steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

The Mahou Shoujo Must Go On 6 (Genre part 5: Gospel)

So now we’ve reached the last of the five genre posts. In this case we’re not dealing with a literary genre so much as a religious one, in which Madoka is revealed as the saviour of Magical Girls in all places and times. It is, in fact, a kind of gospel. Perhaps it’s not irrelevant to mention in this context that as I drove to my mother’s house this afternoon I had my Madoka CD in the car. It was a beautiful drive, through the wooded neo-classical valleys around Bath, with the sun low behind me, broken cloud and frequent rainbows up ahead, diamante scarfs of rainlight, bulking clouds, Delft skies; and behind Cley Hill, my halfway point, where a few months ago I wept for the death of children, a fantastic aureole, and Madoka’s theme, “Sagitta Luminis”, playing in the car, strong and sad and full of hope.

For most of the series we have been waiting for Madoka to relent and finally become a magical girl. In the final episode it happens, justifying her billing as the title character of the show. While heroines are usually active, Madoka’s qualifications for her role lie as much in her pity, her empathy, her quest for a purpose, and ultimately her sacrifice of herself to hope. But her wish, when it comes, is far from timid.

Madoka’s wish is to erase all witches with her own hands, past present and future, in all timelines. The effect of such a vast wish is to effectively rewrite the laws of the universe, but the first thing we see is something much more human in scale, as Madoka (to the strains of “Sagitta Luminis”, heard now for the first and almost last time) ministers to MGs throughout history and the world. As each girl’s Soul Gem clouds over and seems on the verge of turning into a Grief Seed, Madoka appears in order to take to herself the burden of despair. The Soul Gem disappears, and they die at peace.

One of Madoka’s functions – which we see in more detail with Sayaka later in the episode – is to act as a psychopomp. Like Anubis or Peter Pan she travels with the dead girls a little way, towards (by implication) some kind of afterlife. “Shall we join the others?” she asks Sayaka.

More crucial, though, is Madoka’s self-sacrifice in taking on the burden of the MGs’ grief and despair. “Why must you always sacrifice yourself?” Homura asked her in episode 9, not understanding the true import of her words. Now she and we understand exactly why. In all times and places Madoka is constantly sacrificing herself, carrying the burden of others’ grief, something that only she has the power to do. The power to make that wish effective is a result of Homura’s own repeated self-sacrifice – but the strength to wish it is all Madoka’s own.

The show is honest enough to show that there is a price to be paid, a great one. To carry so much despair means that Madoka’s own Soul Gem too eventually becomes a Grief Seed, one large enough to destroy the universe. Since Madoka’s wish is to destroy all witches she can prevent this – but only by destroying her own soul Gem too. The act generates a paradox: to destroy Madoka’s Soul Gem is to kill her, but her wish ensures that she continues to have an active existence, indeed to be omnipresent. The only way to resolve the contradiction is for her to cease to be a human being and become a god, on a different plane of existence. (The subtitles also call her a “concept” but this is too passive a word, I think: a concept does not go around destroying witches.)

No longer having a physical existence in this world, Madoka cannot be perceived by others, any more than other gods can – although miracles do happen, and gods may find ways to make themselves known. Madoka for example, in an act that looks awfully Eucharistic, gives Homura her red hair ribbons – the red string of fate – and while she doesn’t quite say “Take, wear, do this in remembrance of me”, that is her sense. Homura appears to be the only one who remembers her existence fully. Madoka’s little brother has some awareness too, but perhaps “Madoka” is just his imaginary friend. Her mother thinks the name sounds familiar: “Is she some anime character?”


We’ll come back to that breaking of the fourth wall, which is important – but having mentioned the Eucharist we should pause to note that there are numerous similarities between Madoka’s story and that of Jesus. Both characters are “acquainted with grief” (Madoka notoriously weeps for her friends in almost every episode); both take the burdens of sin (in Jesus’s case) or despair (in Madoka’s) on themselves, and pay the price with their own deaths, through which they either become or are revealed as gods as well as human beings. It may or may not be a coincidence that the final episode of Madoka was broadcast on Good Friday, 2011, but if so it’s a very happy one.

There are significant differences too, of course. If this is Christianity it is a kind thoroughly blended with Buddhist and Shinto concepts, not least regarding the show’s preoccupation with balance. Yet Madoka transforms the universe from one in which there is an almost Newtonian sense that every action has an opposite reaction, every blessing evokes an equal curse, and happiness is a zero-sum game, into one in which – yes, there is still human suffering and there are still curses to fight, but these conflicts are underwritten by the promise of an end to suffering, a love without limit. We never hear what the heterodox version of Christianity preached by Kyoko’s father was. Perhaps it was something like this?

Leaving theology aside, in generic terms this raises two questions. Is Madoka just a rip-off of the plot of the Gospels? And is that much of a plot anyway, considered simply as fiction?

The first can be answered with a tu quoque. If Madoka “borrows” from the plot of Christianity, then we might say that Christianity too borrowed from numerous existing myths about death and rebirth. And we might defend Madoka in the same way that proponents of Christianity generally defend it. In other words, rather than say that Madoka imitated the Gospels, say that Christianity pre-figured Madoka.

Is it much of a plot, though? Much as I love C. S. Lewis, I always blush at that part in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Aslan explains how he came back to life:

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge only goes back to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”

How convenient! Now there’s a deus ex machina, if you will. Oh, there’s this new rule that no one ever thought to mention before! (The real miracle is that readers are generally so relieved to have Aslan back that they don’t quibble about the mechanism.) The plot of Madoka is vastly superior: what happens is all implicit in the laws that have already been established about her universe, and it plays out like an unexpected but quite convincing mathematical proof.

One distinctive feature of a gospel story, in narrative terms, is that it breaks the fourth wall. The Gospels are not just a story, they’re an exhortation, the basis of a faith. How does Madoka square up in those terms? Well, as a god Madoka (or Madokami, as she is widely known) cannot interact with us directly: she has to make her presence known in indirect ways. And the show suggests – for example through her mother’s line, quoted earlier – that one of these might be the medium of anime. If Madokami really existed, perhaps it would be through a show such as Madoka that she tried to make her message of hope known? Even if Shinbou, Gen, Kajiura and the show’s other creators thought they were just producing a story, might they not have been inspired to do so by the immanent urging of that pink-haired deity?

At any rate, and with whatever intent, after the credits at the end of the final episode the following message appears in English: "Don't forget. Always, somewhere, someone is fighting for you. As long as you remember her, you are not alone."

Why English? I’m not sure, but I remember that the notebook in Death Note is also written in that language, a move justified on the grounds that it is the most widespread language in the world. Perhaps we can infer a similar motivation here: to speak in English is to speak to the world. Here, in other words, is the gospel message of Madoka being spread far and wide, via the medium of television.

Later I’ll be doing posts on Madoka’s relationship to its fandom and to real-world events, but it seems appropriate to quote a couple of such items at this point. One is a passage from the citation given to the series at the 15th Japan Media Arts Festival, where it was awarded the Grand Prize in 2011. The jury concluded (having praised many other aspects of the show): “With the hope that this series will become the necessary catalyst to change the world we live in, we award it the Grand Prize.”

Did they that mean that Madoka would change the world of anime? Perhaps, but I’m inclined to take them at their word: this is a story to change the world at large. At any rate, I can report that on 22nd April 2011, having seen the final episode of Madoka earlier that day, fan Akihiro Horiuchi wrote applying to be one of the team taking on the dangerous job of cleaning up the wreckage left by the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor. He is reported as saying:

Of course, I'd have to be careful about radiation, but no recovery worker has died, so I decided that it wasn't that dangerous of a job. I saw the final episode of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, so I'm not worried.

Perhaps Akihiro Horiuchi simply meant that he’d been on tenterhooks to see the ending of the show, and that he was ready to take on this job now his curiosity was satisfied. But I think it’s more likely that he had the last words of the show reverberating round his brainpan: "As long as you remember her, you are not alone." Madoka – goddess of hope – had changed the world of Akihiro Horiuchi, at least, and people have gone to war on flimsier pretexts.

(All the same, they didn’t call him back.)
Tags: madoka, nippon notes
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