By disrupting that order–a way of surprising (I’m Not Afraid of Anything Anymore)

In one of the less-remarked instances of queer subtext in
Madoka Magica, Mami gives Charlotte head.

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

Sorry this is so late.

If nothing else (and it is much else), Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a meticulously structured series. Every moment of it is carefully placed to advance a complex story with extensive character development in a surprisingly small space. One example of that meticulous structure is the symmetry throughout the series, the way in which moments large and small repeat at precisely the right time to reflect one another.

Two episodes utterly transform the series. On a first viewing, these two episodes stand out as moments when what appeared to be a show about one thing suddenly becomes a different show entirely.  As in a mirror, they are at precisely opposite ends of the series, the third episode and the third-to-last. This is the first of these episodes.

The episode opens with hints to the second and longest of the series’ three major arcs, focusing primarily on Sayaka and Kyouko. Sayaka is visiting a boy, Kamijo, to give him the CD she and Madoka went shopping for in the first episode. As the two listen to it together, we see Sayaka remember her first encounter with true beauty and with the human power of creation, when she saw Kamijo perform when both were small. We never learn precisely what is wrong with Kamijo, only that he has lost some mobility in his hands and can no longer play the violin; regardless, what matters is that the beauty Kamijo could once create is now beyond his reach, trapped in the past. This is the earliest emergence in the series of one of its major themes, a clear marker of its Buddhist influences: the inevitability of decay and loss. The beauty Kamijo creates had to be lost sooner or later, because everything is; time is the destroyer of all. The loss of Kamijo’s music is not qualitatively different from Mami’s family’s death in a car crash or the destruction of the universe by the unrelenting march of entropy; they differ only in scale.

But thankfully, the opening credits are here to save us from such melancholy thoughts! This is still the false Madoka, after all, the safe, comfortable magical girl show with only occasional hints of darkness. Either the credits or Mami herself will always step in to save us before things get too dark.

But like teeth on the edges of the frame, darkness is creeping in around the show. Mami’s flashback to her wish, to save her own life, contains so much unstated: Mami lives alone, with no clear source of money, and she was clearly in the backseat of the car that crashed. She wished hastily, to live, and now she counsels Sayaka and Madoka to think carefully about their wishes and be absolutely certain they are wishing for what they want.

She wished to live, you see, when she could have wished for her whole family to live. The paratext (particularly the series guidebooks) suggests that much the same is true for Charlotte; she wished to share one last cake with her mother, when she could have wished for her mother not to die.

But Charlotte is far from Mami’s only parallel here. Last episode, we saw Mami’s magical girl transformation paralleled with Junko’s transformation into a different kind of warrior, the ambitious corporate climber. This episode, we see Junko laid low by an inevitable part of the life of the typical Japanese salary(wo)man: the after work drunken bender. As she staggers into the Kaname home, she both foreshadows that Mami will shortly fall to an inevitable part of the life of a magical girl, the messy death, and provides the impetus for A crucial conversation between Madoka and her father.

Madoka asks a natural question: why does her mother enjoy her life? What dream is she living out by being an ambitious cog in a profit machine? Her father explains that Junko’s dream is not to do something, but to be something; that she works for the sake of working, that what she values about the effort is the effort itself. 
This mirrors the critical question Mami asks Sayaka. Does Sayaka wish I help Kamijo, or to have helped Kamijo? Does she want something for herself, in which case she should wish for that, or is it truly the helping itself that she wants? Just as Madoka is interested in being a magical girl, while Sayaka wants to fight evil, here Sayaka is focused on what she wants to do, rather than on what state of being she wants to achieve. She assumes that her action will bring that state of being about, but she is still failing to express the wish he truly wants. 
Similarly, Mami reveals in her final conversation with Madoka that she hates the state of loneliness in which she finds herself as a consequence of her wish. Though she stated earlier that she prefers how things are now to the prospect of death, she still regrets that she couldn’t have made a better wish, and she still feels terribly, utterly alone. But just as she will at the end of the series, Madoka reminds Mami that she is not alone, and promises to become a magical girl to help support her.

This is the moment at which Madoka kills Mami. The joy that Mami feels at knowing she is no longer alone causes her to showboat even more than last episode. She underestimates the threat Charlotte represents, and in so doing ensures her death. More importantly, just as with Kamijo’s music, her joy cannot last. It must end, decay, turn sour, because that is the inevitable consequence of existing within time.

Except for one thing: cheese.

We know from the paratext and from the Rebellion film that Charlotte is obsessed with cheese, searching for it endlessly. And what is cheese if not something good and life-sustaining that comes out of decay? It is rotten milk, raised into both a culinary delight and source of sustenance. It is a perfect example of the alchemical concept of putrefaction, the physical and spiritual notion that death is a source of life. Decay is repulsive, and yet the ugly, squirming mass of mold and maggots is teeming with life, able to sustain more beautiful and lovable creatures; without that decay, there would be no life.

In devouring Mami, Charlotte finds her cheese. This death and decay brings forth a new life, because it is the moment at which Madoka Magica transcends the norms of its genre and begins to fulfill its potential. Only a few short minutes after Mami first attacks Charlotte, everything has changed: Mami is dead. Homura has saved Sayaka and Madoka. Kyubey offers no comfort as they sob in the hospital parking lot. And as “Magia” finally takes its place as the true ending credits, one thing is clear: Madoka Magica has begun.

Next week: Miracles cures and suicide pacts.

8 thoughts on “By disrupting that order–a way of surprising (I’m Not Afraid of Anything Anymore)

  1. Possibly? I haven't thought that much about how I tackle Rebellion yet–I'm still too close to the three essays I wrote about it in rapid succession after seeing it. In particular, “Corpse of Cheese” is pretty heavy on the Charlotte stuff.

    Still, it would make sense to revisit her there, since she's basically the deuteragonist. (Homura is the protagonist, obviously, and Mami and Kyubey share antagonist roles.)

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  2. I've always thought that the religious themes of “desire causes suffering” and “decay and loss” were post-rationalizations of the unfairness of life, and serve primarily as neoliberal propaganda teaching that life is supposed to be unfair, and the have-nots are supposed to get screwed over and ground into dust by the haves.

    One of my favorite parts of FMA:B was that little debate between Al and Kimblee right before the Promised Day, when Al rejected the premise of Equivalent Exchange, because I've always felt EE had some unpleasantly neoliberal/capitalist subtext anyway.

    I never noticed the “cheese” theme with Charlotte, though, and it makes me like the arc a lot more, tieing in with Madoka's later crossing of the Lessing's Ditch.

    Incidentally, tomorrow's episode of MLP just got leaked early. I'm holding off until tomorrow, but on the plus side, it means our options for streams probably won't be quite so limited (assuming you're feeling better enough for the stream).

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  3. Oh, I'd agree entirely about it being a way to express the unfairness of life. I don't see how it can have originated as neoliberal propaganda, however, when it predates neoliberalism by millennia (dating back at LEAST to Vedic Hinduism, which is about 3-4000 years old), as well as the equivalent Western concept in terms of social function (hubris) showing up shortly after. Of course the defenders of status quo have been using it ever since, most recently the neoliberals, but that's hardly new.

    The problem is that it's basically true; for most people, life DOES suck, and everything IS impermanent. The real question is what you do about it. Given the certainty that everything you build will one day be dust, do you pretend it isn't true? Give up on building? Dream that someone magic will somehow save you? Or say “screw it” and build anyway?(You can guess which approach I favor.)

    Not noticing the cheese theme in the series is quite understandable, because it's not IN the series; it's introduced in the paratext and then referenced continually in the movie. I'd also argue that it's not Madoka that crosses Lessing's Ditch, but rather that she is already on the other side and helps Urobuchi, and possibly Homura, across.

    Yeah, I'm definitely there for the liveblog. Not hugely enthused about the episode because celebrity showcases tend to be pretty hit-or-miss, but we'll see.

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  4. Would you mind explaining what you mean by “crossing Lessing's Ditch” in this context? I'm only familiar with it in the sense of the unreliability of historical claims, which doesn't seem to apply to PMMM.

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  5. *headdesks* Oops. By “paratext” I thought you were referring to the symbolism in the Gankutsuou-style backgrounds in the Witch's Labyrinths. I gotta get my terminologies straight.

    I didn't say the concepts originated that way, I said that it's primarily used by that and related ideologies. I find the core beliefs of most moral ideologies seem uncannily well-suited to reinforcing the status quo of the time and place they were forged.

    @Anonymous: The whole Lessing's-Ditch tie-in is something Froborr touched on in a previous post on Madoka Magica, about Gen Urobochi's struggles.

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  6. Stupidly long “comment” incoming (I swear I just couldn't stop myself typing)

    I think Sayaka's later actions (even if you ignore Kyubey's speech for being biased) suggest a slightly less focused thought process behind her wish then you suggested. She DOES want to help Kamijo, but she ALSO wants him to love her, and wants to “earn” his love.

    That's not to say she would have been better off outright wishing for him to love her of course! She rightly finds the idea of that repugnant; she nearly clobbered Kyoko when she suggested a similar plan.

    No, her goal was as much of a “who I am” one as Madoka's. Sayaka wanted to be a knight in shining armor who fought against evil witches (nevermind that she was charging into danger before she was even equipped to handle their minions), and who saves people, and who healed Kamijo's hands and was therefore worthy of his love. The idea of magical girls who do NOT act like a white knight enrages her, especially once she is one.

    That's who she wanted to be.

    I guess to some degree it's inevitable that most people given a wish, even if they're trying to be selfless, are ultimately inserting themselves into the picture. They're as concerned with what kind of person would wish for X as with how much they want X. That's not a bad thing; being a good person is just about how much you've internalized “good” goals as ends in themselves. If everyone completely ignored the nagging voices in their head they'd just wish themselves rich and powerful or something. Sayaka is not TRYING to be selfish, nor was Kyoko or Homura at the time they made their wishes. She really was trying to help someone instead of just wishing for what would help her.

    But the problem with making your decision by settling on what sounds “good” is that it can let you settle for much less than you could do; helping one friend somewhat instead of helping many a lot. Doubly so if you're trying to mix it together with your own personal goals (a happy family,
    “earning” someone's love, not losing your best friend). It's not made clear if there's some limit on how powerful a wish can be (ie Sayaka probably can't wish for world peace), but it's pretty obvious that you should be able to do a lot more with it than heal one person's hands, or have a tea party to cheer up your friends (yes, for all that I'm describing Sayaka falling into a trap Madoka's proposed wish did so a hundred times worse).

    Perhaps the only reason Madoka was able to pull off what she did at the end, was that by then she'd had the desire to settle for a “good” wish thoroughly beaten out of her. She'd seen Sayaka's story and heard Mami's and Homura's, possibly Kyoko's too, and that was enough to make her pause and think harder about what she really wanted. And it turned out that by then what she really wanted was to help everyone, not just a couple people who she knew well.

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  7. Ah, thanks. Usually Hume would be the obvious reference, but if you're working backwards from the leap metaphor… I get it now.

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