Puella Magi Madoka Magica and the Heroes of the Postmodern Era

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Puella Magi Madoka Magica anime.

Since its release, a lot of buzz has been made about Puella Magi Madoka Magica as this revolutionary deconstruction of the mahou shoujo, or magical girl, genre. A lot of bickering and controversy has ensued from arguments pertaining to deconstruction: about whether Madoka Magica qualifies as a deconstruction and whether its supposedly nature as a deconstruction is meaningful. It’s true that the writing of Madoka Magica subverts myriad elements of magical girl anime into a variety of horrific scenarios. It’s true that those subversions do violence to preconceived notions of what magical girl anime could be until now.

But as far as the connotations of revolutionary are concerned, Madoka Magica doesn’t really overturn anything in the magical girl genre that is worth a revolution. More than a few prior and acclaimed magical girl shows have already played with darker themes and sterner material, if not quite to the degree of Madoka Magica. Furthermore, Madoka Magica doesn’t really dissect any of the troubling subtext that the magical girl genre has a history of presenting. Magical girl anime has a  record of being vehicles for capitalist consumption in the form of selling toys and other merchandise. Magical girl anime has a past of placing limits on the girls they claim to empower by retiring them from action before they grow up.

But even whilst magical girl shows moved product into family households and placed limits on what young women were allowed to do, the magical girls themselves were doing other things that weren’t questionable and were in fact quite admirable. They fought for others out of a sense of community and altruism. They saved and protected people because they believed were worth saving and protecting. Magical girl anime showcased kindness and heroism as good things. They taught compassion and community as principles worth emulating. And yet, it’s these virtues that Madoka Magica scrutinizes in its take on magical girls, and not the others. But why these qualities? Is there something so sinister about them that they need to be proven as entirely disingenuous?

Not sinister, in Madoka Magica‘s case, but naive.

Not naive in that everyone who believes in ideals are naive or foolish.

Naive in that it’s challenging to stay fully committed to them in real life for long.

On storyboards, modern fictional heroes such as magical girls can make it look so easy folks to be better versions of themselves for their communities. By contrast, the newspapers can make it look like people are little more than animals, with their communities being little better. If you will, imagine, visually, the human lifespan: people being kids and people becoming adults. Your average well-adjusted first-world child is probably informed by the optimism of the superhero media that they regularly consume. Their optimism becomes tempered by knowledge of how malicious and indifferent people continue to be with each other. They look back to their superhero media of yonder and re-evaluate their relationships with them. They make a determination. Do they break up with their old stories like a spouse who’s discovered evidence of cheating?  Do they reject their old heroes for betraying their trust by speaking lies or half-truths? Or do they negotiate a different understanding with them because, at the end of the day, you can’t help but wish for the naivety to be true?

To me, the depth of Madoka Magica lies less in its debated worth as a magical girl deconstruction and more in its painful resonance as a critique of the Enlightenment through the magical girl genre. The darkness in Madoka Magica is not so much an exercise in self-indulgent edginess as it is a reflection of the systematic coldness and callousness of postmodern living. In many ways, the thematic priorities of magical girl anime, as with other works of heroism, reflect hopeful Enlightenment assumptions: an optimism towards humanity and an idealism toward humanity’s future. As is per convention, the magical girl heroine fights for people and the world because of the underlying assumption that they are universally worth saving. Madoka Magica challenges that convention by portraying these same people and the very world as the cause of their suffering. Compassion in contemporary society not so much demonized as it is sparing, and cruelty of postmodern life seems so profusive as to be unstoppable.

Postmodernist beliefs are a reaction to Enlightenment ones. For our intents and purposes, think of Enlightenment as idealism in a more humane future, the belief in progress for everyone, the grand narrative that society is always evolving for the better. Think science. Think politics and morality. Think Star Trek’s Federation: more advanced, more civilized… more perfect. But after living through the human-wrought carnage of the World Wars (especially the Second) and the role “progress” played in facilitating those travesties, some philosophers casting doubt on Enlightenment philosophy’s default faith in humanity and laying critique on the Enlightenment’s view of universal progress. “Progress” can be reversed. It can be the cause of ruin. According to postmodern insight, “progress” is an arbitrary judgement, another turn-of-phrase claimed with no less legitimacy for endeavors by either fascist tribalists or democratic humanists. For all the good we wish for in the world, and for all the good to people we attempt to do in a lifetime or several, there always seems to be examples of people rejecting compassion outright and inciting compassion’s polar opposite. Noble intentions are distorted and poisoned. Ash and inflammation are an ever extant sight. To then be nurtured in the swaddling robes of humane idealism and sent out, naive, naked, into this barbed and smoking thicket of human depravity is to invite existential despair.

Existential despair is something each of the magical girls of Madoka Magica brush up against, and either cope with or give into. Mami Tomoe operates closest to the Enlightenment magical girl ideal at the beginning of the show. She protects and saves folks where she can while being extremely competent at fighting. She carries on like this for witch and familiar despite probably knowing it would be more beneficial to hunt the latter until they fester into the former and can drop grief seeds when beaten. Her dedication to being that model magical girl stems from the guilt of using her one consequential wish to save herself and not her parents. The revelation that her very nature as a magical girl is a danger to everyone she’s sworn to protect and save causes her to crack mentally. Someone as neurotically other-centric as Mami will naturally despair at the thought that her very nature as a magical girl – as an incubator to a witch – is responsible for further suffering.

Kyouko Sakura and Sayaka Miki are both characters who also attempted to live up to the Enlightenment magical girl ideal. At some point in their tales, in Kyouko’s backstory and Sayaka’s character arc, they become disillusioned and lose their ways. Kyouko Sakura became a magical girl in exchange for wishing that people listen to her father, a priest who strove to protect and save as many people as he can with his ministry. The wish ends up destroying her father and family, and brings Kyouko with the conclusion that looking out for people other than herself is futile. Sayaka Miki became a magical girl to prove to others that protecting and saving other people is worth her life in service. That wish ends up destroying her faith in humanity, as she comes to the conclusion amidst stress from her personal life and bad brush-ups with other individuals that people are undeserving. It’s fitting that the catalytic moment that tips Sayaka’s ideals into a nihilistic abyss isn’t a fantastical or even entirely fictional scenario, but something based off a real life conversation on a train.

Homura Akemi is inspired by and ultimately becomes a magical girl thanks to the model exemplified by Madoka Kaname. But being that her understanding of the magical girl project as “protect and save” stem from her affection toward Madoka’s own faith in the world, Homura becomes disillusioned with that understanding of the enterprise when that same world chews her idol up and spits her out without so much as a card to express sympathy. Everything that Homura despises about the world is represented in Kyuubey. The role of the Incubators in the abstract represents not so much a Lovecraftian monstrosity as a postmodern insight. Whether it be by Incubators or not, humanity lives subjected to a system of callousness and cruelty, a system that will abuse and discard us at will, a system whose influence on our lives is difficult to tear away or escape from. To Homura, what’s the worth of a world that destines kind souls like Madoka for doom? She confesses at one point that she’d rather condemn the world to oblivion than go on by becoming a witch together with Madoka. But she goes on and struggles on because Madoka can’t help continue rooting for the magical girls out there, fighting for everyone.

The notion that every person possesses inherent dignity that should be respected, has human rights, in other words, is an idea that Enlighenment philosophy broadly endorses. The idea that the duty of magical girls is to protect people because they are worth saving also is necessarily Enlightenment-oriented. Madoka Magica confronts us with the postmodern insight of that dignity carrying no real weight on its own and the services of benevolent individuals being spurned and spat on inadvertently and intentionally. The show confronts its heroines with examples of how much the people can suck and how much the world doesn’t care. Homura spends the better part of the show attempting to demonstrate just that to Madoka, the former trying desperately to convince the latter not to join the magical girl project because the world isn’t worth it. The futility of Mami’s, Sayaka’s, Kyouko’s, and even Homura’s struggles and sacrifices should be evidence enough of that: ones that are rendered meaningless if not altogether counterproductive in the grander scheme of things. Mami dies unceremoniously despite all her pomp and skill. Sayaka despairs and becomes the villain despite insisting that she would never regret becoming a hero. Kyouko sacrifices herself for a dead girl, and Homura is left alone, once again, to face an unwinnable standoff against Walpurgisnaught. The suffering cycles through unabated, and continued battle is pointless, objectively-speaking.

But to Madoka, the struggles and sacrifices of her friends are meaningful. Mami’s atonement and loneliness are meaningful. Sayaka’s struggle for others was meaningful. Kyouko’s outreach toward Sayaka was meaningful. Homura’s time looping samsara-driven cycles of struggle and sacrifice and suffering was meaningful. It was all significant, to at least Madoka, and perhaps to the audience too. No longer was she naive to the hardships magical girls faced, she invested herself deeper into the heroic magical girl cause than ever. Informed by her postmodern insights of suffering yet nevertheless driven by her compassionate drive for how things should be, Madoka becomes a magical girl the likes which the system has never seen. She reformed the system so that magical girls are incentivized to be comrades instead of competitors, and are appreciated for their services when their time comes. They fight together, and they never die alone. When darkness approaches and despair encroaches, Madoka appears to provide company and succor.

While people in real life can’t necessarily rely on the opportunity of a wish to right our ship, Madoka Magica‘s position as a postmodern work allows its viewers to glean their own insights into how we can approach our own postmodern lives. The hopeful Enlightenment assumptions that once girded our destinies toward the seemingly inexorable future of Star Trekkian liberal democracy are coming undone and are veering our societies into a far more intolerant and authoritarian trajectory. Xenophobia and other prejudices are gaining ground and defining the era. Yet these eras have existed before, and all has not yet lost despite them. For according to Madoka Magica, there will always someone, out there, fighting for a better world. To understand postmodern insights as a wholesale rejection of Enlightenment ideals is as nihilistic as proclaiming Madoka Magica is only good because it’s a deconstruction is self-indulgent. The show acknowledges sharply how cruel the world can be through the lens of magical girls. And yet, the show declares resolutely that it’s still rooting for all those trying to make it a kinder place. In this dog-eat-dog piece-of-shit universe, there is solace in knowing that we are not alone.

Management: Outside of classic postmodernist texts, there were a couple of videos that I watched along the way that gave me clarity on what I wanted to say. The videos aren’t about Madoka Magica, per se, but they’re thematically appropriate bits of media analysis and criticism that I found valuable: one from Nightmare Masterclass, and another from The Architect of Games.

For more Madoka Magica reading, might I point you to another essay I wrote a while back.

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