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.