That nourishes human hope (My Very Best Friend)

My friend and co-panelist on Latin Latin Madoka More Latin 3, Kit, is going to be doing a panel on the Utena and Madoka movies at Otakon! If you’re at the con, you should go, she is way smarter than me and actually trained in this stuff. Also, she could use some help getting to grad school. (I am eyeing some of those rewards greedily, biding my time until I get my tax refund…)

Yep. None whatsoever.

In the final episode of Madoka Magica, failure is victory is loss is triumph.

We open with the same tableau that ended the previous episode. Four figures remain, the key players in this apocalypse, for apocalypse it is: Every timeline we have seen has ended with a fight against Walpurgisnacht. There is nothing beyond the fight with her, because Homura keeps resetting the universe before the future can occur. Homura is the first figure, broken and bleeding, the sad clown who is endlessly victimized by her desperate attempts to find meaning in an absurd and uncaring universe. Laughing at her mockingly is the instrument of her defeat, Walpirgisnacht, the harlequin who signifies that absurdity. Between them is Kyubey, the director, author, orchestrator, the master manipulator who choreographs their dance to please his unseen audience and thus derive power and sustenance from their emotional arcs.

But then there is Madoka. She has been inert, the prize the others fight over, but now at last she makes her choice. And what a choice it is: death. She will become death, the destroyer of worlds, slaying all witches at the moment of their birth, until ultimately there are none left but she herself, and then she will kill herself. 
But Madoka is not Sayaka. This is not suicide; this is the transcendent death, the death of the ego that gives access to eternity and unity. There is no more Madoka; she is an existence without beginning or end, and within her all things are one. 
First, however, a long-promised cake. That was the agreement between he and Mami, after all: that if Madoka could find nothing to wish for, they would share a cake. But Madoka just made her wish; why cake with Mami?
Because Madoka has solved the paradox. To become enlightened, to escape the karmic cycle of hope and despair in which the magical girls are trapped, one must shed all desire. But if one sheds all desire, including the desire to transcend, why would anyone transcend? Madoka has found the answer: the death of ego, the erasure of the self-other distinction, which eliminates desire because the subject doing the desiring and the object of the desire are one and the same. “If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.” Though she made the wish only moments ago (insofar as that concept can mean anything now that she exists equally throughout all of time), she no longer has any wishes, so she receives enlightenment and cake. 
There is more to this scene than cake, however. Madoka is handed back her notebook of costume designs by Mami, the protector and signifier of the traditional magical girl show. When Mami died, Madoka stopped talking about becoming a magical girl as a way to find purpose; instead, it became a sacrifice she repeatedly considered making for the good of others. By returning the notebook, Mami is symbolically passing the role of guardian of the magical girl tradition to Madoka, while at the same time restoring the idea that being a magical girl can be a calling rather than a sacrifice. 
Because one thing Madoka most definitely is not, is a martyr. She is not a Christ-figure, suffering and dying as a way of absorbing the sins of others; she explicitly destroys the witch-aspect of herself which carries that suffering. She is egoless and transcendent, and thus cannot suffer. Her role in this Faustian take is that of Gretchen, and as such she is more of a Marian figure, pure and unsullied, interceding to obtain a state of grace for others. Except even that is not quite accurate, because Madoka doesn’t intercede or plead mercy for the magical girls. They still become witches and die; the only change is that their witch-forms do not exist in this world, because Madoka erases them at the moment of creation. They still suffer and still despair, still die–but such is the nature of living in this world. Madoka’s role is as guide and teacher, a psychopomp who carries the magical girls out of the world before they can become a problem for it. With her in her pure land, they learn, and perhaps someday transcend as she has. Meanwhile, on Earth, things are imperfect, but better. 
Daijobu.” “It will be all right.” This is what Madoka tells Homura just before she appears in the final form variously dubbed Madokami or Godoka by fans (though Madokannon would be more appropriate, as she is more Bodshisattva than divinity). It is a powerful phrase in the iconographic roots of the show; in.Cardcaptor Sakura it was the ultimate spell the hroine created at the end of the series, an expression of hope of nigh-limitless power. Madoka is already carrying out her duties as the warden and guardian and magical girls past. At the same time, however, her transformation sequence is brief, unsexualized, and strongly implies her costume to be made from an Anthony–the familiars that dominated the witch’s labyrinth in the first episode, the first instance of the strange and wild new aesthetic the show introduced.

Madoka is becoming a bridge between the old genre and the new. She speaks the assurances of the old genre to the representative of the new one. She gives her ribbons–chosen for her by Junko, who has repeatedly been paralleled to Mami–to Homura as well. It is not a complete restoration of the magical girl tradition–the new world is still dark, and being a magical girl is fraught with dangers and likely to end with death–but a partial restoration, acknowledging that there were good stories, good characters, and true themes to be found among magical girl shows past.

Chief among those themes is hope. Naïve hope, the optimistic belief that things will get better, is a trap, yes. Anyone sitting around and waiting for a savior or a lucky break is doomed to disappointment. It is the nature of an entropic universe that if things can get worse, they will, and things can always get worse. But there is another form of hope, the hope embraced in the end by Homura: if things can and will get worse, that necessarily means that at this moment, the universe is not at maximum awfulness; there must be something good in the world right now. That good can be sought out. It can be fought for, preserved for a little while. Entropy can be reversed locally.

Madoka has attained enlightenment and divorced herself from this decaying world. But she has not abandoned it; the world she creates is better. Not perfect, because a perfect world is a world devoid of story, but better. The magical girls still inevitably die, but so does everyone else; what’s important is that they now have a far better idea of how the system works and a much better relationship with each other and the Incubators–notably, the fact that wraiths drop a number of little magic-restoratives rather than one big one encourages the magical girls to work together. Teams are likely the norm in this new world, rather than solitary girls as in the old world, and since the Incubators can no longer derive energy from the despair of the witches, they have no incentive to make the girls suffer or hide from them how the system works.

Even Junko is shown in a new environment. We have seen her driven and determined before, concerned, caring, but this final sequence is the first time that we see her being happy. Some have interpreted this scene as Junko being a very different person in the new timeline, less driven and more nostalgic, but there’s little reason to believe this is the case. It seems highly unlikely Madoka would replace her mother with a different woman, and far more likely that this is what Junko is like when she’s relaxing and having a day out with her family. Her dynamic with Madoka’s father is unchanged–he cares for Tetsuya while Junko deals with the outside world, in this case talking to Homura–and so it is likely that she is still the primary earner, the driven executive. It is simply that we can now see that she also contains within herself nostalgia and serenity and wistfulness; she contains contradictions, just as the magical girls/witches contain both curses and blessings, as this ending is both happy and sad, a win and a loss.

Seeing Junko and Tetsuya helps Homura to understand that there can be good things in what for her is a dark, Madoka-less world. She continues on, affirmed in her knowledge that Madoka is all around her, even if she cannot see her. She does not fight for hope in the normal sense, but out of love, and duty, and hope in the Havelian sense that whether or not she succeeds, her life makes sense as long as she fights. And so she fails to save Madoka, and in her failure succeeds in empowering Madoka to save herself. Madoka saves herself by sacrificing herself, and Homura loses her–but someday, when Homura expends the last of her energy and loses her last battle as a magical girl, she will be together with Madoka again.

But this is not for Homura alone. Someone else has been working, trying to stave off decay, but increasingly concerned that their efforts are doomed. “I am full of hatred toward men’s so-called happiness,” Urobuchi wrote in the afterward to Fate/Zero volume 1, “and had to push characters I poured my heart out to create into the abyss of tragedy… In order to write a perfect ending for a story you have to twist the laws of cause and effect, reverse black and white, and even possess a power to move in the opposite direction from the rule of the universe.” The implied author of that note and this series is a deeply depressed individual, spiraling into a creative abyss brought on by despair.

“Only a heavenly and chaste soul that can sing carols of praise towards humanity can save the story.” And now, in Madoka, all things are one. This is fiction, a creation within the mind of an author (even the gestalt implied author of a collaboration);  the author is that one. Madoka loved something in the world enough to deem it worth saving, and she is part of that author. Homura will accept that love as reason enough to keep moving and working, and she is part of that author. Just as Homura is not suddenly all smiles and laughs in the new world, this is not a panacea–but it is enough to keep going for a while longer.

–Don’t forget. Always, somewhere, someone is fighting for you.
–As long as you remember her, you are not alone.

The projector winds to a stop.

There will be a brief hiatus, followed by the first of several posts on Rebellion.

14 thoughts on “That nourishes human hope (My Very Best Friend)

  1. I remember watching these last two episodes the night they finally aired. When Madoka came down to purify that first magical girl's Soul Gem, I thought that she was keeping magical girls from ever becoming witches just by cleaning their Soul Gems. I was extremely disappointed to see the magical girl vanish. For all of her hope, all Madoka could do was to grant magical girls a peaceful death.

    And as someone raised to think life was precious, I couldn't really accept this ending. I feel bothered whenever someone describes this ending as happy. Madoka's world is still a world where magical girls have to give up their lives for wishes, a world where their lives are sacrificed to preserve the life of the universe.

    And worse yet, Madoka is now a part of this system. In the old world, a magical girl who falls into despair becomes a witch. In Madoka's world, that magical girl is basically killed by God. It is still a world where the only salvation from despair is death.

    Madoka might make the oppressive system better, but it's still an oppressive system.

    No wonder I found Rebellion's ending to be happy and hopeful.

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  2. Well said. It's been an intellectual joy to read these week to week and I look forward to your posts on Rebellion.

    Something I noticed when I rewatched episode 12 after seeing Rebellion is how Madoka kinda dodges Homura’s question. Homura asks “Are you… really alright with that Madoka? Even though I'll forget you? Even though I'll never even be able to sense you again?” Notice that Madoka responds by talking about how Homura could still remember her. She never directly answered the question “Are you really alright with that?” (being the Law of Cycles).

    Which is one of the most interesting questions brought up by Rebellion. Is Madoka truly happy as the law of Cycles or doing it out of duty? She was certainly pressured into it by the impeding city destruction of Walpurgisnacht. Leaving her family and friends behind must be a huge sacrifice for a caring girl like her. It’s even explicitly stated in the first ED song. It's Madoka's charcater song sung by Madoka's voice actor all about how she'll lie and smile and say “See You Tomorrow.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__q9fsZa5vk

    Would you agree that in the end, Madoka did not in fact overturn the karmic laws of the universe? Originally I thought the counterbalance to Madoka's wish was going to be faster universal destruction via entropy, but Rebellion showed us that the true backlash of Madoka's wish was all focused on Homura.

    Fundamentally, Homura failed in her wish to save Madoka. Though Madoka's wish is salvation for all magical girls, it was torture for Homura. Might it have been kinder, though sad, to erase Homura's memories of the old universe? It might rob Homura's life of meaning, forgetting Madoka's existence, but save her the pain of being apart in the long run. Cause with those memories, there’s no way Homura can accept the current universe. She’s always been the type of character to fight against fate, to wish for the perfect ending. That’s what inspired Shinbo for Rebellion: (http://prism-madoka.tumblr.com/image/82048767409)

    “It was also the director, Mr. Shimbou's opinion that the outcome of the TV series, 'a human being becoming a god' might be too heavy a fate for a girl in middle school to bear. Since that was the case, I decided to try and come up with a way to create a story in which Madoka could escape that outcome.”

    Homura can't accept a world where a 14 year old girl like Madoka has to sacrifice her very existence in order to make the lives of Magical Girls a little less cruel. She drags Madoka from her throne as a goddess and gives her the happy normal life that was taken from her. She follows Junko’s advice from episode 6, that sometimes to help your friend that thinks she’s doing the right thing, you have to do something wrong.

    She’s such a complex, interesting character I feel like someone could write a whole book just analyzing her motivations and actions.

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  3. The discussion in last week's comments about consent got me thinking about the different Madokas that Homura has met, and particularly the one whose consent she did receive – in the third timeline, when Madoka asks Homura to make a promise. It's significant that the promise Madoka asks for – to keep her from getting tricked by Kyubey – is different than the one Homura makes – to protect Madoka, by which she means to prevent Madoka from contracting or fighting.

    At this point, Homura has failed to fulfill the promise that she made. But if the Madoka of the series had learned of the promise that a different Madoka once asked for, I suspect she would reassure Homura that it has finally been fulfilled: this Madoka hasn't been tricked by Kyubey. Factually, there are no more secrets he has kept from her. She was able to affirmatively answer her mother last episode when asked if she hadn't been misled by anyone's lies. Homura has failed in the mission she gave herself, but she has (perhaps inadvertently) succeeded in the mission she was given.

    But I'm no longer entirely convinced that Madoka wasn't tricked by Kyubey. Not that she and he aren't on the same page – quite the opposite, rather, that she and he are on the same page. She has been tricked into agreeing with the core premise of his operation: that teenage girls should die for the sake of the universe. She accepts that premise when she tells Homura she's found a wish she's prepared to give her life for, she accepts it when she permits Kyubey to continue his operation with modifications that do not alter its premise, and she outright embraces it when she dedicates her existence to killing innumerable teenage girls before they can become a threat to the universe.

    This ending is beautiful, eternal, and in its bittersweet combination of tragedy and hope could perhaps even be – in fact, has been – called perfect. To undo an ending like that would necessarily result in something ugly. But then, Homura has been defying beautiful, tragic, hopeful, perfect endings since the day she first made her wish. And the inevitable ugliness that resulted wasn't necessarily for the worse.

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  4. Thank you! I've enjoyed writing them. To be honest I feel like I could stop here and be happy; this felt like a capstone. I'm going to treat the Rebellion posts as more of a sequel than a continuation.

    And no, I agree that Madoka did not overturn the karmic laws of the universe any more than, in Buddhism, the Buddha does. What she did is discover a way out, and make a trail for others to follow.

    As for Homura never accepting the current universe… good. Every universe needs people who don't accept it as it is. And yes, you're anticipating a point I will eventually make regarding Rebellion, that Junko's advice to Madoka is exactly what Homura does, implying that the show endorses Homura's actions. Which is interesting, though not necessarily surprising.

    Homura is incredibly complex and fascinating. She is one of my favorite characters ever, up there with Fluttershy, Anansi, Lear, and Gollum.

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  5. Except the magical girls aren't dead. Unlike reality, where a person is their body, in the Madoka Magica universe souls exist and can be separated from the body. Madoka doesn't kill the girls, she takes them away to safety and a new world. At least some of them don't particularly care for that world, like Nagisa, but it's still better than the *actual* death (the erasure of the self) that is becoming a witch.

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  6. Same response as to universalperson: Madoka has created an afterlife for magical girls, which means they don't die anymore, they just go there. It's indistinguishable for an external viewer, but from the point of view of the magical girls (which is kind of the one that matters here) they get to continue existing.

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  7. But to the rest of the “real world” in Madoka Magica, all of those magical girls have vanished and they aren't coming back (barring exceptional circumstances). From the perspective of the living world, the magical girls are dead (and Madoka was never born). Madoka might be saving the magical girls, but she is taking them away from any people who loved them. And she's not exactly doing it with permission.

    So while it's not actually death, Madoka's salvation is similar enough to be something that magical girls have the right to reject, if they want to continue living in this world.

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  8. But they don't have the option to continue living in this world. Their choices are “become a witch with no agency, and ultimately be killed by a magical girl,” or “go with Madoka.”

    In fact, since Madoka takes them at the moment they become witches, and they become witches at the moment of ultimate despair, they don't even have the option to want to continue living in this world.

    I'm not arguing that her solution is perfect; I'm just saying it's preferable to the way things worked before.

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  9. I suppose I view the series' ending as more ambiguous than that (leaving Rebellion aside for the moment). It's certainly possible that magical girls in Madoka's new world have an eternity in Valhalla awaiting them; however, the text also supports the possibility that the end of a magical girl's existence is five minutes of comforting followed by oblivion (or whatever fate awaits muggles in that universe).

    And even in the former case, an afterlife is not the same as a life. Madoka will never celebrate her 20th (?) birthday with her mom; Sayaka will never be able to attend another one of Kyosuke's concerts except at most as a ghost. If death were not meant to be seen as loss, then Sayaka being mourned by her comrades would have been a perfect place for Homura to mention that Sayaka's merely moved on to the next stage in her existence and that they'll all be meeting her again someday. Instead we continue on with Homura's own grieving process for someone else whose mortal existence has ended.

    (Though it's not really pertinent to my point, I think the show also allows that a girl at the moment of ultimate despair could still want to continue living – Homura herself proposes becoming a witch with Madoka, and she seems rather sincere about it.)

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  10. Homura's playing out the same fight over and over again also fits well with Walpurgisnacht's motif of the theatre, which plays out the same show every night until closing (albeit with a few minor imperfections and glitches in each performance). And if the play is a tragedy, then the characters are stuck on their respective horrible trajectories, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern trapped on a boat*, just as Homura was doomed to make things worse for herself and Madoka over and over again until Madoka took matters into her own hands and stopped the story, changing the ending and defeating the narrative itself, on both diegetic and meta levels.

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  11. Thanks, Froborr, for taking us on this insightful journey through the series. It's been an enjoyable, interesting ride, and I look forward to the continuation.

    Based only on the series, I can see where you're coming from with the idea that becoming a witch means erasure of the self. However, I think that Rebellion casts serious doubt on that, and now I tend to look at things differently. Episodes 8 & 9 show Sayaka's transformation into Oktavia from an outside perspective; we don't have a sense of what her own first-person subjective experience of becoming a witch is. In Rebellion, we do get to peak behind the curtain a bit and see what being Homulilly is like from Homura's perspective. She's repeatedly playing out the end of timeline 3 in her mind, paying only minor attention to the real events transpiring around her. One could say she is blinded by her own despair, but in a very real sense she is still herself. Looking back on episode 9, with the “look at me” runes all over the posters in Oktavia's labyrinth, it's easy to imagine that Sayaka is still in there, just completely focused on her own pain.

    Which brings me to the question: in episode 12, why isn't Sayaka there for Madoka's cake party? Kyouko is there, so it can't be that the cake was just a thing between Madoka and Mami. There's no way to be sure and there are certainly other ways of looking at it, but now I think the best answer is that Sayaka isn't there because, like Homura, she's still alive. Sure, she was blown up in episode 9, but probably her grief seed survived. Those things seem to be quite robust and nobody ever expressed concern about accidentally destroying one and thus losing out on the reward. In timeline 3, we know Oktavia's grief seed survived her being blown up by Homura. This is important because Kyubey said in episode 6 that if a grief seed absorbs enough despair the witch will hatch again. We may have actually observed this phenomena with Charlotte in episode 3. So as long as the grief seed exists, the witch may still be alive in some sense.

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  12. If Rebellion is any indication, there does seem to be a third option, but I'd rather wait for your Rebellion posts to discuss this.

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  13. In a matter of consent, I find it hard to believe that homura's actions are considered reprehensible to madoka. because to her, looking back at things from her lofty seat, an immense perspective under her belt, and she still considers homura her best friend.

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