I’ll admit it: I’m late to the party, on this one. Since January 2011, the anime-watching public (online and off) has been enamoured of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and I’ve been scoffing at it. They said it was deep. I scoffed. They said it was meta. I scoffed. They said to give it some time. I scoffed.
And then I caught myself rooting for the zombies on The Walking Dead, and started craving good anime as an antidote to my television malaise. Around that time, Crunchyroll started streaming the entire series. After the first episode, I was hooked. But it wasn’t until the fourth episode that I realized why.
First, some context. Madoka is a mahou shoujo or “magical girl” series. It’s about an eighth-grader named Madoka Kaname, who is given the opportunity to realize her magic potential and fight witches, the invisible creatures who cast curses on unsuspecting humans and cause, among other things, suicidal depression. If she agrees, she gets one wish in exchange. No matter what the wish is, her familiar, a cuddly telepathic ball of fluff named Kyubey, will grant it — if she devotes the rest of her life to being a magical girl.
Magical girl series spring straight out of the I Dream of Jeanie/Bewitched mould, and a lot of the time they’re about a guy in love with a girl with powers (Ah! My Goddess, Video Girl A.I., Chobits). But sometimes they’re about what it’s like to be a girl with powers, like in Sailor Moon, Princess Tutu, or Pretty Cure. Madoka falls into the latter category: it is about the challenges of having power, not what it’s like to be challenged by someone else’s power.
A lot of stories stumble, at this point. It’s all too easy to fall back onto clichés about the magical girl wanting to fight evil and go to the dance (or, in this case, neighbourhood shrine festival). The girl in question wants to keep her cool abilities, and keep some semblance of a “normal” life. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about getting demon blood on prom dresses, and so on. Where Madoka succeeds is in recognizing that these two impulses, to wield enormous power and to maintain the status quo, are totally irreconcilable.
The first magical girl that Madoka meets asks her, point-blank, if she likes her life and the people in it. When Madoka answers that yes, she enjoys her life and that the people in it are precious to her, the girl tells her never to change it, or herself, no matter what she’s offered in exchange. And by episode four, we understand why: magical girls live short, lonely lives that end violently and with little fanfare. Nobody misses them, because they have no time for connection. And worse yet, the magical system they’ve indentured themselves to encourages them to compete ruthlessly with each other.
It should come as no surprise when Madoka refuses the bargain after learning all this. But in this genre, that’s where the story starts to break some new ground. Madoka makes it very clear in the early episodes that she would love to be a magical girl: she draws prospective costumes, goes out on witch-hunts, and bemoans the lack of meaning in her life. Like many fourteen-year-olds, Madoka is convinced that she’s not good at much of anything, and becoming a magical girl who can kill witches and save lives seems like exactly what she needs to find her place in the world. But still, after learning the ugly truth (or at least, the series’ first ugly truth — there are more than one), she turns her back on the offer.
Does she feel conflicted? Yes. Does she worry about what her choice says about her as a person? Yes. Does she later wish she had the same power? Of course. Otherwise, there would be no story. But what I appreciate is that the series gives Madoka the room, at first, to make her own decision. That decision-making process, by itself, has a lot more to do with adulthood than any amount of ass-kicking or witch-hunting. By saying “no” to Kyubey’s offer, and therefore preserving her imperfect-but-enjoyably-normal life, Madoka is setting limits and boundaries for what is and isn’t okay with her. She’s also choosing the harder way: sure, becoming a magical girl would be difficult, but it’s too handy a shortcut to identity, and Madoka seems to know it. She wants to become herself by herself, and discover her dreams along the way, rather than pursuing someone else’s goals.
The series highlights this theme by showcasing Madoka’s awesome businesswoman mom, who had no intention of running a company until she discovered how good she was at the job. Now she’s the family breadwinner, flawlessly organized, with a stay-at-home husband who cooks and cleans and an adorable new baby to go with her potentially magical daughter. When Madoka asks her dad about the choice to arrange their lives this way after her mom gets home late from a corporate booze-up, he says her mother’s willingness to face new challenges is what makes him proud to be her husband. So it’s no wonder Madoka wants to save the world: she’s got big heels to fill.
I have yet to finish the series, but I have some sense of where it’s going, and I can’t wait to get there. I say that because the series’ primary theme is choice, and choice is what builds strong characters. And also, it’s refreshing to watch a series where characters — especially girls — are expected to make tough decisions about equally difficult and rewarding paths, and then stick to them. In the current political climate, all we hear is talk about women “taking responsibility for their choices,” without the caveat that, in order for responsibility to be taken, choice must first be available. It may be true that with great power comes great responsibility, but choice itself is immense power. Without it, responsibility cannot be taken up, it is merely foisted on. It’s the difference between being the Chosen One, and choosing to be The One. It’s part of why the best and brightest magical girl series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer ends the way it does.
I hate this. I hate being here. I hate that you have to be here. I hate that there’s evil and that I was chosen to fight it. I wish a whole lot of the time that I hadn’t been. I know a lot of you wish I hadn’t been, either. This isn’t about wishes. This is about choices… So here’s the part where you make a choice. …Are you ready to be strong?