Back in January, a few episodes into the series, I wrote a little bit about Madoka and my expectations of what the series would ultimately turn out to be. I said that I wanted to see a magical girl series that reflected the truth of the world; that brought back the oldest and most primal lessons of a genuine mahou shoujo series: Hope is all we have. And you are not alone.
Madoka Magica has rewarded these expectations in spades.
I still get so emotional about Madoka’s ending that’s actually difficult to write dispassionately about it, and about the series as a whole, but here’s my best attempt. Overview first, finale later.
In the end, Madoka is not a game-changer; it’s not necessarily a revolution, it’s not even particularly unique, not even for its uncanny visuals in the witch barrier sequences. Gankutsuou was also a visually dazzling , innovative series that has been largely forgotten as a whole.
I can’t say Madoka has no flaws; some of the storytelling flaws are quite serious. The middle cluster of Sayaka-centric episodes are necessary for the audience to really feel the impact of a magical girl’s normal ‘lifespan’ under the retarded and brutal system of the Incubators, but Sayaka’s moods go up and down wildly (like the teenage girl she is), and the subplot begins to drag by the time she finally goes under. Kyouko gets even worse treatment, as she seems to do a radical flipflop in personality in the space of about three episodes with very little on-screen justification for the change. These are serious enough complaints, but when you realize in episode 10 that the true main character of the series is actually Homura it becomes even more of a frustrating diversion off the main thread.
Characters in Madoka are used as chess pieces and storytelling elements rather than as true characters; I’m not sure this will make sense the way I’ve phrased it, but let’s look at the brutal treatment of Mami as an example.
She was used as a generic magical girl to demonstrate a few basic functionalities of the system, and as soon as those scenes were complete, she was quickly and mercilessly disposed of to become the Nobody is Safe poster child for the series. Her death was completely predictable from a storytelling sense (not a viewing sense) because of her mentor role; the mentor always has to die at some point so the hero can mature.
In a 12 episode series brevity and compression are necessary, but Mami never got to be a real person apart from her plot-role; a walk-on part in Madoka and Sayaka’s Walls.
A lot of complaints of this sort can be brushed off with the greater understanding that really, nobody in Madoka Magica matters except Akemi Homura and Kaname Madoka. Madoka is their “love story” and their tragedy, and too bad for everyone else. The writers even told us as much so early on – “Homura always speaks the truth” and so on. Hell, even the story as we see it before episode 10 really doesn’t matter- it’s non-canon. If Homura sees a Bad End coming at Walpurgis Night, she’ll just kurikaesu her way back to the start and try, try again. This has the effect of further dehumanizing Mami, Sayaka and Kyouko and relegating their drama to screen-filler while Homura gets her shit together to try yet again behind the scenes.
It is completely fair to accuse Madoka of manipulating the audience with cheap tricks in this way, and I’ve seen some bloggers throw this accusation around. But the first 9 eps with all their drama and bluster are necessary to give episode 10’s brilliant recontextualizing of Connect, the OP theme, its full weight. Maybe some astute speculah folks might have guessed that the OP was Homura’s POV, but I’m willing to guess 95% of us were NOT. And that moment of “Oh shit! I had it all wrong oh my GOD OW MY BRAIN!” was a deliciously subversive feeling. It actually came dangerously close to breaking the fourth wall. In fact, I’d wager to say that bravery with fucking around with the OP is actually the greatest sequence in Madoka; we can no longer assume an OP or an ED isn’t an important part of the story any more.
This kind of moment (and yes, Mami’s unexpected murder) is where Madoka breaks with a lot of magical girl series; it hints at toying with the storytelling conventions of animation itself in places, and it depends on the audience’s expectations of the medium for some of its greatest moments of impact. If the art style of an anime series is the ground level of ‘reality’, and the witch barrier sequences are so different as to suggest another series entirely, an unreal other world, then we’re just as lost as the characters in it, because it breaks our understanding of conventional visual narrative. Only in animation can such an effect be brought about. The appearance of the first witchworld is a genuine shock; the series disentegrates into seeming madness.
Once we know the truth about what a magical girl and a witch are, it becomes impossible to view the witches and their worlds in the same manner as when we first started. Mami’s attacks in Charlotte’s world can no longer be seen as heroic; rather the whole thing becomes grotesque and even cruel with the benefit of hindsight. (or a Homura’s-eye-view?)
Sayaka’s witch form is encoded with visual references to the things that drove her mad within the story itself- her body tells the tale, her witch form is metatext, a commentary on herself; her character stripped down to a handful of critical visual elements, revealing more about what was important to her than any words she ever spoke. It makes you wonder what secrets are hidden in the barriers of the other witches.
As the series progresses, our perspective-as-audience is radically altered; if we roll back to the beginning in audience space just as Homura does in story space, we see things very, very differently the second time around. We have been changed in our journey, and the second run through plays out unlike the first. This is also a teasing of form; a series that reads differently, more depthfully, that reveals more of itself the second time around? Rare. Hard to pull off. Usually gotten wrong.
This is why I will defend Madoka despite its flaws; the story progresses in a tangible way, a way the audience feels during the changes, and the story changes us as we watch. Madoka isn’t perfect, its construction could be argued as crude or manipulative, but it is daring. It’s a journey. It takes us somewhere. It’s an experience, one I’m glad to have taken, and would take again.