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 cons or suckers.

Rather, naive in that it can be challenging in real life to stay committed to them.

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 modernism 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 modernist 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.

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Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Sayaka is a Hero*

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.

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ReLIFE: Graduation and its Distinctions

Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes. This post mainly references ReLIFE Episode 11: “A Trip to the Past.”

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Anime is already inundated by show after show of high school settings. It can get tiring after a while. I, therefore, couldn’t help but be intrigued by a 27 year old male protagonist looking for full-time work.  Expectations were betrayed somewhat when, one contract and one pill later, he got enrolled for high school looking ten years younger. I enjoyed it though. The show has its combination of high school shenanigans and old man jokes. I graduated from university recently and my back sometimes hurts.

As a fellow recent graduate, I found the male protagonist’s career troubles in ReLIFE relatable. I’ve felt the pressure of finding and working a job that’s financially sustainable and spiritually rewarding. The job I had until recently satisfied neither of those qualities. It was long hours of grunt labor from a demanding boss for menial pay and the expectation that I’ll eventually work my way up. And in the brief time that I’ve been employed in this line of work, politics specifically, there’s no shortage of people from the other factional camps undermining each other, suspecting each other, gossiping about each other, saying mean things towards each other.

It’s the kind of pettiness and nastiness that you expect that people, having graduated from school and/or aged enough, would have grown up and out from. Depressingly, exhaustingly, and perhaps even maddeningly, that’s not necessarily the case in either political America and corporate Japan. Kaizaki learns that lesson very harshly. To shake him out of his funk and find steady employment, he re-lives his high school life one more time for some healing… except that, as it turns out, high school life can also get pretty petty and nasty. And so, from a less than original premise, we get a somewhat novel perspective: high school life from a struggling salaryman.

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Samurai Flamenco: Cynicism, Society, and Stolen Umbrellas

Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes. This post mainly references Samurai Flamenco Episode 2: “My Umbrella Is Missing.”

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One of the moments I found most memorable in Samurai Flamenco didn’t involve any of the steadily spectacle-creep superhero battles. My evaluations of these battles ranged from tediously cliche (The Flamengers versus From Beyond) to absolutely ridiculous (Samurai Flamenco versus The Prime Minister). I would suspect a lot of people who watched the show from start to finish had similar reactions. But from moment-to-moment, the parts of the story I found the most emotionally resonant was the parts that were relatively mundane. They were slow moments, characters talking with each other, arguing with each other, sharing their ambitions and motivations, dreams and goals.

Getting back to the point, a moment that struck me was one about umbrellas. Hazama Masayoshi and Goto Hidenori are in a restaurant, eating, drinking, and talking about Hazama’s latest antics as Samurai Flamenco. That discussion leads back into a discussion of Hazama’s motivations for being a hero. Up to that point, Samurai Flamenco’s illustrious career thus far consisted of scolding people for not following the small laws: salarymen smoking in non-smoking zones, housewives putting out their trash too early, kids littering and staying out past curfew, and people swiping each other’s umbrellas from the public stands. These violations are misdemeanors at worst, and nuisances at best.

Most of the people who will read this post will be Westerners, and I’m an American. I can’t really argue with certainty how much of an issue government overreach happens to be outside of the US, but inside the US, there’s a deep distrust by many Americans of anything associated with the “nanny-state.”  I can’t help but be skeptical of it myself. They’re little, albeit formal, violations that the system lets slip under the cracks, because they’re not worth enforcing compared to other priorities. And indeed, the inevitability of them happening, the frequency by which they occur, and costs  of enforcement are deemed by policeman Goto as not worth the trouble for him to actively seek out. Hero Hazama disagrees. He disagrees, and he explains why by discussing the meaning behind his small-time crime fighting. Far from trying to invade people’s privacy and controlling their lives, what he wants to fight is cynicism.

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Kokoro Connect: A Glass Half-Empty

Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes. This essay, in particular, is about Kokoro Connect’s final arc, Michi Random, though the show does contain specific references to its first arc, Hito Random.

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As much as viewers of Kokoro Connect such as I may exclaim from the top of their Internet lungs Himeko Inaba being “GREAT SO GREAT WHY IS INABA SO GREAT” forever infinitum eternity etc, in truth, I don’t personally find her the most relatable character in the show. To be friends or even more-than-friends with someone like that in real life (if not with Himeko exactly) would likely be a dream come true for many fans of her character. Consensus-wise, the character that I found most relatable is decidedly less liked, not in the least due to her to her rather souring behavior in the show’s last animated arc, Michi Random. A girl so considerate, even-tempered, and sweet suddenly making an about-face and turned into this really sullen, angry, nasty bitch.

A lot of viewers felt disgusted by this newest attempt at “forced drama” gone too far. They felt betrayed that this bright and social character they liked or tolerated suddenly become bleak and anti-social. They couldn’t understand where her shift in attitude came from. They turned their backs to the story, deeming it contrived even in light of the show’s premise. They turned their backs to her. They might have gone back to waiting for Himeko to be adorable or awesome again, except this girl’s raining on Himeko’s freaking parade too.

So why do I find her relatable? Iori Nagase’s me, or at least an extreme version of me.

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