Kindness begets naivety. Courage begets imprudence. Furthermore, there’s no reward for devotion/dedication of any kind. Those who can’t understand that are not fit to be Magical Girls.
– Akemi Homura, Puella Magi Madoka Magica (Episode 5)
I have fairly exacting standards when it comes to viewing anime; needless to say, I consider this show to be one of the few good exports from Japan in recent years. Between writing, themes, characterization, and subverting standard tropes, Madoka is a fine example of what can be done with a simple concept and turning it on its head. Sadly, the series is pricey to get ahold of (to own) in America; I lucked out with a good ebay auction. However, to view it, there are several streaming services (Crunchyroll comes to mind).
In examining the anime through the lens of gender studies/roles, however, I was fairly… disturbed and disappointed by some of what I found. While it is an excellent show in terms of feminine empowerment, it presents a mostly negative front for masculine identity and role.
Kaname Madoka is an incredibly average Japanese teenage girl. She hangs out with her friends, she gets average grades – but by the end of Madoka the anime, she has become a god of all existence, mother to an entirely new universe (Episode 12). Her growth allows her to take hold of the powers allotted to her and control them at length – reminiscent of a young child growing into adulthood, which is ironic since even though Madoka herself becomes a god, she will never actually age or grow old (12). She matures, she grows up, she gives ‘birth’ to the universe through her new powers- all symbolize the very image of a young woman embracing and accepting her femininity. What makes this incredible in the small social scope is that Madoka is very much a young woman of her time, with expectations set on typical gender boundaries; ie, her friend Hitomi is still expected to learn Tea Ceremony for marriage (Episode 1). However, her experiences make her ascend past her humanity to a role that while symbolically is akin to a mother, is also paralleled easily to that of the un-gendered God of both masculine and feminine identity, a “whole” being.
Madoka’s home life is anything but stereotypical modern-Japan: Unlike most modern anime, her parents are both present and fairly integral to her life, and their traditional roles of breadwinner/stay-at-home parent have been reversed. Her mother is a highly respected businesswoman, while her father appears to do the cooking, cleaning and childcare of her younger brother Tatsuya. Neither of them are judgmental of their daughter in a negative fashion; Madoka actually gets realistic advice from her mother: “You need to learn how to make mistakes before you grow up. When you are young, you can recover quickly when hurt” (Episode 6). This reversal in roles for her parents demonstrates to her that both men and women can equally have roles in the family without one usurping the other.
Her friends, on the other hand, all present problems of one sort or another that Madoka learns from. Sayaka has a one-sided infatuation with her classmate Kyousuke Kamijou, who is hospitalized after a car accident. Sayaka’s wish for Kyousuke to be healed is realized so that he can be whole and with her (Episode 6). However, she fails to realize that the only reason she is able to monopolize Kyousuke’s life is due to his limited facilities. Once healed, he goes on with his regular life, assuming her role in his life was more due to circumstance as childhood friend than affection (Episode 7, 8). While trying to figure out what could have gone wrong, Sayaka realizes (with Kyoko’s help) that her wish was not selfless, in fact her reasons for Kyousuke to be healed were entirely selfish (Episode 6). Once Sayaka realizes the true nature of her wish, which is essentially forcing Kyousuke to choose her as his lover – erase his free will – she breaks, allowing herself to become a witch (Episode 8).
Sayaka’s attempt to retain control over someone else is shown to be naïve and child-like; Sakura Kyoko maintains that her wish to help her father ended up hurting herself and her family, and all wishes should therefore be entirely selfish (Episode 6). Both of these young women tried desperately to utilize power to change their fates in a masculine-dominated culture – but neither of them realized that their motives were selfish and of the same cut of patriarchy until it was too late. Tomoe Mami’s wish to remain alive after her family dies in a fatal car crash ironically ends up being the most selfless (Episode 2). Though she did change her fate for a short time, she uses her power to undermine and fix the negative aspects of the world surrounding her – never for her own personal gain. Her success (and the success of Akemi Homura) with her wish demonstrates that only by being entirely selfless can the ‘wish’ that allows girls to become Magical Girls not turn to a bad end.
On the one hand, this suggests that the patriarchal idealism of selfish womanhood being bad has won out; only the pure/innocent/selfless characters actually end up having their dreams fulfilled, just as Madoka does (Episode 12). On the other hand, Mami, Homura, and Madoka all demonstrate a logical maturity that both Sayaka and Kyoko lacked during the times of their wish-making, understanding that a wish that only serves one person without sacrifice on the wisher’s part will backfire. In this way, they subvert the masculine Kyuubey’s/Incubator’s mentality of all Magical Girls falling to ruin/witch-hood – they have found the loophole in which serving someone else (or other people) allows them to have their dreams fulfilled and continue to live as themselves. Madoka’s wish is both subversive and dominating at the same time – she appears to submit to the Incubators/Kyuubey’s intent to become a Magical Girl for his own use/wishes, but undermines and destroys this intention by becoming the most powerful being in all of creation (Episode 12).
This also highlights the problem with Madoka’s masculine characters: the only positive masculine models are Madoka’s father and Tatsuya, her little brother (Episode 1). Madoka plays and has fun with her father – and at the end of the show, the only person (besides Homura, whose memory is prompted a bit) who remembers Madoka ever even existed is Tatsuya (Episode 12). All other men/masculine identities – I am including Kyuubey in this because of its tendency to adopt a masculine identity at times – are controlling or intent on subjugating the female. The men Sayaka find in the subway that cause her to snap are like this – they discuss how best to mistreat their ‘annoying’ girlfriends who would do anything for them (Episode 6). Kyousuke, even while being an invalid, flips out verbally and physically on Sayaka because of her ‘mocking’ him for bringing him music that he can no longer play (Episode 4). It is also Kyousuke who causes a rift to rise between Sayaka and Hitomi – Hitomi choosing to confess her feelings to him, and Sayaka unable to because of her destiny as a magical girl (Episode 8). The men that the girls’ homeroom teacher breaks up with often does because she does not exhibit the ‘feminine’ traits the men require such as cooking (Episode 1). There are few positive examples of masculinity in this universe.
The Incubators/Kyuubey make this even worse by facilitating their battle against entropy through destruction of prepubescent girls’ lives, killing them and reaping their sorrow as an energy source (Episode 9). Not only does their power come from tragedy, but they are focused specifically on females for their output of emotions – a fact which Kyuubey reveals is considered a mental disorder on their home world (9). Not only is this sexist (whoever heard of teenage boys not having emotional outbursts during pre/pubescent years? Trust me, I had three brothers. IT HAPPENS.) but this is the typical subjugation mentality of the masculine (dominant) and feminine (submissive). While one might go into Madoka thinking of Kyuubey’s species as holding the “White Man’s Burden” mentality – he argues to Madoka that humanity would not have advanced without their intervention/creation of the Magical Girls – the fact that he, and his species focus on females rather than males, as well as young ones at that, demonstrates their need for aggression and domination (Episode 6). They tend to pick the ones without power, which no one will realize have gone missing – or can be disposed of the most easily. And because of their lack of the mental disorder known as ‘emotion’, they feel no sorrow or loss from the death of their energy benefactors.
These roles leave the viewer with a clear black-and-white mentality of masculine being bad and femininity, while mistakes are made at times, as being only positive.
Conclusion: I wish the masculine/feminine dichotomy of Madoka were not so imbalanced, because it is such a good show. While I appreciate the championing of female power (whoo!) I don’t like it at the cost of masculine heroism. It would’ve been interesting to see a Magical Boy, for instance – but that might have broken the suspension of disbelief even more than this anime already has. Overall, a good show – but don’t look for male heroes in this anime.