Foreign travels, and now an extra trip to check on my mother (who’s still not quite right after her fall last week) have eaten into my time for writing about Madoka, but there’s no train to catch, I guess.
So far I’ve discussed Madoka as a Magical Girl show and as a quasi-Shakespearian tragedy, aspects that foregrounded Mami and Sayaka respectively. But looked at from yet another angle it is a science fiction story. This claim relies on two factors: the fact that Kyubey is an alien, and Homura’s use of time loops and time manipulation.
Magical girl shows and aliens are not of course strangers: even in Sailor Moon the villains are often (mostly?) based off Earth, on the moon or even further afield. In that show, the Dark Kingdom’s quest for human “energy”– a vague concept but apparently equating to something like “life force” – comes from a need to feed and thus awaken their evil queen. Kyubey’s own quest for energy, though differently motivated, may well be a nod to this heritage – but the similarities only go so far.
The parasitic need for energy is as much a fantasy trope as an SF one (cf. many a vampire story), and this is how it works in Sailor Moon too, the SF-ness of which is frequently overwhelmed by other aspects of the show that owe more to fantasy traditions: finding the true princess, orphans with a high destiny, magical artefacts, etc. There has always been a high degree of translatability between SF and fantasy modes, of course – witness Star Wars for a well-known story with feet planted firmly in both camps. In Sailor Moon, whether the sailor senshi use magic or alien technology isn’t really a question that’s asked: these are just two ways of describing the same thing. There’s no sense that one might be more “real” or “true”, or that magic might be more properly recognized as technology if only we were sufficiently advanced.
(Does this lack of hierarchy – of any Whiggish sense that technological advance is inexorable and that magic is stranded, along with the God of the gaps, on an ever-melting ice-flow of ignorance – reflect a difference in Japanese ways of thinking about these things? I’d like to imagine so – that in an animistic tradition such as Shinto many of the distinctions between natural and supernatural forces that we see as fundamental in the West, cease to be quite as sharply defined – with interesting consequences for genre and many other things. I’m not really qualified to do more than speculate, but I’d be happy were it the case.)
In Madoka too the difference between magic and technology remains somewhat undefined: even in the last episode Kyubey is still “granting a wish” rather than throwing a switch. But (although I’m straying into structure rather than genre here) there is an important rhetorical distinction between them. There is no use of SF language in the show until the exchange between Kyubey and Homura at the end of episode 8 (i.e. exactly two thirds through the series), when Kyubey identifies Homura as a time traveller, and Homura replies by naming Kyubey as an Incubator. It is only at the beginning of episode 9 that Kyubey explains to Madoka just what that means: he has been recruiting magical girls to harvest their energy – specifically the emotional energy involved in their fluctuations between hope and despair, which are especially magnified at the moment when an MG turns into a witch. The lure of an MG life, of its heroism, idealism, fighting for justice – has been just that – these are the trinkets that Kyubey has been offering to the natives. The witches are not an existing evil that needs to be fought, like the Dark Kingdom, they are last year’s harvest being mulched and fed to this year’s cattle – ex-MGs recycled as food for new ones (the autophagic Kyubey is nothing if not thrifty). It is not so much that magic and science in themselves are contrasted in this show, as the MG genre (and its tropes, such as heroism, good versus evil, etc.) and the SF genre (and its tropes, such as – in this case – an interest in energy conservation). When Madoka finally remakes the universe in Episode 12 she not only saves magical girls themselves, she performs a generic shift in which the two genres’s concerns can be aligned rather than placed at odds.
Kyubey’s motive for collecting emotional energy – that it can be converted into a form able to counteract entropy and reverse the heat-death of the universe – is not one I can comment on scientifically (not being an alien), but a) it’s far more interesting than the usual bwah-hah-hah taking-over-the-world reasons, and b) since I’m in a C. S. Lewis quoting mood at the moment, I’ll note that it addresses one of CSL’s objections to those Bergsonians and Shavians who saw the cultivation and harvesting of life energy (élan vital) as the key to mankind’s continued existence:
they use any rhetoric that comes to hand to keep out of your mind the recollection that even if all the happiness they promised could come to man on earth, yet still each generation would lose it by death, including the last generation of all, and the whole story would be nothing, not even a story, for ever and ever. Hence all the nonsense that Mr. Shaw puts into the final speech of Lilith, and Bergson’s remark that the élan vital is capable of surmounting all obstacles, perhaps even death—as if we could believe that any social or biological development on this planet will delay the senility of the sun or reverse the second law of thermodynamics. (C. S. Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory’)
Not on this planet, maybe – but maybe on Kyubey’s? It’s kind of cool that Kyubey took this problem seriously, anyway.
The other important SF aspect of the show is Homura’s repeated time loops – in fact, it’s probably more central to my overall contention that Madoka can reasonably be viewed as SF. In order to see Madoka in this way requires simply that we consider Homura rather than Madoka the show’s protagonist – a move some fans appear very ready to make. There is some justification for this, in as much as the opening theme song turns out (once we’re in a position to understand it) to be written from Homura’s point of view, while Homura’s self-imposed “quest” – that of saving Madoka’s life – is the kind of princess-rescuing task that protagonists from Perseus to Mario the plumber have regularly undertaken. Indeed, Rintarou Okabe’s repeated time loops in Steins;Gate are undertaken with just that motive. The twist in Madoka is that in Homura’s case this is revealed only in the tenth episode of a 12-episode show – a stroke of structural chutzpah exceeded only by not making Madoka an MG until episode 12.
The idea of repeating the same period of time over and over again until you get it “right” is of course far from original to Madoka. Groundhog Day is the locus classicus, I suppose. I don’t know of any earlier, in fact, though it’s hard to believe that some enterprising SF writer didn’t think of it before 1993. (If so, let me know in the comments!) However, there are several different ways of telling this story:
a) Full immersion. I suppose we could describe the “Endless Eight” in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya as an immersive form of time-loop story (to borrow fjm’s terminology). The characters (with one reticent exception) all have their memories reset at the start of each iteration, and although the viewers don’t they are not given any external hint as to what is going on or why this is happening.
b) In Steins;Gate, as in Groundhog Day itself, the protagonist alone remembers from one iteration to the other, continually refining what he does in each iteration until he gets it “right”. The main difference between the two is that whereas Bill Murray has no idea what’s causing the repetitions, Okabe does, and “fixing” it means solving a technical problem rather than becoming a better person (though this happens along the way).
c) Homura’s situation is similar in some ways, except that for the first nine episodes we are seeing events not from her point of view but from that of the “lay” characters, who don’t realize that they are living these weeks for the umpteenth time. It is only in episode 10 that we are given the “conventional” exposition described in b) above – which means that the five different time loops of Homura’s back story have to be worked into a 24-minute episode. Although I’m not meant to be talking about structure here, I would recommend anyone who wants to know how to tell an ingenious and complex story in a short space without losing clarity or one grain of emotional weight to analyse the structure of that episode – it’s a masterclass in timing and the selection of information.
Homura’s time loops involve an ironic double-movement. She begins as a diffident girl, eager to please and lacking in self-confidence; over time she becomes super-competent, bad-ass, obsessive, emotionally stunted except for the one object of her monomania. Her becoming “better” at her task results in her beginning to lose her humanity, and an ever-greater emotional distance between her and the person she loves, who sees her on each new iteration as merely a stranger. Not only that, though Homura does not know it her repetitions bind Madoka tighter and tighter in karmic threads which make the consequences of her failure all the greater. In other time loop stories there is a “solution” or a “perfect performance” which allows a safe exit once it is found. This being Madoka, the more Homura succeeds the more she fails – a fact that reflects the show’s interest in “balance” (of which more in future posts). Homura’s is a Sisyphean task – but each time the rock is a little bigger, the hill a little steeper. There is in fact no solution to be found from within the SF framework of her story: for that we will have to wait for Madoka herself, who embodies the show’s fifth genre as a quasi-religious story of redemption. Before that, though, a Kyoko-based interlude.