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Be Careful What you Wish For - and How
Although this is in part a Madoka post, and contains some spoilers, I haven't put it under my customary cut because it's as much about other things and is really a digression from my extended discussion of Madoka. (There's more of that to come, but I've got marking to do so my free time will be limited for a week or two.)

Liking as I do the aesthetics of Madoka, and also the only other anime I'd seen by Shinbo/Shaft, Dance in the Vampire Bund, I naturally sought out Shinbo's pre-Madoka hit, Bakemonogatari. I'll do a proper review of that once I've finished watching it (I'm halfway through), but suffice it to say that it's a collection of linked stories in which a high-school boy, Araragi (a recovering vampire), encounters a number of girls who have had troublesome encounters with theriomorphic spirits, often amounting to some kind of possession.

Anyway, one of these girls is basketball whizz Suruga Kanbaru, whose left arm has turned into that of a monkey. At first it was simply a monkey's paw that she inherited and kept in a box, but after reading W. W. Jacobs and wishing to be the fastest runner in her class she found that all the girls who were faster than her were mysteriously attacked in the night, knocking them out of the running, as it were. It was at that point that the paw attached itself.

First - I was surprised (but Japan never ceases to surprise me in this way) that W. W. Jacobs' story was well known enough in Japan to get an explicit name-check. I read it when young, when I was gobbling up M. R. James and his ilk, and it certainly stayed with me, but I don't remember hearing it mentioned much in the intervening years. How famous is it?

Still, I suppose the device of the badly-framed wish has a much longer history, whether it's misinterpreted through a kind of jobsworthy punctiliousness (as in the sorcerer's apprentice) or malice (as in the monkey's paw). Of course, anyone who has ever struggled to write a computer program will be familiar with the ease with which one of these can seem to slide into the other.

Suruga naturally attributes the injuries of her classmates to the monkey's paw. What's interesting is that she is wrong. The entity that attacked them, and that has attached itself to her, was actually a "Rainy Devil", the nature of which is also to grant wishes in a tricksy (but differently tricksy) way. The Rainy Devil knows that wishes have both a surface and an underside, and it's the latter that it grants. Suruga's wish to be the fastest in her class masked her real wish, which was to injure her classmates, and the Rainy Devil possessed her in order to grant that.

This psychologization of wishes, and the introduction (under a different name) of the unconscious is an interesting development, particularly when it's done as an explicit replacement for the old "monkey's paw" type wish, where the malevolence is outsourced to an evil spirit twisting the good (if unwise) intent of the wisher. Jacobs' story was published two years after The Interpretation of Dreams and two years before The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, but it's a pre-Freudian tale.

Not of course that the older kind of wish-twisting has been definitively superseded. Even though psychologists might like to claim that any sufficiently analyzed action is indistinguishable from a subconscious wish, it would be an arrogant kind of solipsism to suppose that there are no other forces in this world than human minds. But Rainy Devil vs. Monkey's Paw does offer an interesting choice of ways to tell the story of a wish gone wrong.

So, turning (inevitably) to Madoka and that other wish-granting entity of dubious morality, Kyubey, on which side of the divide does he fall? He certainly has an ulterior motive in wanting to grant girls wishes, and everything he does is aimed (ultimately) at bringing them to despair, so he might seem to have an excellent incentive to make their wishes turn out badly, either through some wilful misinterpretation of their words or through granting their unspoken rather than their spoken wish.

Watching Bakemonogatari brings home to me just how strange it is that he does neither. The wishes he grants are granted "straight": Mami lives and becomes a very competent Magical Girl (the Monkey's Paw might have let her live but in excruciating pain from her injuries); Kyousuke is healed; Kyoko's father is listened to by his flock; Homura really does go back in time to protect Madoka; and Madoka does remake the universe. Of course, arguably all these wishes turn out badly, at least in part. Mami lives, but she is alone and tormented by loneliness; Sayaka heals Kyousuke but loses him to Hitomi; Kyoko's father is driven mad by the discovery of what she's done; Homura's attempts to save Madoka turn Madoka in a potentially world-destroying witch; and even Madoka's wish, while it works out just as she intended, means that she ceases to exist in this world.

Nevertheless, these wrong turnings (certainly the first three) can't be directly attributed to wilfulness on Kyubey's part: they are simply foolish wishes. Mami, in her agony, didn't think to wish that her parents should also be saved (a regret that's brought out more clearly in The Different Story manga). Kyoko's was a child's wish: she didn't have sufficient understanding of her father's vocation as a priest to guess how he would react to having a congregation gathered by magic rather than faith.

And then there's Sayaka: here of course we really do have a two-sided wish, and Mami highlights the issue in Episode 3: "Miki-san, do you really want to make his dream to come true? Or do you just want to be his benefactor? The two may sound the same, but they are actually completely different." Of course, it would be unfair to say that Sayaka says she wants to heal Kyousuke but she actually wants him to be grateful so that he'll become her boyfriend. She wants both: her love of his music and of him as a musician are not simply feigned because she wants him (this is made clear in her final appearance in Episode 12), and her compassion for his suffering is also perfectly genuine. This is why, despite acknowledging the truth of Mami's warning, she goes ahead and wishes anyway: her conscious mind has a convincing (because true) story to tell that effectively masks the subconscious motivations that also exist.

Nevertheless, none of this is arranged by Kyubey: he didn't throw Hitomi in Kyousuke's path; he didn't tip off Kyoko's dad; he didn't refuse to save Mami's parents; he didn't know about the side effects of Homura's wish. What he does understand, and has found that he can rely on, is that human beings lack self-knowledge, and that for this reason their wishes will inevitably betray them. And that, my friends, is one reason why Madoka is more like Shakespeare than W. W. Jacobs.

We don't know that Kyubey didn't tip off Kyoto's dad; that episode is one of the reasons why my feeling is that this was a 36 episode story arc squashed into 12. Kyoto tells us that her dad preached something "different" but we don't know how or why different, only that everyone turned against him. Why? Then Kyoko makes her wish and they all zombie-walk back, then dad "finds out" she made the wish. How? Why? And kills self and family. I felt like that entire story was the authorial hand shoving and pushing, whereas if we'd had, say, a three episode arc showing what happened, it would have added punch to the whole. (Though I really, really liked Kyoko herself. I think she was the second most interesting and complex of the girls besides Homura.)

Kyoko's back story is told in more detail in one of the companion works, A Different Story, and also in one of the companion CDs - the relationship between which material and the anime is something I want to go into at some point. But assuming that we stick to the 12-episode anime, I'd have to disagree on a number of points. I think a lot of the show's power comes from it's being told in a concentrated form - 36 episodes would of course allow for many aspects that it only has time to gesture towards to be told at greater leisure, but not to do so is a legitimate choice, I think. As an analogy: I don't blame Shakespeare much for not establishing Hamlet and Ophelia's relationship prior to the action of the play: it's something it would be interesting to see, and it would certainly help explain a lot of what happens afterwards, so is relevant too - but it would dilute the play's focus and stall its momentum. Spending three episodes on a flashback arc for Kyoko would have a similar effect, imo, rather than adding to its punch.

You're right that Kyubey could have tipped off Kyoko's dad - but we're given absolutely no reason to believe that he does so. Nor are we ever shown him interacting with anyone who isn't a current or potential magical girl.

I think it would be fair to say that the authorial hand was shoving and pushing if it were contorting events into a shape that was not plausible within the world of the show. I don't see that here: it's easy to think of any number of heresies Kyoko's dad could have been preaching (goodness knows there have been plenty historically), and any number of ways he could have discovered Kyoko's secret life (e.g. by stumbling upon her immediately after a witch fight). Very easy too to see how a certain kind of personality might be driven over the edge by such a discovery. This is abbreviation, not distortion: of course we might feel the abbreviation is too severe and that we're being asked to fill in too many of the gaps, but that's a different thing, and perhaps a matter of taste as much as anything.

Edited at 2014-11-16 01:42 pm (UTC)

Yeah, I suspect so: I was aware of myself constantly asking why, and how, during that long recitation, which happened once or twice otherwhere, but mostly there. It just seemed too convenient. Doesn't detract from the overall, though, and like I said, Kyoto was my second favorite of the magical girls.

In one sense all events in a story are there for the author's convenience, aren't they; and all are the result of the author's shoving and pushing? It's a nice question as to when or how that fact becomes distractingly obtrusive, though. For me, the key flags are inconsistency in terms either of external fact or internal motivation, or implausibility in terms of the fictional world - none of which is I think present in this case. Sketchiness is far less important, if the reader can fill in the blanks, because Man is a Blank-filling Animal. But there must be a minimum sketchiness threshold nevertheless, which in this case was crossed for you but not me.

Kyoko is my second-favourite too, though Homura is not my first. Homura is many people's, though, and the central character of the sequel movie, Rebellion, which - though I'm much more ambivalent about it - is certainly well worth watching for what they do with her alone (and for the gorgeous animation).

True, true. I liked all the magical girls, but those two were the most complex for me--had the most intriguing arcs.

I wonder if the almost-sereneness which you mentioned in the previous post, with which the show gives itself time to explore its world, could be considered to be at odds with how it doesn't go into for example Kyoko's backstory. But I don't think so, because it's not that exploration with which the show is concerned, but stuff more directly--and forwardly, in what you also mentioned in the previous post as directionality to the narrative--relevant and powerful.

This is abbreviation, not distortion

I like that distinction! Or not even abbreviation: just not exploring side paths, which anyway leaves a lot of room for fanfic! :)

it's not that exploration with which the show is concerned, but stuff more directly

Yes, I meant (as far as I remember!) not so much the back-stories and side-stories as the more general questions - e.g. about choice, consequences, what really motivates us, what is love, how can we choose between various good motives, etc. (One thing I like about this show is that it really has no villain: Kyubei is an antagonist, but like everyone else he behaves well by his own lights. John Stuart Mill would probably consider him the hero of the story.)

which anyway leaves a lot of room for fanfic! :)

Absolutely - as do the alternate timelines, as noted later. :)

Edited at 2015-01-09 08:03 pm (UTC)

I think of "The Monkey's Paw" as being quite famous, although ultimately this may be just as contingent as your own failure to hear it mentioned much. But it was something I studied in school myself as quite a young kid, it's certainly come up in the materials that were given to me for teaching in Singapore (I think, IIRC, that we had an excerpt from the story and an excerpt from a play based on the story to give to the kids to compare prose vs. drama) and I feel like references to "monkey's paws" come up frequently enough in regular life to describe unintended consequences that it's something I feel at least some subset of cultured people are intended to know? Maybe it's another one of those British things that isn't all that significant in Britain but has taken on more importance elsewhere?

Maybe it's another one of those British things that isn't all that significant in Britain but has taken on more importance elsewhere?

I was wondering whether that might be the case.

Incidentally, on reflection I'm struck by Jacobs' use of the word 'paw', when 'hand' might be the more natural choice today. The lingering aftermath of a pre-Darwinian way of thinking about monkeys, perhaps? My Japanese isn't up to telling whether they found an equivalent in Bakemonogatari.

Edited at 2014-11-17 12:03 pm (UTC)

I hadn't thought of the fact that Kyubey's goal is to maximize the girls' despair. Wow. And not even having to distort their wishes, simply relying on humans' lacking self-knowledge, and that is part of what brings on the dark side of the fulfillment of their wishes--that speaks to balance of a kind too! If there is as dark a side to wishes' being fulfilled, as there is the way the wishers want it to be.

And not even having to distort their wishes, simply relying on humans' lacking self-knowledge, and that is part of what brings on the dark side of the fulfillment of their wishes--that speaks to balance of a kind too!

Yes! He even says something about this in his talk with Madoka in episode 11. Something on the lines of, "Wishes create a distortion in reality, so why should we be surprised that these things turn out badly?" All he has to do is let things take their own course. He's all about energy saving, is our Kyubey!

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