A Secret Streamlet Trickles (I First Met Her in a Dream… or Something)

A reminder: My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

Oh, and this series has no queer subtext going on whatsoever.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica can be understood as three distinct arcs, each focusing on a particular character or pair of characters and exploring a particular theme, although the themes of all three can be found in the other two. The first such arc covers the first three episodes, and focuses on Mami. Through her, it works through a fundamental internal struggle of the series, between its position within magical girl genre and its aspirations to be something new. This in turn can be viewed as a struggle between two competing shows, the fairly typical (albeit somewhat dark), heavily Cardcaptor Sakura-influenced series it initially appears to be, and the deeply unsettling offspring of Revolutionary Girl Utena and Neon Genesis Evangelion it evolves into. To simplify still further, this can be understood as a conflict between a false show or mask (as epitomized by the ending credits of the Blu-Ray version of the first two episodes) and a true show (as epitomized by the ending credits of Episode 3 on). In other words, what this first arc accomplishes is to set up a binary between the generic magical girl show audiences unfamiliar with Gen Urobuchi expect, and the dark deconstructive series he is likely to create, before appearing to settle on the latter.

The first episode, and thus Madoka itself, opens with a curtain rising. However, this is not traditional animation, but rather stop-motion animation of a paper curtain rising. Given that the difference between art and non-art is the frame–a story not framed as a story is a lie; a painting not framed as a painting is graffiti–a strong argument can be made that it is the frame that defines the art. In that case, we must consider the possibility that the stop-motion paper cutouts–and, more generally, the deployment of art styles far outside the norm for anime–are some in sense the definition of Madoka, a representation of its individuality as opposed to its existence as an instance of a genre.

This interpretation fits quite well, as we shall see, but first we must deal with Madoka running through a distorted, vast interior space, a checkerboard that evokes the warped spaces of Escher. Blacks and whites are sharply delineated here, clear binaries, but this space is not real. Unlike the latter part of Madoka’s dream, it does not appear to correspond directly to events we see on any timeline, but rather is a hint at the place where she will shortly encounter her first witch.

The latter part of the dream, however, is (as we eventually learn near the end of the series) actually a memory of a previous timeline. This is the reality of the series, as signified by the use of “Magia,” the series’ true ending theme. “Magia” will not play at the ends of this or the next episode; in the TV broadcast, the credits play over the final scene of the episode, while the Blu-Ray version has a cheerful (so long as one ignores the lyrics) song accompanied by happy images. “Magia” is not played as ending credits until Episode 3, the point at which the series abandons all pretence of being a normal magical girl show.

Visually, this portion of the dream is all grays of various shades, with little black or white. In the center of the ruined city is a dead tree, nature and civilization fallen together. Walpurgisnacht appears, her Harlequin form and massive gears implying artificiality and order, belied by wild shrieks of laughter. Everything is its opposite. Duality is an illusion; in Madoka all binaries collapse into unity. We will return here.

The episode tries to contain the revelations of this short sequence. The scene is played off as a dream, in much the same way as Cardcaptor Sakura–one of Madoka’s clearest influences–plays off its own portentous first scene. The opening credits which follow are also very typical for a magical girl show (again, so long as one ignores the lyrics), with Madoka’s very Sailor Moon- or Cutie Honey-esque transformation sequence into a costume strongly reminiscent of several of Sakura‘s.

Indeed, most of the rest of the episode consists of playing up Madoka’s life and personality to be as harmless and ordinary as possible. Her family is basically perfect, a warm and friendly-seeming stay-at-home gardener father and driven businesswoman mother, plus a typically adorable baby brother. She is nearly late for school and runs out with toast in mouth, just like the titular character in the first episode of Sailor Moon, among countless other examples.  (Indeed, that exact same image of a schoolgirl late for class, rushing out with toast, was used to convey the comfortable ordinariness of “normal” Rei in Shinji’s fantasy sequence in the final episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion.)

Even the arrival of Homura, which shatters normality as far as Madoka herself is considered, is completely predictable from an audience perspective. The mysterious transfer student is a hoary enough anime trope to be invoked by name in the Haruhi Suzumiya novels, which are in part a parody of the several anime genres that share in common more or less typical Japanese adolescents encountering the supernatural; it thus borders on cliche that Homura appears following Madoka’s dream, and quickly excels in every area of high school life. Her chilly persona (which, as a defensive affectation, fits both the classic an modern definitions of the word) an effortless, bored-seeming accomplishment serve only to make her more predictably mysterious. 
Save one, every intrusion of the world of the magical girls into Madoka’s life is doubly generic–both not particularly distinctive, and typical of the genre. Her rescue of the injured Kyubey is yet another example, mirroring Sailor Moon’s rescue of Luna, who likewise offered to unlock her potential in exchange for her fighting evil. Other than the one intrusion we’re avoiding talking about, the most refreshingly non-generic moment in the episode is the intrusion of mundanity when Madoka describes her dream to Hitomi and Sayaka. In one of the most quietly brilliant scenes in the series, the three seriously discuss several explanations for the dream of various degrees of plausibility, from the reasonable suggestion that Madoka has seen Homura somewhere before to the absurdity of past life memory (which, of course, is the closest to the truth). Sayaka even notes how much like an anime the situation is!
Which brings us to the least anime-like sequence in the episode, the witch attack. This is the ultimate intrusion of both the magical world into Madoka’s safe little life, and of the non-anime into the anime. The stop-motion, papercraft explosion of bizarre and unsettling imagery forces Madoka and Sayaka to acknowledge the strangeness they had previously been shielded from, to acknowledge the wider world outside the one they know. The alien art style reinforces their disorientation and horror, while at the same time managing to be faintly absurd, even comical. The Anthonies in particular–mustachioed cotton balls reminiscent of the Pringles potato chip mascot–are both ridiculous and deeply creepy. This is not an uncommon effect in postmodern works; the juxtaposition of elements from one context within another context creates a jarring, incongruous effect, and both humor and horror depend on similar sensations of incongruity.

Homura can do nothing about this intrusion except to say, “Oh no, not now.” She recognizes that this is inevitable; as an agent of the true Madoka Magica (note that she is the only magical girl in Madoka’s dream sequence) any attempt by her to preserve this safer, more comfortable false show is doomed to failure (as we will see again in both Episode 10 and Rebellion). That protection can only be accomplished–and only for a little while–by Homura’s opposite number.

Enter Mami. She positions herself immediately as Homura’s enemy, threatening her in order to protect Kyubey, who at this point in the story is still the cute, lovable mascot-herald who awakens the girls to their magic–it is only when the series drops its mask that he will drop his and become a manipulative devil-figure and take over the antagonist role. Mami and Homura share in common, as we will see, that they are experienced magical girls who wield guns, but are otherwise near-total opposites. Homura is new to the school, while Mami, as an upperclassman, has been there longer than Madoka and Sayaka have. Homura’s guns are entirely mundane, modern weapons, while Mami’s are magical flintlocks. Homura is all straight lines, dark colors, and purples; Mami is all curves (not just in her figure, but her hair as well), whites, and yellows. Homura is closed, mysterious, seemingly hostile; Mami is open and friendly.

Most importantly, Mami has the power to restore the false Madoka, where Homura does not. Her first act, before we even see her, is to define a safe space around Madoka and Sayaka within the witch’s labyrinth. She is able to drive off the agents of the true Madoka, both the witch and Homura. Her role in this episode is to restore order, returning the art style to familiar anime norms, healing the injured Kyubey, and enabling him to take his initial position as the Luna-equivalent, offering magical power to Madoka and Sayaka. With her positive attitude, determination and considerable power, Mami is a potent stand-in for magical girls past, and as we shall see over the course of this first arc, brings with her all the standard themes of the magical girl genre. So long as she stands in defense of it, the false series shall not fall.

She’ll simply have to go.

Next week: At least Kyubey offers a choice. That’s more than Luna ever did.

5 thoughts on “A Secret Streamlet Trickles (I First Met Her in a Dream… or Something)

  1. First time poster here, this is the wrong place to ask this but in the double rainboom review you said”

    “Trained by cult shows to scour every line of dialogue and throwaway reference for “clues,” fans engage in elaborate theoretical exercises to try to construct back stories and answer questions the show has never particularly asked….There’s nothing wrong in any of this; it can be a lot of fun. (Ask me sometime about Sombra, Cadence, and “Hearts and Hooves Day” for my own absurd engagement with the paranoid viewing style.)”

    Sombra, Cadence and “Hearts and Hooves Day” have come and gone. What is your engagement?

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  2. Welcome aboard!

    So, a lot of this is from memory since I haven't watched Hearts and Hooves Day in weeks, so I may get some details wrong, but here's what we know: Long ago there was a kingdom. There was a prince in love with a princess, and he created a love potion, but the use of it resulted in the collapse of the kingdom. Now, since the creation and use of a love potion is inherently and monstrously evil, we can conclude that the prince was evil. (This doesn't apply to the CMC because they're under any reasonable age of accountability; they don't realize they're mixing up incurable magic roofies.)

    Now, we also know that the Crystal Empire had a princess, and that the crystal ponies recognize Cadance as that princess. Why, unless she at some point was there princess? But if that's the case, why doesn't she remember being their princess?

    My speculation: Cadance and Sombra were the prince and princess in the Hearts and Hooves Day story. Sombra, being evil, created it to take over the Empire by marriage and rule it with an iron hoof. He sort of succeeded, but the effects of the potion kept him distracted enough to allow Luna and Celestia to defeat him. Unfortunately, that was much more than the time it took to make the potion permanent, so they had to either wipe Cadance's memory or regress her to foalhood to cure her.

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  3. Clever, two problemos.

    One, King Sombra is implied to have ruled for a while as he set up numerous traps and established a slavery network. This doesn't seem consistent with the effects of the poison, which made both members worried if they weren't together. The book says both participants were unable to perform royal duties.

    Two, the book says the prince was an Earth pony, not a Unicorn. The princess was an Alicorn though. Unless the book was lying. Or Cadance was the Alicorn and her distraction allowed Sombra to seize power. Maybe the prince was a pawn of his.

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  4. My only qualm is that while I understand what you mean when you say Kyubey is taking the Luna role, the scene where he calls for Madoka's help is more directly a reference to the beginning of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha.

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  5. Which should give you a hint that Madoka isn't a “normal” magical girl show, since Nanoha was in its own way a breakaway from the Sakura and Sailor Moon-inspired “Power of Love and Friendship saves the world” kind of show, being essentially Gundam with lolis.

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