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.
8 responses to “Puella Magi Madoka Magica Part 1: Beginnings”
While I was unable to see the movies due to geographic difficulties, I’m unsurprised at the direction the first movie took.
For all that the show was ultimately Homura’s story, the first part of it was told through the lens of Sayaka’s story, and structuring the two movies this way seems to be the logical way to go about things. I’ve seen the general thrust of this article discussed elsewhere, but I think it may be the first time I’ve seen it pulled together so succinctly and clearly. The form Sayaka took as Oktavia von Sekendorf was no coincidence, after all.
Precisely. The series as a whole, I feel, led the audience to believe that this was going to be Madoka’s story, when in fact it was more about Homura and her efforts to save Madoka the entire time. I remember grumblings about Madoka’s passivity and whether or not we’d ever get to see her transform into a magical girl, but once episode 10 happened we learned that the passivity on her part was carefully curated through Homura’s actions. She was the one who had been the protagonist the entire time, doing her best to make sure that her best friend didn’t sign the contract that would inevitably lead to her demise.
Within the series which we generally accept to be Homura’s, Sayaka had her own character arc. The decision for the movie to focus solely on her for this movie in effect makes the story in this instance completely about her. I’m wracking my brain currently over how to properly frame my thoughts and criticisms of the second movie for the next post, but one of the things I’m mulling over is the idea of each discrete movie focusing its narrative on one individual magical girl’s arc. The first movie is the Tragedy of Sayaka Miki, the second movie is the Redemption of Homura Akemi. What then will the third movie be? We’ll see…
And thanks for the compliment! Thinking about the movie afterward and seeing Sayaka’s story presented without interruption allowed the underlying Tragic narrative make itself known to me. Looking at fanart for Sayaka on pixiv and seeing Oktavia von Sekendorf presented with a fish-tail (and remembering the bubbles and underwater motif from the video I embedded above), I was pretty much smacked with the connection at that moment and had to write it down. I knew I wanted to touch on the idea of different contexts allowing for different perspectives vis-a-vis the movie format vs the series format, and I thought that writing the two closing paragraphs in a similar diction would achieve that thematically; in effect, my readers would be illuminated to a different aspect of the story that they may not have considered. Basically, while my first paragraph told, I tried to have my last paragraphs show.
I hope it worked!
The way they chose to structure the story originally is quite interesting. I really wonder what the original pitch was. At what point was it decided that Homura was the main character? Is it something Urobuchi came up with on his own?
A less ambitious writer would have made the series basically episode 10 writ large, there is certainly more than enough content implied in that episode for a full cours worth of anime. However by making Homura’s entire backstory simply a single episode, and instead focusing on Sayaka for the first 2/3 of the show, we see just why being a Magical Girl is such a curse.
Sayaka’s tragedy is, in the grand scheme of things, a sidestory, but it was given the most prominence, while the story of the narrative and thematic leads were pushed back for the majority of the show.
There really is a surprising amount of depth still yet to be plunged in this show, and sometimes it takes just a slight shift in perspective to uncover new ways of looking at it.
I’m on board with your take on Aristotelian hamartia (I thought about saying, “You’ve hit the mark,” but that would’ve been corny). We can’t really say that Sayaka had an inherent problem, really; I think the take-away is supposed to be a mistake in moral judgment (one the other characters struggle with, too), not some deeply-ingrained flaw.
I’m sure you’ve already seen this, but: http://wiki.puella-magi.net/Talk:Philosophical_Observations
Not sure I buy the claim that the story really revolves around Kantian deontology and utilitarian philosophy, but I do think that this whole trade-off/struggle between individual self-concern and “noble” self-sacrifice is a running question—probably the central one. In fact, the moral muddle is how we’re supposed to approach the ending, right? At least as I see the matter, it’s doubtful that the choices at the end ever really align the two impulses, or serve as a lasting answer.
Many awesome novels (I’d like to, out of inappropriate bias, say “most”) occupy themselves with this question of/desire to find a path that doesn’t settle for pleasure built upon another’s pain. I guess I struggled with Madoka (haven’t rewatched it in over a year) because the answer just didn’t seem convincing to me, or human. It seemed to suggest and circularly confirm the title character to be someone not quite like us. I don’t know, maybe I’m overthinking it.
What do you think about this conundrum? And how do you think this choice to focus on fall and mistake will make the structure of the final film dissimilar from that of the TV series?
The first part of the post and the second link much deeper. The mermaid and Sayaka gave up their normal life and accepted that they couldn’t speak (for second it’s only metaphorically). They thought that what they paid as a price was very small. They both wanted to become sth they were not, to gain powers they hadn’t, to shape/escape fate and thus one can say they committed hybris. And hybris is always punished by gods. And that’s what led to their tragic ends.
I began looking into Madoka Magica today (I’m actually making a commentary on the first episode of the anime), and this is intriguing. Given the commentary here, it looks like it works on numerous levels. I must say, you do a wonderful job in dissecting the layers of Madoka here.
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