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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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The Mahou Shoujo Must Go On 3 (Genre part 2: Tragedy)

If Mami embodies the spirit of the Magical Girl show, Sayaka is Madoka’s tragic heroine.

Character is Fate, and never more so than for a tragic protagonist. Even Aristotle, commited to structure as he was, devoted space to discussing the proper character of a tragic hero. (Structure is important too, of course, but since I’ll be posting about that at a future date I’ll try to concentrate on character here.) When we meet Sayaka, she is presented as a familiar type – the main character’s more outgoing, tomboyish friend, a foil to Madoka’s timidity. One of the marvels of the show lies in what it does from that conventional starting point in building her character. Gradual lights and shades are introduced: her protectiveness towards Madoka (note how she instinctively interposes herself between her and any threat); her counterpoising tenderness with Kyousuke, the boy she loves; her brashness, never greater than at moments of fear or self-doubt; her intense idealism masked only thinly by her teasing of Madoka’s naïveté. She is kind, courageous, and given to hero-worship – but also (and connectedly) to black-and-white thinking. In a typical MG show, Sayaka would be a successful heroine. In the compromised and fluid world of Madoka she is doomed.

There is an obvious tragic precursor to Madoka, namely Faust. Kyubey is a furry Mephistopheles, offering to grant the wishes of young girls in exchange (if they but knew it) for their souls. In one sense the parallels are close, and the show encourages them to the extent of putting quotations from Goethe as graffiti on the city walls, not to mention including a witch called Walpurgisnacht. Faust gives Madoka its basic “deal with the devil” structure, and also the sense that things that might be strengths in one context become faults or weaknesses in another. Faust’s intellectual curiosity looks like an Enlightenment virtue, as does his desire to live in a way that fully explores his potential as an individual; in a Christian world, however, this repeats the arrogance of Eden: it is self-indulgent, proud, sinful. In her own way Sayaka too finds that the qualities she values in herself and that Madoka values in her – her kindness, her courage, her zeal for justice – are (as Homura puts it) “fatal flaws” that will betray her. Quod me nutrit, me destruit.

But the differences from Faust are also important. Although Sayaka’s wish to cure Kyousuke’s arm may not have been as selfless as she thinks (more on that below) it is far from being as self-indulgent as Faust’s bargain, and was made primarily to help another. Faust is presented as an exceptional person, a one-off, but Sayaka has no exceptional talent: even as an MG she is less powerful than the rest. Her downfall is – quite literally – part of an industrial process, in which she is one of thousands. Where Aristotle insisted that the tragic hero should be a “better” person than the ordinary, Sayaka is denied that dignity. She has dignity for all that, and a heart we must watch break. Ah, Sayaka, is it any wonder that I sympathize with you more than any of them?

Actually, I think it’s more helpful to compare Sayaka to a Shakespearian protagonist. At the risk of a broad generalization, Shakespeare’s tragic heroes tend to be people who find themselves in an unfamiliar situation or environment and fail to cope with it because they don’t understand their own nature. Timon goes bankrupt? He falls to pieces, because it never occurred to him that people were only nice to him because he was rich. Coriolanus tries to be a politician? Can’t reconcile himself to what the job requires, and doesn’t really understand why. Lear tries living as a private citizen? Hasn’t a clue. “He has ever but slenderly known himself” could be the motto of them all.

Of course, some of Shakespeare’s heroes have more self-knowledge than others, and these tend to be the more interesting ones, because these lightning flashes of insight incite our sympathy and make their downfall seem more avoidable and thus painful. In a scale from cluelessness to self-knowledge we might rank them: Timon, Coriolanus, Lear, Othello, Macbeth. (Hamlet should also be on the list, of course, though at which end I’m less certain.) In this respect - and no other! - I see Sayaka as a Macbeth figure. Like Macbeth she’s offered a supernatural opportunity out of the blue, and hesitates. Macbeth stops long enough to wonder whether the benefits promised by the witches will come “without my stir”. What about the moral implications of killing one’s kinsman, guest, king? Once he’s done the deed, however, he is drawn inexorably on to destruction. His awareness of himself, his ability to think things through clearly, diminish, until he is reduced to despair and death.

Sayaka also hesitates. Why should she and Madoka be offered a free wish, she asks, when thousands of others have far greater need and the two of them are merely “shiawasena baka” (happy fools), living privileged lives? When she considers using her wish to cure Kyousuke’s arm, Mami warns her to consider her motivation carefully: might she be wishing for his gratitude rather than his recovery? Sayaka acknowledges that she was naïve in not recognizing her own mixed motives. Later, she is clear-sighted enough to recognize that she is “reckless” and needs Madoka to act as a brake on that; and after she becomes an MG anyway and is psyched about her new role of protecting the city she still remembers Madoka’s feelings enough to reassure her about her own misgivings and guilt.

In her new environment – that of the MG world – Sayaka suffers many external blows: the enmity of Kyoko, the discovery of the nature of soul gems, the burgeoning of the relationship between Kyousuke and Hitomi, besides the daily danger of fighting witches and the physical exhaustion of using up magic. Nevertheless, she might have survived all these had her positive ideals not undone her. Having idolized Mami and the kind of MG Mami represented Sayaka cannot adjust to the fact that the situation is more complex than that, instead clinging ever more desperately to an impossible ideal. Worse, when grief and exhaustion cause her to falter she is unable to cut herself slack. Losing Kyousuke is very painful; but knowing that she is too weak not to resent it goes a long way to destroy her sense of her own self. Ditto with her goading of Madoka to become an MG in the bus shelter, in terms that she’s previously disavowed and that are immediately and bitterly regretted (“How could I say those things?”). She becomes irredeemable in her own eyes, and despairs. In her final words she describes herself as “honto baka” – a true fool. From there, she has only one place to go.

In all this, to complete the tragic furniture, Sayaka has a Greek chorus in the person of Homura, who has seen this story before, again and again, and knows its inevitable ending. But that is to anticipate the show's third genre – which must wait for another post.

Super interesting! Also, {{{ Sayaka }}}

(It is also interesting how one can learn backward. By which I mean, when you analyze Madoka in terms of Aristotle or Faust, I learn about Aristotle and Faust in terms of Madoka.)

By which I mean, when you analyze Madoka in terms of Aristotle or Faust, I learn about Aristotle and Faust in terms of Madoka.)

Yes indeed. They're all just talking to each other, is how I see it, in a room rented out by Plato.

I tried not to get too emotional while talking about Sayaka, because I had my critic hat on (which reacts badly to salt), but you may be sure that I was crying for our genki knight. What I should have added, in Aristotelian mode, is that this is almost the only tragedy that gives me a feeling I recognize as catharsis. Most just leave me sad - but with Sayaka it's very personal.

I had my critic hat on (which reacts badly to salt)

hahaha! <3

I thought catharsis meant one feels better afterward? I am not sure though and Would Love Edification. Sayaka's arc makes me very sad. But I don't often have that personal feeling for characters, that identification, my appreciation is usually aesthetic, if by that I mean I am seeing them from a remove where my sense of self is indeed removed? I do feel for them very much, but without identifying myself with them. Where my sense of self does come in is when I think about the writing of the novel or the making of the show--as in "oh boo I could never make anything so good" or "oh cool I can really learn from that!"

All four arcs (all of them except Mami's, sorry Mami dear!) bring up a lot of feelings for me. Feelings without an "I" sense though. Is it with the Aristotelian hat on that I wonder why that is an experience I seek and even enjoy on some level? I mean I cried buckets watching Madoka, I can see someone saying, "Why did you do that to yourself?" But I "did" that because I wanted an aesthetic experience that I trusted (hi!) would be intense, and it totally was, on that aesthetic wow-this-show-is-super-beautiful-and-intelligent-and-well-made level but also because feelings.

But mostly because feelings, as I talked about in one of my Madoka posts too. I mean a gorgeous and intelligent show that doesn't engage the emotions as much as Madoka does wouldn't be as powerful, would be chilly (chilly isn't bad and might not be the right word. Cerebral?). Why is that? This is puzzling, Aristotle.

Okay, I'm done rambling!

Edited at 2014-10-14 10:29 pm (UTC)

My idea of Aristotle probably differs from what that gentleman would say himself were he on LJ, but this is how I think of it, anyway...

I think catharsis does mean feeling better - and if I felt worse I certainly wouldn't watch Madoka more than once. But there are different ways of feeling better, and not all of them resemble tra-la-la happiness. "Catharsis" means "purgation" - something I thought you captured beautifully on your own LJ when you said that you felt "scooped out". One does generally feel better after throwing up! This leaves the question of just what is being purged, of course.

It's interesting to see your distinction between your feeling (but not identifying) self and your aesthetic, appreciating self. I think all (good) arts sits us somewhere in the no-man's-land between total, unreflective immersion and the "chilliness" of purely intellectual appreciation, and the experience of art is largely a matter of the two playing off against each other. I also wonder whether it's possible to feel for a character (or indeed a real person) without at least to some degree identifying with them - not necessarily in the sense of thinking you're a similar person or would act in a similar way, but at least of putting yourself in their shoes. That's how it seems to be for me, anyway.

We can perhaps make a distinction between two sorts of empathy, though. Going back to Aristotle, his line was that the proper emotions for an audience member in a tragedy were "pity and fear". Pity because you sympathize with the hero (but from the outside, as it were), but also fear because you see in them something of yourself, and their fate as something that could happen to you. I think that's what I get from Sayaka: I've felt pity for tragic heroes plenty of times, but so much of what she is and (in rather different forms) what happens to her chime with my own experience that I feel fear as well.

Here I'll go out on a limb, but remembering that Greek drama has its roots in religious ceremony, it seems to me that tragic heroes act as something like scapegoat figures. They are punished for the faults - or even just the bad luck - that we are all subject to, and in so doing they are offered up to the gods, or the Furies, on our behalf. As for us, we are naturally relieved that the cup has passed from us, but because we felt for or identified with the heroes we have vicariously shared their suffering and their punishment. Perhaps I'm contaminating this with too much Judaeo-Christian stuff for it to be a fair representation of what the Greeks were actually up to (I'm not a scholar of archaic Greek theatre!) but this is how I experience it, and while it remains mysterious I think this complex of contradictory emotions contributes in large part to the feeling of catharsis - in me, at least.

(I too feel least for Mami - perhaps because we see so little of her back story. Perhaps you have to be an elder sister figure yourself!)

In haste, because I'm about to get on a plane, etc.