I came to Madoka Magica, as it were, backwards. The Magical Girl genre that it supposedly subverts is not one that I know, and I came following my experience with Psycho-Pass, Gen Urubochi’s cyberpunk series from the following year. As a coming-of-age story, and one that deals with the difficulties of choice and responsibility, albeit amplified almost to the point of absurdity, it is quite good. Though I can’t say I ultimately agree with it.
To start with, on a superficial level, I find the show quite engaging. The eponymous Madoka can sometimes feel a bit hopeless and ineffectual, but that plays so nicely into the developments in the last couple episodes that I don’t mind that at all. Her family helps her to open the show but then is largely absent, however they all seem in this brief flash well rounded and likeable enough that you can appreciate both how valuable and how fragile this peaceful existence is. Or to put it another way, the choices she and her friends have to make seems all the more unfair given the gentleness of her home life.
There are plenty of contrasts like this throughout the show. The general aesthetic is bright and full of block colors. The deadly labyrinths of the witches push that to an extreme psychedelic nightmare, with cut-out animation reminiscent of Terry Gilliam, of all people. The moments of action, when the magical girls fight the witches and their familiars, are beautifully choreographed (if that’s the right word for animation) and all pleasantly unique and distinct.
Characters too are quite strong, the stand-out for me being Madoka’s friend Sayaka - writer Urobochi’s favorite as well, so I guess that proves me right. There’s a kind of subtlety and dignity to each of the characters, as they deal with things far beyond normal human burdens. This is by far the most interesting part of the series, and brings to mind two recent movies It Follows and Whiplash, both of which are also coming of age stories that highlight just how twisted coming of age is. I may get back to those two later, so let me elaborate here what this show does right.
First, there is a genuine and underplayed sense of a ‘loss of innocence’, where the girls cannot talk to, or ultimately relate to, anyone outside their particular set of circumstance - particularly their parents. Madoka’s scene with her mother towards the end is a perfect example of this, but the supernatural nature of their choice makes this a certainty regardless. None of them can go to an authority figure for help, the only one who would understand is the decidedly untrustworthy Kyunbey. They can rely on each other, but have no other recourse or place of shelter. Even someone like Madoka, who resists becoming a magical girl, is haunted by the possibility - and even this is something impossible to convey.
I also mentioned the ‘dignity’ the characters demonstrate. Despite all being quite young, the potential magical girls exhibit a kind of maturity that goes beyond any of the adult characters in the series, though there are only a few of those. In a way, they take the responsibility of being an adult as seriously as it is presented, when the reality is that adults frequently do not live up to that standard. There is a kind of sincerity in their beliefs, which makes conversations about right and wrong believable and relatable, in a way that many shows utterly fail. They are entering a world that they must take ownership of, and they want to do so based on their ideals. The pain and grief this causes is far more compelling than the righteous indignation of characters who had never considered the implications of their actions before.
As a brief example of this, consider the characters of Karen and Foggy in Marvel’s DareDevil. For most of the show, they exist as hapless wisecracking friends. When things go a bit wrong for them at the end, they feel ‘guilty’, but in a very superficial sense. They feel the guilt of not ‘having known better’, and they feel the pain of sadness at results gone awry. Likewise, when Foggy discovers DareDevil’s identity, his outrage is instinctive; it’s anger - his feelings were hurt, nothing more. Rarely is there any sense of responsibility or complicity. When the old woman they are helping with a housing dispute is murdered, they regret not having done more. But what more could they have done? It is never addressed, or it seems considered - it is simply the open ended wish that it ‘could have been different’.
At the opposite end, there’s Sayaka, who is so disgusted by her inability to completely live up to her ideal - an ideal of sacrificing her soul for the violin prowess of a childhood friend - that she abandons all hope for herself and her future. Or there’s Homura, who embarks on an endless cycle of repetition to save her friends, in one possible universe at least. These are not just grand gestures, they are symbolic of the thought and determinedness of the characters. Their actions have weight and feel important because the characters take them seriously and engage with them as active participants, rather than people to whom unfortunate events ‘happen’.
And yet… I cannot wholly endorse the show, because a part of me feels that the ending in the last episode undermines an enormous part of this. Madoka uses the unbounded potential of the ‘wish’ to create a kind of paradox - she elimates witches, re-writes the timeline, and saves her friends while sacrificing herself. It is unsatisfying on a story level, like a Doctor Who ending randomly found its way into a middle-school Faustian tragedy. But it is more damaging on a philosophical level, because it seems to imply that the anguish and difficulty of choice gets healed and smoothed over by one self-sacrificing gesture, bringing everyone into its harmonious union. The ending is open-ended enough that this might not be the case, but it was nevertheless a bit of a let down.
That being said, I am struggling now to come up with any TV show that had a satisfying conclusion, so perhaps that is an unfair standard, or even an unnecessary one. The muddled quality of the ending does not in any way negate the strength of the rest of the show, which delivers a powerful and compelling story with a thoughtfulness that we could certainly have more of these days.