Seeing the Darkness of Madoka Magica

Ever since episode 1 of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, many bloggers have been making confident statements about how the show looks to be a dark subversion of the magical girl anime. While that is certainly accurate on some level, it seems to be the case that a lot of people don’t quite understand how exactly Madoka Magica is a subversion, simply because they don’t understand the subject itself. In other words, a good number of people writing about Madoka Magica don’t actually know the magical girl genre, despite the broad statements being made. Thus, I am going to address at least a few misconceptions.

Misconception #1: Magical Girl Anime Are About Good vs. Evil

Correction: Magical girl anime are about “before” vs. “after.”

While there are some shows which pit our heroine(s) against a dark force, the vast majority of magical girl anime and manga do not even factor in the good/evil dichotomy. Instead, they will focus on how the magic changes their own lives or how it changes the lives of those around them. Those shows which do have a good deal of fighting often have it in service to something else; in those instances, it’s generally more about protecting others than it is vanquishing villains. So when someone says that Madoka Magica is different because it doesn’t have “Good vs Evil,” they are basically incorrect in the sense that magical girl shows were never really about good and evil in the first place.

Misconception #2: Magical Girl Anime Say, “You Don’t Have to Change a Thing!”

Correction: Magical girl anime say, “the magic isn’t as important as who you are!”

Yes, the “Be Yourself!” message is fairly common in magical girl shows, but there’s a distinct difference between this statement and the misconception. One implies a static existence, while the other points to an active one. The self-improvement thus happens with the help of magical powers, but it is usually the catalyst for change, with the real reason coming from within.

Misconception #3: Sailor Moon/Nanoha is a Typical Magical Girl Show

Correction: Sailor Moon is more of a typical fighting magical girl anime and Nanoha is an atypical fighting magical girl anime, while a typical magical girl anime is more along the lines of Ultra Maniac or Fushigiboshi no Futagohime.

This ties in directly with misconception number 1 and it’s fairly understandable why people make this mistake. Sailor Moon is a very significant show in the magical girl genre, and for many anime fans the very first mahou shoujo anime they ever watched (myself included), but it wasn’t really typical for its time. Certainly it has had its influence on later series, probably most notably Pretty Cure, but Sailor Moon combined the magical girl anime with the team dynamic popular in live action tokusatsu and to a lesser extent giant robot anime, and used that as a platform to deliver action-packed fights, but don’t confuse what Sailor Moon added to the genre with what the genre is fundamentally about.

Similarly, Nanoha is a show made for otaku, taking the magical girl formula and targeting it directly towards an older male audience–much like Madoka Magica itself–but it draws a lot from Sunrise action and mecha shows and adds a cup of moe. It’s also understandable why this might be an anime fan’s main exposure to magical girls, as fans who might have avoided the genre as a whole may have been pulled in by what Nanoha did differently, but that is the Nanoha formula, not the magical girl one.

“So what exactly is Madoka Magica subverting, then?”

To understand the answer to this question, we have to know the basic theme of the magical girl anime, which is how magic can make your wishes come true, or let you do things you couldn’t before. This can be portrayed by having a character, generally a normal girl, come across their magical abilities, or it can directly target the audience (which it generally assumes to be young girls) and have a girl who already has magical powers from the start. Either way, a magical girl show typically says, “Wouldn’t it be great to be a magical girl?” You can see this in pretty much every magical girl show aimed at girls, be it Cardcaptor Sakura, Majokko Megu-chan, Shugo Chara, Minky Momo, Ojamajo Doremi, and yes, even Sailor Moon. If the show is geared more towards male otaku, then the theme might turn into “Wouldn’t it be great to know a magical girl?” but the opportunity magic gives you to change/better your life is the crux of it all.

On some level magical girl anime are about the exploration wish fulfillment, and when you keep that in mind the true nature “dark” element of Madoka Magica becomes clearer. The dreary aesthetic of the witch realms, the violence, and the ambiguous morality in the characters play a role, but the most important point to consider is how the magical mascot Kyubey offers the chance to make your wish come true at the “price” of becoming a magical girl. The fact that the wish-granting comes with some sort of unknown, unquantified, and unqualified cost is where the direct subversion is strongest.

“How much are you willing to sacrifice to make your wish come true?”

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27 thoughts on “Seeing the Darkness of Madoka Magica

  1. Don’t forget how the magical girl genre is segmented into pre and post-Sailor Moon. Magical girl series rarely had fighting elements before Sailor Moon came on the scene, besides the Cutey Honeys of the world.

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  2. Don’t forget that usually, in mahou shojo shows, the viewers is rarely asked to suspect the mascot. Some unknown magical pet comes and we are usually expected to believe they will help the heroine out of the goodness of their heart or that they always are on the good side whereas in this show, everyone seem to think the mascot is the most suspicious guy in here.

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  3. Well, it’s more like pre or post sentai hybrid. Because that’s what Sailormoon is and what it popularized. That’s what makes Sailor Moon (and most modern magical girl shows) different than traditional magical girl shows. No need to talk about pre-post sailor moon anything.

    On the post, it’s well noted. I haven’t really seen anyone that raises Misconception #2 in a way where it warrants to be called a “misconception” but that’s just me.

    The whole “wish fulfillment” thing is important and nonobvious unless you know your magical girl shows. All the more that makes the dialog between Madoka and Mami in ep3 hits home.

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  4. Thanks for the explanations of some of the misconceptions. I do not know too much about this particular genre. Kyube does seem to have hidden motives, he got kinda pushy during the witch battle in the last episode even Mami seems to be trying to get something out of creating two new magical girls (Freedom perhaps?).

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  5. I agree with #1, but like Omo above in regards to #2, and even #3, I don’t quite feel that these are misconceptions.

    Indeed, magic does improve based on the mahou shoujo’s own talents, which emphasizes the character’s own development and merits, but I think you can look at this from another perspective: instead of simply personal growth, look at how the personal growth is reflected in the larger scheme of the story. I’ve read so manycritiques of the genre related to female empowerment and the social messages presented in mahou shoujo shows, but that’s just one way in which you can view the genre as not supporting change beyond the personal level. This doesn’t argue against your point, but it’s one reason why some individuals have claimed it doesn’t change much.

    I think Sailor Moon is a viable representative of how many shows ended up trending towards more and more, despite the fact that it wasn’t representative of it’s time. It serves as the starting point for understanding (arguably) a block of time where production of magical girl stuff was hugely influenced by it. I don’t think Nanoha is representative of anything at all considering how new it is, but I offer the alternative explanation that Nanoha is often brought up not because of its influences on the genre but because Shinbou had a hand in directing it.

    Another idea to think about is how the difference in choosing to be a mahou shoujo is different in Madoka than other series: for other shows (Pretty Cure S1 comes to mind since that’s the most recent one I watched) a character may attempt to avoid the responsibility of combating enemies or desire for a normal life, but seems to have the situation forced upon them (of course, the familiar isn’t evil in these series). Here in Madoka, the choice seems to be of a different kind, as if the contract is more about what the mahou shoujo gets in returned.

    In Madoka, I suppose becoming a mahou shoujo is like a business deal (Subversion of the typical consumerist/capitalist spin to the genre perhaps?) instead of some ethical responsibility to help an individual and/or society. Which is exactly your point. Faust anyone?

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    • I think the thing with Nanoha is that for a good number of more recent fans who had ignored the magical girl genre, it was the first show that got them into it, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it’s aimed towards guys in a way that even the more action-packed shows like Sailor Moon and Precure aren’t. I’ve seen quite a few people use it as like their standard measure for mahou shoujo, particularly current mahou shoujo, which is why I wanted to make the distinction.

      Your “choosing the magic” vs “having the magic forced upon” them is an interesting point, and I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that the show is targeted at an older audience. In a way it’s less “kid-friendly” and not just because the show is darker but because it perhaps plays on fears and emotions more common in an older audience.

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      • Despite that though, things seem to be setting up right now as more of a “having the magic forced upon them” moment which is in tune with most magical girl shows. But the “risk/reward” benefit ratio seems to be set up more skewed than usual in this case.

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  7. If anything, I do not think Madoka is a deconstruction of its ‘genre’. Rather, I see it as a deconstruction of contracts.

    When I do look into Madoka, what I keep thinking of is the analysis of Faustian deals. This matter is so significant, that no individual, regardless of age, can choose to ignore. The issue regarding the price one is willing to pay to achieve, coupled with the issue of final-cost discovery , is crushing people left and right.

    I for one can see the loneliness in the eyes of those that are forced into a student loan that they cannot simply declare bankruptcy and walk out of, all in the belief that it is a price that they are able to afford, yet finding themselves within this labyrinth of their own choosing… just as we’ve seen the beauty of the Ponzi scheme (with for example, one Madoff) that enticed so many into the lure of high profit margin, and are now waking up in a perpetual nightmare.

    This to me, is what Madoka deconstructs. It to me is a caricature of our realities… who knows. Maybe one moment you’re signed on as a VP of IT operations, only to have your head chopped off when the competitors eat you up alive.

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    • There have been dark elements in Mahou Shoujo before, certainly, most often in the form of dark twists, but it’s the first that I’ve watched. Keep in mind though that I have not seen Uta Kata (or at least, more than one episode) or Princess Tutu, which are shows which I hear have dark sides to them.

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    • Princess Tutu and Revolutionary Girl Utena, for sure. Other things that come to mind are Full Moon wo Sagashite and Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne both by the same manga-ka, Arina Tanemura, though their anime versions are a bit less dark.

      -Narutaki

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  11. I partly agree with the first item, yet…it’s true their lives are altered and there is always a “my life was like that before and now it’s like this”, but in almost all magical girl anime the character decides to save the world/defeat evil/save a loved one. It’s okay if you see it that way, but I don’t think it’s written in stone.
    I remember Sailor Moon’s characters, mostly the inner senshi except Serena were always trying to decide between their dreams and their duty. This tends to happen in other shows as well, yet in the end it’s the combination of normal life vs. magical life + good vs. evil that makes a mahou shoujo. In some the good vs. evil is much more powerful, when in some it’s more about how she changes after the powers, say Shugo Chara, but both elements are almost always there.

    Sailor Moon is a classic, I can’t compare it really because it’s something really different and as you said, most of us love it as our first show or something. It has other value, and it’s one of the firsts. The formula is a Power Ranger show aimed to girls, more or less.
    As for Nanoha, I don’t see it any different as many other mahou shoujo shows. I won’t talk about it much because I really disliked it, but while the series developed the magic-technology aspect in magical girl anime and had a different style, the basics were the same. I don’t remember what Nanoha’s problem was since she had it all, but I think she was bored with her life or something, then the weasel came and she decided to fight for the greater good, then Fate appeared and she had another priority. Yet I don’t remember much of it, but I thought it was really generic…the moe was there though, I admit.

    I was trying hard to compare Madoka Magica to some other anime, and I still don’t find something similar. As you said, the contract makes a hell of a difference, since their decision to become a magical girl is not based in being a chosen one (CCS), having always been a magical girl (Sailor Moon), injected by accident with magical powers (Tokyo Mew Mew), finding an injured creature and being such a goodie to become one and help the good cause, or just by accident. Haven’t watched Princess Tutu, but Uta Kata might be something more like Madoka Magica than other shows. While the story could have been way better, and the formula is weird I guess, it focuses on character making choices and their consequence at times, and her becoming magical was not that amazing. In most cases it’s the life change that makes it a duty and a burden, but in Uta Kata, like in Madoka, it’s another price they might pay. What I think it had that Madoka Magica has is that their characters are very young and they keep that realistic, IMO. Nanoha was 9 in MSLN and she was already thinking stuff a 9 year old DOESN’T. Here the character development is so well done.
    We also don’t have super flashy transformations, upgrades in magic, the aim is the characters and the moral behind their actions.

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    • Just one thing: Sakura in CCS wasn’t a ‘chosen one’, it just so happened that she was at the right place at the right time, suggesting to young girls that the events could have happened to them too.

      Of course, if a boy or an adult had found the cards then the baton would have had a different shape, less like a plastic toy as Clow Reed would have foreseen it differently.

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