A recent post by Karandi got me thinking about Madoka. In it, they note that throughout most of the story, Madoka has the role of an observer, watching her friends dive into the world of magical girls, and that this difference in perspective doesn’t necessarily subvert the genre so much as reframe it. Rather than watching magical girls succeed with hope, we watch them fall, with greater tragedy and despair each time, until the culmination of Madoka’s wish.
And for me, it’s that escalation of tragedy that sets Madoka apart from all of the other dark magical girl shows. It isn’t simply the repetition of tragedy for the sake of being thematically dark (coughWalkingDeadSeason2cough); each tragedy directly contradicts the character it falls upon, and each tragedy is more systematically inflicted than the last.
Mami, granted the miracle of life by her wish, very much embodies the optimism and hope of traditional magical girl shows, but we can only watch as she is struck down again by the simple unpredictability of life, or so it seems.
Sayaka and Kyoko both make wishes out of an idealism reminiscent of Sentai shows, and both are subsequently punished through direct consequences of those wishes. At first this simply seems Monkey’s Paw-esque, but while Kyoko protects herself by putting on a facade of cynicism, Sayaka falls into despair, at which point it is revealed that magical girls turn into witches when their souls are corrupted by despair. We’re faced with the fact that not only is life simply unpredictable and tragic, but that the world has been constructed explicitly to create such tragedies.
And Homura… oh boy.
Everything that Homura does to save Madoka simply serves to make Madoka’s fate worse.
But not just by any simple coincidence. Despite Homura’s constant opposition to the Incubators, Homura perfectly emulates the Incubators’ emotionless, ends-justify-the-means approach. She is more invested in their magical girl system than anyone else, as it is her only means to save Madoka from that same system, and the realization of that contradiction, that rewinding time again and again simply makes Madoka a greater magical girl and a greater witch, that we can’t change anything, is soul-crushing.
In comparison, Madoka seems like a fairly simple character. Her wish, her answer, is simply hope itself. And yet, in her role as a powerless observer, with all of the despair that she has witnessed, to still be able to say that despair needn’t be the fate of magical girls, that the system can be changed, and perhaps even the laws of reality itself? The light of that hope is made all the brighter in the overwhelming darkness.