It was a nice present to come back from being overseas to find that the last two episodes of Puella Magi Madoka Magica had aired. It was even better to discover that, for once, a show had managed to break the curse of crummy endings to otherwise promising anime.
Early on in the series, I was worried that it would suffer from the same problem as Mai-Hime: an unsatisfying cop-out that placed having a happy ending over telling a dramatic story. That was before it had fully sunk in that happy endings aren’t Madoka Magica’s style.
Madoka Magica has been slowly unraveling its mysteries for the past few episodes, but has kept a fairly tight hold on a big one: the identity of dark magical girl Homura Akemi. We know a bit—that she can manipulate time, that she comes from an alternate version of Madoka’s reality—but we don’t know her origins the way we do the other girls.
That ends here, in perhaps the best episode of the show so far.
Madoka Magica has hinted at a darker meaning behind the war between magi and witches for the entirety of its run, and this episode, the truth is finally revealed. And I won’t lie to you: it’s pretty dumb.
Unlike some other shows airing this season, though, it has something going for it besides the mystery of its setting, however. Tragic character drama, not the truth about magi and witches has always been at the heart of Madoka, and that’s why this episode remains interesting despite itself.
I’ve been writing a lot about Madoka Magica as a tragedy, a story of human flaws resulting to a downfall or comeuppance. This episode is the end of another character arc, the tragic downfall of yet another of the magi. It also, however, offers a lot of foreshadowing for the rest of the season.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a whole lot to say about either.
Interesting, well-written characters are rare in any medium, but they’re even more so in anime. Here, a host of identical archetypes act out stock plots like so many puppets, all in service of the noble goal of merchandising.
Anime producers stick to what sells, and what sells seems to be familiarity. Popular entertainment often has a sad habit of taking the most recent thing to hit it big and copy it until what made the original special has been lost entirely. Japanese entertainment companies are particularly good at churning out carbon copies of hits, but lousy at capturing the spirit that made something successful.
If you don’t believe me, just look at their video game industry. Once the world leader, they’ve descended into relentless iterations of their most popular franchises (which, increasingly, are being farmed out to Western developers). High profile Japanese game designers frequently bemoan the poor state of the industry, turning to Western methods in an attempt to try something new.
Last episode ended with a new magical girl coming to town. Kyouko Sakura fights with a segmented spear, likes sweet things, and is utterly amoral.
She believes that magi are a step up from witches on the food chain, and two steps up from normal humans. She fights for grief seeds, the magic power-boosting artifacts destroyed witches leave behind, and nothing else, indifferent to who gets in the way.
As you can imagine, this gets Sayaka’s hackles up, heir to Mami’s ideals of fighting for justice and the good of the people. So they get into a massive, life or death battle for most of the fifth episode.
Most of us are not perfect people. We squander the life we’ve given, make terrible choices, and do rash things that we know we’ll regret.
This lack of wisdom is hard to write, though. There’s a fine line between a tragic flaw and a character that does stupid things for no reason. The only real way to avoid that is to make the bad decision make sense, either in the context of the character’s circumstances or their personality as has been revealed (preferably both). Even then, it’s hard to make a bad decision seem less like a contrivance and more like a natural fall.
And yet, the best tragedies hinge on such set ups. Puella Magi Madoka Magica has already established that it’s trying to be a tragedy, but does it have what it takes to be the best?
Note: I talk about a critical plot point from last episode, so if you haven’t seen it (and you should have), consider yourself forewarned.