Otakon 2011: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Analysis Panel

Fan panels at anime cons don’t seem to get much coverage- I noticed before I was attending cons with regularity that all the anime news sites tend to cover is licensing announcements, which are honestly kind of boring. Yes, Funimation has licensed another title; no, they won’t release it when you actually feel like watching it. Next?

I set out to Otakon this year to correct this horrible injustice and cover some panels myself (and to cover the con from a Sailor Moon perspective for Moon Chase again, like I did last year), only to come away with a new understanding of why no one covers fan panels; not much happens there. It’s usually a large group of people getting together and collectively saying, “How awesome is our favorite show? That’s right, SO AWESOME!” I enjoyed the Durarara!! panel, but that’s really all it was.

Fortunately, as you might have already surmised from the title of this post, the Madoka panel was actually worth devoting some time to, so hit the jump and we’ll get that out of the way.
Before I get into everything they presented at this panel that I disagreed with- which is a lot- I need to state this: just because I didn’t agree with a lot of the analysis from “The Fine Print on the Contract: The Themes, Philosophies, and Birth of a Legacy in Puella Magi Madoka Magica,” doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the fact that the panelists made the effort to turn what could have just been another “rah, rah Madoka is so Kewl!” panel into something much more interesting. Since picking apart Madoka is kind of my hobby, I’m going to have my own spin on things, but I can’t thank the panelists enough for actually going out on a limb, taking the risk that someone was going to disagree with them, and trying to get to the heart of the show.

The main problem I had with the panel was that the themes and philosophies the panelists were using in regard to Madoka were very Western; like, Kyouko=Nietzsche and Mami=Semiticism type of Western. I’m okay with bringing ideas to the table that are probably different from what the creators had in mind, but I think you have to acknowledge that that’s what you’re doing. For example, I don’t have a problem with people analyzing the Christian symbolism in Evangelion as long as they’re prepared to acknowledge that a lot of the meaning they’re assigning to it wasn’t necessarily intentional on the part of the creators. Just because it wasn’t intentional, doesn’t mean it’s not interesting.

However, the theories at the Madoka panel weren’t qualified with any sort of “This is how the show appears from our American perspective” disclaimer, and I think they could have used it. “Death of the Author” enthusiasts might feel differently, but that’s not a camp I consider myself a part of- at least, not entirely.

Here are three points mentioned about the panel that I felt compelled to respond to:

Madoka is About Growing Up

The panelists described the process of becoming a Puella Magi as a metaphor for growing up, which at first I had no problem with- after all, usually in stories featuring young teens, it’s all about the giant, flashy metaphors for growing up. It’s certainly true in most magical girl shows.

However, do the characters really go through any sort of reasonable growing up process in Madoka? Sure, growth occurs, but there’s nothing like an adolescence; the girls go from carefree kids to a situation that’s actually far, far worse than adulthood in a blink of Kyubey’s creepy red eyes. Look at Sayaka; there was no progression of her character from girl to responsible, mature woman. She was a child who suddenly became another child with fifty thousand times more responsibility, and it basically killed her. Madoka’s journey is a bit more gradual, but the only reason Madoka is allowed any kind of gradual maturation is because of the way Homura continually subverts the whole Puella Magi system. Puella Magi don’t grow up, they just become incredibly powerful, depressed kids who need to develop disturbing coping mechanisms (Mami, Kyouko) just to stay alive-until they inevitably run out of magic and die, of course.

In other words, I think one of the ways that Madoka is subversive is that it subverts the “superpowers as metaphor for growing up” trope that’s so popular all over the world. Really, the only characters who get to grow up- where the possibility of growing up is even there- are the second-tier characters without magical powers, like Hitomi and Kamijou (and lord knows, he needs some growing up.) They’re the only ones who have a future where they can make different choices.

Granted, Homura and Madoka both experience growth of some kind, but I don’t know if you can consider it akin to attaining adulthood, because they both cease being people, really. What Madoka becomes is clearly more concept than person, and it’s left deliberately vague what Homura is by the end.

So yeah, I’m going to go out on a limb myself here and say that Madoka just might be the only magical girl show that very pointedly isn’t about growing up, and though I disagree with the panelists for stating otherwise, I’m kind of glad this came up, because it makes me respect the show more.

Mami=Semiticism

A theory that Mami represents the Judeo/Christian ideal of putting off a reward in this life for a reward in the afterlife, as opposed to Kyouko’s nihilism. To this, I just have to say no, period: Mami never got the opportunity to make that choice. She didn’t choose to martyr herself for a greater good; her death happened spontaneously. Furthermore, I don’t think Mami was mature enough to make the choice to wait for after death for her reward even if there was any indication that such a thing was possible in her world (and I don’t think there was); Mami’s whole character is a little girl who does a great job of play-acting at being more mature than she actually is. How could she make that decision? Based on what?

That’s not to say that Mami wasn’t genuinely kind and altruistic, at least to a certain extent, but I think to give Mami credit for choosing to forgo pleasure in this life for some sort of theoretical spiritual reward is to read into the show to the extent of making things up out of whole cloth, which is what can give this type of analysis a bad name, really.

Male Presences: Madoka’s Mom(!) Kyubey

Finally, the panelists discussed the interesting lack of male presences on the show- not a controversial point in and of itself. However, they then identified the only “traditionally” male presences as Madoka’s mother (because she’s the breadwinner) and Kyubey (because apparently, we all realize deep down that it’s a guy.)

According to the panelists, since Madoka’s dad is basically a housewife, he doesn’t count as a male presence, and Kamijou doesn’t count as being a male presence by virtue of being a total bitch, or something to that effect. Okay, I get what they mean with Madoka’s mom exhibiting what we would typically consider masculine qualities, but because the father and Kamijou aren’t traditionally masculine, they don’t count as male presences? I honestly don’t even know where to start with that.

I think the panelists were coming at this looking for traits that were considered “male” in literature more than anything else, so I don’t really think they’re saying that non-traditionally masculine men don’t “count” as men. However, I don’t see the point to dividing up characteristics into classically masculine and feminine. Yes, so Madoka’s mom is the most traditionally “masculine” type we see, with her high-power job and her take-no-prisoners attitude- but so what? Why does that matter? You could say that it gives the show a feminist vibe, but what does that mean- a feminist world is one where men virtually don’t exist? I’m not too thrilled with that.

This goes along with my general feeling that gender +literary analysis= Big hot mess of stupid. It always becomes this elliptical cycle of every supposedly sexually progressive thing being offensive to somebody. So, the lack of male presences in the show means that the show is empowering to females-wait, so the only way for women to be empowered is the absence of men? Offensive! Nah, maybe it’s more like the fact that the women have more traditionally masculine traits is the empowering part- except wait, if traits like “strong” and “breadwinner” are so inherently male that a woman can’t have them without becoming more masculine, what does that say about women-that these traits are foreign to them? Offensive! And so on.

For the record, I’m not offended by any of this in particular- I’m only offended by the suggestion that any of this makes sense. Breaking up traits into masculine and feminine seems to me to be the exact problem that feminist criticism was supposedly invented to solve, so what have we accomplished here?

5 thoughts on “Otakon 2011: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Analysis Panel”

  1. I actually attended this panel too (I was really curious how they were going to treat it) and so I wanted to comment.

    (fair warning – this comment might get long)

    I think I generally agree with your comments. The panelists obviously put work into designing the panel, but some of the points they made came off as lacking nuance and focus. I had an issue with the growth thing as well – Madoka Magica is a series in which a lot happens in a very short amount of time (and if you count in the fact that there’s a time loop, this density of events gets worse), and in heavy contrast with a lot of other shows that deal with the same subject matter I felt there was a marked lack of significant “growth” in anyone really. And yeah, the treatments of gender roles is really finicky if you want to do it right, and their treatment was a bit cursory…

    I would like to mention that your point about the Western-ness of the philosophies presented is valid only assuming that they wanted to think about moral philosophy in Madoka in the descriptive sense – that is, that they wanted to explore what moral philosophies actually existed (intentionally) in the show and perhaps wanted to trace this somehow to moral thought in Japan. That’s a matter of historical analysis. It is possible that they wanted to think about moral philosophy normatively, by trying to figure out whether characters in Madoka Magica were actually acting right or wrong (not right or wrong according to the current moral beliefs of the Japanese, but right or wrong in the general philosophical sense). So in that sense, I didn’t really find their use of Nietzsche to be that troubling, aside from the fact that Nietzsche is bat**** insane.

    Overall, I really think their hearts were in the right places, and I am glad they got the opportunity to hold the panel. I also think that cons in general need more academically-oriented programming, so this was great in that sense. But some items (the things you mentioned, amongst others) could have been handled with a bit more care. I still think that a panel about moral philosophy and Madoka Magica is an idea with a huge amount of potential – I’m toying with the idea of submitting a panel of my own in the same vein, but we’ll see what happens with that.

    In any case, I really enjoyed reading your post, and this opportunity to share my own thoughts on the matter.

  2. Thanks for commenting- I think I see what you mean about talking about moral philosophy in a normative sense, I guess it’s just personal preference that I would prefer people to state outright “and by the way, this is different from what we think the creators were specifically intending.” Just because I think too many critics don’t realize that this distinction exists, or pretend that it doesn’t, and it can confuse things.

    I hope you do hold a Madoka panel sometime soon, assuming I’ve got the right person and you were one of the parties behind the “Anime Mythbusters” panel, I didn’t get to go but I heard it was fantastic:)

    1. Haha yeah, I think given that this was their first panel (or so I heard), it’s natural that they had some issues with precision and carefully laying out all their assumptions.

      And yeah, I was one of the guys doing the Mythbusters panel. I’m glad that people seemed to enjoy it as much as we enjoyed ourselves! We’re working hard on refining that panel and also finding new material for a season 2.

      And we’ve been greenlit to do a Madoka panel at Nekocon at November. You’re actually the first to know haha, given that this was decided like 10 minutes ago. Time to bust out my old dusty version of Kant’s Metaphysics and start banging my head against a wall…

  3. Hello everyone,

    I was perusing this article, as per the reference given by a fellow panelist. First of all, I’d like to thank you for a concise and critical review of the panel, as it is most informative. I do find it strange that you found an issue with the panel not mentioning that it was our opinion and may or may not coincide with the original author’s vision, as I assumed it was implied. The nature of philosophy is a highly speculative one, subject to changes in the socio-political environment of society as reflected by personal insight.

    As I am but one individual, I can only reflect my opinion, not the opinion of the others in the group and I largely agree that the concept of gender analysis needed a bit more focus and description. From a personal standpoint, I must confess that this is a topic that I mostly refer out to others, but the topic needed a bit more ironing out. If you wish to share your thoughts with how the topic could be better explored, it would be greatly appreciated. I am always looking for ways to improve upon my presentations.

    To an understandable extent, there was a diminishing of focus, due to the fact that there was a lot of material we wanted to explore, so it might have felt a little spread thin at times. One of the biggest aspects I wanted to explore was the concept of comparative theology, utilizing Nietzsche as a contrast to the religious connotations I found within the series, providing a spectrum and an entry point to the concepts of moral philosophy. The ideas that arise from this discussion could probably fill a panel in itself, but all things are subject to the time constraint. As it was our first panel, it would be great to hear from members of the audience what you want explored and what we can do to make a more enjoyable presentation.

    -Zoob

  4. Really nice article. I agree that most of the characters don’t go through a coming of age story, but I would argue that Madoka does. Before she becomes a concept, she talks with her mom. That’s the scene that really sells me on her growth into an adult. In episode 6, Junko tells Madoka that she passed childhood with flying colors. “You don’t tell lies and you don’t do bad things.” Madoka says she wants to grow up quickly so she can drink with her mom.

    Throughout the show, Madoka doubts herself and feels useless. But in episode 11, she has learned everything about the history of magical girls and the truth about the Soul Gems. She finally feels confident in herself and has commited herself to her path with no regrets, knowing that no one is tricking her. She stands up to her mom and makes Junko look like the child. Junko is scared to let go of Madoka, to admit she has to do this alone like an adult. That scene shows me how Madoka has grown as a person, matured, and become self-confident.

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