the_sun_is_up: Aliciabeth from Claymore succumbing to zombie-ification. (claymore - drowning)
Sing me a bawdy song, make me merry ([personal profile] the_sun_is_up) wrote2013-06-05 07:51 pm

The Problem With Madoka Magica

*sigh* Time to paint a big target on my chest. Time for you to bring out all your rotten fruit. Because seriously, no one wants to hear this. Nobody wants to hear about why Madoka Magica sucks because everyone fucking adores this show. Its fandom is massive and rabid and I’d have to be pretty stupid to invite their wrath. Oh well.

Hell even I like this show. Mostly. But goddamn it, every time I see some reviewer gush over how amazing and perfect it is, it gives me an eye twitch.

Today it was JesuOtaku. I watched her review of PMMM, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a good review and you should watch it, but when she got to the end of the review and started praising the narrative and inevitably gave the show 4 stars out of 4, I just got... eye-twitchy. It was the same feeling I got when I saw Zac Bertschy gave PMMM full marks across the board. These two in particular are both reviewers who tend to have little patience for weepy pandery moe dramas, and yet here they are, watching yet another weepy pandery moe drama and... giving it a glowing review??

So over two years after seeing it for the first time, and after working on this post off-and-on for god knows how long, here’s me, giving my take on this universally beloved show and why I think it’s pretty good but certainly not great and brought down by some pretty glaring flaws.

First off, we have to ask ourselves: why does Madoka Magica exist? Or more specifically: who is it for?

At its core, PMMM is a moe drama just like Uta Kata and Elfen Lied, and the purpose of shows like these is to:

a) present us with a bunch of cute innocent young girls

and

b) beat them with the angsty stick until they cry, thus turning them into adorable helpless woobies that the target audience of adult men can fantasize about hugging and/or boning.

Shows of this ilk tend to suffer from bad writing because the writers know from experience that the target audience will happily tolerate it so long as the required quota of cute angsty girls is met. Uta Kata and Elfen Lied (the manga) both fell prey to this: the former by flat out refusing to explain why any of the angst-making events occurred, and the latter by being incredibly manipulative and unsubtle. PMMM’s writing is better than those two, but it still fails in some places: Sayaka’s descent into angst-gasm was way too fast to be believable, as was Kyoko’s switch from “I hate you” to “I’ll sacrifice my life for you,” and Hitomi’s perfectly-timed ultimatum to Sayaka came across as a contrived excuse to drive Sayaka closer to the edge.

But like I said, PMMM is better at justifying its angst than any other show of this genre that I’ve encountered, so the specific plot details aren’t a big problem for me. What I really have a problem with is the core concept:

There’s just something inherently sleazy about making a show that’s mainly about psychologically torturing young girls and is aimed specifically at an adult male audience.

I guess you could say the same about other Magic Warrior shows aimed at guys — Nanoha, for example, is a male-aimed show about 10-year-old girls beating the living shit out of each other — but at least in Nanoha, the girls have a fighting chance. They’re given the means to defend themselves, so they’re not perpetual victims.

By contrast, the girls of Madoka Magica are always made into victims. (Except for the ending, but I’ll get to that later.) Don’t be deceived by the fancy weapons they wield — this is a Cosmic Horror Story, where puny guns and swords are useless against the inexorable crushing foot of a vast, cold, uncaring universe. The overall tone of the series is one of inevitable doom, and the girls are screwed no matter what choices they make. Become a magical girl? You’ll turn into a horrible monster and die alone. Stay a muggle? You’ll get killed by a horrible monster. Lose-lose.

However the story makes it clear that this is not a balanced choice: If you choose to become a magical girl, you will be far worse off than if you had stayed a muggle. We know this because the villain is pro-contract and the (secondary) protagonist is anti-contract. These two characters give voice to Madoka’s central conundrum and consequently tip us off to what the “right” decision is. The sociopathic villain says, “Yes, become a magical girl, attain the power to defend yourself and the people you love!” while the sympathetic heroine says, “No, stay a muggle, stay a helpless damsel in distress, because when a woman obtains power, it’ll only backfire horribly on her.” I hate to say it, but Madoka Magica is a lot like Ultimate Girls: both shows encourage or force their heroines to remain helpless victims and punish them for any heroic behavior.

Because the world of Madoka Magica is a cold, brutal, and nihlistic one, in which any display of hope, bravery, determination, teamwork, or friendship is consistently punished. In fact, let’s just run down the list:
—Madoka bands together with Mami, yay, girl power united, stronger together! —> Friendship makes Mami overconfident and she gets her head bitten off.
—Sayaka vows to be a heroic magical girl, to stick to her principles and ideals and not use dirty tactics —> She turns into a witch in record time.
—Madoka tries to save Sayaka with the power of friendship —> She fails, and Kyoko and Sayaka both die.
—Kyoko wishes for her father to be more successful and happy —> Her father kills her entire family and himself.
—Kyoko is an anti-heroic anti-social asshole —> She survives just fine.
—Kyoko starts to grow a conscience and connect with Sayaka —> This prompts her to die for Sayaka.
—Homura tries to save her friend and her world by becoming a magical girl —> Everyone dies A LOT, Homura gets traumatized A LOT.
—Homura grits her teeth and refuses to give up —> She accidentally makes Madoka’s witch power even stronger, probably dooming the universe (though this turns out to be a blessing in disguise).
—In a prior time loop, Madoka becomes a magical girl to save Homura’s life —> She immediately becomes a witch and destroys the whole world.

The only exception is the ending, which I’ll get to later.

Now it’s certainly possible to have a “power-with-a-price-tag” storyline without making the heroes totally ineffectual. Claymore managed this, as did Soul Eater and Bleach and Naruto. The key is to give the heroes some measure of wiggle room, a third option besides “don’t use your powers at all” and “turn into a monster.” In Claymore, for example, the heroines discover a method of staving off their monsterification. Their final fate is still sealed, but at least they’ve bought themselves some time in which to get shit done. The only third option that PMMM provides is for the girls to let witches kill people in order to breed more grief seeds — Claymore and the other series I mentioned above had no such damning price-tag attached to their third options.

The question arises, why is the show so cruel to its good-hearted heroines? Is it just that it’s a cynical Book-of-Job-esque show? Is it because it’s a weepy moe drama and it wouldn’t be appealing if the heroines weren’t in a constant state of tearful suffering?

Well, I heard someone on TV Tropes theorize that the show is punishing the girls for their wishes, that there’s a “be careful what you wish for” theme here revolving around the girls making wishes that appear selfless, but are actually selfish, and then the wishes backfire as karmic punishment for their fake selflessness. For example, Sayaka claimed she wanted to save Kyousuke when she really just wanted to be with him. Homura had a similar situation with Madoka. Kyoko wished for her father to be successful when she really wanted to not starve to death. (I don’t know how Mami fits into this — all she wanted was to not die.)

Which if this is accurate, wow show, you really have got some fucking nerve. You seem to have forgotten that women are already traditionally pressured to be as selfless as possible and already get punished for daring to have desires and aspirations of their own, particularly in Japan where the archetypal ideal woman (Yamato Nadeshiko) is one who puts her family and her husband’s wishes first and her own desires last. PMMM takes a bunch of vulnerable teenage girls, offers them a chance to have something for themselves for a change, and then when they accept the offer, it shits all over them for having the temerity to actually be selfish. And let’s look at those wishes again, because those are pretty low on the selfishness scale. Wanting to be with your beloved? Wanting to not die? Yeah that’s the kind of selfishness that totally merits 12 episodes worth of psychological torture and violent deaths.

What I’m saying is that the show is pretty sexist. It’s parroting a number of toxic themes that we've seen a million times before: women should be helpless victims; if we give women power, they will inevitably turn evil, destroy the world, and fuck everything up; women should be selfless; if a woman reaches out for something she wants, then she’s being selfish, which will destroy the world and fuck everything up; any woman who reaches out for power or for something she wants must be punished horribly.

But you know what? I’m okay with this! I mean yeah, the misogyny on display here is rather nauseating, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Cosmic Horror and for sadistic tragedies that gleefully stomp all over their characters’ hopes and dreams while laughing like Christian Bale in American Psycho. I like grimdark. I like horror. I like schadenfreude. And I like Madoka Magica, partly because of all the flaws I just criticized. I was ready to ride the Cosmic Horror train all the way to its cynical soul-crushing clusterfuck end. I was all ready for Space Runaway Evangelion: the Magical Girl Edition.

And then I watched that ending. That FUCKING ENDING. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I’d end up criticizing an ending for being too happy, but here we are. I saw that a lot of the critics who’d previously slammed PMMM for being sexist suddenly changed their minds about it after the ending, which they felt had fixed all of that and put their concerns to rest. I can’t agree with them and here’s why:

The ending represents a tonal and thematic 180-degree about-face. It was set up pretty well in the world-building (we know a girl’s superpowers connect to the specific wish she made, and Kyubey never laid restrictions on what one could wish for), but it was not set up well in the tone and the themes. I’m sorry, but you can’t spend 11 episodes telling us that everything is fucked and everyone is doomed and reaching for power will only get you smacked down hard, and then suddenly turn around and go “Actually, everyone’s okay and reaching for power can get you what you want and it’ll even turn you into a god to boot!” The show spends 11 episodes punishing the blameless heroines for showing any shred of bravery, idealism, or love, shitting all over their dreams and laughing in their faces, and then in the final episode, it suddenly decides that bravery, idealism, and love are totally awesome and effective and will win the day and fix everything.

And it’s a damn shame because out of context, I really liked the ending! It was awesome and beautiful and made me want to jump out of my seat and cheer! The only problem was that it didn’t even remotely fit with the 11 episodes that preceded it. I can only assume that this ending was yet another attempt to pander to the target audience. Sure, they want to watch cute girls being tragic and helpless and miserable, but they also want a happy ending, or at least a bittersweet, heart-warming, hopeful ending. So hey, let’s give them both of those things, even if it makes no sense.

Finally, there’s that stupid stupid Faustian allegory. PMMM is obviously trying to set up a comparison between itself and the Faust story, with Kyubey as the Devil and the heroines standing in for the weak-willed Doctor. This comparison quickly falls apart for two big reasons:

1) Faust was a man in a male-dominated world, he was a light-skinned German in a European-dominated world, he was a Christian in a Christian-dominated world, and he was a highly successful scholar to boot. He already had plenty of socio-economic and intellectual power, so his fall from grace comes across as “be grateful for what you have and don’t be greedy.” The PMMM heroines are women in a mildly male-dominated world, they’re young teens in an adult-dominated world, and they also live in a world plagued by monsters. Faust reached for power out of greed and boredom; the Puella Magis reached for power out of need and desperation. Mami was dying, Kyoko was starving, Sayaka was in love and desired attention from her crush, Homura was trapped in a ruined empty world and wanted to save her friend from death, and Madoka (of the 4th time loop) also wanted to save her friend from death. Their fall from grace just makes the universe they inhabit look excessively sadistic and cruel.

2) Faust’s story is an essentially Christian tale. The Faustian universe had a good power to balance out the evil power. Faust always had the option of being a good Christian and going to heaven; all he had to do was refuse the Devil and he’d have benefited hugely in the long run. However, he was greedy and impatient and thought he could get away with having it both ways, and his universe justly punished him for this. The PMMM universe has no such good power to balance out Kyubey’s influence; his contract is the only option the girls have if they want to avoid being monster chow, and if they refuse his offer, there’s no reward in store for them, aside from dying a slightly less tortuous death. There’s no justice in this universe as there was in Faust’s; there’s just a whole lot of bad things happening to virtuous people for no reason. Faust got dragged down to hell because he deserved it. The Puella Magis did nothing to deserve their fate.

Writing this post has made me rather depressed, because I really really want to like Madoka Magica. Scratch that, I do like Madoka Magica. Mostly. Because for the most part, it’s a really good show. Art direction, animation styles, cinematography, soundtrack, voice acting — all are absolutely fantastic. I even like a lot of its ideas and some of the execution, and I think it could have been a really brilliant, landmark show. But the core themes and the way it handles them are so damn skeevy that I just... I can’t. I look at this show, and all I feel is disappointment.

And that’s why, whenever I see some intelligent thoughtful reviewer give this thing a perfect score, I feel the need to punch something.

Edit: Whoops, forgot to include my favorite quote about Madoka, from somebody else on Dreamwidth:

It is a work designed to punish its female protagonists for caring and to blame them for their beliefs; everything in it was written with murder in its eyes.

Yep, pretty much. I still like it, but yeah, ick.
sailorptah: Super Sailor Moon (sailor moon)

[personal profile] sailorptah 2013-06-06 07:33 am (UTC)(link)
When PMMM was still a few episodes from the end, people were already criticizing it for sticking the female characters in a terrible crushing no-win situation. My reaction then was, "But it hasn't ended yet! They could still pull off a happy, heroic ending. You don't know!"

Not that I knew how it would end either. And it seemed like a long shot for Madoka to pull off something as epic as she did. But it didn't feel impossible.

If you want to make a series that really drives home the point that magical girls (thanks to their beliefs, and strength, and friendship) have the power to succeed against overwhelming odds, what better way to do it than to make their universe so crushing that even the audience isn't sure they'll win? Isn't a happy ending that much sweeter to watch if the viewers were genuinely worried it wouldn't happen?

So it's counter-intuitive to me to see the show analyzed from a POV of being 100% convinced the moral had to be "it's dangerous for girls to have beliefs and act on their desires" all along, to the point where you reject the ending that says otherwise.

I'm not sure what makes the difference in perception. Is it a genre expectation thing? I went in not knowing anything about the Weepy Moe Seinen Drama tradition. Didn't think to connect PMMM to Elfen Lied in any particular way until you brought it up in this post.

(For comparison: I saw Elfen Lied a few years before PMMM, and was compelled at first, until it became clear that the angst wasn't building to anything satisfying, but was just there for the sake of it. And I Uta-Kata more recently -- because someone had recommended it as "handling these themes so much better than Madoka", in fact -- but was underwhelmed. Largely because of the "but why is any of this happening?" issue you commented on.)

I have other criticisms of the show, and I agree with some of yours. Like the observation that Sayaka's downward spiral and Kyoko's redemption happened awfully fast. And the series definitely isn't a great Faust allegory -- any more than Kaitou Jeanne makes much sense with the book of Genesis, or Sailor Moon has any relation to Arthurian mythology.

But I can't see eye to eye with any complaint based on the idea that the setup was inherently too awful for magical girls to believably overcome.

(Anonymous) 2013-06-06 07:22 pm (UTC)(link)
But it's precisely the previous 11 episodes that makes Madoka's "no, you know what? I don't want this to happen" suitable, isn't it? I can understand being frustrated that it's only Madoka who could do it, but the ending is a girl kid saying "this isn't fair! girls deserve better! girls deserve to be selfish without being punished!" and taking their destinies out of the hands of a cosmic douchebag guy.


The message I got, rather than something Faustian, was that the other girls accepted their new painful life as something inevitable, to get used to, whereas Madoka was unwilling to accept such unfairness. Which is still not a *perfect* moral, but in the end it's still a young girl who wants things to be better for other young girls.

(Anonymous) 2013-08-24 05:28 pm (UTC)(link)
Isn't the ending most sexist part because Madoka has to beg (wish) Kyubey to fix all problems?
Other point that I like to bring to table is that PMMM basicly says that boys aren't emotial enough to become magical boys which sounds overly sexist.
cordialcount: (stock › the rate of meeting the future)

[personal profile] cordialcount 2013-08-30 03:38 am (UTC)(link)
Your reaction is really fascinating, and I'm glad that you posted it!

Sayaka’s descent into angst-gasm was way too fast to be believable, as was Kyoko’s switch from “I hate you” to “I’ll sacrifice my life for you,”

Sayaka and Kyoko are mirror cases of a type I've met too often, and am grateful I avoided falling into a few years ago: people who pinned the entirety of their worth and identity on having an ideal to fight for, and consequently bounce hard to some other pole when the ideas they've previously put on a pedestal are challenged. (Although they're young and, if they were people, I'd assume they have a much better chance of growing out of that tendency than some of my acquaintances...) How I'd describe my own reaction to the show was "this makes too much sense, in an abstract way". The complexity and contradiction and detail-work I associate with real experience didn't come through for me at all in the narrative and major characters.

[personal profile] artoriastheabysswalker 2013-09-27 12:51 pm (UTC)(link)
The reason why there was no happy ending for the Magical Girls(until Madoka made her wish) was because of Kyubey. Those girls HAD to die for the universe to not die. It would be useless for Kyubey to turn them into Magical Girls if they did never ever die or turn to witches and they had to be defeated by other Magical Girls again so Kyubey can gather the energy to counteract Entropy. This forms the endless cycle that Kyubey wanted/needed. The girls had no other chance than to die. Yeah, it's a bit cruel.

At least that's what I understood. So I can't really understand why you say that's something negative about the show. A happy ending for every Magical Girl would have made no sense for Kyubey and he wouldn't have turned them into Magical Girls in the first place. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Excuse my not so perfect English, I'm from Austria.

(Anonymous) 2013-11-13 06:45 am (UTC)(link)
I sincerely hope you have nothing whatsoever to do with literary criticism in any sort of academic manner, because that was the biggest pile of actual bullshit I've ever read and I can't even be arsed to grace it with a response. Thanks.

(Anonymous) 2014-02-08 11:50 pm (UTC)(link)
If you have nothing constructive to add other than utterances of a stereotypical insane fangirl, then get the fuck out of the conversation.

(Anonymous) 2014-02-27 08:56 pm (UTC)(link)
Considering the author's other works, and general world-views (love is a form of insanity, altruism is a falsehood, happy endings defy the laws of nature), I'm inclined to believe that this view is founded on a mix of correlation->causation fallacy, and sampling bias inherent to the genre the work is masquerading as. Essentially, you've identified two of the most obvious links between the characters, and mistakenly assumed that the writer is applying one because of the other; you've made the obvious conclusions that all the characters are female, and that their wishes lead to death and suffering, and made the erroneous logical leap that their wishes lead to suffering because they're female. To put things into the perspective of the writer, let's consider the postface of Fate/Zero Vol 1, one of his previous works.

Gen Urobuchi wants to write stories that can warm people's hearts.
Those who know about my creative history will probably furrow their brows and think this is a sick joke. Honestly, I have trouble believing it myself. For when I start typing out words on the keyboard, the stories my brain comes up with are always full of madness and despair.
The truth is, I haven't always been this way. I have often written pieces that didn't have a perfect ending, but by the last chapter the protagonist would still possess a belief that "Although there will be many hardships to come, I still have to hold on".
But ever since I don't know when, I can no longer write works like this.
I have nothing but contempt for the thing men call happiness, and have had to push the characters I poured my heart out to create into the abyss of tragedy.


Looking at his works, you see a pattern. They all have the protagonists undergo immense suffering that, from the perspective of the average viewer, is entirely undue and awful, and generally end with the heroes dying horrible deaths, which can typically be traced back to very slight character flaws, or even things that most would not consider to be flaws, such as I mentioned earlier. The reason why the characters undergo such immense suffering is, in short, because they exist in a work he penned. Now, the part which is the most interesting, especially when you consider the idea of the ending trying to justify the rest of the work...

For all things in the world, if they are just left alone and paid no attention, are bound to advance in a negative direction.
No matter what we do, we can't stop the universe from getting colder, either, and on the same principle. This world is only maintained in existence by a series of logical, common-sense processes; it can never escape the bondage of its physical laws.
Therefore, in order to write a perfect ending for a story you must possess the power to break the chain of cause and effect, invert black and white, and act in complete contradiction to the rules of the universe. Only a heavenly and chaste soul, a soul that resounds with genuine praise for humanity, can save the story; to write a story with a happy ending is a double challenge, to the author's body as well as the mind.


For the record, this predates PMMM. This all should sound really, really familiar, because it's pretty much a description of the goal of the Incubators, of the ending to PMMM, and of Kaname Madoka. If you make the assumption that the fact the series so strongly resembles this paragraph is not a coincidence, you can infer the following points:

1. Kaname Madoka is an idealised figure, and is based on the sort of person who pens stories with happy endings; the sort of writer Urobuchi Gen wishes he could be.
2. The ending doesn't exist to justify the story, but rather, the ending was the event around which the story was built; it would be more accurate to say the story exists to justify the ending.
3. The stories of every magical girl save Madoka are deliberately the typical sorts of stories he writes, with Kyubey filling the role of the cruel author of their fates, and Madoka being the ideal writer who, in the end, saves the story.


Now, I'm not going to get into the hilarious implications and perfect fit that is Homura representing director Shinbou Akiyuki in Rebellion, right down to forcing an ending change against the wishes of both "writers" of the story, because I've already gone on way too much of a tangent as it is, so I'll just say, in closing, the incredibly cruel treatment of the characters in the story is because this is simply how Urobuchi Gen treats the charaters of all the stories he writes.