I know what you’re thinking. Jonman, come on, Madoka came out what — ten years ago? And during those ten years it’s been completely uncontested as the greatest anime of all time. I’ve loved this show and made it part of my LIFE. I own the Madoka figurines. I buy the Madoka posters. I wear the Madoka t-shirts. If you cut me open and looked into the bloody guts spilling out of me they would spell out the words M A D O K A MAGICA. Uh, in Japanese, of course. In all of my years I haven’t seen a single good objection to Madoka Magica — not even one! — so why is your random blog post going to be different?
Okay, guy, you might have a point. But hear me out: Madoka Magica is entertaining, sure, but it’s philosophically incoherent. It’s like eating spaghetti with ketchup instead of tomato sauce. It’s like adding vinegar to your morning breakfast cereal. There are so many bits and pieces of the show that would probably stand reasonably well as independent stories, but when combined, they become an inconsistent mismash of incompatible and mutually exclusive moral messages. Spoilers follow, but I’m assuming that if you’re at this point in the reading that you’ve either seen the show already or aren’t concerned if I spoil it for you.
Watching the first few episodes of Madoka, it is impossible to deny the overwhelming grimdark edginess of the show. It’s a magical girl show where people actually die! The show is pretty obviously influenced by the 20th century modernism movement, heavily colored by the idea that humans aren’t very special, that people do die, and that the universe ultimately doesn’t give a shit whether or not you’re a fancy prancing magical girl and will gobble you up regardless.
You can see this theme when:
1. Mami dies a pretty gruesome and unheroic death. In fact. her death seems almost completely random and arbitrary, but we know that Urobuchi forced Mami to die in order to send us a message: Such is our universe, that it is so cruel as to kill little girls who did nothing wrong and no one, not even seemingly invincible big sister figures, is immune.
2. The soul gems that Kyuube gives to the magical girls have very strange properties. When you remove a soul gem from a magical girl, her body falls into a coma. And when you destroy a Soul gem, the magical girl dies completely. Clearly, these soul gems represent the fragile, material nature of human lives. Once you’re dead, you’re dead. No one goes to heaven. No one gets reincarnated. You’re just gone — poof! Forever! Isn’t that sad?
3. Even though they originally come from magical girls, witches are completely ignorant of the lives they lived as magical girls. When Sayaka transforms, there’s nothing that can turn her back. This aspect of the show seems to reference the chemical and irrational nature of the human self. Anything that changes our brain-chemicals, such as physical trauma, hormonal imbalances, or consumption of drugs can actually change a person’s mind, self, and soul completely and irreversibly. Clearly, the transformation into a witch is a sort of psychological trauma that completely erases the human self.
4. Despite her repeated attempts at time manipulation, Homura is never able to stop Walpurgis Night. This represents the giant and all-consuming forces of nature, which will wash away all attempts by humans to tame it. Humans are not some grand heroes at the center of nature, because nature will triumph over the petty desires of humans every time. Homura’s story seems to be colored by ideas of determinism and fate, because she can never seem to save Madoka.
When you view these elements of the show in a vacuum, they’re actually pretty coherent. As a standalone piece, the first eight or so episodes of Madoka would make a philosophically consistent show, albeit one that isn’t very original and filled with cliches. On a less positive note, Madoka has a very strong secondary theme of literary tragedy that is very poorly done. These tragic themes are pretty obvious and undeniably cliche:
1. Sayaka tries to get this injured musician to fall in love with her, but it doesn’t work out, because love is arbitrary and often unrequited. Oh no! Justice doesn’t exist in this universe! But wait, we already knew that. And this isn’t even an original or particularly well-told story of unrequited love.
2. Kyoko tries to reason with a witch on human terms, and she foolishly tries to call out to Sayaka. Unfortunately, this is a bad idea, and we all knew it would happen. After all, in a cruel and uncaring universe, why would the power of friendship matter at all?
3. Be careful what you wish for, because it could backfire! We see this happening with literally every wish that the magical girls make, and it’s just dumb as hell. You could call this a “deconstruction” element, but Urobuchi clearly wasn’t having a very fun time when he forced these cliched side-stories out of his ass.
4. There’s some sort of free will-determinism conflict when Kyoko’s preacher father brainwashes his citizens, and it’s probably some sort of statement about how organized religion is fundamentally wrong and harmful to society. But whatever it is, it’s out of place in the show and borderline irrelevant to Kyoko’s character development. Fortunately, Kyoko’s character development is already near non-existent, so it’s not like Urobuchi had anything to ruin.
5. Kyuube doesn’t understand human emotions, because they’re illogical and worthless to him. Sadly, this characterization is just dumb. First of all, it makes absolutely no sense for Kyuube to be so logical and intelligent and yet incapable of at least recognizing the patterns in human morality. He could have at least adopted some form of consequentialism.
Not only does Madoka fail at following through with its ideas of literary tragedy, but its eponymous main character is unjustifiably boring. For a show that purports to be philosophical and deep, it certainly does a terrible job at engaging in any sort of philosophical dialog. Madoka only serves as a pretty pink doll who doesn’t say anything. Contrast this with someone like Shinji Ikari of Evangelion, another show that “deconstructs” a genre and still manages to portray a meaningful philosophical journey. Ultimately, Madoka does not engage in any sort of critical conversation with Kyuube, and all of her philosophical assertions are flat pieces of regurgitated rhetoric. Early in the anime, there was a particularly egregious scene that nearly killed me with its shallowness:
Kyuube: We must sacrifice magical girls to fight off entropy and protect the universe.
Madoka: But that’s wrong! That’s UNFAIR!
Kyuube: How is this different from the way humans systemically slaughter cows in order to eat?
Madoka: B-buh..HUH? But this is WRONG!
Seriously Urobuchi, you really couldn’t write anything better than that? You really thought that in a “deep and philosophical show for mature audiences” (TM) the best dialog would just be a completely one sided conversation that just never gets rebutted? Kyuube’s point about the slaughter of cows was a very interesting one, but it’s one that is deserving of skepticism from Madoka.
But wait, before you even start, I know what you’re going to say:
“But she’s just a KID! Madoka don’t know no better! Why would you expect the main character to be philosophical in a show that’s about philosophy???”
Madoka’s age is no excuse for her shallow emotional and philosophical development. Moreover, the appeal to “realism” isn’t even legitimate; children far younger than Madoka can develop a sense of justice and morality, and I can certainly think of children I’ve met who would be far more articulate than the two-dimensional pink hairedcardboard cutout at the center of this show. A good philosophical protagonist should engage the viewer and actually raise thought-provoking questions, not just sidestep them with boring and unconvincing outcries of “THAT’S NOT FAIR!”
So now we’ve established two key elements to the Madoka Magica dinner set. You’ve got your tragedy, and you’ve got your philosophical absurdism. Both of these are reasonable themes for the show and almost nearly consistent. Indeed, if the show could have followed through with these themes, it would have just been a mediocre anime. But there was one thing that transformed this innocent show into an absolute trainwreck. And that was…
You guessed it. The ending.
So in the end of Madokagelion, Madoka makes some sort of brilliant wish that erases all the witches at the cost of her never existing. Sure, there’s a tradeoff and demons now roam the earth, but it is clear that it is better to kill demons than other magical girls. The very, very fundamental problem with this ending is that it mindlessly tosses aside every single philosophical theme that we saw before. For no reason at all, it suddenly promotes an idealistic sense of romantic individualism that completely counters The Largeness and Uncaringness of the Universe that we previously saw in Madoka. It is a wholeheartedly unjustified turnaround that crumbles under any sort of academic analysis. The narrative of Madoka ultimately trudges on completely unaware that it has just contradicted itself at a fundamental philosophical level. For Christ’s sake, why the hell does Homura remember Madoka in the end? Why did the power of Friendship and Love save Madoka but not Sayaka or Kyoko? Are you really telling me that Madoka, someone who has sacrificed her soul to become a LITERAL NON-EXISTENT ENTITY, can just pop into people’s memories if it would make them feel good? Are you honestly expecting me to just blindly accept this?
I’d be perfectly okay with this turnaround if the narrative gave some sort of indication of this inconsistency, but the turnaround is completely sudden, appearing only in the last two episodes, and it has no foreshadowing or relevant philosophical backing at all. We do not get to see the romantic human spirit triumph over absurdism, as we should have, but just a dumb science-fiction ending that doesn’t explain anything. I remember searching on the internet and being completely surprised to find out that there are actual cud-chewing human cattle who seriously think that Madoka is some sort of master work of anime even after its poorly-done trainwreck of an ending. But I guess not everyone can be as smart as me.
Maybe it’s okay that Puella Magi Madoka Magica (TM) is a terrible show. Maybe we shouldn’t hold up Madoka to the same standards as we have for literature. And you would be correct to say that. Yes, Madoka should not be held to a literary standard at all, so stop saying that it’s deep and philosophical.
Madoka is not deep, it is not literary, and it is not even sad. Any sadness from the first episodes gets completely negated by the sunshine-and-rainbows Humanity is Awesome (TM) Ending, an ending which claims to be meaningful by sacrificing Madoka but isn’t actually sad at all because Madoka engages in a romantic heroic sacrifice rather than the meaningless, absurd death that she truly deserved. If you wanted Madoka to be sad, Madoka should have made her wish only for the wish to fail and everyone she knows and loves dies horrible and meaningless deaths, just like Mami, Kyoko, and Sayaka did in the first episodes. But she didn’t. Instead, Madoka literally becomes a god. Oh, no one remembers her? You think that’s sad? Boo-hoo, you fucking baby.