February 05, 2015
The Passion of the Magical Girl
One reason Frozen was so successful in Japan is that it's a spot-on execution of the "magical girl" (mahou shoujo) genre. As with Akira Kurosawa and the Hollywood Western, the inspiration goes round and round. With Puella Magi Madoka Magica, this cross-cultural fertilization has produced a near-perfect hybrid.
The magical girl traces her roots back to the television classic Bewitched (1964). A dubbed version soon showed up on Japanese TV and inspired Toei Animation's Sally the Witch (1966).
Sally the Witch defined the narrative formula in several key ways:
• The heroine (a teenage girl) must keep her magic secret.
• When she uses magic, she needs a special magical phrase and an enchanted object like a baton (a supercharged wand).
• A magical servant (or familiar) accompanies the heroine back and forth between magical and normal worlds.
Though this basic approach remains as popular as ever, the genre has evolved to include tomboyish protagonists, fierce rivals, evil antagonists, dark outcomes, weird weaponry, and "fan service" (you won't find that in a Disney cartoon).
Also unlike its Hollywood precedents, magical girls often battle the bad guys under the direction of a shadowy (extraterrestrial) organization monitoring the planet. Though wielded in "Abracadabra" terms, their powers align with Arthur C. Clarke's dictum: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
There's a lot of Batman in a magical girl. In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, that designation belongs more to Homura Akemi, Madoka's self-assigned Dark Knight. Like Batman, hers is the morally murky world of a person who has seen too much and done too much and gotten nowhere. Brute force is pretty much all she has left.
The enemy Madoka is being recruited to combat are malevolent witches zombifying people from the shadows. The magical girls battle them in a kaleidoscopic netherworld that was apparently designed by Henri Matisse after a bad hangover, a medieval contrast to the shiny, post-post-modern "real" world (click to enlarge).
Said Jung, "In the Shadow is the gold." The shadows are dark and deep. There are bigger conspiracies at work here, and those witches aren't what they appear. A devastating revelation tells Madoka they are souls in need of redemption, transforming Madoka Magica into an exploration of the doctrine of universal reconciliation.
The first two episodes deceptively duplicate the cutesy magical girl formula exactly, until the end of the third, when somebody's head gets bitten off. And not any old someone but a main character. Imagine a Disney cartoon abruptly reverting to the original Grimm version, with the rest of the cast viciously turning on each other.
Elsa going off the deep end in Frozen is actually according to the formula. Magical girls often go off the deep end or end up fighting other magical girls who've gone off the deep end. But in Madoka Magica, the stakes quickly escalate beyond internecine rivalries.
It's about the value of a soul and what prize, what noble goal, could temp you to give it up. If that sounds Faustian, it's on purpose: the series makes repeated references to Goethe's Faust. To briefly review the Faust story:
Faust is a scholar who is highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life, so he makes a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. "Faust" and the adjective "Faustian" imply a situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power and success for a delimited term.
All magical girl have a cute familiar (and recruiter). In Madoka Magica, it's the rabbit-like Kyubey. He's revealed (by Homura) to be Mephistopheles. Madoka would seem at first to be Faust. If so, she's a very cautious Faust (again thanks to Homura), not following the rest of the magical girls when they jump off the cliff.
And yet such divine power opens the door to the possibility of an atonement. The first part of Madoka Magica is largely a retelling of the temptation of Christ (Matthew 4:1-11). Madoka's guide through the wilderness is Homura, who appears as an Old Testament prophet, speaking harsh truths none of them wants to hear.
With kindness comes naivete. Courage becomes foolhardiness. And dedication has no reward. If you can't accept that, you are not fit to be a Magical Girl.
Except it is courage and kindness that drive her forward. Like Peter drawing his sword in the Garden (John 18:10-11), Homura tries to prevent the inevitable. "By grace we are saved, after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23) sums up her character arc, especially the doing part. But also like Peter, Homura cannot "save" Madoka from her destiny.
|Madoka and her fractious apostles (Homura on her right).|
For in the end, Madoka must take up her cross and lay down her life to save her friends (John 15:13). As with Scrapped Princess and Haibane Renmei, the freewheeling elements of genre anime fantasy in Madoka Magica plunge right to the heart of Christian eschatology.
Unconstrained by a cultural rule book dictating what is and isn't "acceptable," Japanese fantasy writers reshuffle the metaphorical deck with few self-imposed constraints. The plotting must also be disciplined by grounding the narrative in some sort of plausible logic. There must be rationality behind the resolutions.
Reading too much science into fantasy can get problematic. Fortunately, Kyubey sums up the "magic door" simply and expeditiously, and is convincing enough for the tale to hang together.
C.S. Lewis resorts to a literal deus ex machina with his hand-wave of "deep magic" to resurrect Aslan. (The White Witch must have missed that particular script meeting.) But Madoka's decision aligns with the rules of the game exactly as Kyubey has explained them. What makes Kyubey terrifying is that he's stone cold rational.
It's the same premise as Monsters, Inc., this time taken to grotesque (yet logical) extremes. Angst comes into its own as a compelling plot device! Which also makes the reason for targeting teenage girls darkly hilarious. As a result, Madoka's solution rings that much more true within the framework of the story and Kyubey's scheming.
To be sure, Madoka is a Lorenzo Snow kind of savior (with some Buddhist sensibilities thrown in for good measure, plus a neat theory of divine omniscience): "As man now is, God once was."
Supposing that God was once a teenage girl with a penchant for pink.