On the Puella Magi Madoka Magica Finale, Part II

Madoka and Religion

I do apologize for bringing up Evangelion AGAIN, but you know, there are some areas where the two shows are opposites: in Evangelion, there’s a ton of symbolism relating to the Abrahamic faiths, but the show isn’t really about any of that; Madoka doesn’t bother with much religious symbolism (in fact, most of the symbolism is about other things entirely), but the show is literally about a girl who dies for our sins. Evangelion uses religious trappings, Madoka uses actual religion.

However, one thing they have in common is that while at first the Christian parallels on both shows jump out at you, to me the real substance of the religious material in both shows has more to do with Jewish mysticism and/or ideas that predate Christianity. Rather than being a token similarity, or the fact that one show was influenced by the other, I think it’s because both shows want to deal with religion (to the extent that Eva deals with it at all) on a more primal level, and if you want to go truly primal with religion, the year 0 is just too recent.

This would be some symbolism.

In fact, Madoka takes the core idea of the Christ figure, which predates Christ, and cleanses it of all the patriarchal and/or illogical baggage its acquired over the millenia; our savior Madoka isn’t born from a virgin, some warped idea of feminine perfection, but from a vivacious woman who isn’t afraid to get drunk off her ass if that’s what the situation calls for. Also, people don’t owe Madoka any sort of debt; She took on the burden of saving the world because she wanted to (no wish is selfless.) There’s no second coming on the horizon, because she did everything she wanted to do right the first time.

However, as much as the Christ parallel is obvious (and airing the final episode on Good Friday was cute, whether or not it was intentional), I can think of no better summary for the final episode than the tagline of Kabbalah: “God is a Verb.”

Now I’m not a kabbalist, and trying to apply kabbalism to fiction (especially when it comes to Evangelion, appropriately) tends to produce all kinds of pretentious gook I’m not sure I can really get behind, BUT.

In this one case, I think the idea of God being a verb- epitomized by Madoka, who is constantly, actively in the process of saving people from despair everywhere- really does fit with the show’s apparent message. God isn’t some aloof figure; it’s whatever is actively working to save your ass from the ravages of the universe. And the beauty of it is, that idea works whether you want to believe in the idea of an actual god- like what Madoka becomes- or if you’re of a more atheistic bent and believe that the closest we have to the benevolence of a God exists in people who choose to do good, against all odds.

Madoka and Other Good Stuff

Maybe I should have done this first, but to conclude, I’m just going to list a few things I loved about this series that don’t fit anywhere in particular.

-The fact that we got a parent character who wasn’t clueless. I know there has been some criticism that there was no point to Madoka’s mother- she seemed like she was going to be much more important in the plot than she actually was. However, I think the fact that Madoka’s mother had an inkling of what was going on, even though she didn’t know the details, really was the whole point; this wasn’t a world filled with five smart people and a bunch of clueless NPCs. Things like the mother’s friendship with Madoka’s classroom teacher may have seemed inconsequential to the overall plot, but they helped us believe this was a world filled with actual people who were worth saving, not just helpless background figures.

-The fact that a character truly went all out for the “final battle.” This may just be me, but I hate it when a character makes a big deal that they’re going to face their nemesis for the last time, and they make a big show of cocking a handgun. It’s like, you stupid idiot, if this is truly the last battle then don’t take a self-defense weapon, take a rocket launcher- in fact, consider taking twelve. Even though she was unsuccessful, watching Homura use every conceivable tool at her disposal to try to take out the Walpurgisnacht was satisfying, because the viewer could feel confident that if there was any chance in hell that the witch could have been defeated with conventional weapons rather than magic, Homura would have done it. It left no doubt in our minds that Madoka’s actions were necessary, something surprisingly rare in this brand of fiction.

– The fact that what was basically a Deus Ex Machina ending actually worked for once, because the show set up enough narrative and thematic scaffolding for it throughout that it didn’t feel like a cheap cop-out. I know some people will criticize the ending for being too easy, since Madoka basically became powerful enough to solve everything, however they spent the entire series laying the groundwork for why Madoka was so important in this scenario, and they did it without making the character into a total Mary Sue that we hated.

-That it was not only unpredictable, but even the stuff that WAS predictable somehow didn’t disappoint. Some may recall that I asked as early as episode 5 why Madoka couldn’t just “wish for no more witches,” and that’s 90% of what happened, yet the mechanics of how it happened were sufficiently interesting that I never felt tempted to say “bwah, I saw that coming.”

-The fact that someone actually deconstructed a genre like they said they were going to, instead of deconstructing one or two elements and calling it a day.

I’m sure I could think of more, but rather than prattle on indefinitely, I’m just going to rest secure in the knowledge that there’s no way I could possibly do justice to this show in a blog write-up anyway, and leave it at that. Of course, if you disagree with any of my thoughts on this show- disparate as they may be- you’re welcome to tell me so in the comments. I promise I won’t get mad, unless you say anything mean about Homerun-chan, who was so adorable with Kyubeh in the last episode by the way.

9 thoughts on “On the Puella Magi Madoka Magica Finale, Part II”

  1. I disagree about Madoka Magica being a “deconstruction of a genre,” but everything else you’ve said seems spot-on to me. Furthermore, I’m really intrigued by your comparisons of PMMM and Evangelion, especially re: the subject of hope (in yesterday’s post). As soon as you put it that way, Evangelion starts to look rather…existentialist? And–to pick up on the theme of today’s post–it’s interesting that perhaps Madoka Magica only escapes the existentialist “absurdity” of Evangelion through the appeal to metaphysics: magical thinking, miracles, and a messiah figure…

    Above all, as I said last time, I love the fact that this show has so many people writing so many smart things about it! Thanks again for your reviews–and I, too, loved the more typical “magical girl” relationship between Homura and Kubey in the last scene.

  2. I think the fact that I loved Eva as much as I did as a teenager was a sign of a defeatist worldview- I was depressed, I didn’t think I could make anything of myself, OF COURSE the best show ever was about the fact that everything ultimately breaks down and you’re left with no way forward. I still think it’s brilliant, but it does strike me as kind of immature in some respects now.

    Assuming I understood what you were saying about PMMM and deconstruction in the post you linked (and I’m not honestly sure I did- not that you were being obtuse, but it’s been a while since I’ve read anything of that nature), I think it’s a deconstruction because of what it does with the “love saves all” theme. In magical girl shows, love on its own merits usually saves the world; the heroine, Sailor Moon and so on, is WILLING to sacrifice herself for the sake of the world, but she never really has to; just the fact that she has the heart to do it is enough to save everyone, and her technical “death” always gets reset. In PMMM, love was not enough; love was Madoka’s ultimate motivation, but it took a lot of blood, sweat and tears on the part of our Puella Magi to make the world an even slightly better place.

    For that reason, I think it does expose a flaw in the genre that will be obvious when we rewatch other magical girl shows- for example, thinking of Sailor Moon now, it seems awfully convenient that Usagi can go on and live happily with Mamoru after the end of Sailor Moon Stars.

    I think you could also make the argument that it deconstructs the whole “magical girls are superior by birth” thing because of the reason why Madoka is special, which isn’t her inherent worth.

    Once again, I apologize if I misunderstood anything, normally I would have read more carefully but I have to start packing to move *checks watch* uh, right now:).

  3. Good analysis of some of the themes and why they worked. I wanted to do something similar, but I just didn’t know where to begin. I’m still digesting that ending.

    I really should go back and watch Evangelion. It’s been like eight years, and I have a sneaking suspicion I thought it was amazing for the same reasons you mentioned.

    Homerun fanclub <3

  4. Yow–all this and moving, eh? Thanks for both your posts and your replies!

    I think that part of my point is that you can’t have a “deconstruction” of a genre through a contingent plot- or character-point. For everything I’ve seen mentioned as being so-called “deconstructed” in Madoka Magica, there’s the ability to dismiss it with a simple, “Yes, it was that way in Madoka–but it needn’t be.” And so you cannot trust the cute animal sidekick–unless you can. And love can’t save the day–unless it does. And the magical girl isn’t born superior–but she is somehow superior, more special than anyone else.

    You’re right, though, that Madoka Magica does at least do a very good job at pointing out a lot of the thin plot-devices that are so many magical girl shows’ bread-and-butter. “Hmm…that seems kind of convenient.” But, by the same token, this just seems to hold open an implicit promise: that you could have a “straight” (i.e., not “grim-and-gritty”) magical girl show that wasn’t thinly-plotted. Do I think that Madoka Magica is a sign of a maturing genre, and sets the stage for a future deconstruction? Absolutely. But is it already that deconstruction-to-come? Nope. Not yet, I don’t think.

  5. @Yuki: Let’s ALL discredit Eva now and make all the self-appointed Eva scholars look foolish :3.

    @m@
    Okay, I think I see your point now. I think there’s a problem in that a lot of us are using the term “deconstruction” to mean something more general than it actually does- I’m not sure what term would be more accurate, though. I also think our lowered expectations of genre shows may cause us to overestimate the significance of any subversion from our expectations- PMMM is doing something different? Clearly it’s a huge deconstruction! 🙂

    Although, it does boggle the mind how messed up an actual deconstruction of the genre would be….

    Thanks for reading and responding, in truth I’ve only gotten these blog entries done because I’ve been blogging when I should be packing -___-….

  6. All a deconstruction does is take assumed conventions of a particular genre and apply logic to them. Evangelion had the same typical young, existential, parentless teenagers that loads of other super robot and mecha shows have used for years. The deconstruction was to take those characters to their logical ends by highlighting their mental instability, horrible social skills and the adults who only cared about using them. Madoka took the typical blind trust in magical animals and the immense power they can bestow and gave the animal disturbing ulterior motives and the power a horrible consequence. Even Madoka’s wish is part of the deconstruction. In a world where literally any wish can be granted with enough power behind it, a truly tragic ending is logically impossible.

  7. I don’t know about that- if applying logic to assumed conventions is all it takes for a deconstruction, then Card Captor Sakura is a deconstruction of the magical girl genre too, and that doesn’t seem quite right to me. This seems to be a lot more complicated than I thought initially.

  8. “I do apologize for bringing up Evangelion AGAIN, but you know, there are some areas where the two shows are opposites: in Evangelion, there’s a ton of symbolism relating to the Abrahamic faiths, but the show isn’t really about any of that; Madoka doesn’t bother with much religious symbolism (in fact, most of the symbolism is about other things entirely), but the show is literally about a girl who dies for our sins. Evangelion uses religious trappings, Madoka uses actual religion.”

    Hmm. I think I may take a slight exception to that. Evangelion uses a lot more symbolism that may be justified by the content, but I still think that it’s a valid interpretation to view it as, at least in part, a story about a character who ends up giving his life (in some way) for humanity (in some way).

    In Christ’s story there is a willing savior and a reluctant savior. Evangelion features the reluctant savior almost exclusively. Shinji can’t even begin to comprehend what he’s destined for, or why, until after it happens. The story of Shinji and Gendo is that of Christ on the cross asking why his father has forsaken him.

    Madoka has no truck with that. She does spend a lot of the series not really being sure what is being asked of her– or what she is capable of doing. While Kyubey’s contract may be a trick, she is aware of that by the climax, and enters into it willingly. Madoka is the willing savior, giving informed consent. By the time she makes her wish, she knows what she is giving up and what she is gaining in exchange, in a way that Shinji, pre-Instrumentality, never really comes close to realizing. He flirts with it, but always turns away, where Madoka embraces it willingly.

    Madoka doesn’t need more visual symbolism, or direct references to Christianity, because it’s a much more true and complete telling of a messianic story than Evangelion is. Shinji’s sacrifice, such as it is, is incomplete in a way that Madoka’s isn’t because he never truly gives his consent to it. That’s what makes Madoka’s arc much more similar to Christ’s.

    (Full disclosure: I’m a fully recovered catholic, so I hope diving right into this particular topic doesn’t make anyone suspect that I might be a missionary or an evangelical intent on using the board to proselytize… because I’m not.)

    At any rate– very interesting post, I enjoyed reading it. I look forward to continue to reading on many other series.

  9. @Narcogen

    “Madoka doesn’t need more visual symbolism, or direct references to Christianity, because it’s a much more true and complete telling of a messianic story than Evangelion is.”

    In this we’re in total agreement.

    As to Eva being about a Christ/reluctant savior parallel, certain scholars of Evangelion, who like to think of it as pure social commentary, will break out in hives at the very IDEA of that:). That said, I think how much the Christian aspects of Eva make up an important part of the overall story for you, and how much they appear as “window-dressing” depends on where you’re sitting; as a Jew, I have to admit that I haven’t been primed to see things in Christian terms the way many others have; to me it’s the Kabbalistic imagery that stands out.

    Also, I always had a bit of a problem with the idea of Shinji and Gendo standing in for Christ and God, because to me Gendo isn’t put in the God role at all in Eva; Yui is. Some break it down as Shinji (Son), Gendoh (Father) and Yui/Unit 01 (Holy Ghost), but it always came across to me as more of a pure mother-goddess story; the real players are Yui and Shinji. What power Gendo has was given to him by his wife. I think casting him as the God in this parallel is to misunderstand his role in the story, but that’s just my take.

    Thanks for reading and responding with such great comments- I’m sure you all know that you have to write for yourself first, but it’s still nice to know it’s not just an echo chamber in here ^_~

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