Definitely not the same thing as optimism (I Won’t Rely on Anyone Anymore)

Duh-duh-duh-duh duh-duh-duh-duh
Oooooweeeeooooo

Weeeeooooo-ooooo

Let’s start back at the beginning.

Among many other things, Madoka Magica is a critique of moe, the fandom within anime fandom that celebrates weak, usually feminine characters that evoke a feeling of protectiveness. As we saw in Sayaka’s arc, this protectiveness is futile and dangerous, because to be protected is to be objectified, to be treated as other than a full human being possessed of free agency.

Just as magical girls are witches, to be a protector is to be a destroyer, and this is just as true of Homura as Sayaka. Note the precise nature of Homura’s wish: to switch places with Madoka, to be the one to protect her instead of protected by her. By setting herself up as Madoka’s protector, she inflicts the status of protected on Madoka, which (as we learn next episode) is the very reason Madoka has suffered so much–but that should not be a surprise, as over-protecting someone can very easily lead to them losing confidence.

This collapse of binaries is rooted equally in Madoka Magica‘s postmodern and Buddhist leanings. The latter in particular is notable here, since of course the Buddha is a teacher, not a savior; since all distinctions, including good-evil and self-other, are illusions, salvation is impossible because there is nothing to be saved from.

Homura first struggles to save Madoka from death because she sees it as different from life; then she struggles to save Madoka from becoming a witch because she sees it as different from being a magical girl; finally she struggles to save Madoka from becoming a magical girl because she sees it as different from being an ordinary human. But because she fundamentally does not understand what kind of a story she’s in–and it is telling that she went to a Christian school before coming to Mitakihara Middle School–she cannot recognize that her actions will only ever make things worse.

In short, this isn’t working.

Let’s start back at the beginning.

Last week I discussed the magical girl genre’s origins, and how the good girl/bad girl (or magical girl/witch, or Madonna/whore) dichotomy constrains the expression of feminine power into either channels non-threatening to masculine hegemony or into outsider figures, whether the witch deep in the woods or the magical girl who only ever fights monsters no one else can see.

Episode 10 uses multiple timelines to spread Homura’s character out, and show her evolution from the non-threatening form to the outsider. In the first timeline, she is a powerless innocent, weak enough to become a witch’s victim. As the timelines progress, she becomes more powerful and more of a transgressive figure. At the beginning of the second timeline, she is clearly the weakest and least skilled of the magical girls; her power to stop time is purely a support ability with no apparent offensive application, and her ability to physically harm witches is minimal. By the end of the timeline, however, she is capable of making and using homemade bombs in combination with her time stop to kill witches, and Madoka is delegated to the support role. In the third timeline, Homura becomes more powerful and more transgressive still, moving from making bombs at home to stealing guns from criminals, making her a match for Oktavia.

In the fourth timeline, Homura finally becomes the figure we know, coldly detached, her girlish pigtails and glasses–both signifiers of harmlessness–abandoned along with her uncertainty, as she robs the ultimate symbol of hegemonic masculinity, the military, to fight alone.

But these images of Homura are spread out, not from past to future, but across multiple timelines, meaning that in some sense all these Homuras exist simultaneously. The “outside” in which the outsider fights is a channel non-threatening to masculine hegemony. The apparent binary between them is just as illusory as that between magical girl and witch; Mami and Homura are two sides of the same coin.

Which means that Homura is not a rebuke of the magical girl genre or a challenge to the safe, non-challenging framework within which it resides. She is simply another manifestation of that framework, an alternate form of the magical girl with whom viewers are comfortable.

In short, this isn’t working.

Let’s start back at the beginning.

Early in this project, I posited that there are three arcs to Madoka Magica, each focused on a particular character or pair of characters and each emphasizing different themes. Episode 9 closed out the Sayaka/Kyouko arc, which was largely about exploring depression and closing the circle on the magical girl genre. Episode 10, thus, serves as an introduction to the final arc, which focuses primarily on Homura.

We thus get an episode dedicated entirely to her perspective, following her as she repeatedly travels back in time in an attempt to avert Madoka’s fate. Throughout this, Homura appears largely immune to the despair that overwhelmed Sayaka in her arc; the only time Homura comes close to becoming a witch in this episode is in the third timeline, when she suggests that she and Madoka become monsters and wipe away the entire world and all its sadness, which foreshadows both Madoka’s eventual wish and much of the plot of Rebellion.

What makes the third timeline special? In the first timeline, Homura only becomes a magical girl after Walpurgisnacht kills Madoka. In the second, Homura’s lack of injury suggests that she had little or no part in the fight with Walpurgisnacht. In the fourth, Madoka only becomes a magical girl after Walpurgisnacht defeats Homura.

The timeline on which Homura comes closest to being a witch is the timeline on which she actually gets her wish, to defend Madoka during the battle with Walpurgisnacht. This is the balance of hope and despair which Sayaka spoke about; the heights lead directly to the depths.

Homura is usually immune to despair, because she does not hope in the usual sense. Instead of hope, she relies on her determination and her love for Madoka; since neither is an innately good feeling, neither brings despair to balance it. Put another way, she epitomizes the concept of hope as described by the Czech playwright, philosopher, revolutionary, and statesman Vaclav Havel: “[hope] is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

As she says at the end of the episode, she can keep going no matter how long it takes, so long as it is for Madoka. But what then to make of her breakdown in Episode 8? Madoka seems determined to sacrifice herself in every timeline, and this is the single greatest threat to Homura’s plan. Homura is functionally depressed, which is to say that while she is functional, she is also depressed, and all it takes is a slight push downward to make her collapse.

In short, this isn’t working.

Let’s start back at the beginning.

Episode 10 presents us with a series of alternate timelines, adjacent to the events of the show. As each timeline reaches the disaster of Walpurgisnacht, Homura resets herself to the day she left the hospital and tries again. However, it appears that she is not just traveling back in time, but also across timelines, as elements seem to change from timeline to timeline regardless of Homura’s involvement–for example, in the first timeline Madoka becomes a magical girl before Homura leaves the hospital.

Throughout these four alternate timelines, there are echoes (or omens, depending on your point of view) of events in the series’ main timeline, from the shot of Madoka’s shoes as she turns to face Homura in the school hallway in the first timeline (an echo of a similar shot of Homura turning in the same scene in the first episode) to Kyouko’s refusal to accept that Oktavia has completely replaced the Sayaka she knew.

But more interesting are the subtler echoes. Homura’s repeated awakenings in the hospital, for instance, echo Charlotte’s origin, strengthening the parallel between them as harbingers of the true series and Mami’s nemeses. Madoka’s pleading with Homura to prevent her from making the mistake of contracting with Kyubey places Homura in the position of making that mistake in Madoka’s place, echoing Junko’s advice in Episode 6. Even Homura’s gradual loss of innocence and transformation into a darker, more mature, and more transgressive figure parallels Sayaka’s entire arc.

These echoes serve not only to make clear how the timelines relate to one another; they also recontextualize the events they echo. From Homura’s point of view, these are not echoes but prefigurations (as, indeed, some are for the viewer as well, such as Mami being the first to attack the other magical girls, foreshadowing Rebellion); all this has happened before, and likely will happen again.

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 second of these episodes.

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.

Next week: In short, this isn’t working.

18 thoughts on “Definitely not the same thing as optimism (I Won’t Rely on Anyone Anymore)

  1. Last week I discussed the magical girl genre's origins,

    Last week, and every week before it. ;)

    and how the good girl/bad girl (or magical girl/witch, or Madonna/whore) dichotomy constrains the expression of feminine power into either channels non-threatening to masculine hegemony or into outsider figures, whether the witch deep in the woods or the magical girl who only ever fights monsters no one else can see.

    You know, something you said a while ago, about Magical Girls never stopping street crime, reminded me of something I've been thinking about for a while.

    One could make a really interesting variation on that theme: A magical girl might choose to not stop the low-level street crimes that are the mainstays of the superhero genre (the cheap tricks by which unimaginative writers establish heroism on the part of the hero, often with reactionary subtext), because that's the police's job, and the increased power of a superhero/magical girl should be used to treat larger societal ills.

    For instance, a particular favorite of vintage superheroes is Foiling A Bank Robbery™. But there are many problems with this. For one thing, as Robert de Niro pointed out in Heat, the civilians' money is insured by the government. And as Luke McKinney pointed out, banks no longer need robbers to steal piles of money from their customers. All the superhero would be doing is lowering insurance premiums.

    But of course, given that the superhero genre (or at least, the superheroes tasked with preventing street crime, such as Batman) is at its heart a juvenile fantasy whose job is to teach kids a tidy moral about how upholding the status quo is the duty of every hero, while providing generically “safe” wish-fulfilment for readers, that theme will never be addressed.

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  2. Having Superman fight the KKK was the best decision in the history of comics.

    It's a major problem with the superhero genre and the whole concept of the hero in general, actually. The idea of the superhero is that they are someone gifted with immense power who can enact the will of the people against the corrupt elements of society, which the government (and given that most superheroes originate in 20th century, Western nations, we're talking about liberal democracies here) is failing to deal with.

    Let me rearrange that for you slightly: the core concept of the superhero rests on the assumption that liberal democratic governments are incapable of controlling corrupt elements of society, so that task must be handed over to a single individual of great power and strong will through whom the will of the people can be expressed. That's the underlying political philosophy of fascism.

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  3. Bravo! This is a brilliant depiction of the Buddhist theme. The fact that Homura kept reincarnate herself is also quite a prominent symbol of Buddhism. And it's very crafty that your article to mirror this reincarnation theme.

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  4. One thing that stands out to me about the early Homura is that of all the characters we've seen subjected to a witch's mental domination – including Madoka herself – she's the only one to successfully resist. Physically, yes, she's helpless against the witch and its familiars – the show emphasizes her frailty with her heart condition and moe-inspiring glasses – but she withstands the witch's suggestion of suicide even though she's already depressed and even before she has her love for Madoka to guide her.

    Arguably, Madoka's subsequent protection of her is just as damaging as vice versa, leading her to feel guilty over her powerlessness to prevent Madoka's sacrifice(s) and to seek that power in all the wrong places. But it's the strength that she already had that kept her going despite all odds, and, with the hindsight of Rebellion, it's also the strength that ultimately leads her to prevail – but only after she finally ditches the useless guns and bombs. And your comment about “rob[bing] the ultimate symbol of hegemonic masculinity” brings to mind the fact that we ultimately see her “robbing” an entity expressly labelled as the eternal feminine…

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  5. All very interesting points! I never thought about the contrast between Homura's inner strength, which embodies the Havelian concept of hope, and her physical frailty, or the parallel between her stealing weapons from the military and power from the Eternal Feminine, even though I had noticed the latter is one of the long list of things Rebellion is rebelling against.

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  6. Looking forward to your article on ep 11.

    By the way, in case you haven't noticed: Homura means flame. This is very interesting through the lens of Buddhism: the goal of the Buddhists is to attain the enlightenment (becoming Buddha); and a metaphor for this process shows up over and over again is that a lotus flower (signifies purity and enlightenment) grows out of the flame of suffering.

    It's interesting to see whether this TV/Movie franchise will turn into a complete Buddhist allegory, ie. whether the lotus flower will eventually grow out of the flame.

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  7. As an addendum to all this, I would like to posit that its likely homura prevents Madoka from wishing indirectly, keeping her ignorant of it by killing kyuubei as seen, and perhaps saving amy so she wont contract to bring her back to life..

    In regards to episode 10, the story boards where originally 1 hour long, but had to be cut for time, this material made it into the drama cd memories of you. so if you are interested to explore more into this beginning, I would heartily recommend it, as It explains homura's relationship with madoka and gives some important lost context to their original relationship.

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  8. this reminds me of my country's hard on for trying to elect a single person (Read president) expecting them to single handedly fix everything.

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  9. I should note also that as far as I know there doesn't seem to be anything like homura expressly robbing madoka's power. It seems more like she created her own which was able to overcome the goddess through love and the putrefication concept, as homura doesn't escape becoming a which, but infact has to become one to reach the point where she makes her revelation about herself with madoka's help.

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  10. I would recommend you listen to the drama CD, memories of you. Madoka became a magical girl for a reason, as explained in the CD, so madoka's lack of a magical girl transformation in future timelines isn't necessarily related to the differences between them, though there are certainly such differences.

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  11. >for example, in the first timeline Madoka becomes a magical girl before Homura leaves the hospital

    No. There's a shot of the calendar in one of the timelines. In it, there are two things marked: the date for the hospital discharge and the first day of school. In the first timeline, Homura meets Madoka at school. Later, when they talk over cake, Madoka says she became a magical girl about a week ago. Madoka becomes a magical girl in between Homura's discharge and the first day of school. This is why we see Homura going after Kyubey and saying that enigmatic sentence at Madoka's window in the fourth shown timeline, when she takes it upon herself, as she promised to, to stop Madoka from contracting.

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  12. Excellent point, that specific example is flawed as you. The broader point still stands, however, since that moment happens in the fourth timeline but not the fifth, as Kyubey's statement in episode 8 that that's the second time Homura has killed him tells us (the first time she killed him in that timeline was at the mall, after the first day of school). So the date on which Kyubey first tries to contact Madoka is before she meets Homura on at least one timeline and after she meets Homura on at least one other–stuff that has nothing to do with Homura's actions varies.

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