Before plunging into The Fall of Sayaka Miki, let’s take a moment to appreciate Kyoko Sakura.
She has the least screen time of the main cast, barring Mami. Aside from Sayaka, her conversations with Homura and Madoka up till now have been tense, dismissive and confrontational (she’ll at least share a few nice moments with Madoka later on). And yet she has such a beautifully-drawn character arc that it’s hard not to love her. She’s brash, violent and insultingly blunt; she’s cynical, bordering on cruel, fully (if unwittingly) embracing Kyubey’s own view of humanity as expendable. When Homura says people like Kyoko make the best Magical Girls, it’s not meant as a compliment.
And yet, unlike Kyubey (and unlike Homura’s comments about her), Kyoko is not a bad person. She is, or was a good person who made a stupid decision (or, rather, was tricked by an alien bastard into making a stupid decision) and suffered disproportionate consequences. If Mami outwardly embodies the Ideal Magical Girl, Kyoko is the brutal reality of a system designed to use and exploit vulnerable young women. And she tries, albeit too late and very imperfectly, to educate others through her experience.
In the episode’s centerpiece, Kyoko (evidently humbled by last week’s revelation about Soul Gems) takes Sayaka to a burned out church and explains how she came to be a Magical Girl. Her father was a priest in an unnamed Christian church 1 who was excommunicated for unorthodox teachings. The family lived in poverty for years, outcast from society and borderline starving, until Kyoko encountered Kyubey and wished for her father to gain followers. The wish was granted…only for Kyoko’s father to uncover his daughter’s secret identity, with horrific consequences for their family.
This sequence is the most spellbinding of the whole series. It’s gorgeously animated as a stylized puppet-and-shadow play worthy of Revolutionary Girl Utena or Eastern European stop motion works, with eerie Catholic-styled imagery as a backdrop. Kyoko’s monologue is beautifully written, whether delivered by Ai Nonaka in the original Japanese or Lauren Landa in the dub,2 bringing out so many sides of her character – her pain, her rage, her quashed idealism and long-lost faith – that it hurts. We feel Kyoko’s loss and regret, and find it hard to blame her for her current worldview. She’s no longer just a toothy delinquent who likes to pick fights; she’s a victim trying to rebuild her life.
“Miracles aren’t free, ya know,” Kyoko chides Sayaka at the end of her monologue. “If you wish for something good to happen, a whole lot of bad stuff’s gonna happen too.” It’s ironic that the show’s one explicitly Christian character3 most clearly spells out the Buddhist concept of balance between good and evil, which is much more nuanced than Sayaka’s black-and-white worldview. Ironic as well that Kyoko’s “selfishness” is motivated by a recognition that, in the past, she’d hurt others and is afraid of doing so again.
Why does she open up to Sayaka? Because, as she’ll make clear, Kyoko sees Sayaka as reflecting herself – the same idealism and recklessness she possessed in her early days fighting witches. Perhaps there’s something more, a crush or romantic attachment to Sayaka that later episodes suggest, too. She views Sayaka as a kindred spirit, albeit a newbie who still buys Kyubey’s “load of bull” and needs a hard education in what her new responsibilities actually entail. She also suggests a chance at the Magical Girl friendship that Mami wanted with Madoka and Sayaka in the first place, a real connection between people painfully aware that “there’s no one else like us.”
And at this point, Sayaka sure needs a friend. It’s bad enough that she nearly died through Madoka’s carelessness and Kyubey’s deceit. Worse that Kyubey decides to demonstrate the soul gem’s power by inflicting savage pain on her, in a scene which obliterates any remaining doubt about his malignity. As always, though, it’s her personal life that causes the most immediate problem. Hitomi drops a bombshell: she’s in love with Kyousuke, and is on the verge of confessing to him. She challenges Sayaka to face her feelings towards the violinist, intending it as a kindness to an old friend. Instead, it exacerbates Sayaka’s downward spiral.
Kyousuke seems like a bastard in this and subsequent episodes, self-absorbed and deeply ungrateful towards a girl who gave up everything for him.4 But in fairness to a character we barely know, Sayaka had no right to expect him to fall for her. They’ve been friends since childhood, and Kyousuke didn’t see Sayaka’s behavior as anything more than an extension of that friendship. Nor does he know anything of the nature of her sacrifice. If Sayaka had a confession on her lips, she did a poor job of communicating it to him. Instead, she expected to be rewarded for her “selflessness” with his love.
Hitomi, on the other hand, is honest about her feelings. She defers to her friend’s conflicting emotions (even if she inadvertently exacerbates Sayaka’s guilt) and yet is still willing to take action to achieve what she wants. Maybe those cotillion lessons paid off. A lot of fans villainize this girl, essentially, for being a bland, functional young adult who can’t read Sayaka’s mind. 5 Really her only fault is having goals that conflict with Sayaka’s, and that’s hardly worth hating her over.
Here, Kyubey’s villainy is delightfully subtle. He needn’t deliberately twist wishes like the genie from a low-rent horror movie. Instead he knows that his victims won’t be honest about their desires or fail to truly think through their wishes, sowing seeds of despair. Sayaka’s wish for Kyousuke is far less destructive than Kyoko’s wish for her father, but she similarly prioritizes her own feelings over the person she’s helping. However insulting, Kyoko’s speech in the previous episode hits it on the nose: Sayaka’s wish left Kyousuke with the ability to choose Hitomi over her. Why, beyond her unexpressed fantasies, did she expect otherwise?
All of this is elementary because, in the episode’s second gut-wrenching scene, Sayaka confesses to Madoka that she no longer feels worthy of Kyousuke’s love. That she is a “zombie” incapable of living a normal life, with no value beyond her ability to fight Witches. This echoes Homura’s comments to Madoka earlier that “I’m not human anymore.” Homura, of course, gives the appearance of being an empty shell: she rarely displays emotion and coldly writes off Sayaka’s chances of survival. Sayaka, on the other hand, is overwhelmed by emotion, and a surfeit of self-loathing. Their fractured mental states manifest themselves in very different ways.
While Sayaka’s claim of “inhumanity” is an understandable reaction, this is demonstrably untrue even based on our limited experience. We have no reason to believe being a Magical Girl removes one’s ability to experience life’s pleasures. But then, she is an emotionally distraught teenager who’s not thinking clearly. After all, she also declares that her momentary thought that she shouldn’t have rescued Hitomi makes her a bad person. Her combination of depressive emotion and heightened views of justice amplify minor flaws into what one writer terms a “pathology of self-recrimination.”
Even now, Sayaka still clings stubbornly to her idealism. She listens sullenly to Kyoko’s speech, denying her gift of an apple6 (in a beautiful character detail informing her background, Kyoko threatens to murder her for wasting food) and chastising her for theft. Her misguided morality places her above the one person who seems able to understand and engage with her. Even as she declares her superiority, however, she adopts Kyoko’s mindset. She’ll fight alone, but selflessly, as she imagines Mami did. Or at least, that’s the plan.
Because by the end of the episode, Sayaka loses it. Ignoring Kyoko’s offer of help, she launches single-handedly into a savage battle with a witch, fighting not with skill but hamfisted brutality. Rather than the gloriously weird imagery of past labyrinths, teaming with symbols, this one plays out in black-and-white, another Utena-style shadow play (scored to a mournful rendition of Sayaka’s leitmotif) streaked with gore as Sayaka lays into the Witch with her sword, again and again. There’s no glory or excitement, no feeling of accomplishment when Sayaka triumphs. Nothing matters but killing Witches.
At the end Sayaka’s splattered with blood, cackling like Lawrence of Arabia as she revels in the carnage and her own inability to feel pain.7 In her own eyes, Sayaka has no worth now as a person; she’s (quite literally here) a shadow of her former self.8 So she’ll embrace being a Magical Girl, in its basest form. In doing so, she’ll forfeit her humanity. In more ways than one.