Madoka Final Commentary

Okay, I finished Madoka, and the very first thing I want to say needs a spoiler tag:


So does the second: I couldn’t have known how appropriate it would be to watch this over Christmas.

Unlike the previous post, I’m going to do my screencap-based discussion of episodes 6-12 first, and then talk about conclusions and the show as a whole. I’ll try to avoid major spoilers in both the screencaps themselves and in my commentary, but at this point nearly everything’s going to be a spoiler of some kind.

Before I get to my final analysis, I’ll do my usual review question: who should watch this? Who’s going to enjoy it? I don’t have a great answer. It’s a deconstruction of the “magical girl” story structure, but it’s not a mindblowing one. I don’t think it’s a must-see, and I don’t think this is the only place you can get these ideas. But it’s “just” a single season—twelve half-hour episodes—so it’s not too much of a commitment.

Sayaka: "I've decided I'll never regret anything. Ever."

It’s weird going back to episode 6 after seeing the ending, but my reaction at the time was a big “Uhhhhh…”. Regret may be something that’s not worth spending vast amounts of energy on, but never regretting is dangerously close to deciding your choices are always the right ones. This goes to what Madoka’s mom was saying in episode 6 about someone having to make a mistake on Sayaka’s behalf.

(view of Kyōko and Homura in Homura's apartment)

Homura’s apartment has a frickin’ scythe pendulum in it.

(…architecture screencap! Though this one actually turns out to have a reason.)

Sayaka: "That woman... she probably loves you and tries hard to make you happy."

At this point in time, this could also apply to Madoka’s (platonic) feelings towards Sayaka herself. (Also, interestingly and disgustingly, lead writer Urobuchi says that he actually witnessed such a conversation in real life, on a crowded train, which is what led him to put it in the show.)

Madoka: "That I would just kind of stumble through life..."

I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but she’s in middle school. So much happens between middle school and college / adult life for most people. Then again, I myself wrote this for Shinohara Wakaba from Revolutionary Girl Utena.

(Homura collapses in front of Madoka, crying)

This is the first time we see Homura’s facade break, and it was such a tantalizing glimpse of answers, yet Madoka is still more worried about finding the missing Sayaka. I feel like this is one of those situations where someone as kindhearted as Madoka might have tried to learn more, but maybe she was just weirded out.

Still, at this point—episode 8—we’ve gotten a handful of hints about Homura’s history and connection to Madoka. My guesses weren’t too far off from the actual answer (to be shown in the episode 10), but one of them which is not true was that Homura was Madoka, in an alternate universe.

Kyōko, to Sayaka: "How long were you planning to go on being stubborn like this?"

I was really hoping that given how episode 6 went that this “Sayaka” would turn out to just be a “doll” of sorts, and fall over as soon as Kyōko nudged it. Ah, well.

Kyōko: "Only people who've got no other choice should do that."

Kyōko’s talking about putting your life on the line to fight witches, but it was an uncomfortable reminder about reasons why people join the US military: often because they don’t have too many other options after finishing high school. (Or not finishing high school.)

I didn’t take any screenshots of Episode 10, which is the one where we finally get Homura’s backstory. This isn’t because I didn’t like the episode—I liked it a fair bit, actually—but more because there wasn’t so much visually interesting here. Or maybe because I was eating dinner at the time. I’ll talk more about it when I’m done with the screencapping.

(view of Homura's apartment from the top)

Oh, Homura’s entire apartment layout is a clock. Suddenly the pendulum is just creepy, instead of creepy and out of place.

(Kyubey in Madoka's room)

Well-done ominous shadow here, even though there’s not really anything that could possibly be backlighting Kyubey at the moment.

Kaname Junko: "Pathetic, isn't it? She's my own daughter..."

I thought it was pretty well established that parents don’t understand their children as well as they’d like. (At the same time, they do understand better than the child thinks they do.) Don’t beat yourself up, Ms. Kaname.

Kaname Junko: "It's so hard not being able to do anything."

I love that again there’s a parallel with Madoka herself not being able to do anything to help. And in both cases, it’s not nothing, but it’s also not the significant thing.

I don’t actually want to watch an entire show based on Kaname Junko—in fact, I’m pretty sure that’s been done in live action on American TV several times by now—but she’s easily my favorite side character.

(Madoka goes to visit Homura's apartment)

This is a cool shot, with Madoka’s shadow on top of Homura’s face peering out from behind the apartment door chain, but it’s also a reminder of wait, Homura lives alone too? (Also, how does Madoka know where Homura lives?)

(Homura's backstory appears on the floating panels in her apartment as she confides in Madoka)

Yes, the entire image is a spoiler, although not a huge one. Just in case you missed all of Homura’s floating notes on Walpurgisnacht being replaced during this moment.

"Is she some kind of anime character or something?"

They did it again! I appreciate this both as a bit of mostly-harmless fourth-wall-breaking and as a callback to episode 1.

"Don't forget. Always, somewhere, someone is fighting for you. ---As long as you remember her, you are not alone."

Frederica Bernkastel

(you will have to have read / seen Higurashi: When They Cry to get the reference)

At this point I’m going to give up on the spoiler thing, so if you haven’t watched the whole thing yet you should probably stop here.

First up: Kyubey. Turns out it was a clever alias all along. Given his general appearance I was thinking of kyūbi foxes, which made him a tricky ally even from the start, but this is a good twist on top of that. (I wonder if that’s what an average Japanese viewer would think of too.)

(I started poking around this fan wiki after I finished the series, and spotted an amusing comment from the as-the-show-was-going fan theory section on Kyubey is Evil: “There are ears coming out of his ears.”)

Next: Homura. I did like her backstory. It did feel a little contrived how much she only cares about Madoka, no matter how good a friend she was in the first timeline, but I can see that as being reinforced by (a) the entire city being destroyed at the end of the first timeline, and (b) retrying over and over again with Madoka as her focus until it becomes an obsession. So I buy it in the end: there was at least one Madoka who gave Homura the most happiness she’s had in a while, and at this point she’s also a symbol of Homura’s failure in each timeline.

That brings me to another point, which is that Madoka also being the cause of destruction started off feeling like a contrived way to raise the stakes. But in the first few timelines, Madoka’s just an ordinary magical girl. She’s the one who’s trying and failing to beat Walpurgisnacht, while Homura watches helplessly. It’s only when Homura tries to prevent her from becoming a magical girl in the first place that Madoka suddenly manifests incredible powers and ends up immediately turning evil. And episode 11 even explains that part. I can’t quite put my finger on a classical reference for “tried so hard to do something that you made it nigh impossible”, but there are echoes of antibiotic resistance here.

(Aside: why is the witch Walpurgisnacht named for the day? Answer: Faust references, apparently. And I guess Saint Walpurga is innocent.)

There’s still one open question, though. If our Madoka is so reluctant to become a magical girl, how does it happen in the original timeline? Well, it turns out it was to save a cat. Also, that’s a retcon to explain the cat in the opening sequence, which never appears in the show itself. Still, it does match Homura’s exasperation with Madoka’s kindness later on: she knows that if Madoka becomes a magical girl, it will be because of an urge to help. (Although in retrospect four of the five magical girls we meet make their wishes to help someone else.)

And speaking of the opening, about 80% of it makes sense with Homura as the subject rather than Madoka (more the lyrics than the imagery, but some of both). I was hoping someone would have redrawn it with Homura as the subject, but that doesn’t seem to exist, at least not on YouTube and eventually I found one!

Okay, so pretty much all of that checks out…surprisingly well. Interestingly, Homura’s accidental beefing up of Madoka is actually what led to the ending being possible at all. There’s no way first-timeline Madoka would have been able to do that.

Then there’s the whole emotion-energy-harvesting scheme. The first parts of the answer came with Homura calling Kyubey by his true name and with Sayaka becoming a witch. The episode—Episode 8—ends with the 魔女魔法少女 pun I mentioned in my halfway suspicions, which really felt like it was unnecessarily driving the point home after Sayaka’s transformation. Besides, they didn’t even bother to translate it in a way that makes sense in English:

This country calls growing women “girls”, right? Then it only makes sense to call those who will eventually become witches “magical girls”.

My best take: “If ‘girls’ in this country grow up to be ‘women’, then surely ‘magical girls’ grow up to be ‘witches’”. This also fixes a fridge logic problem: if Kyubey’s using the terminology of Japan to describe the phenomenon, “magical girl” comes first, since they are deliberately picking young girls to be given magic. “Witches” could have had any name.

Still, I complain about explaining the joke and then episode 9 has a pile of exposition. The exposition mostly makes sense (well, plus the part you have to take as an axiom, that the whole process actually does generate energy), but it’s just not good storytelling. That said, I appreciated both the witchy shots of livestock—though there are vegetarians and vegans who do feel that way—and the historical tie-ins. I’ve had a soft spot for end-of-life Joan of Arc after getting to perform Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light back in college, and making her a magical girl seems entirely appropriate in this universe.

But yeah, exposition. This can always be a problem, but I think the reason it’s so bad here is because it doesn’t affect the story in any way. Yes, it can get us to think about good and evil, rationality and emotion, etc etc, and yes, it does explain everything for the most part (with Homura’s backstory filling in the specifics). But it doesn’t actually change what anyone does, doesn’t solve the problem of Walpurgisnacht, and doesn’t change the underlying premise: magical girl gritty reboot.

How could they have done this better? Well, honestly, I think part of the problem is that there’s too much material for just one season. It seems like the backstory with Kyubey could have been something the girls discover, instead of being told. (Maybe they catch him “planting” one of the Grief Seeds back out in the wild, as I speculated before. They never really elaborated on this.) Homura’s timelines could have also taken multiple episodes, maybe even a third to a half of a second season. I guess there’s not quite enough material for a full second season, but maybe there’s another subplot that could be put in. (Or, you know, more Junko.)

Then again, if it were two seasons, I might not have decided to watch it. Psycho-Pass’s second season did feel stretched out a bit.

Finally, the ending. In the realm of foolish wishes, Madoka’s is not too bad. If she had actually wished for an end to suffering completely, it might not have actually been attainable. (And in another series, may not turn out to be desirable; it would most likely make humans into the Incubators with regards to emotions.) Instead, she manages to change the system by which suffering is expressed, and made things better for all magical girls. Who still get wishes, apparently, but also still die young. It is almost literally a deus ex machina ending, but (a) the show did kind of paint itself into a corner with the previous timelines, and (b) if nothing else, this action exemplifies Madoka’s kind nature.

I wondered last time what it would mean to wish to help people from the start, i.e. wishing directly for the magic you would be granted and in a selfless way. I think this is the show’s answer to that.

So, all in all, what did I think? Honestly, it’s kind of forgettable. I could point to Higurashi: When They Cry for another Homura-like story, “Worm” for another magic-powers-from-trauma story (though a very long one whose best part turns out to be the first quarter or so), The Matrix for a human-harvesting world, and of course “Sailor Nothing” for a magical-girl-deconstruction story. (Okay, I’ll stop pushing “Sailor Nothing”.)

None of the characters were particularly strong to me. I liked Sayaka, but she’s kind of the same tomboy we see elsewhere. (I do like that the show contrived to make her a magical girl before Madoka herself.) Mami isn’t around long enough to matter (and that’s the point). Kyōko didn’t really interest me. Homura’s backstory was good enough to sympathize with her abstractly, but not enough to really feel it; with Madoka as the POV-character up until now, we haven’t really seen evidence that Homura is a better friend than Sayaka. And then Madoka herself is pretty straightforward: kind and loyal and mostly just there to watch and ask questions. (Of course, I’ve heard the same thing said about Luke Skywalker.)

So neither the story nor the characters are holding it up for me. (For that matter, neither do the art or the music. They’re also both “fine, works in context, mostly forgettable”). So it’s gotta be the worldbuilding, the setting and devices. Those mostly work, and I’m glad to discuss them.

Ah, well. I don’t feel like I wasted the time, since it was only one season. We’ll see what I pick up next.

—If you actually read this whole post I’m kind of amazed.—