There’s a way that looks harmless enough; look again—it leads straight to hell. Proverbs 16:25
This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. John 15:13
(There are spoilers here–stop reading at the Madoka Magica poster if you haven’t seen the series and would rather not be spoiled)
Oh, this story, this story…where do I start?
Madoka Kaname is an ordinary girl from a happy family, without a worry in the world except the disturbing dreams she’s been having lately. Maybe they’re connected to Homura Akemi, the mysteriously familiar transfer student at school who seems to know her, though they’ve never met before.
On the way home from school one day, Madoka and her friend Sayaka Miki suddenly find themselves in a surreal nightmare landscape, with a host of grotesque creatures closing in on them. Out of nowhere, a tall, elegant girl swoops in and dispatches the creatures with an impressive array of artillery. The scary environment is dispelled, and the girl reveals herself as Mami Tomoe, an upperclassman at the same high school Madoka and Sayaka attend. She invites them to her apartment for some tea and explanations.
Mami is a Magical Girl, tasked to defeat evil entities that feed on human despair. These creatures, “witches,” manifest within labyrinths like the one Madoka and Sayaka stumbled into and lure people into violence and suicidal acts. Most human beings can’t see witches—it seems Madoka and Sayaka just might have the potential to become Magical Girls themselves.
Accompanying Mami is a sleek, catlike being named Kyubey, who tells Madoka and Sayaka that he will grant whatever wish they can name, if they’ll contract with him to become Magical Girls. It’s a dangerous job, but in light of all the good they can accomplish, it’s well worth it. Someone has to defend the world against witches. Why not them?
Puella Magi Madoka Magica is an anime that subverts one of the genre’s most beloved icons. We’ve seen Magical Girls, those frilly, beribboned soldiers of truth, beauty, and justice, vanquish evil again and again with their ridiculously overpowered weapons, pure hearts, and unyielding faith in the power of love and friendship. Sailor Moon, Card Captor Sakura, Pretty Cure…power up, fight the big bad boss, rescue your pals, save the world, all before teatime. Piece of cake.
There is always cake. What young lady of a certain age wouldn’t leap at the chance to become a Magical Girl?
So, here we are. Submitted for your approval, a world where becoming a Magical Girl is the price of seeing your fondest wish come true—and it’s a brutal, cold, merciless, expensive payment.
Madoka and Sayaka don’t recognize the nature of the price they’re asked to pay, at first. Mami is the embodiment of everything they’ve ever dreamed of being, and with plenty of encouragement from Kyubey, she offers to let them tag along on a couple of witch-fighting missions, something like Magical Girl 101, with no commitment necessary. She knows it’s a big decision, and she wants them to make their choice freely.
Then things go horribly wrong.
Kyubey doesn’t seem bothered. Yes, it’s dangerous being a Magical Girl, but that free wish is ample compensation, and don’t they want to protect their friends and loved ones from this evil that feeds on human misery, that nobody else can see? Think of how many people they could save with a Magical Girl’s power. Don’t they want to help?
Sayaka makes the contract and uses her wish on behalf of a sick friend, only to discover a horrifying detail about the Magical Girl bargain that Kyubey neglected to mention. And the stakes get higher, and the revelations more terrible. Madoka wavers, wanting to protect Sayaka and stop the evil herself, somehow, but the enigmatic Homura intervenes again and again, and her desperation is difficult to explain, until we learn why Homura’s trying so hard to save Madoka—and Homura discovers the true futility of her efforts.
Because, you see, there’s a final, vicious catch to the whole Magical Girl arrangement, a catch that destroys their friendships, corrupts everything they touch, and leaves them alone and broken in the dark. Then it turns them into a monster. All for the greater good. Every single thing they do makes their fate more certain.
And Madoka’s fate will be the worst of all.
About now, you’re probably wondering if there’s anything redeeming in this story, something that won’t leave you pondering a few pleasant hours on the couch chatting with your favorite therapist.
There is, actually.
In the end, only Madoka has the faintest prayer of changing her own destiny, but she does, at a cost so staggering it makes everything suffered to that point seem trivial in comparison. And by that ultimate act of utter selflessness, she rewrites the rules of her universe and mends the wrongs caused by Kyubey’s exploitation of the Magical Girls.
It’s not a perfectly happy ending. Magical Girls are freed from the cruel fate of becoming the very curses they fought, but evil still exists on Earth, and someone must fight on until it’s vanquished altogether, however long that may take. The difference is the fight is no longer futile. Madoka has in a very real sense become hope itself, the hope that had been drained from the world as it was.
The 12 episodes of Madoka Magica are an absorbing, mesmerizing watch. The phantasmagorical nightmare dreamscapes of the witches and their labyrinths resonate with the vaguely unsettling architecture of Madoka’s city. The air seems heavy with the weight of forboding, the nagging sense that something inexpressible is somehow wrong with even the mundane elements of this world. We’re treated to a constant interplay of light, shadow, color, and reflection that makes the line between reality and illusion harder and harder to distinguish. Space itself feels simultaneously claustrophobic and terrifyingly vacant. The battles between witches and Magical Girls are swirling epics of thunder and lightning, deadly marksmanship and flashing blades. There’s also enough symbolism at play to keep a film major gainfully employed for a semester or two.
This isn’t kid stuff. It’s sad, and tragic, and there’s more than a little horror and bloodshed, though the worst of it is shadowed or obscured. These are characters you will care about. They have their share of weaknesses and foibles, but they are strong, unselfish, and heroic. Some of them will die, courageously, but not easily. The loss will feel both painful and unjust, and it should. Teens and up, and better with parents, if possible. Talk this one out.
There are plenty of big questions to discuss along Madoka Magica’s harrowing journey, and the characters wrestle with all of them:
What is your greatest wish, and what would it be worth to have it come true? What might it cost?
How might we end up doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons?
How should we respond when someone offers us a deal that sounds too good to be true?
What’s wrong with Kyubey’s ethics? Is “the greatest good for the greatest number” a sound moral guideline?
When we help others, is it really because we want the best for them, or because we want them to be grateful to us? What’s wrong with acting purely from our own self-interest?
Is our fate already written? Can we change it?
Is good really more powerful than evil? Is there anyone we can truly rely on except ourselves? How can we have hope in a world that often seems so hopeless?
How can we help a friend who is overwhelmed with sadness or despair?
Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011) is a 12-episode anime series currently available on Netflix, Crunchyroll, and Hulu. There are also three Madoka Magica movies—the first two, Beginnings and Eternal (2012), recap the original series, and the third, Rebellion, continues the story.