With Madoka it’s difficult to separate the interconnected issues of genre and structure, and I’ve had a few false starts trying, but to begin with I’ll confine myself to genre as far as possible. This was going to be a brief preliminary post, but it’s grown too big for that, so I’m going to do it piecemeal. By way of an overview, though: Madoka is an example of four (or or I would say five) different genres: magical girl show, Faustian tragedy, SF time loop story, and religious redemption narrative, plus one other that I’ll get to in due course. I don’t mean that it merely alludes to, riffs off, satirizes or quotes these genres, while being firmly centred in one of them. No: while it’s true that the focus falls on each in turn, and to an extent each is exemplified by a different one of the five Magical Girls at the show’s heart, each is fully worked through in its own terms, and they run in parallel rather than sequentially. Generically, Madoka is a chimaera. It ought not to work – but then, according to scientists a duck-billed platypus ought not to be able to fly.
Madoka as Magical Girl show
Madoka presents itself at first as a relatively typical magical girl story – by which I mean that it contains certain familiar elements of such stories: magical animal mascots; prophetic dreams; a mysterious transfer student; transformation sequences, costumes, even named attacks (Mami’s “Tiro Finale!”); and the distinction between ordinary people and the magic users fighting on their behalf. Having read quite a lot of fan discussion by now, I see that Madoka was initially hailed as being a deconstruction of the Magical Girl genre. “Deconstruction” means different things to different people, however:
1. It appears to be a story in which courage, hope and friendship/love will see us through, and turns out to be something very different, in which all these qualities are shown to be inadequate, or even to work against themselves.
2. It takes some common Magical Girl tropes, and probes them in a way that most MG shows don’t. What do those cute mascot creatures really want? Why would you put your life in danger by becoming an MG? Why don’t people get seriously injured when taking part in those spectacular fights? Where exactly do these ‘baddies’ come from, and what motivates them other than a vague desire for ‘power’?
3. It aggressively satirizes the kind of thing that MG shows normally do, replacing rainbow glitter with blood.
There’s some truth in the first two – I was certainly fooled as to the nature of the show, and the original trailer was clearly designed for that purpose. But MG aficianodos rightly pointed out that many existing MG shows (Utena, Tutu, Nanoha, even Sailor Moon) have had “dark” aspects, including the deaths of major characters. Madoka fandom garnered some resentment for claiming the show to be more revolutionary than it was in that regard – a complaint I have some sympathy with (though it would be unfair to blame Madoka itself). In my view Madoka comes not to destroy Magical Girl law but to fulfil it.
At the beginning of the show Mami is introduced as an MG of the kind we might recognize, and her moral world is familiar too. Good MGs fight bad witches. It may be a dangerous and lonely destiny – and Mami is indeed lonely – but it’s morally straightforward, and Mami dies without realizing just how small a part of the total picture she has seen. She never learns that MGs are liches, that they are destined to become witches themselves, or that Kyubey recruits them for that purpose. These revelations undermine everything she believes in and fights for, and the inability of her world view to accommodate them is demonstrated by her mental breakdown when she does learn the truth in timeline 3.
But the show recoups her initial idealism, though it has to go the long way round to do it. (Here I think of Mr Pullman’s favourite essay, von Kleist’s “Marionette Theatre”: “Paradise is locked and bolted, and the angel stands behind us. We have to go on and make the journey round the world to see if it is perhaps open somewhere at the back.”) That’s why in the final episode Mami is able to return Madoka’s sketch pad with its naïve drafts of her MG self, knowing that now Madoka can make those dreams good. The power of Madoka’s wish - earned through her own suffering and that of many others - creates a world fit for MGs to live in, in which they team up and fight evil, just as they did in days of yore. True, there is still danger and death – but that was always part of the MG deal. Sailor Moon-style MG-dom is not taken apart by this show, it is rehabilitated. “We’re magical girls, remember?” says Madoka in the end. “We make hopes and dreams come true!” And she means it. There'll be more to say on this topic when I come to discuss Madoka as a redemption narrative, but for now I just want to make the point that Madoka works as a magical girl show, and not just as a "deconstruction" of one.
Okay, here I was about to start in on the other four genres, but things are a little chaotic at the moment, so I’m going to put this up for now and get back to them asap. It’s so hard to keep this in bounds!