As we reach the end of Madoka Magica, it’s useful to remember how Goethe’s Faust served as a major touchstone. We’ve touched on the show’s religious symbolism, which is easy enough to read into Madoka’s transcendence into Godhood or Buddhahood through her wish with Kyubey. I once heard the show described as a Buddhist take on Faust, an apt although somewhat incomplete description. Because the ways in which Madoka differs from its inspiration are arguably more important than the similarities.1
In Faust Part I, Gretchen (Margaret) is an innocent peasant girl who chafes under the strict governance of her mother. When Faust is transformed into a young man by Mephistopheles, she instantly falls for him, leading to an intense flirtation and ultimately Faust bedding her. As part of his seduction, Faust convinces Gretchen to give her mother a sleeping potion so they won’t be interrupted. Instead, the potion kills Gretchen’s mother, while Gretchen herself becomes pregnant with Faust’s child. Further tragedy results when Gretchen’s brother challenges Faust to a duel, resulting in his own death.
In the play’s pivotal scene, Gretchen visits a church to plead to God for forgiveness. Instead she’s taunted by Mephistopheles, reminding her of her mother and brother’s deaths and her role in them. A battle of wills occurs (scored to a church choir signing hymns), juxtaposed with Faust attending a Walpurgisnacht festival at Mephistopheles bidding. Gretchen kills her own child from shame, then is arrested. Despite Mephistopheles’ attempts to stop him, Faust insists upon trying to free Getchen from prison. The Devil’s glamor worn off, Faust is revealed as an elderly man, and Gretchen rejects his pity. Instead, she affirms her love for God and her essential innocence, and is accepted into Heaven.
Despite Gretchen’s sins, her essential feminine purity remains undimmed; after all, she was merely the tool and victim of men, innocent of conscious wrongdoing. She reappears in Part II, when Faust finally rejects Mephistopheles’ influence, and returns to Earth as a heavenly guide. With God’s assent, she rescues Faust from Mephistopheles and escorts him into the afterlife, where it’s implied that they will be happy together for eternity. Love, goodness and godliness win at out, albeit at a terrible cost.
That Gen Urobuchi chose Faust as a model for Madoka Magica says a lot about his intentions. Like the anime it inspired, it’s drawn mixed reactions by feminist critics: alternately, it’s a critique of patriarchy that insists upon a woman’s importance in society, or else embodies a sexist worldview itself. Evidence for the latter comes in Goethe’s espousal of das Ewig-Weibliche (the Eternal Feminine), a conceit that the supposedly passive, contemplative nature of women exists to balance the violence and active nature of men. Thus Gretchen rescues Faust through her own purity, balancing out his flawed masculinity with an idealized Womanhood.
Madoka’s fate at the end of Madoka Magica certainly offers parallels to Goxethe. She asks Kyubey for the power to relieve Magical Girls of their suffering, like Gretchen with Faust. Like Gretchen, she ascends to Heaven (effectively) and travels through time, saving other Magical Girls from becoming Witches – essentially remaking the Universe in the process. Hers appears to be exactly the pure, triumphant sacrifice expected from the Eternal Feminine, giving her own life not only for a romantic partner but the entire world.
Characteristically though, Urobuchi insists upon qualifying that sacrifice in a way Goethe does not. For one thing, Homura is not Faust. She does not want to be rescued by Madoka, nor is she happy that the girl she’s spent untold timelines fighting for would render her sacrifices meaningless. Faust joins Gretchen in Heaven; Homura is left behind with her memories.2 She will continue fighting Madoka’s battle and carry her memory, but she is not with her. And Homura can’t help feeling resentment over this, informing the plot for Rebellion.
Early in the episode, Madoka chats with Mami and Kyoko, who are revived by her wish but caution her against its ramifications. She incurs no benefits from it; she won’t be remembered by anyone except Homura, and will exist only as a “concept” to everyone else. It might well be, as Mami warns, a fate worse than Death. But to Madoka, it’s more important to recreate happiness in a broken world. “If someone ever tells me it’s a mistake to have hope, well, then, I’ll just tell them they’re wrong,” she tells her friends. “And I’ll keep telling them until they believe!”
Hope is a broader, more nebulous concept than Goethe’s ethos of Christian salvation. Madoka isn’t necessarily a more “moral” person than Homura, Mami, Kyoko or Sayaka; her transcendence is not a reward for her good deeds. It’s a recognition that all along, Magical Girls were victims of deceit and exploitation, with Incubators creating a world much more damaged and dangerous than it would otherwise be. But, simultaneously, it recognizes that happiness exists even with misery; that despite everything miserable we’ve experienced, life is worth living.
It’s certainly not a perfect solution. Besides Homura’s misgivings, the Incubator system continues to exist; “curses” still exist in the form of Wraiths, a more nebulous embodiment of Dark Magic that Homura and others will have to fight. This has led some writers to criticize Madoka for not completely uprooting the Magical Girl system, but in a Universe where Incubators exist this option was probably never in the cards. Certainly this doesn’t scan with the show’s view of karma; after all, even a Witchless world must have despair to balance hope. Instead, Madoka found a way to mitigate its worst abuses by turning the System against itself.
And most importantly, Madoka’s sacrifice is her own choice. Gretchen’s agency in Faust is limited between transcendence and damnation in her last moments. Madoka, on the other hand, could have stayed at the shelter and let Homura die, or turn into a Witch herself. She could have contracted with a more limited wish that would save her friend or vanquish Walpurgisnacht. Instead, she chose a wish that didn’t just benefit herself and her friends, but dozens, even hundreds of girls and women across history,3 not to mention innocents victimized by Witches. It was a choice informed, purposeful and as close to selfless as could be expected from a human.
Homura, watching everything unfold, won’t accept this. Tearfully confronting her friend in the void of space, Homura asks Madoka if disappearing completely will be worth the effort. Why make a sacrifice that no one will ever know about? Homura can’t help seeing this as a betrayal, the ultimate expression of Madoka’s own self-loathing and a rejection of her own wishes. But Madoka has graduated beyond personal hang-ups: she’s far from self-loathing, but in fact supremely confident that she’s doing the right thing. She assures Homura that Magical Girls finally can be real Magical Girls, “keeping people’s hopes and dreams alive.”4
Meanwhile, Sayaka is rescued from Witchdom but decides not to return to Earth; before ascending with Madoka, she watches Kyousuke’s recital (with Hitomi waiting in the wings), with the young violinist somehow sensing her presence.5 Here, Madoka offers Sayaka a choice to honor her wish, rather than taking it away from her. And Sayaka, the ultimate Romantic, sees more value in leaving a positive mark than doing everything over. Perhaps this is why she and Homura never get along.
Regardless, the world continues. Mami and Kyoko mourn Sayaka’s disappearance after a battle with Wraiths, attributing it to the Law of Cycles – apparently the name for Madoka’s new system, couched again in Buddhist language emphasizing continuity of experience. When Homura laments Madoka’s intervention, Mami and Kyoko have no idea who she’s talking about. It’s still a world with sadness and loss, but Madoka assures that it offers Magical Girls more than that.
Soon afterwards, Homura has a sweet scene with Madoka’s family, who have no recollection of their daughter – except her young brother, who draws pictures of Madoka in the dirt, leading Junko to wonder if she’s an “anime character.” Homura takes solace in the Kaname’s happiness, engaging Junko in a wistful conversation that allows her to make peace, at least for the moment, with Madoka’s choice. It still stings that Madoka, in her sacrifice, seemed not to respect the wish of her “very best friend.” But if Homura’s allowed quiet moments like this, after years of constant agony, are things really so bad? In parting, she offers Junko Madoka’s ribbon as a token of friendship – though Junko rejects it.
Homura’s fight goes on, as we’re reminded in the finale; she trades her guns for Madoka’s bow-and-arrow and some angelic wings as she squares up against a horde of Wraiths.6 She also, ill-advisedly, tells Kyubey about the Witch system, which the Incubator admits intrigues him but dismisses as unlikely.7 If Madoka no longer exists, she still gives Homura and her fellow Puella Magi a reason to fight. And, more importantly, a reason to live.
“A “magical girl show” is a work that allows miracles to be written,” Gen Urobuchi observed. “I think by [writing] Madoka I was able to write a heartwarming story.” One’s tempted to snark at this comment, but considering Urobuchi’s confessed wrangling with depression, and the show’s frequent conflation of “despair” with mental illness, there’s no reason not to take it at face value. Heartwarming need not mean unqualified optimism, any more than sadness renders a work “misery porn.” And even a Gen Urobuchi, it turns out, can write a show that’s both critical of and true to the mahou shoujo genre.
With Madoka Magica, SHAFT and the Magica Quintet created a show that’s rich, thoughtful and emotionally cathartic. It inspired a ream of lesser imitators, along with movies, video games, manga and an ill-handled spinoff series, some of which we’ll cover in future weeks. But none of these can lessen the original’s status as one of the best anime series of all time.