The Madoka Project: This Just Can’t Be Right

Madoka Magica is a masterclass in character writing. If nothing else, Gen Urobuchi has a flare for creating casts whose traits clash and interlock in equal measure, allowing every interaction (if not every line) to have depth and meaning. It’s hard to say that one character in Madoka is a foil to another, when each one seems to highlight (or contrast) some aspect of another. This extends even to minor characters who would be afterthoughts in any other show.

Consider Madoka’s mom, Junko. She is a beautifully realized character despite minimal screen time. In her brief appearances, we’ve seen her as a nurturing wife and mother, tough businesswoman and troubled alcoholic. Like Mami, she’s a role model for Madoka whose outer strength conceals inner turmoil. Whereas Mami is trapped by the Magical Girl system, Junko struggles to transcend a corporate world freighted with misogyny and cronyism, complaining about how an undeserving male colleague was promoted over her. Now, despite this, she spends an evening dispensing worthwhile advice to Madoka.

After Madoka offers a veiled explanation of Sayaka’s troubles, Junko advises her that doing the right thing doesn’t ensure happiness or fulfillment. She tells Madoka it’s only natural for people to make mistakes, and that doing so is an important part of growing up – so long as you learn from those mistakes, and have friends and family to show you the right way. Further, it’s more important that she help her friend resolve her issues rather than merely to avoid upsetting her by keeping her feelings bottled up. She praises Madoka for her maturity and loyalty to Sayaka, spotting virtues in her daughter that Madoka’s reluctant to see herself.

It’s a shame Madoka doesn’t turn to Junko more often. Her parents play minor but important parts in grounding her; they show that even a “normal” life isn’t without stress or drama, that one can be ordinary without being content.1 “Being an adult is rough,” Junko assures her daughter, telling her half-jokingly that alcohol makes things better. It adds an edge to her advice that’s not entirely welcome; but it also demonstrates how all people find ways, healthy or unhealthy, to cope with stress, oppression and their own shortcomings. It’s a very Adult thing to accept them; but Madoka is still too young and insecure to accept hers.

Meanwhile, Sayaka isn’t any position for self-reflection, and not just because of her absent parents. She rebuffs Madoka’s insistence that she try to mend fences with Kyoko, insisting that her dog-eat-dog philosophy is a clear and present danger to humanity – why, a Familiar could even come after Madoka’s family! Whether she’s catastrophizing or merely making a point, it’s perfectly in character. Sayaka’s rigid ideals don’t have room for a Magical Girl who lacks clear-cut, transparent motives. Therefore, Kyoko and Homura (whom she unfairly blames for Mami’s death) must be her enemies.

Admittedly, Homura does little to dissipate their suspicion. Her motives are still opaque, her actions contradictory; she saves Sayaka from Kyoko, only to cold-cock her when she protests. She mocks Kyoko by calling herself an “ally of those who maintain their composure,” only to chastise Madoka as a fool for ignoring her advice. Sayaka (nudged, unsurprisingly, by Kyubey who helpfully advises that she lacks the skill of Kyoko or Madoka’s innate talent) concludes that Homura’s up to something; after all, she let Mami die, didn’t she? Madoka knows that’s not true, but she’s still too shaken by Homura’s words to utter more than a weak protest. For the moment, Sayaka’s misguided moral certainty blurs her understanding.

Later on, Homura tries to form an alliance with Kyoko, who spends her downtime playing DDR2 in a local arcade. She notes, coldly, that a selfish girl like Kyoko is an ideal “Magical Girl” whereas Sayaka’s mindset is absolutely wrong. The redhead isn’t impressed until Homura drops the episode’s first bombshell: a powerful witch called Walpurgisnacht 3 coming to Mitakihara, soon. As a parting shot, Homura asks Kyoko to leave Sayaka alone, hinting mysteriously that she’ll deal with her.

Besides finally setting the series endgame in motion, this scene yet again illustrates the fragility of Magical Girl relations. Homura and Kyoko appear more similar than different, at least in their eagerness to work alone; unsurprisingly though, this makes their cooperation difficult. Only an extinction-level event can bring these two together, and only for a short time (Homura isn’t even interested in Kyoko’s Pocky). In the Madokaverse, the Magical Girl system inspires conflict rather than camaraderie.

Of course, Kyoko doesn’t heed Homura. She spots Sayaka lurking outside Kyousuke’s apartment, listening mournfully as he practices his violin, and confronts her. In her usual brusque manner, she explains everything wrong with Sayaka’s wish and how she should have broken Kyousuke’s legs so that he would remain dependent upon her. Kyoko’s cruelty enrages Sayaka, who’s too much in her own head to see the former’s point. Kyoko dismisses her as a “sucker” not just for using her wish on someone else, but because she’s too self-deluded to see that her motives are selfish. If she weren’t, why is she so upset that Kyousuke hasn’t fallen for her?

Kyoko and Sayaka’s relationship forms the backbone of the next few episodes. They’re perfect foils whose personalities spark, then rub off on each other: Kyoko starts to find virtue in Sayaka’s clear-cut morality, while Sayaka sees her senior’s point about being honest with oneself. But for now, their dynamic hasn’t developed enough to transcend conflict. Kyoko is selfish and ornery; Sayaka is righteously pissed. There’s no middle ground, not yet. Instead, they retreat to an isolated bridge for another battle.

But before our heroines can throw down (or Homura, who arrives with a few choice insults of her own4 can make good on her pledge), Madoka makes her first impulsive act of the series, throwing Sayaka’s Soul Gem off a bridge. Like all impulsive acts on this series, it has baleful consequences: Sayaka seems to die, her lifeless body staring blankly into space. Kyubey coldly explains that her life is now contained in her Soul Gem, making her body an “empty vessel” without it. While Homura retrieves the Gem, Kyubey chastises the girls for their “illogical” attachment to their physical forms and blames Sayaka for not asking how Soul Gems work.

Kyubey’s explanation, while “logical,” isn’t especially persuasive (certainly not to Kyoko, who instinctively threatens to impale him). It’s the defense of a mob lawyer or a Nixon aide, asserting that his lies of omission are Technically Correct and that it’s the girls’ fault for not asking questions they didn’t know to ask. As Jen Blue notes, it’s also painfully reminiscent of victim blaming which real life abusers practice against their targets. You wanted to become a Magical Girl, right, after I told you how awesome and exciting it would be and didn’t mention the downsides? Well, you are one now. Deal with it.

Fortunately, Homura’s quick thinking and mysterious powers manage to save the day again, but it hardly seems to matter. For the first time, Kyubey has been caught in a blatant lie that opens the entire Puella Magi system to question. This is a bell that can’t be unrung. And unfortunately, Sayaka is the first to bear the consequences.