Madoka Magica #3: Let Them Eat Cake

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Have I talked yet about how much I love the music in this show? Each track is distinctive and atmospheric, helping to set the tone of each individual scene and build a consistent otherworldly sense for the whole series. I especially enjoy ‘Sis Puella Magica’, which manages to be both beautiful and haunting, evoking a sense of simultaneous wonderment and foreboding that really does sum up the Madoka experience, and especially neatly reflects these first few episodes where we—and Madoka—are still figuring things out. And oh boy does that “mild sense of magical foreboding” come together this week.

There is much talk of wishes this episode. The cold open introduces us to that boy we saw a flash of last week when Sayaka was ruminating on how she herself had nothing to wish for—turns out he’s an old friend of hers, who we can very easily assume she has a crush on, and he’s in hospital with some sort of arm injury. Sayaka brings him a classical music CD as a gift and it brings him great joy until he, and the audience, realise that his injury will affect his own ability to play the violin, maybe permanently. We’re not sure what happened to him yet, but it’s not really relevant: all we need to know is that Sayaka cares deeply for him and he’s clearly in an unhappy place. Which is a potent combination given her headspace re: wishes.

Purely hypothetically, of course, Sayaka asks Mami if you can make a wish for someone else’s sake when you form a contract with Kyuubey. Mami, ever-sensible, responds that there’s no reason you can’t, but you should consider what you really want when you make a wish like that. Does Sayaka wish for this hypothetical other person’s happiness? Or does she wish for this hypothetical other person to be grateful to her? It’s a harsh but appropriate answer that clearly stings Sayaka, even if she brushes it off almost immediately.

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There is a shining light of hope here, until that adorable silhouette blocks it out

Mami, we learn today, is very serious about the wishing business. In all this discussion of what to wish for, Madoka naturally asks what made Mami want to become a magical girl, which sends a chill over the whole conversation. Mami, it turns out, didn’t have the opportunity to ponder what she wanted most in the world—Kyuubey appeared to her when she’d just been in a car accident, and presumably offered to save her from dying.

I’d like to point out that Kyuubey in this flashback looks much more menacing than heroic as they come to Mami’s rescue. Whether or not she’s aware of any of the deeper machinations of the magical girl business, Mami is adamant that other girls have the chance to make a choice that she didn’t have. Mami, trapped in a literal life-or-death moment, didn’t have the luxury of time to weigh her options, and so it’s important to her that Madoka and Sayaka don’t rush into anything (lest they end up lonely wrecks of human beings like her, but we’ll get to that soon).

Even with this dark cloud over things, Madoka is still hooked on the concept of following in the footsteps of the magical girl senpai she has so come to admire. As she wonders aloud if she can just wish to become a magical girl (does this create a paradox? Kyuubey doesn’t say) so she can be as cool as Mami, Kyuubey pipes up that Madoka would be much more powerful than her teacher. Madoka tries to laugh this off, assuring her adorable and eerily matter-of-fact animal companion that she’s nothing special—she’s just your typical Average Teen Protagonist, after all. Kyuubey insists that they can sense great potential in Madoka, and though they can’t tell exactly, if their calculations are correct Madoka could become one of the most powerful magical girls ever.

Subtitle: I've never met another girl with such enormous potential as you.

I have no words for how bloody unsettling this image is

This conversation is cut short by Madoka’s mama returning home drunk from an office party. It’s an important one, though, if only because it’s so much more than the tropey declaration it might appear as on first watch: I mean, of course Madoka’s the most super special powerful princess, despite being the Average Teen Protagonist with nothing going for her. It’s just the way these types of shows work. Except that a) it’s manipulation on Kyuubey’s part, one wily tactic of many in their toolkit, and so easy to recognise once you know that they’re a little shit of a Mephistopheles equivalent; and b) it’s true. It feels weird to even call this “foreshadowing” since it’s just a statement of facts that will become relevant later.

It’s not just Fluffy Satan who has picked up on this, either, but Mami (which, for now at least, makes Kyuubey’s insistence of Madoka’s own awesomeness feel a little less like they’re trying to swindle her into selling her soul). Homura approaches Mami and accuses her of leading innocent people into danger, and instead of repeating her cool-headed stance on taking time and responsibility to choose their wishes, Mami just shoots back that Homura’s tooootally jealous and threatened by Madoka’s potential and can’t stand the thought of being usurped by a stronger magical girl. It’s a quippier, scarier side to her that we don’t normally see, ending with a direct threat, and it clearly leaves Homura infuriated. We get even get a shot of what I’m henceforth going to call The Head Tilt of Concealed Angst.

We see many new shades of Mami this episode that we haven’t before. A Witch maze pops up outside the hospital where Sayaka and Madoka went to visit Violin Boy, and the ever-valiant Sayaka dives in headfirst while Madoka goes to fetch their teacher. Walking together through the weird collage-style labyrinth looking for their friend (and Kyuubey), Madoka and Mami have a little heart to heart that throws a whole new light on the previously infallible (in the eyes of our hero, anyway) magical girl. Madoka declares that even if she can’t think of a wish, she still wants to do good and help people like Mami does, and Mami’s glittery façade all but drops.

Subtitle: Even when I'm scared, or hurting, there's no one I can talk to

High school is difficult and isolating enough without all this shit, seriously

She stops in her tracks and gets downright melancholy, suddenly seeming much younger—or perhaps more appropriately, reminding us that she is young, fifteen or sixteen at the oldest, a child ripped from her everyday life by personal tragedy and shoved into a world of lonely danger. The creepy, collage-style juxtaposition of the Witch labyrinth—an eerie blend of medical/surgical imagery and colourful candy, seemingly rendered in a little kid’s pencil drawings—only suits to highlight this sudden burst of childlike behaviour.

This is the full picture of why Mami is so insistent the girls take their time and choose their fate carefully: not only did she not get a choice, but Mami knows how horrible and frightening the job is. She can’t form meaningful relationships because she has to dedicate her hours to hunting monsters. She never knows if the day will be her last, with the constant threat of death-by-Witch and Soul Gem maintenance looming over her. And she can’t confide in anyone about this stress, presumably a combination of ordinary humans not believing in magic and her family being dead.

It’s an absolutely bleak picture of her life that we haven’t been allowed to see before… and here we get our first glimpse of Madoka’s powerful optimism. Her immediate response is compassion, remorse, and to assure Mami that she’s not alone anymore. It comes out sounding a little naïve, but it’s the simple answer that Mami needs to get pep back in her step. Her mood rockets from despair to delight at this realisation, so elated by the idea of having a companion to share her troubles and battles with that she swings back to being even more bubbly and jokey than usual. She rushes towards the battle with the Witch with pizzazz and fervour uncharacteristic of her usual professional gotta-show-these-kids-how-it’s-done fighting style, and you can’t help but be happy for her, except that you know that Urobochi wrote this and that kind of validated bliss is nearly always followed by a punch to the stomach.

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That is… some eerily red tea

Yep, this is That Episode, the one that, in theory, sends the show lurching into its true Dark Deconstruction territory and allegedly horrified a bunch of viewers when it first aired. Awful as this moment is, I have to once again appreciate that at least this awfulness doesn’t completely come out of nowhere—as I mentioned in the intro, the atmosphere of this show has been consistently foreboding, and the very opening scene effectively warned us there were dark themes and supernatural violence incoming. If Madoka had spent three episodes acting beat-for-beat like Precure then yes, absolutely, Mami’s death would be a nonsensical tonal shift that was blatantly just for shock value and probably scripted by some cackling thirty-something-year-old men who think those edgy “what if these children’s shows are all really post-apocalyptic coma hallucinations??” theories are the height of subversive creativity. But I feel like that isn’t what’s happened (I mean, I haven’t met the creative team, but let’s look at the finished product rather than fixating on The Author. They’re Dead, after all).

It feels a little odd on principle to be defending a plot twist such as this, but context, framing, and consistency is the difference between a schlocky fridging and a legitimately moving part of the plot. Mami’s death is meant to be shocking, but it’s not a shock because it came out of nowhere but because your worst fears, which the show has been gradually and regularly setting up for three episodes, have come true. I’d also like to note that, Shock Death as Mami’s may be, the series at least has the dignity to not hyper-fixate on the death itself—there’s no gore, no blood, not even a close-up shot of the fatal bite happening.

We do get that shot of her body dangling faceless and inhuman in the air, but she’s not reduced to a broken body that’s waved around in all its dismembered glory to rub the terror of the scene in the audience’s face. We see exactly enough, and the rest of the focus shifts to what’s actually important here: how the other characters feel, the human emotion being drawn from this horrific event. That shot of the Grief Seed sitting inside a smashed tea cup (and the loss it symbolises) conveys the horror, rather than a gratuitous pan over a corpse, and as well as being more tasteful I think in many ways it’s also more effective.

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The first time, of many, that I will want to dive through the screen and give this poor tiny baby a hug

Alas, poor Mami, we hardly knew ye… but we knew just enough about you to put together an image of a complicated three-dimensional character who wasn’t just axed brutally for shock. I mean, she was killed off for shock, but it’s in-universe shock that is consistently resonant and actually informs the way the plot moves from here, rather than just happening, causing a stir, then becoming irrelevant. Mami’s death is an important turning point that brings the sense of threat that’s been hovering in the background to the front. Homura neatly spells this out in a speech, post-rescue, that’s essentially a dramatic combination of “God damn it, we told you so” and “this is the reality of this universe; take it or leave it”.

And hey, if you tend to give your anime three episodes before deciding to continue watching or drop them, this is that crossroads: the rules of the universe have been laid out and the tone has been set; are you disgusted or do you want to see what happens next? Ideally, you will be attached enough to Madoka and Sayaka that you want to see how they’re feeling, and what they do next now that they’re embroiled in this world that they know the stakes of. I know that’s certainly the case for me, as it was when I first watched this a few years ago, so I will light a candle for poor Mami and soldier on.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Madoka Magica #3: Let Them Eat Cake

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