with her hyper-judgmental and antagonistic attitude toward Homura Akemi, my favorite magical girl in the series. A lot of it definitely is definitely connected to her demanding Madoka Kaname to become a magical girl too, knowing full well that the magical girl life has given her immense grief. Becoming a magical girl in Madoka Magica includes the transfer of one’s soul from their body to an external vessel, a soul gem. The body becomes soulless, and to Sayaka, the revelation that she was turned into some kind of zombie was horrifying. Sayaka believed that she gave up her soul and, consequently, her humanity to become a magical girl. For her to insist, afterwards, that her best friend should give up her humanity so that she can be good enough is just monstrous. I understand that she was in a bad mood, but that’s still no justification for her behavior.
Some hero she turned out to be.
Strangely though, I’ve noticed more than a handful of people on AniTwitter claim Sayaka for their avis while declaring openly that Sayaka is their favorite magical girl in the show. I didn’t really hate Sayaka by the end of it, but I didn’t have much love for her either. Eventually, the passionate and enduring appeal that Sayaka had over others prompted me to re-evaluate her character. Granted, Homura remains my favorite magical girl in the series even after that bout of soul-searching. However, I’ve grown to appreciate Sayaka far more than I used to. It’s quite similar, actually, to how I’ve grown to respect Iori Nagase in Kokoro Connect, despite clearly fancying Kokoro Connect’s Himeko Inaba more. I wonder if it’s because I wasn’t paying enough attention before. Or maybe it was because there was a familiar aspect of hers deep down that I didn’t consciously realize. She’s an innocent idealist underneath her teenage bluster, but that same idealism left her sensitive to nihilism and despair. I’d say that she’s a little like me.
I don’t know if I would call this as being heroic, but I always had this desire to help others. My Catholic background impressed the values of social justice in me at an early age, and those values have continued to fuel my current aspirations even as I’ve abandoned the Catholic practice. I especially fell in love with the idea of civic engagement. As my history textbooks wove this narrative to my bookish self of the indomitable march of progress for all good people, I felt compelled by my history lessons to contribute to that story in some way and leave my mark in the pages. To that end, I voraciously consumed knowledge on history, current events, politics, and the social sciences. They were the disciplines that most interested me, that I excelled at understanding, and I felt that I could be the most helpful through. Now, I feel jaded and washed-up. All too frequently, I see the violence, avarice, indifference, and cruelty of history as all too human. Human beings have done terrible things to each other, and they haven’t stopped doing them to the present. It’s cycle of suffering that has yet to cease even as humanity is renewed in every subsequent generation. For the innocent idealist, it’s tempting to feel discouraged by the history. It’s tempting to cathartically scream and flail at the inefficacy of one’s actions on the trajectory of current events. In a warped way, it’s comforting, even, to just give up and either (1) revel in the maddening darkness or (2) wither away in the absence of light.
Sayaka is the latter (2). Already established as something of an interventionist when she “saves” Madoka from Homura using a fire extinguisher, she is inspired by Mami Tomoe’s heroic magical girl ethic: diligently hunting the witches and familiars that threaten the lives of the city’s people. In the wake of Mami’s sudden death while performing her heroic magical girl duties, Sayaka continues to aspire to becoming a magical girl, one that wouldn’t be selfish like Homura and, later, Kyouko Sakura. She contracts to become a magical girl by wishing her childhood crush’s arms healed, restoring his ability to play music on his violin. She later discovers that she’s not particularly great at fighting. This lack of ability affected her self-appointed mission to protect others.
She later realizes that her soul has been transplanted into a container, making her believe that she’s become a zombie or a lich or at least not human.
Sayaka’s later confronted with the prospect of her childhood crush, who doesn’t know she healed his arm, going steady with her other friend, Hitomi. She becomes resentful toward Hitomi, thinking suddenly before feeling guilty about wishing that she hadn’t saved Hitomi that one time before. She becomes resentful toward Madoka, demanding in a blind rage that she should suffer like her. Finally, in that bad cursed state, she overhears men talking misogynistic trash about their girlfriends. Having lost her humanity before with her contract and all hope in it now through this conversation, she transforms into a mindless witch that proceeds to threaten the city’s people.
Sayaka had many bad days, but like an autoimmune disorder, her idealism left her vulnerable to taking those pathogenic moments very badly. She became disillusioned, questioning whether others were worth saving after all. She was corrupted by this dispiriting inquiry, and her heroic spirit became something destructively alter. Her regression from a magical girl into a fiendish witch is, in part, one brought about by self-inflicted wounds. Other magical girls like Mami, Homura, and Kyouko were able to manage their nihilisitc challenges more ably compared to Sayaka. Mami was adept at combat to a level that Sayaka could never hope to be or train properly enough to reach. Homura attached little value to her apparent humanity. Homura didn’t much value other humans overall, instead ascribing her everything, everything that she believed was worth living and fighting for, on Madoka. Kyouko was once a believer in helping others like Sayaka, having also grown up from a Christian background. Her wish to aid her father’s work in helping others ended up destroying her family, however. Rather than falling into abject despair over it, she coped by deciding to never look out for anyone but herself (1).
Sayaka was never that consistent or effective in her selfless hero business. Maybe if she abandoned her self-righteous, arrogant, impossible idealism, she could have brought less grief on everyone. Kyouko wouldn’t have sacrificed herself to save her sorry ass, and Homura could have had Kyouko’s help with Walpurgisnacht. Just maybe, Homura and Kyouko would have been enough to defeat Walpurgisnacht together without Madoka’s assistance. Madoka may not have felt compelled enough to contract under those circumstances. Homura wouldn’t have any reason to feel sad and despair. That said, the show would have communicated a bleak and pessimistic message, that the best (or least troublesome) state of humanity is a self-serving one.
But the show doesn’t reject the ideal of heroism, because to Kyouko, Sayaka became her hero. Sayaka saved Kyouko from a melancholic lack, subsisting day to day on scraps of snacks and witches without a substantiating purpose to sate her hunger. For the first time in a long time, Kyouko felt fulfilled as she sacrificed herself to save Sayaka from her despair. As much of a loss as Kyouko’s death was to Homura, the show ultimately frames Kyouko’s decision to die with Sayaka as a triumphant one that completes her character arc and redeems her character. However discouragingly meaningless these losses felt at the time, it is the collective sacrifices of Mami, Sayaka, Kyouko, and Homura that informs and completes Madoka’s own character arc.
Madoka reaffirms all their heroic ideals, universal and personal, by using her wish to become a magical girl to re-write the very structure under which magical girls operate. The result of this revision is a system that turned the impossible into the possible, that would ensure that the self-sacrifice of every magical girl would never be in vain. It is a new order that encourages heroism instead of selfishness from its magical girls, supported by her transformation into a literal goddess at the expense of remaining human. Even if Sayaka’s individual acts of heroism didn’t appear to matter much to her at the time, those heroic acts inspired others like Kyouko and Madoka to engage in heroic feats themselves. It redeemed them and laid the foundations for real progress for magical girls and normal people everywhere. No one needs endure absolute despair anymore, because there will always be someone there, fighting for their happiness. In the show’s epilogue, Sayaka gets to see clearly how much her heroism has touched other people’s lives. She sees her childhood friend playing beautiful music on his violin again. She sees Hitomi looking at him expectantly, alive and well. She wants to apologize for the trouble she caused for Kyouko, but other than that, she feels content knowing that her clumsy attempts at heroism brought about something good for someone.
I’ve had my bad share of days, and my habitual news tracking hasn’t given me a lot of reason for optimism. The job hunt for steady and fulfilling public service work has become discouraging for me as of late. Liberal values, among them human rights, are under attack around the globe. The Philippines elected a president responsible for spearheading a cruel drug war. Rodrigo Duterte threatens to turn the country back into a brutal illiberal dictatorship like the one it had under Ferdinand Marcos. Myanmar’s Aung Suu Kyi’s human rights credentials are being reexamined and revoked by other humanitarian advocates as she continues to stand by and allow the Muslim Rohingya to be displaced and genoicided by her country’s military and Buddhist zealots. The US’s current administration has abandoned human rights as a priority and is flirting openly with dictators guilty of humanitarian violations. I’ve stared into space at times — in the ceiling, at the sky, gazing into the abyss — tempted to give up on everything, to never bother with anyone ever again, all because it’s too much trouble.
Why strive to be a hero, help others, and make the world a better place, when your life sucks, the people around you are assholes, and the world looks like it’s falling apart? Both Sayaka and I have struggled with these questions. I describe her as a dummy in the show, but that kind of implicates me as being an idiot in real life. With a caveat, Sayaka is a hero. She was a failure and a success, and I’ve grown to appreciate her more than before. I relate to Sayaka far more closely than I’d like to. I want to look at the bright side more often, but as someone whose instincts are to see the glass half-empty, it’s a difficult routine to keep up indefinitely without some good news every now and then. We want our self-sacrifices to matter, to be appreciated, and do some lasting good. I don’t fancy the “hero” title much myself. I’m not so ambitious anymore. In fact, I feel all too world weary nowadays, tired. For all her screw-ups though, at the very least, Sayaka has something to her hero title to be proud of.
Management: If you’d like to check out the Kokoro Connect article that I mentioned earlier about Iori Nagase and pessimistic outlooks, the link’s here.