When we’re presented the same story in different contexts, we’re made privy to different things. Our perception of stories is at the mercy of the medium, the storyteller, the point of view, or the order in which it’s seen. Many variables affect presentation, which in effect alter the outcome of what we receive. Puella Magi Madoka Magica the television series was ostensibly about magical girls engaging the forces of evil through the use of powers acquired in a magical contract. The first Puella Magi Madoka Magica movie, while containing the same characters and housing the same plot as the first eight episodes of the television series, is more specifically a classic Greek Tragedy borrowing freely from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.
It is the story of the inevitable downfall of Sayaka Miki.
Through a fellow blogger‘s generosity, I was given the opportunity to see the first two Madoka movies over the weekend during a special limited run. There were few differences, but a short featurette prior to the screening had the voice actresses for all five of the main characters give some platitudes to the American fandom, and they explained that they had re-recorded all of their lines for the sake of the theatrical release. The animation has the same fidelity as the bluray release of the series from the last year or better, with no off-model characters in sight. There were moments where the animation was ascendant, most noticeably during the transformation sequences and with Mami Tomoe‘s eliciting an audible gasp from the audience. Seeing the fluidity of the fabrics of her costume move in tandem with the expanded musical score was a sight to behold on the large screen, and the intricacy of the choreography during those sequences and the accompanying witch hunts arguably were enough to justify the price of admission.
The first film covered the first eight episodes of the series in 130 minutes with no major change to the plot. Several threads were edited out, such as the explanation behind the disposal of “Grief Seeds”, the flashbacks explaining Mami’s decision to sign her contract in exchange for power, and Madoka Kaname‘s opening dream sequence. But a few scenes were created specifically for the movie, all of them revolving around Sayaka Miki and her interactions with the mascot who grants the girls their magic: Kyubey.
The decision to center the story on Sayaka at the expense of the other girls doesn’t change the plot in any meaningful way, but it does change the narrative focus. It’s no longer about Madoka’s passivity or Homura Akemi‘s actions and agency, but rather the collision between Sayaka’s desire for love and recognition and the hatred she bears for herself.
Tragedy, as thought by Aristotle, is about how a character experiences a reversal of fortune (mostly good to bad), and how mistakes made which are endemic to the character bring about their own downfall. Fear and pity in the audience, while not exclusive to, are the primary emotions associated with Tragedy. The audience, with their pity being meted out onto the actors, can simultaneously learn with them about life, love, fate, the gods.
Sayaka is a charming girl with a self-deprecating personality. She’s friendly and outgoing, but has a tendency to think of others before herself. When her friend Kamijou suffered an accident that maimed his arm, rendering him unable to play the violin, she would visit him as often as possible bearing classical music CDs as gifts. She’s quick to defend others – quick to throw herself in front of Madoka when they first encounter a witch’s minions, and quick to shield Mami from what she perceived to be insults and threats from Homura, a competing magical girl. All of these actions come from a core personality that is selfless and puts those she respects and admires on pedestals above her station.
The tragedy occurs when she seizes the opportunity to be granted a wish and given power to act out what she believes is right. This power she has is to protect the weak, to become a savior, to help the helpless, to be a warrior for justice. These motivations are all expressions of what she has internalized already, which is that others are more important and altruism should be valued above all. The plot also makes pains to highlight that her wish was made to alleviate the injuries that her friend sustained so that he could once again play the violin. The decision she made that bound her to a life of combat was for a boy that she grew up with and loved.
The love Sayaka bears for Kamijou is at odds with her own sense of inadequacy. While this is in no doubt genuine, it pains her to think about receiving love in return as that would entail momentary selfishness through the declaration of her emotions. This is exacerbated by the decision she made to receive Kyubey’s offer of power which left her body irrevocably changed. Sayaka’s own stated altruistic motivations were dissonant with her desire for acceptance and love, and her self-deprecation bloomed into full self-hatred when she learned of the physical changes that occurred to her.
She spirals into a loathing that culminates in the realization that she is incapable of true altruism. The moment of anagnorisis for her and the audience is for the necessity of a measure of selfishness and self-worth to receive the love of others. This is the cathartic moment where her mind breaks completely and she transforms into a witch. This is the moment that the first movie ends on.
Hans Christian Andersen wrote about a little mermaid who saved the life of a prince who was drowning at sea. She carries him to shore without his knowing and falls in love with him. In her quest to receive an eternal human soul and be one with the prince she loves, she seeks out a witch who gives her a potion that allows her to grow human legs so she can pursue him, albeit at a price. The prince is in love with the one whom he believes has saved him, and that was a girl from a temple who found him on the beach. The little mermaid, in her despair, gives up all hope of achieving his love or returning her body to normal. She instead becomes sea foam and a spirit of the sea.
In Puella Magi Madoka Magica Part 1: Beginnings, the narrative focuses on Sayaka Miki and her love for the crippled Kamijou. She accompanies him through his hardship without his knowing and falls in love with him. In her quest to see Kamijou healed and be with him, she seeks out the power that Kyubey offers her, albeit at a price. Kamijou however, falls in love with another girl. Sayaka, in her despair, gives up all hope of achieving his love or returning her body to normal. She instead becomes a witch, an embodiment of unrequited love.
- For more perspective on Sayaka, my partner has written on the difficulties of expressing one’s love.