Madoka is a terrible philosophical trainwreck, with spoilers

Madoka sucks.

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?

madoka t shirt

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.

mami head

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…

godoka

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.

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37 thoughts on “Madoka is a terrible philosophical trainwreck, with spoilers

  1. I agree on all points. Another thing that annoys me about Madoka, or literature on Madoka in general, is that people often cite it as a tragedy.

    Really? A tragedy that ends well for every character? I don’t buy it. The show would have been much better if there was actually some finality to it.

  2. I agree that the ending was really out of sync with anything, and I would prefer it the other way around, but do you really think that it couldn’t be intentional? After that ending I tought the writer was just playing with themes. Starting as magical girl, turning into hell and then flipping the sides just because why the heck not. Like in Tegen Tompa Gurren Lagan, when the main character is put in a world where going all out and shouting isn’t good anymore. That it’s actually bad, it’s just playing with stuff around. When Madoka talks seriously with Kiubbey, I think that shows it. Let’s put a philosophical character talk to a magical girl and see how it goes. Isn’t that somehow deep or something? And what would you have discussed with Kiubbey there?

    • The thing is no good writer or director would just straight up eat his own words at the end. If Urobuchi intended for the ending to be a reversal of the themes in the beginning, then there needed to have been a conflict that acknowledges this. You can’t just silently overwrite what you previously said without any acknowledgement.

  3. Hi! I’m a new reader of your blog. Stumbled here through your recent Ping Pong(a show I am enjoying oh so much) writeups and have been looking through past stuff.

    I actually feel the same way about this show for the most apart. Guess we’re both in the minority.

    Madoka was a bland character. To be honest, none of them were really that great. But, to be fair, Urobuchi, to me, has always been stronger at exposition anyhow. Until Akane from Psycho-pass came along, that is. I thought she was his best character writing ever.

    Anyways, my biggest beef with this show is thatthe ending of the show also totally invalidated itself. I feel the exact same way. I don’t get the purpose of the ending, as it goes against everything that was culminating to that point. I haven’t watched the movies though, so I’m not sure if that changes anything.

    • Yeah. I was actually intending on watching the movies to see if the ending changed at all, but I haven’t had the time to. I should probably do a writeup on those eventually. Glad to hear you liked the post.

  4. > Yoko makes this mistake and pays for it.
    Who? If you want to troll. Please, at least put some effort into it.

  5. Madoka is primarily about characters and their struggle and development. You just say it tries to be deep, because you have no arguments against it otherwise. What seems DEEP is actually just creators thinking it looks cool. There is no hidden meaning behind anything.

    • If you don’t want to accept the existence of literary analysis don’t comment on a blog about literary analysis.

  6. > sunshine-and-rainbows Humanity is Awesome (TM) Ending
    Holy damn. Way to completely miss the point.

    • haha it’s pretty funny how people who literally haven’t ever studied philosophy still think they’re qualified to contest the objective logical inconsistencies in this shitshow

      • And what makes you think these logical inconsistencies aren’t relevant to the show? If you’re arguing against people who think that the show is a philosophical godsend and not the show itself (directly, anyway), then they did something along the lines of confusing the means with the message; what may be philosophically a hodge-podge of moralistic ideas may actually be more cohesive, if you’re lenient in the analysis. If you’re arguing against that reception of the show, then I can’t disagree with you.

  7. I agree that there are many themes presented in the series but never deeply explored. But it is a complete 12-episode TV series. I’d say they did a good job of packing everything in tightly and it doesn’t let down on its pacing. There probably isn’t much room to expand on all those themes as deeply as you’d like.

    I think you’re mischaracterizing the ending when you say “it isn’t even edgy or sad, because any sadness you may have endured during the first 11 episodes gets COMPLETELY, and I mean COMPLETELY negated by its sunshine-and-rainbows Humanity is Awesome (TM) Ending.”

    Sure, the ending might have been happy for humanity, but it didn’t end very well for Homura if you think about it. In the original time cycle, she was on the verge of suicide and was saved by Madoka who pretty much was her only friend. After Madoka was kill, Homura gave up her humanity to search for a way to save her. She endured time cycles again and again in order to do this. You could say her only goal in life was to save Madoka. But in the end, she still couldn’t win and Madoka had to sacrifice herself to end the suffering of magic girls and ceased to exist as a human at the end of the series.

    She spends the rest of her days still remembering that she had failed Madoka and fights on, and she will eventually succumb to despair. It would have been a happier ending if she didn’t retain the memories of Madoka.

    Spoilers for Rebellion:

    Homura failed in her mission and Rebellion delves deeper into this and shows that she is still very intent on giving Madoka her humanity back, rewriting the universe to do so but in turn becoming even less human as she describes herself as the devil. At the end of Rebellion, it is hinted that she might even become hated by Madoka herself.

  8. I very much disagree with you since Madoka is my all time favorite anime, but I will say if you thought the edning of the TV show was out of synch, watch the new film Rebellion. In many ways, it tears apart the TV show ending and uplifts human desire.

  9. Why are you putting the show under the subject of literary analysis? It’s a TV show. If you only pay attention to the show’s words, you’re missing out on the visual and audial clues as to what the show means.

    At the same time, you’ve assumed that the show is shallow, which leads you to conclude that the show is shallow. Way to go, hero.

    • “Why are you putting the show under the subject of literary analysis? It’s a TV show.” […] “At the same time, you’ve assumed that the show is shallow”
      Literary analysis is for everything. Madoka presents itself as a philosophical show, so it has to be analysed as such to see if its themes work. Assuming it can’t be subjected to literary analysis is literally like saying that the show is shallow ; you’re contradicting yourself.

  10. thanks for the review, it really sums up a lot of what I thought of this show, which i found extremely overrated for dumb reasons (just like you) and says even more inconsistencies that i didn’t caught at first glance. also, your type of writing is very ‘salty’, which i found very funny to read, nice text overrall, you should do more reviews.

  11. what about the yuri undertones? that’s what I’m getting annoyed with power suffering mahou shojo nowadays girls can’t be as close as friends or siblings anymore no they automatically have to what to jump each others bones just because they’re close. madoka and homura are a perfect example many “fans” think they love each other romantically so much so that in the rebellion movie when she becomes too touchy feely with madoka that borders on assault “fans” are totally cool with that because “girl on girl is hot” to them apparently.

      • “not everyone can be as smart as me.”

        If that doesn’t sound like someone huffing their own farts, I don’t know what does. Not that he’s wrong about the philosophical inconsistency in this show, but this guy seriously thinks he’s Nietzsche because he saw an episode of Rick and Morty or something.

        “haha it’s pretty funny how people who literally haven’t ever studied philosophy still think they’re qualified to contest the objective logical inconsistencies in this shitshow” he says to an anonymous commenter he knows nothing about.

        Translation: “ReSpEcT mAh InTeRnEt CrEdEnTiAls, cReTin. You aren’t an enlightened and deep thinking in the area of animu analysis as moi.”

        lol sure thing sped.

  12. It’s been a long time since I’ve read such an inept analysis. Looks like someone took one philosophy class and decided they could criticize with the adults. Better luck next time.

  13. Urobutcher is such a careless writer. His shows are always mediocre no matter with high concept or whatever. Psycho pass is half baked; Madoka Magica’s characters poorly written; also Fate/ Zero suffered from being unengaging despite rich characters and high production values.

  14. You know Mami for what, two episodes? Then she’s just gone. People tell me they “cried” when she died, but I felt nothing for a character with little development such as her. We have little character development for any of them, really. Madoka spends half the anime going “I don’t know, should I become a magical girl or not?” while her friends are risking their lives. That’s the only development we get from her. The only thing I liked was the art style, it was very interesting. The ending was confusing as crap.

    • @Takao, you clearly don’t understand their character, so you wouldn’t understand the impact of Mami’s death and Madoka’s actions. Also if you found the ending confusing, then that’s a very sad thing to admit.

      • @Minuo And do you have any arguments ? Because “you clearly didn’t understand” doesn’t explain anything.

  15. The problems you mention actually go away when the show is viewed from a Hegelian/Marxist perspective. The magical girls objectify themselves as soul gems, which have the promise of liberating them through a wish. But the objectification is really a reification of their fate, and their relation to the soul gem becomes contemplative even though it is just themselves objectified. The magical girls who are not conscious of this contradiction, and who make conservative wishes (wishes related to being and having, not becoming), succumb to their own reified fates. Homura and Madoka, through an explicitly subjective recognition of their fates (i.e., “Hope”), actually sublate the dialectic. The ending of the show is Madoka becoming the Absolute, and Hope is another word for human freedom.

    • Human freedom against the inhuman Kyubey, which has resigned to merely deal with the universal law of entropy instead of changing it. Humans are different from Incubators because they have a unique subjective experience, which presumably allows for freedom.

  16. Well, to be honest I loved the show. I agree with Madoka being a bit of ‘bland character’, but they only did this to contrast with her becoming a god. However, I do not think it’s nice to brand people who think the end is sad ‘f***ing babies’. There will be people who disagree. If you want them to do otherwise, you need to respect their opinions. You provided an overall valid argument, but personally insulting those who disagree takes that valid argument, rips it into pieces and throws it into a fire as well as using a ‘Tiro Finale’ on the charred remains. Learn to be a bit more compassionate and that people have feelings. Just a small bit of consideration for others makes fandoms less likely to start civil war.

    Thank you.

  17. You lost me at “And during those ten years it’s been completely uncontested as the greatest anime of all time.”. By who , you , your three friends and a subbreddit?

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