Like everything about Madoka Magica, Homura Akemi defies simple analysis. Introduced as an antagonistic character, throughout the series she’s offered frequent, if fleeting glimpses behind her mask. She’s a mess of contradictions: claiming to be out for herself, she shows up in the nick of time to rescue Madoka over and over again. Ordinarily stoic and emotionless, she’s been reduced to tears by the thought of Madoka contracting with Kyubey. She offers vague warnings about Kyubey’s motives without explaining how she knows them. Lacking obvious magical strength, she’s a tough fighter who uses conventional, nonmagical weapons. Nine episodes in, and we still don’t know much about her.
Imagine our surprise, then, when Episode 10 begins and we replay her arrival at Madoka’s school. Wearing glasses and adorable braids, she is a stammering mess with no social, athletic or academic skills. In other words, the absolute opposite of the Homura we’ve known. Clearly it took a lot to bring her from this point to the hair-flipping, bomb throwing Dark Magical Girl. Unsurprisingly, that road was horrendously traumatizing.
Overwhelmed by her first day at school, Homura’s rescued from prying classmates by a beaming Madoka. This Madoka, like Homura, is very different from her present-day timeline: not only cheerful and friendly, but outgoing and forceful. She insists that Homura live up to her cool name,1 showing her a moment of unguarded kindness that Homura likely hasn’t ever experienced. That fleeting moment of genuine friendship changes Homura in ways that she can’t possibly imagine.
Because Homura, as we learn, isn’t alone by choice. We don’t ever see her parents, though they’re implied not to be a presence in her life: a throwaway line mentions that she attended a Catholic school, which along with her solitude implies that she’s an orphan.2 Having spent months in hospital due to a heart condition, she’s failed to have any friends, or even acquaintances; all of her skills have atrophied, and her health remains fragile. She’s reduced to a stammering bundle of self-loathing, who after an embarrassing day at school contemplates suicide. Her fatalism is already present, in painfully human terms: maybe, as a voice suggests, she should just die. How can she ever be as cool as Madoka insists she is?
Well, the answer comes in the form of Magic. That voice is a Witch (whose Labyrinth recreates Picasso, Van Gogh and other artists) who nearly kills Homura until she’s rescued by Madoka and Mami. The two Puella Magi befriend Homura and adopt her as a tagalong on their adventures. Until Walpurgisnacht arrives, Mami dies gruesomely (of course) and Madoka faces the Witch alone. She assures Homura that, despite her impending death, she is happy to sacrifice herself to save Homura. The devoted Magical Girl to the end, she hasn’t learned Kyubey’s secret and goes to her doom content that she’s done her best to make the world a better place.
Until Homura makes her own wish, and undoes everything.
A previous episode told us that Homura is a time traveler, but we’ve no real indication what this means beyond giving her excellent timing during Witch battles. Here Homura wishes that she can meet Madoka again, but that this time she’s able to protect her. Kyubey grants the wish, dooming Homura to a Groundhog Day spiral of horrifying failure. No matter how much Homura evolves or how differently she acts, the result is always the same: Walpurgisnacht kills her friends and destroys Mitakihara. No wonder she’s become so bitter and broken.
The episode has moments of whimsy as Homura practices her magic (she initially goes into battle with a golf club!) and befriends Madoka and Mami, who unfailingly support their kouhai in her bumbling self-improvement.3 She soon amasses an arsenal of guns and bombs that Burt Gummer would envy, and becomes an efficient Witch hunter. These passages are delightfully lighthearted, with less grim Labyrinths (one involves a midair battle on a clothesline) and uncommonly cheerful musical cues. For a few minutes, Madoka returns to the classic mahou shoujo we’d been promised.
But as Homura’s failures compound, it’s clear that no amount of character development can change what happens. She’s forced to watch her friends die over and over again; she learns the truth about Witches after watching Madoka descend into despair. In a particularly traumatizing timeline, she sees Mami lose her mind and shoot Kyoko after seeing Sayaka transform into a Witch.4 Even worse, in one time she’s forced to execute Madoka to avoid her transformating into a witch. Why make friends when they’re all destined to die?
From here, Homura’s quest becomes “an endless maze.” It doesn’t matter how much she hones her skills, because every timeline leads to death. She can try warning her friends but they don’t believe her (or, in one case, her warning them makes things worse). She can try alternate strategies of fighting Walpurgisnacht, but they’re doomed to fail. She can try outwitting Kyubey, but he’s always there, smirking. Every morning she wakes up is another chance to be traumatized. Her life becomes a walking, eternal depression punctuated by terror and despair. And yet, she seemingly has no alternative.
Many viewers note the Buddhist symbolism throughout Madoka, and how the show reflects Eastern philosophy and religion in ways both obvious and subtle. Buddhism, to greatly oversimplify, imagines life as a cycle (samsara) of suffering and joy that are inextricably interwoven. Suffering is an inevitable part of life; it can’t be avoided, though it can be aggravated by unreasoning attachments to bad habits and past events. Only by breaking these habits can a person escape the cycle; Homura’s obsession with saving Madoka prevents her from doing so. Yet, the series makes clear, it’s not just that Homura falls victim to this behavior; it’s that the game is rigged so that she can’t escape.
Because if Kyubey is Satan or Mephistopheles, it’s also easy to see the Incubator system as a perverse appropriation of karma. Kyubey creates an artificial “balance” between Good Magical Girls and Bad Witches who are, ultimately, the same people. As Kyoko noted in a past episode, the “miracle” Kyubey creates is balanced by despair, no matter how minor the miracle or how fleeting its effects.5 Homura, through good (if perhaps not entirely pure) intentions, is drawn into this “maze” and suffers immensely for it.
If traditional karma views growth as essential for change, Kyubey’s machinations short circuit this agency, granting the Puella Magi a hobson’s choice of assimilation or despair. Homura can improve her combat skills in order to survive, but becomes colder, more pragmatic and more detached from others. She’s not allowed the growth necessary to overcome the System; she clings to her mission to avoid despair, embracing a self-sufficiency that benefits Kyubey and keeps her trapped. Essentially, she tries to beat the Incubators at their own game, an approach which proves self-defeating.
Sacrifice is not an inherently noble action, as we’ve seen before; in books, movies and television, it often becomes a convenient way to redeem a flawed protagonist more than to achieve a good result.6 Sacrifice itself is not enough, not when it comes at the expense of selfhood, and not when it comes at the expense of someone else’s wishes. Homura learns this lesson the hard way; but then, it’s not like she has a choice.
This is a recurring theme in Madoka: Kyoko wished to help her family without thinking how it might impact them; Sayaka made a wish for Kyosuke without considering his feelings. In both cases, tragedy resulted. Despite Madoka being content to die in her first timeline, Homura insisted upon saving her. This tragedy underpins all of her interactions with Madoka through the series. She fell for a Madoka she idealized based on a specific moment in time, imagining her friend’s motives and desires and mating them to her own. And yet, this is complicated later when she makes her promise to a later Madoka to rescue her no matter what. Which Madoka’s wish takes precedence?
Another irony compounds this. Homura falls for a Madoka who is not only kind but assertive, encouraging and self-assured: traits the current Madoka lacks. Homura’s wish inverts their roles, making herself Madoka’s rescuer while minimizing her friend’s agency (and mocking her for her “foolishness” in defying Homura’s desires). As Roberto de la Noval observes, “the more Homura attempts to avert Madoka’s cruel end, the more Madoka’s personality diminishes.” And yet as Kyubey sneeringly observes, Homura only serves to make Madoka’s Magical potential even greater. Like Mami, she’s now more like a symbol than a substantial person.
If earlier episodes encouraged us to sympathize with Kyoko despite her selfishness, Homura proves even more complex. We can critique her actions but her attachment to Madoka is painfully sincere; she’s completely aware that she’s playing a rigged game but determined to save someone from it, even at the cost of her own agency.7 She can’t stop putting Madoka ahead of herself, even as it seems increasingly futile. And more importantly, she’s still a victim. The villain here isn’t a flawed teenage girl who made an impulsive wish but a bastard alien who, when Witchified Madoka unleashes the Apocalypse, blithely excuses himself, saying that she’s Earth’s problem now.
So Homura sheds her glasses and lets down her hair, buries her emotions and hardens herself to anyone other than Madoka. Her loner approach has its own drawbacks; it plays to Kyubey’s scheme of dividing the Puella Magi, it restricts her own opportunities to escape, and makes even Madoka distrust her motives and question her advice. But Homura isn’t despairing out of cynicism, or because the narrative needs an edgy antihero. She has tried literally everything else, and sees no other path forward.
Any blame we might attach to Homura for her decision-making dissipates in the episode’s saddest scene. She promises a dying Madoka, after briefly suggesting that both of them become Witches and destroy the world together, that she’ll go back in time and prevent her from becoming a Magical Girl. Despite everything, Madoka still thinks it was worth meeting Homura and becoming friends; most of all, she still wants her friend to escape. And Homura reciprocates: she will prove herself worthy of Madoka’s trust and affection, whatever the cost.
Like Kyoko’s final vow not to let Sayaka die alone, it’s a moment of pure connection that transcends their broken world.8 It’s simpler than Homura being selfish or unselfish; it’s not about whether she is a “good person” or not. It’s about finding a reason to live despite everything advising against it; about not ever succumbing to despair; about finding a way forward. And ultimately, it’s that connection that helps break the cycle.