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.

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Log Horizon: Game Mechanics and Human Rights

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 Log Horizon anime.

Human rights, at least as they were initially conceived, trace their origins back to the Age of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophers were attempting demonstrate an objective value in humanity that, if not altogether rejecting the existence of a higher power, can stand independently from reasons of religion (i.e. Humans were God’s chosen people). Many rulers of old based their legitimacy to lead on divine law (They were God’s chosen rulers), which to some Enlightenment thinkers could be tantamount to tyranny. Europe was also recovering from the bloody religious wars that took place just before the Enlightenment, their traumatic memories spurring advocacy during the period itself for the separation of church and state.  What the Enlightenment philosophers came up with in response to the supposed irrationality of religiously-motivated oppression and violence was the concept of the law of nature, divorced from divine mandate. Core to every fiercely debated Enlightenment interpretation of the natural law was entitlement drawn from rationality. Humans are rational beings. Because humans are rational beings, they are inherently and universally entitled to certain rights. These rights were natural and inalienable.

It is by this understanding that it is unreasonable for natural rights to be violated arbitrarily by other rational beings, and provides a justification for rational beings like human ones to take up arms so as to have these rights establish respect.  John Locke believed that men were entitled to the rights to life, liberty, and property in his Second Treatise of Government. Thomas Jefferson reinterpreted these rights for men as the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the American “Declaration of Independence,” the official reason for the American colonies’ separation from the British empire. This document would become one of the inspirations for the later French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” the official manifesto of the French Revolution. Decades later, like the American one before it, the French document became one of the blueprints for the “United Nations (UN) Declaration of Human Rights.” The reasoning behind human rights is grounded in theories concerning  natural rights that were originally formulated in the Enlightenment era. The designation of rationality and the entitlement that comes backseat with it expanded overtime, being applied first to white men, and then to all men, and then to all men and women… to all humans.

Quite apart from the more typical low-brow affairs that trapped in a fantasy world isekai shows busy themselves with, Log Horizon also concerns itself with the topic of natural rights in a video game. In typical isekai set-up, Log Horizon’s real-life human players are trapped in the MMO world of their fantasy playground, attempting to figure out how to get by in their familiar yet unknown surroundings. In not-so-typical isekai fashion, Log Horizon’s trapped player characters (the “Adventurers”) find themselves arguing around a round table of whether NPCs (the “People of the Land”) also possess natural rights. At its core, natural law dictates that the Adventurers, by their nature as humans, hail from entitle them to certain rights. These natural rights exist under the understanding, whether designated by a God or not, that human beings exist for their own sakes — as ends in themselves, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, the late Enlightenment figure. However, the Adventurers know that the People of the Land, by their nature as human pixel fantasy facsimiles, were created by real human game developers. We, the audience, know that NPCs in MMOs  are not exactly human. They are a digital resource for players for engage with for their entertainment. The People of the Land were not originally created for their own sakes, but for the Adventurers’.

It’s not totally unexpected then that some Adventurers have continued treat the People of the Land as mechanics to objectively exploit. As they rob their goods and even take their lives, these particular Adventurers prejudicially continue to regard the People of the Land with the chattel-like mentality that they always understood their existence by. By their original nature as NPCs in a fantasy MMORPG, the People of the Land were created to serve as the property and playthings of the Adventurer player base. In light of these cases of exploitation and the larger round table discourse on natural rights in the anime during the Akihabara round table discussions (from protecting Adventurers from being exploited by other Adventurers to protecting the People of the Land being exploited by Adventurers), what’s the rationale then to claim that the People of the Land should be accorded the same freedoms, dignities, and protections as the Adventurers? Why should the Adventurers People of the Land natural rights even when they were not exactly created as human beings in the first place?

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Land of the Lustrous: Mine Eyes Have Seen Much

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 Land of the Lustrous anime.

So there’s many little details in Buddhist art and imagery that are actually supposed to signify something important in Buddhism — symbolize some value that the religion itself teaches. Study the iconography of any buddha sculpted or painted, and you might notice that they’re depicted doing something funky with their hands. It turns out that how a buddha’s hands are positioned determines what kind of  Buddhist value is being communicated. A buddha depicted with an open palm forward communicates reassurance to the onlooker from suffering. A buddha depicted with a finger touching the ground communicates the realization by the figure of enlightenment. The same weighty symbolism can be said about a buddha’s eyes, which if you think about it, are often depicted in a manner that doesn’t reflect how people’s eyes normally look. They look like a combination of stoic and placid, and they’re supposed to represent what a person’s eyes would look after they reach enlightenment: aware, mindful, and content.

Of course, eyes have significations outside of Buddhist ones. Eyes attached to a face appear different between the developmental stages of infancy and adulthood. Illustrators and animators have played with how to depict eye composition and movement. Eyes are often said  to be windows to the soul in adage.  Eyes can reveal much about a person’s emotional state upon psychical study. They are associated with qualities related to people in stasis. They also convey qualities about people in action. The condition of Phosphophyllite’s eyes changes over the course of Land of the Lustrous, from wide and doey to narrow and sharp. In fact, the gem’s latter eye set looks positively buddha-eyed. Based off of the show’s more-than-flirtatious usage of Buddhist iconography, I don’t think this resemblance is a coincidence.

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