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.

41 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?

    • To be fair, a lot of reviews always claim it to be the best anime. Hell, there was an “official” voting from Japan for best anime of all time and it ranked #3.

  18. Good lord, the reactions of people only labeling him as a kid trying to be deep or misunderstanding the anime is just as bad as him labeling people calling the anime very deep as idiots. If you object, back it up. At least he gave out points to prove his arguments. Arguing with him by only calling him names makes you look foolish. It’s becoming a typical thing sorrounding this anime. You criticize on things about Madoka Magica and you instantly get “you just don’t get it” replies.

  19. I’m OK with people criticizing PMMM, though his childish behavior — words chosen as if to start a fight — do make me sigh and think ‘maybe just another guy who thinks being a contrarian is a way to look deep.’ A couple of the responses are probably from guys/gals like that. But the author of the blog post at least does try to provide good arguments and does raise interesting points, which is more than I can say about many a “it’s my gut that tells me!” critic I’ve seen over the interwebs.

    I could try to respond point by point — I think most of his critique deals with aspects of the show that were either misrepresented or misunderstood — but since I’m writing a book about it, I think it’s better to simply keep his list of points in my “Madoka criticism” folder for future comparison with others who said or wrote similar things.

    Let me just say here one thing about the main point (“but the ending ruins it by going against the stated nihilistic point of the entire plot!…”). I don’t think Urobuchi’s idea was to counter any “happy” philosophical viewpoints and present as bleak a world as possible (this is more for Texhnolyze than for Madoka). I think his was a take on an age-old theme, and one that appears repeatedly in the Mahō Shōjo genre: the interplay of hope and despair. Let’s look at what the author said, and how consistent his viewpoint is:

    “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.”

    I think this is an exaggeration. The world Madoka created is barely better — in fact, I remember engaging in a discussion for several hours with a fan who claimed the Madoka world was actually worse than the witches wolrd (and some fanfic even develops this idea). It’s not simply the trade-off. What changed? Barely anything on the surface: magical girls still are created by contracts with Kyūbē, they still fight under dangerous conditions, and they still die after short and rather unhappy lives. The only gain is that they no longer become that which they were fighting against — witches. The gain is, one might say, “spiritual”: you now die a ‘good’ death (with hope) rather than a ‘bad’ death (with despair). Everything else is pretty much the same.

    So when the author says “sure, there’s a tradeoff, but…”, I cannot but be surprised at his opinion. A trade-off? Really? 🙂 Madoka didn’t “save” anyone, the Incubators continue to gather energy and girls continue to exchange their lives for the sake of stupid wishes. What exactly changed in the reality of their daily lives? What was the trade-off? In fact, why was it worthwhile in any sense? The author would be better off (though still wrong, I’d say) to claim that Madoka was inefficient: she barely changed anything, things continue to be bad, and to give up her existence simply so that these girls don’t become their own worst nightmares — something most of them actually never even knew about — is just too little.

    Yet he argues that this is a “story in which everything is reversed” and made well at the end. On the basis of what? That the music we hear when Madoka shoots her arrows through time is “nice”? That the sky turns blue? Puleease…

    “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.”

    Given what we saw above — that BARELY ANYTHING CHANGED except in a deeper, more intimate sense (note that Mami’s life, and also Kyōko’s life up to the moment when Sayaka turned into a witch, could have happened, with all the tragedy and no external (what happens) or internal (how they feel) changes AT ALL in Madoka’s new reality — how can the author above claim that Madoka changed anything at all? The universe is still as full of Largeness and Uncaringness as before. Not a iota was changed in that. If you think the girls we see dying in Madoka’s arms throughout the last episode now don’t die tragic deaths, aren’t forgotten or completely ignored in their own personal lives, then you’re just kidding yourself. Madoka’s world is full of Sayaka-, Mami- and Kyōko-style tragedies.

    Frankly, I am amazed than an author who claims to have studied philosophy looks at this “non-change” and says that it “undid everything the show was doing before”. What? What in fact has it undone at all? Are you letting the happy music influence your eyes, so you don’t really see what you’re seeing anymore? You see a “wholeheartedly unjustified turnaround” in a scene where nothing much changes? Nothing that we really give a damn about, such as dying or living, is different — what kind of “unjustified turnabout” is this starry-eyed author talking about? “It’s clear that things are better”? Is this the level of phiolosophical analysis you’ve studied? 🙂 He writes: “Why did the power of Friendship and Love save Madoka but not Sayaka”? Where in God’s name did you see the Power of Friendship and Love saving Madoka? She was saved by a glitch in the contract itself, and by the energy that all those interactions Homura went through had given her — so that even a universe-shattering, reality-reversing wish became possible. He calls this “the Power of Friendship”? 🙂 Man, I need to try whatever he’s been smoking.

    But if we escape from this author’s strange belief system, that forces him to see “unjustified turnarounds” in places where no such deep philosophical changes actually occurred, then what exactly happened and what is the significance of the ending in Madoika Magica? And, given that so little was changed, why does it leave such an awe-inspiring feeling in the viewer (I think the author above is reacting against this feeling as if it were in the series, and not realizing that it is the fact this show is so well-crafted that made this feeling possible at all — it made we accept breadcrumbs of improvement and treat them as if they were Christ’s and Buddha’s salvation offered wholesale, and to do that takes thinking and planning, plus a non-zero amount of genius…)? If so little changes, why is this show, as JesuOtaku once put it, “inspirational”? Why do people feel like actually improving the world after watching it, when even Madoka in all Her glory changed almost nothing?

    My interpreation is as follows.

    There is the religious motif (which is the weaker one, so I present it first). Madoka created a new kind of afterlife — no matter how bad your magical girl life was, you won’t just stay here and become a demon and torture others after your soul gem darkens; now you’ll leave, and whatever regrets you had, whatever bad decisions you made, will stop. Some interpret the show as suggesting that there’s now an afterlife for magical girls (‘I have to go meet the others’, she says to Homura; and she does meet Sayaka, whom we saw die at the end of episode 9). So basically, the religious perspective would be that Madoka, like Christ or Buddha, presents a path towards transcendence. Kyōko’s life sucks as much as it always did, but now she can aspire to transcend it afterwards. This is the Christian view: life sucks, but… it ends, and then something better begins. Another possibility is the Buddha solution: in case there is no afterlife, and what happens to Sayaka, and all the others, after she makes her decision in episode 12, is simply fading into nothingness. In fact, that would explain why the scenes with all those other magical girls dying had them be a small part of a larger scenery: they slowly fade away at the center of a picture that is much larger than they are, thus symbolizing a world that is enormous and utterly uncaring about their final destiny, but also a world they will no longer inhabit as demons and try to destroy. The beauty of the trees surronding the little African magical girl will go on, now that she can dissolve into nothingness rather than becoming a destructive force in this world. This would be Nirvana — the realization that emotion is the root of all suffering, and being now guaranteed to let go of all emotion, of all self, of all perceptioon, at the very end, so that suffering will finally really end.

    But there is also the philosophical motif (which I find more interesting, and stronger). I see Urobuchi as a person who, despite his well-attested interest in “destroying all allies of justice” (as he famously said in an interview, he can’t see a “good person” without having the desire to destroy him/her), still is intrigued by human individuality. The author of the above criticism considers it a weakness of the show that, after seemingly painting a picture in which individual “romanticism” is wrong, because of the uncaringness of the world, everything is “reversed” (!) in the final episode. I see it the other way round: Urobuchi sees peope actually deriving some form of happiness from their own lives and the hopes and dreams they have in them. How is this possible in a world so utterly uncaring? Once you realize this uncaringness, how can you actually be happy in any way? To him, the world is not simply absurd as it was to Camus or to Sartre, but it actually is despair-inducing in its very core: happiness should simply be impossible (while existentialists, and even nihilists, still believe in a path to happiness — the latter just don’t think it matters). Urobuchi’s world makes me think of Harlan Ellison’s famous short story “I Have No Mouth, and Yet I Must Scream”: how can any happiness exist in it? In other words, if the Power of Friendship and Love just doesn’t cut it in this world, what role can it play at all? What is the signficiance of hope in a world that is so utterly hopeless that the very Embodiment of Hope which is Madoka (“…I will keep repeating it until they agree!”) can at best change so little?

    I think the way out is more constructivist. We are responsible for building our own meaning, the existentialists say. The Power of Love is one of the tools we use to build this meaning. We then act on it (Homura certainly spent an ungodly amount of time acting on the basis of it), and it makes us feel better and builds bridges between us. Nothing being perfect (this is the real world, after all), this is not going to be much. But we still like it! In other words, we don’t need perfection; we don’t need the world to be a happy place. We don’t need things in the cosmic scale to make sense, or to care about us at all. We can be small, unimportant, in a universe that cares as little about us as this Kyūbē cares about the emotions he harvests. And yet we are not BOUND by it. Remember Camus’ analysis of Sysiphus? That whether he is a Victim or a Hero in his pointless endeavor of always rolling that rock up the mountain just to see it fall back down Every Single Time depends on the state of his mind?

    That’s what I think Madoka is trying to say to us. Hope will not change this universe, but it will change us, so that we can live and function better in it, and even find (or rather build, construct) happiness from it. She did. She found something she wanted to do — a way to help others (notice how her helplessness, which she insisted on several times during the show: “I guess I will always stumble through life, never really being able to help anybody…” really represents the role that the Power of Love has in Urobuchi’s uinverse; Madoka’s words are the words of the Power of Love in an uncaring universe, aren’t they?)

    And yet she is the one who gets to have the Big Wish. The Big Wish that doesn’t change much, yet means so much. That’s perhaps the main point: her wish changed very little, but it meant a lot. To her, to others, to us the viewers. She didn’t have to make the world a paradise to be a worthwhile person. She didn’t have to be “strong, smart, witty” — a big Mary Sue that can defeat incubators with one hand whilst dancing with Kyōko on her DDR and giving Sayaka good relationship advice. No. All she had to do is be kind, and give hope, and people would feel better. Their lives would still such just as much as always, but they’d feel better. A smile makes a difference. That’s the main point of hope: a smile makes a difference. Not because of the way the universe is, but because of the way we are.

    To quote another one of my favorite writers, Joss Whedon, in his show Angel: when nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. Madoka achieved very little in realistic terms. But she achieved a lot internally. And that’s Urobuchi’s answer. The Power of Love can’t bring back Sayaka back, because her turning into a witch is a matter of Reality (in Madoka’s world at least). But the Power of Love can make the little change she was able to bring about — you’ll still die stupid tragic deaths, but you won’t linger on as witches and torture others! — seem like all the world to these girls.

    That’s Urobuchi’s answer. It’s not that Love Can Do Anything. It’s that love can make you feel better. It can turn Sisyphus the Victim into Sisyphus the Hero even if it changes nothing in his daily boring routine.

    THAT is what I think the ending of Madoka is trying to tell us. All the theatrics — the music, the sky turning blue, all those tear-jerking scenes with the other magical girls at the end, the one-shot defeat of Walpurgisnacht — it’s all about how the only way love can (minimally) change the external world is by making people see it differently, by making people feel differently inside. As a representation and exploration of this point, I find the ending really amazing.

    But… what about Homura?

    Ah!

    She’s a different thing. But wait for my book. 🙂

  20. What the hell. I felt so energized after the preceding post that I decided to take up the author’s other points, which he graciously numbered, and discuss what I think he misses or misinterprets. And it’s Saturday. True, I have a lot of work due on Monday, but hey, I can pull an all-nighter on Sunday, can’t I? 🙂

    ——————————————————-

    “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.”

    I believe TvTropes says somewhere that cliche is a difficult word because most people use it to mean “those tropes I don’t like”. If you mean it in such a subjective way, well, OK. Don’t watch anything you don’t like, please! And feel free to say “I didn’t like it!” a thousand times and publish it as a blog post if you want. To me, as TvTropes also points out, “tropes (which is what you call cliches) are tools.” All depends on what you do with them.

    “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.”

    Which means you throw out as garbage any story that has this particular line — someone trying to earn the love of his/her crush but failing at it? 🙂 Oh no, love often ends tragically! You don’t always get what you want! Gee, I wonder how many works of great art I’d have to throw into the garbage with that. How many babies with so much bathwater! Ah, the humanity!

    “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?”

    That this was going to happen was obvious the moment she proposed the idea to Madoka, in the unicorn-and-mermaid scene. But if you think the narrative point/importance of the scene was just “gee, I guess Kyōko is stupid, how can she believe in that?” then, my friend, I really don’t think you were paying much attention to your philosophy classes. Next you’re going to tell me that the point of the Symposium is that Socrates loved banquets and good food.

    No. The narrative importance of that scene is in the emotional roller-coaster that it induces in the mind of the (sympathetic) viewer. At that point, the Largeness and Uncaringness of the world had already been made quite obvious to everybody, so we know it won’t happen; but we still have all our fond memories of Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura telling us that the kind of plan Kyōko comes up with is exactly what would work in their world. Not in PMMM, which is a much harsher, crueler world, but certainly in the Pretty Soldiers’ world! So we are put in a position were we have to hope against hope (because we still don’t know what hope really is — that’s for the final episode) that this time, just this time, Urobuchi will pity us and make it work! But alas, it doesn’t. As we knew it wouldn’t. As it never does to us, when we are in analogous real-life situations. And because it was Kyōko — that selfish little bitch with the heart of gold that comes up with the idea, not Madoka (who, despite all her kindenss, is too practical to think that way; she’s already seen witches, so she doesn’t even think of trying to reason with them, even with the one that had been her best friend) — Kyōko shows here another character point: she reverts back to her more Sayaka-y self, what she was like before the death of her family led her to the “wishes-are-to-be-used-only-for-myself!” philosophy that she incarnates. That it is she, the selfish little bitch, that comes up with the idea moves us, and shows that there’s more to her character than meets the eye. She, the practical dealer who Homura thought “had what it takes to be a succesful magical girl”; she, who was all about “territory” and “putting that damn rookie out of commission”, she comes up with the idea. That is, I’m sorry to say, heartbreaking.

    And that was the point: (a) to show more about Kyōko; (b) to give an answer to those who insist on the vapid simplistic interpretation of the ‘Power of Love’; and (c) to lead Kyōko’s arc to its logical end: her reverting to her previous self. The kind of thing that, you know, actually happens in reality. I have known Kyōkos, and I’ve seen them do exactly that (though of course not at such a life-and-death level).

    “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.”

    You really like the word “cliche”, despite always living out the accent (it’s “cliché”, you know — French), don’t you? 🙂 I’m sorry, in this sentence, all it means is you didn’t like it, not that it wasn’t well done or well thought out. Which, as far as I can see, it was. Given the constraints (which, as D. Hofstadter once said, actually are positive rather than negative for art) — only twelve episodes, a number of people to consider and viewpoints to compare — I really don’t see what he could have done better. Let’s hear it from you — which take on, say, Kyóko’s wish, or Sayaka’s, or Mami’s, would have been “original” and not “clichéd”? Come on, put your money where your mouth is.

    To me, the fact that their situations are frequent — I’ve been in Sayaka’s position, with all the “watching from the shadows as a love interest goes for someone else” — and well-known doesn’t make them any less interesting. It’s like saying that people and feelings aren’t interesting just because we interact with people and have feelings every day. What the hell?

    Look. Sayaka’s situation was made two-sided. Her wish didn’t fail to work because of the “monkey paw” or because “the Devil always makes the wish go wrong”. No — it was the very presupposition of the wish (do you know what you really want? are you wishing for it, or something else, something which you think you should wish for?) that made it fail.

    Mami’s wish was a thing of necessity. Eather ask to be saved, or die. Not having time to think and actually find the best option is something we all know — we’ve all been in situations where we had to choose fast, and hope for the best. Mami actually did quite well — in many senses, her wish didn’t backfire at all. It was just the loneliness of the life of a magical girl, which is independent from her wish, that ended up leading to her elated state and consequent death at the end of episode 3. What exactly do you think was wrong with her wish there? 🙂

    As for Kyóko’s wish, the point is she wished for what SHE truly wanted (and it’s true: she wanted that; unlike Sayaka, who thought she was more altruistic than she really was) instead of thinking of what the object of said wish — her father — actually wanted. It’s her lack of understanding of WHY her father wanted people to listen that made her wish fail. If she had known what he really wanted, then she’d have wished for something else. (Note that Kyōsuke’s was fine with being cured, and, I assume, would not give it up if he knew it was Sayaka’s magic.) The message here is not so much “be sure you know what you really want”, but really “be sure you know that what you wants really is, so that you don’t ask for an elephant thinking it was a giraffe.”

    We could discuss Homura’s wish and Madoka’s if you want, but I think the point is clear. You see the wishes as clichēd. I see them as representing precisely different ways in which wishes can go bad — and ways that aren’t really explored in the literature on magic wish granting. Can you think of another work of art that makes this point, rather than exploring the old “the devil makes it turn bad!” angle? (Faust maybe, though that’s debatable; but then again, nobody denies the Faustian influence on PMMM.)

    “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.”

    Heh heh heh. A “statement about how organized religion is fundamentally wrong”? I don’t think so. I think Urobuchi is actually quite respectful of Madoka’s father’s new and old beliefs. As his symbol is a cross with a circle on top of it — kind of a variation on an ankh, come to think of it –, it does conserve important elements of his original Christian faith. Does the anime suggest religion is bad? Or even organized religion? All it says is people didn’t want to listen to him. Not just the leaders of the church, but the followers, and even people who weren’t in the church to begin with. He ended up getting water thrown on him when trying to visit someone’s house… Granted, that could be the consequence of some kind of herd mentality emanating from organized religion, but it could just as well come from society or the overarching culture. Once they decided that Kyōko’s father was a kook, they just didn’t want to listen. It could happen without organized religion saying or doing anything. Anyway, the anime is not clear on this point. You’re making assumptions here.

    “Borders irrelevant”? Whaaa…? So you’re saying that a nicer, kinder Kyōko would also naturally come to the conclusion that “wishes should only be used to grant things to oneself!” without this past? Why didn’t Madoka or Sayaka come to the same conclusion then? No — she reacts as someone who was traumatized. (If you accept “The Different Story” or the Sound CDs as cannonical, the trauma is made crystal clear there, though the anime certainly doesn’t hide it.) As far as I can see, the trauma episode was well built and led naturally to her conclusion: if you try to help others out with your wish, it never works because in the end you don’t know everything, so you’ll end up making that person’s life worse, and maybe he or she will even blame you for that. How many times have I seen this happen in real life — someone doing something out of good intentions, just to see that, instead of helping, it ended up eventually making things worse?…

    “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.”

    This is really the big laugh point of your list — because what you’re saying Kyūbē should have understood is exactly what the anime shows he did understand. Kyūbē, after all, knows how to manipulate the girls’ emotions, even if he doesn’t understand them (like we can use non-visible wavelength radition to build photos of celestial bodies, even though we can’t directly see in these wavelengths — we don’t know what these “colors” look like but we can use them in a practical way). My dear friend, Kyūbē DID adopt some form of consequentialism. I mean, look at his talk with Homura at the end of episode 9: “Of course I would have saved her if I thought her death was pointless. But in fact there was a larger goal within it: now, you are alone, so, if Madoka wants to save this city, then she’ll have to become a magical girl.” Look: he sees the consequences, weighs them according to his own system (getting more anti-entropy energy is an essential good) and selects the option of tricking Kyōko into killing herself because, in his calculations, this actually serves the greater good. The consequences are what matters. Isn’t that consequentialism? 🙂 No moral deontology here.

    “Not only does Madoka fail at following through with its ideas of literary tragedy, but its eponymous main character is unjustifiably boring.”

    It’s funny, but it’s a point that many fans of the show also try to make — you don’t have to hate PMMM to think Madoka is ‘boring’. Personally, I think there are good reasons to think the opposite, but since this is not the main point you’re making, I won’t ellaborate. (A quick summary: we are not used to people who are both kind and powerful, because, to us, these two terms are antithetical, even though they logically aren’t.)

    “For a show that purports to be philosophical and deep, it certainly does a terrible job at engaging in any sort of philosophical dialog.”

    The show purports to be philosophical? I think it HAPPENS to be that, but you’ll be hard pressed to find Urobuchi saying anywhere that that’s what he wanted (he’s more, like, “I was pouring my soul into every character” and stuff.) You’re talking about the viewers’ interpretations here, not about the author’s intent.

    “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.”

    Hm! I think you misundertand Shinji as well (and he’s my second favorite character, right after Madoka). Where did he ever try to engage in “philosophical dialogue” with anyone? Misato he only criticized; Asuka he felt desire for. Perhaps you mean the conversation with Kaji, but that sounded to me more like a pep talk. You’re right that the show portrays a philosophical journey (several, in fact; each main characters has his/her own), but I don’t think Shinji is aware of it as a philosophical journey (he just wants other people to like him, damn it!) Maybe you’re thinking about the dream sequences (beginning in the second half) — there you have a point, but I think they’re more explicitly psychological than they are philosophical. More about Shinji learning to like himself than about him learning about the good, the right, and the beautiful.

    As for Madoka not saying/doing anything… She saves a bunch of people from suicide, tries to get her friend Sayaka to see reason (and even gets her mom’s advice on it), tries to get them to see the truth of their situation rather than their exaggerated perceptions… As she says herself, she isn’t “smart”, which I translate into “she doesn’t have much book learning.” But that she’s all the time thinking about right and wrong and what the right thing is to do (and demonstrating how it all depends on how much you know, since each new reveal changes the equation), that indeed she is.

    “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.”

    And your impression is that philosophical works of art have to sound like philosophy books, with theses being defended with well-reasoned arguments? Don’t get me wrong, I personally enjoy such books and even works of art that indulge in the actual explanation of the points they’re making rather than letting the viewer deduce it from the story — Kundera in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, or Huxley in “Brave New World” (you must have loved the dialogue between Mustafa Mond and the Savage, right? “That’s what a Philosophical Work of Art — PWA(tm) — should be!” Hah hah hah…). But that’s not the only way to do these things.

    You mention the scene where Kyūbē expalins his reasons, and Madoka is all “but that’s so UNFAIR! And you TRICK us!”… It’s hilarious to see you claiming that Madoka loses a good opportunity to engage philosophically with Kyūbē and ask deep questions of this curious alien who doesn’t understand emotions but still wants to work for the greater good. You see no philosophical point in their conversation.

    Do you want to know what the point was?

    Well. Think of it. Logically, Kyūbē’s position is quite unassailable. He’s, well, basically right — if we can save the universe from entropic heat death by torturing and ultimately sacrificing a couple dozen little girls, well, that’s not much of a price. Millions and millions of equally good little girls will live good lives — why should we care? Why make such a fuss because of a few lives when the comfort level of your society has improved so much because of us and our magical girls, and we’re also saving the universe! Why, you should be begging us to torture these girls, shouldn’t you?”

    And yet we don’t. Remember Ursula LeGuin’s famous philosophical short story (I’m sure you’d see it as more philosophical than PMMM, wouldn’t you? :-)) “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”? Yes, in fact, why do The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas walk away from Omelas? As LeGuin put it in an interview, it’s the psychomyth of the scapegoat. Since we live in a world with the internet, let me get the quote by William James which Le Guin says is exactly what her story wanted to convey:

    “Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a sceptical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?”

    Madoka doesn’t accept Kyūbē’s obviously correct arguments. She is not being logical. And yet here is William James — a philosopher! Wow! — agreeing with her. How come?

    That dialogue is the starter of so many discussions in this topic among other fans of the show, both those who have and those who haven’t studied philosophy. It’s a rich trove of interesting thoughts, second only to the discussions powered by the idea that Kyūbē can actually exist without knowing anything about emotions (and the consequent question of whether he can truly be evil if he doesn’t understand what evil is). That you call it “boring” just shows how little you understand the subject matter of your very blog post.

    Just consider another little pearl in this dialogue: Kyūbē is doing his best to get Madoka to understand his viewpoint. But why is he doing that? What difference does it make to him that she understand that he Incubators “harbor no ill will” towards us humans? As long as she makes a contract, becomes a magical girl and then a witch, why should he care? He’s in this only for the energy he needs to save entropy, right? Or… could it be that even Kyūbē is a little more complicated than we’ve been giving him credit for? He may not know emotions, but he knows morality — he knows what “ill will” is — and he cares enough about it that he wants Madoka to… well… accept willingly the sacrifice he demands from her. Just this particular question — why is he doing this? — makes this dialogue interesting, intriguing, revealing, and a source of infinite discussions and conversations.

    And you find it “boring”? Gee, OK, I guess.

    I suppose that’s all. To anyone who still coming here to see what this guy wrote, let me say there are far better structured (and more challenging) critiques of Madoka than this. As far as I can see, this is just a bunch of rationalizations that a guy who maybe just didn’t like the VAs or the art style has come up with to justify his dislike a posteriori.

    Bye!

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