Puella Magi Madoka Magica – Episode 2

Madoka Magica slows down in its second episode, as all that exposition stuff the first one avoided gets woven in with our formal introduction to Kyubey and Mami Tomoe. The episode is less overtly thrilling until its (tiro) finale, but that’s partially the point. There are consistent repeated shots and sequences here, from the moment Madoka turns before “waking up” to the various shots and full scenes used to represent her daily life. The show is establishing an initial sense of normalcy, and beyond that, how Madoka feels about her normalcy. This is a safe, pleasant, and relatively empty world – a world that demands little, but doesn’t offer Madoka much of an identity.

Madoka Magica

Early on, Mami and Kyubey lay out the terms of the magical girl bargain. If you become a magical girl, Kyubey can grant you any one wish – however, in payment for that miracle, you must fight against the witches. “If magical girls are born from wishes, then witches are born from curses. Magical girls spread hope, whereas witches spread despair.” We quickly learn the overt narrative meaning of the “despair” spread by witches, but in order to understand the hope of magical girls, the whole series will have to be unspooled.

Mami tells them to weigh their options carefully, but in truth, this whole situation is dishonest. No one can comprehend the gravity of a choice like this when it’s presented to them, particularly not a young teenager. And when Mami offers to show them the magical girl ropes, that too is an act of deception, albeit an earnestly meant one. Mami has her own goals here, though they, like so much of Madoka Magica’s character work, go almost entirely unspoken. The way she frames the life of the magical girl, as antagonistic but dignified, has meaning. The way she speaks to Sayaka and Madoka implies, if not desperation, at least a certain yearning. And the way her later battles are more performance than fight demonstrate that more than keeping herself safe, making sure her new friends don’t think less of her is the most important thing on her mind.

Madoka Magica

Mami isn’t the only character who gains texture in this episode. As Sayaka and Madoka wile away time on the roof of their school, Sayaka asks her friend “have you come up with a wish yet” as if it’s a foregone conclusion. While Kyubey’s motives are clear in his happy-go-lucky peer pressure, Sayaka’s take a little more unpacking. “Having a wish you’d trade your life away shouldn’t be all that uncommon,” Sayaka says, and as she refers to herself as sheltered and ignorant, we see a momentary flash to an unknown character. More than caring about a wish, Sayaka mostly seems upset at the thought she doesn’t have a cause to sacrifice herself for. She sees this as the magical opportunity it is, and because she doesn’t necessarily want that gift, she feels guilty for being the one to receive the offer.

Sayaka and Madoka are both too young to really know who they are yet, and even though there should be no shame in that, the fact that they’ve been given an opportunity to accomplish anything makes them feel guilty. Madoka seems to feel this even more acutely than Sayaka; while Sayaka seems mostly frustrated with the fact that she doesn’t have a cause to die for, Madoka seems unsure of her own value altogether. Her friends laugh gently at her apparently silly priorities, and when she learns Mami could have stopped the witch if not for her, she sees it as her own failing. Mami’s ostentatious battle performance works perfectly on Madoka; unlike herself, she sees Mami as a being of infinite grace and beauty, someone like the strong woman her mother wants her to be. “The sight of Mami pouring her heart into saving others was really amazing,” she confides to herself. “If someone like me could really help other people, I think that’d be nice.”

Madoka Magica

While this episode’s early scenes are largely confined to the visual vocabulary of the first episode, the pursuit of the witch allows things to stretch in all manner of beautiful directions. The suicide of the witch’s target is framed in oblique, reflected shots, as the woman is imprisoned by stairs or captured in shattering glass. The stage of the witch’s battle is a forbidding and claustrophobic space, and when the butterfly-themed monster is finally slain, we next see the girls framed with what looks like a butterfly in a web in the foreground. This episode is lifted more by individually beautiful shots and a strong fight sequence than uniformly stellar direction, but it’s still got plenty to offer. And now, with the initial motives and everyday life of three of the show’s protagonists established, things can begin their sad march forward.

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7 thoughts on “Puella Magi Madoka Magica – Episode 2

  1. Darn, now I’m going to have to watch Madoka all over again to catch all the stuff you’re going to point out in your writeups!

    People seem to think that episode 3 of Madoka is where the show “gets good”, but I would argue otherwise. On your first watch, Madoka is boring for the first two episodes, but these episodes work better when you’ve seen all of the anime. Madoka is a series of vignettes, connected to each other with the fine detail that Urobuchi brings to it. The true beauty of each of these vignettes are only fully expressed when put in context of the others.

    Anyway, keep up the good work!

  2. Another great writeup. It’s this sort of episode that is so much better on the rewatch, like Higurashi’s beginning or Perfect Blue. To be honest, I was spoiled for episode 3 before I watched Madoka so I felt like I appreciated it better than I would have done, knowing the inevitable would happen. I really like the repetition as well, it does what any good thriller should do, in establishing normality but then breaking it.

    • Yeah, Madoka almost demands a rewatch. So much of it is designed to inform and reward cyclical viewing.

  3. Wow, the way you write about Madoka tells me why it’s second on your top 30 list. You can feel the love in your writing. It’s really cool to see.

  4. I’m really glad Madoka appears to be the next episodic dissection you’re doing, Bobduh. Hyouka was one thing because I’ve seen it several times and for all the reasons you wrote about in those 23 pieces and then some, it’s my favorite anime of all time.

    Madoka, on the other hand, was something I marathoned one day a few years ago while I was deliriously sick in bed with the flu, and I think that made me miss a majority of what made it so great. Haven’t watched it since cause I never really felt inclined to give it another go…but that’s certainly changed now. Keep up the great work, can’t wait to read more of these as you post on!

  5. Madoka Magica is indeed my favorite animē of all time, and I am ecstatically happy that you’re dedicating a series of posts to it. Thank you very much!

    Despite adding my voice to the chorus of those who say the first two episodes are better upon rewatch, I want to say that I enjoyed them thoroughly even in my first watch. There was enough thrown in to satisfy someone who didn’t know where things were going (and I was fully unspoiled, so the show really hit me with all its might), especially if, like me, you were actually beginning to get interested in animē, and Madoka Magica was only the third or fourth show you ever watched.

    Many things in episode 2 appear surprising, and suggest strong characterization to me. There is some comedy thrown in for good measure — people always go to Hitomi’s hilarious confusion about the lesbian overtones of Sayaka’s and Madoka’s friendship, which is indeed funny, but I also smiled at Madoka’s mom, Jinko, thinking about what she’d wish for if she could have any wish magically granted…

    As for ‘darker’ topics, people usually don’t mention the fact that some rather unusual things are mentioned casually (like Mami saying ‘… then (I check) the red light district, where fights usually break out’); unusual, that is, for a magical girl show, since it leaves us with this vision of ‘cool’ magical girls like Mami patrolling prostitution houses.

    The colors of the background also seem symbolic to me. First and second episode have mostly daytime skies, very blue with white clouds; but here we already see a sunset sky, still yellow and red, but faintly suggestive of darkness to come. (From episode 4 on we see many more late afternoon and then evening scenes; all the way to the scenes in Episode 8-9 with dark landscapes, buzzing non-nice insects swarming around lampposts, and barbed fences suggesting entrapment).

    All in all, a very good episode. I was already hooked after Episode 1 because of the witch’s surreal labyrinth; here, we got more of that and a few dark hints thrown here and there. The next few episodes were… not what I had expected, but still I can see how they fit well with the previous two, by amplifying and providing further detail about topics that were already present before, albeit in hints or indirectly. (Mami already mentions here that the life of a magical girl is ‘dangerous’, as she will say again in Episode 3; and, upon rewatch, this sounds very ominous… but, for the naive viewer, this sounds just like similar warnings in other magical girls shows. Characters in other similar shows also say that it’s dangerous to be a magical girl; Madoka Magica goes way beyond that.

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