Going Dark II: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Okay, taking up from last time, (yeah, if you didn’t read it last time this won’t make a lot of sense this week, there there’s the link right there) Magical Girl shows tend to have four common characteristics, I mean, apart from just having Magical Girls in them:

Transformation
Mutual support
Cuteness
Triumph

The formula is so tight that it gets mocked – and properly so – in some modern reinventions of the genre. In Magical Girl Ore the girls turn into hulking, hairy men, all cuteness gone. Magical Girl Spec Ops Asuka takes Asuka out of her Girl group and leaves her alone to deal with her PTSD.

But Puella Magi Madoka Magica blows the whole genre upside down, and that makes it brutal. Let’s look at the characteristics one at a time:

Transformation

The essence of the Magical Girl trope is the transformation, the incantation or instrument (or both) that changes the regular girl into the Magical Girl. But until the very last episode our hero Madoka Kaname does not transform. She goes into the Labyrinths numerous times, has to be protected by her friends and acquaintances…

…But she doesn’t transform. Madoka Magica is a Magical Girl show that HAS magical girls but is about a non-magical girl.

The other girls, Mami, Homura, Sayaka, and Kyoko, DO transform and they go through typical Magical Girl change sequences…but for three of them the transformations ultimately end up being one way. Mami, Sayaka, and Kyoko all die in their pretty hair and pretty suits.

And Mami and Sayaka don’t stop transforming. They make a second transformation, into horrible witches. No more pretty hair, no more magical weapons. (I mean, it happens to Kyoko, too, but she’s off-screen when it happens.)

Madoka Kaname

Unmagical Magical Girl: Madoka Kaname

But not Madoka. She’s a girl, but she ain’t magical.

Mutual support

Ha, you’ve got to be kidding me! In Madoka Magika, nearly everything that smacks of support is undermined or stripped away.

Madoka has her friend Sayaka, but as Sayaka advances as a Magical Girl she becomes a witch, not just no longer Madoka’s friend but an evil entity willing to kill her. Madoka meets Kyoko, whose actions are completely self-serving and in fact outright antagonistic to Sayaka and Madoka. Then there is Homura, who is cold and distant, and discourages Madoka from becoming a Magical Girl at every opportunity – and, it turns out, has been doing the same in hundreds of parallel universes.

Support? Mutual love and respect? Fie on those ideas!

Worse, it’s actively subverted. In the third episode Mami declares that she can do anything now that she knows that Madoka and Sayaka are with her. Yay! Grrrrl Power!

THOSE ARE HER LAST WORDS. Boom. She is killed immediately. Killed and eaten. We sometimes describe this a “being hit by a clue-by-four.”

So much for the power of a supportive group.

Cute

There’s a certain element of cute that is totally unavoidable when you decide to make a show about school girls. They have to have nice faces and nice clothes. And great hair. Mami’s hair is so great that Mami cosplayers are a regular on the con circuit.

But the cutest element of Puella is the little critter Kyubey. He’s little and he’s like a tiny kitty-kat and he looks so warm. Oh, and he can grant wishes! He’s like a cute little genie, isn’t he?

You know how it goes. Kyubey is cute on the outside. Inside he’s a cold, manipulating user, very like Satan himself in that when you make a deal with Kyubey you will get exactly the letter of what you bargain for and not one god-blessed thing more AND oh, by the way, when he makes you into a Magical Girl he SENTENCES YOU TO DEATH.

I’m not really familiar with that construction of the term, “cute.”

And, of course, cute little Mami and cute little Sayaka and cute little Kyoko with their cute faces, in their cute dresses, and their cute hair, get turned into ugly witches. It’s even worse than the moment in Snow White where the beautiful but evil queen Maleficent turns herself into a hideous crone. She does that voluntarily. The girls are killed before they are turned into witches.

Triumph

Triumph? You’ve got to be kidding me.

Mami’s DEAD and becomes a witch.
Sayaka’s DEAD and becomes a witch.
Homura blows Kyubey away at one point but it doesn’t take
Kyoko stands up to the Sayaka-witch and doesn’t get away. She’s DEAD.

The whole nature of the Magical Girl universe in Madoka Magica is that every Magical Girl is destined to die and become a witch. Ultimately they will run out of girls; there will be nothing left but witches, eating people. Presumably when the people are hunted into extinction the witches will die as well. Death is all the future of this world holds.

Now, ultimately Madoka “wins,” for a certain value of winning. She plays the protagonist’s role in that she drives the story to its conclusion.

But the only means she has available to her to “triumph” in the end is to CHANGE THE GAME. The only way Madoka can save the world is to blow it up, which is to say, utterly destroy the system that creates Magical Girls in the first place.

The only way to triumph in this Magical Girl story is to turn it away from being a Magical Girl story. Madoka uses her wish to blow up the whole system. BOOM. No more labyrinths, no more witches, no more Magical Girls, everyone back to life again.

Yeah, that’s meta. I’m not sure which level, but it’s meta.

That’s what’s so cool about Puella Magi Madoka Magica: It tells you it’s a Magical Girl story and then subverts every element of Magical Girl stories. It turns the whole thing inside out, takes the can of pink paint that coats Magical Girl stories and dyes it black, dead black. And then it blows everything up.

It reminds me of the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. You know, A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. The Western was dead as a movie genre. It reached its apex with John Ford’s films and after that there was nothing left to say.

Until Leone turned the classic Western hero into an amoral anti-hero. BOOM. A whole new generation of Westerns.

Madoka Magica turned the Magical Girl inside out, sat back and said, “What would happen if we took the magical girl genre and stripped away the successful tropes that created it?” Yup. That’s how we end up with Magical Girl Ore. That’s how we end up with Magical Girl Asuka Spec Ops. These anime exist because Puella Magi Madoka Magica Went There. It went DARK.

I’m not even remotely the target audience for a Magical Girl story. But I think Puella Magi Madoka Magica is brilliant.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

2 thoughts on “Going Dark II: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

  1. That’s one of the best summaries I’ve read for Madoka. Which versions have you seen? I initially saw a 3-part movie, and your writeup describes that one very well. I later on watched some OVA or other Madoka series, and it wasn’t as dark.

    Liked by 1 person

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