Madoka Magica #7 opens with a furious Sayaka, stomping home after having learned the true nature of magical girls. The opening shots hide her feelings in shadow and low frames before they’re made clear through a pair of cuts, as Sayaka gently turns on her light and then angrily tosses the soul gem aside. Sayaka then she turns that anger on Kyubey, demanding to know why he didn’t tell her the truth. And of course, his answer is classic, ever-smiling Kyubey: “you never asked.”
“It wouldn’t have bothered you a one bit if you’d never found out,” he says, and even brings up Mami as an example of a girl who was never burdened with the truth. His words here begin to give us a glimpse of his overall perspective – the girls he makes contracts with are unreliable tools, but if he can just steer them in the right direction, they’re able to accomplish great things because of their relative ignorance. But of course, his utility-focused philosophy, where the ends justify the means and truth or kindness are only meaningful insofar as they are useful, is the polar opposite of Sayaka’s. Sayaka believes pure intent and goodness are their own valued ideals, and at least as important as the actual results of your actions. Kyubey’s choices make sense given his goals, and actually result in more effective magical girls, but there’s no character here who’d be less willing to accept that than Sayaka. And as Kyubey runs down the mundane, organic qualities of his charges’ bodies, we cut directly into his eyes, emphasizing his opaque, alien perspective.
Then, for the first time in seemingly forever, we actually get some bright daytime shots. Madoka has returned to school – but Sayaka is absent. The stage is different now, constrained by bars, and when we see Sayaka again, she’s in evening shadow even though it’s daytime. Sayaka sits and watches her soul gem decay from under the covers of her bed, a position that mirrors Kyousuke’s original situation even down to the scattered chairs placed around her. Sayaka has visually sacrificed herself for the sake of her wish.
Homura offers little sympathy for Madoka’s feelings, but how could she? When asked why she didn’t warn them, she says “nobody I’ve warned has ever believed me before.” Homura seems utterly resigned in this conversation, likely one of the least enjoyable conversations she’s been forced to have again and again and again. “Normally a miracle costs far more than a human life, but that’s the price for which Kyubey sells them,” she says. Time and numbness have actually given Homura real insight into Kyubey’s character, but she still doesn’t necessarily understand her own. Her “don’t confuse gratitude with responsibility” seems to miss how sharply it applies to her own choices; and though she explains her own coldness with “it’s because I’m no longer human,” it’s really because she is human that she has been forced to become cold.
Meanwhile, Sayaka continues to sulk. She can’t visit Kyousuke as a zombie – being a person who values the form of behavior as well as its result, she now sees herself as inherently tainted, unworthy of being with good, natural human beings. And then an unexpected visitor arrives, marked by a very deliberate drawing out into the daylight. Kyouko apparently has more to say to her new rival.
Kyouko’s behavior seems strange this time. Instead of challenging Sayaka on her philosophy, she seems more interested in selling her own. She speaks lightly of how in retrospect, she doesn’t actually mind what has happened to her, as if she’s actually trying to comfort Sayaka. “If you live only for yourself, everything you do is your own fault. You have no reason to resent others, and you’ll never have any regrets.” Selfishness isn’t wrong; in fact, selfishness is the only defense magical girls have against being beaten down by their own nature. Kyouko’s words don’t seem to reach Sayaka, but they’re a substantial change of pace from her earlier behavior. The revelations by Kyubey seem to have recentered their relationship on a common enemy, and now Kyouko doesn’t just want to knock down Sayaka’s beliefs, but actually lead her to her own.
Kyouko leads Sayaka to a decrepit church, and Sayaka asks the obvious question. Before answering, Kyouko tosses Sayaka an apple, a peace offering that’s clearly charged in this fairy-tale world. And indeed, this apple does seem like a poisoned gift to Sayaka; looking into its red surface, she sees her reflection like it’s one of Kyubey’s eyes. And she tosses it away, having no interest in either Kyouko hedonism or Kyubey’s utilitarianism. But Kyouko is having none of this – grabbing Sayaka, she says she’ll kill her if she ever wastes food. These are real feelings, here – this isn’t a paean to efficiency, this is something that is important to Kyouko as a human being. And Sayaka sees that, and her expression changes.
Finally, Kyouko tells the truth. Depicted through strange, ghostly cut-paper characters, we see that this church once belong to Kyouko’s father, and that because of his unusual teachings, his family was left out in the cold. Kyouko learned the value of a good meal then – the powerless daughter of a voiceless man, she’s learned since to treasure anything she can acquire through her own hands. But back then, Kyouko didn’t have that perspective, and so when she made her wish (framed as the apple once again echoes Kyubey’s eyes), it was for her father’s sake. She wished for her father’s words to be heard, and they were, but eventually her father learned the truth. Condemning his daughter for a witch, he destroyed Kyouko’s whole family in the end.
It’s clear now why Kyouko is so attached to Sayaka, why she hates her and yet can’t leave her alone. Kyouko is Sayaka, some time down the line. Like Sayaka, Kyouko believed in making a wish for others, and that bringing them happiness could result in your own. Like Sayaka, Kyouko saw herself as a silent hero, working from the shadows as her father worked in the light. She believed in the beauty of magical girls and the power of wishes to bring others happiness, and her life was destroyed for that belief.
Even her condemnation by her father echoes Sayaka’s fears, that knowing the truth about her will make Kyousuke reject her. Now, Kyouko fights only for herself, because that’s the only person she can really believe in. But like Homura, Kyouko is not as cold as she seems. Kyouko sees herself in Sayaka, but she doesn’t want her own cycle of pain to be repeated. She’s been trying to warn Sayaka all along, first in a way that could deny her own pain, and now finally by sharing the truth of herself with the one who mirrors her feelings.
And Sayaka, unsurprisingly, tosses this gesture of goodwill away. Sayaka is herself; an honest speech by someone who thinks they understand her isn’t going to make her give up on love and justice. The things Sayaka and Kyouko have in common aren’t just their common pasts. They’re also both deeply stubborn and self-motivated people, and they’re also both people who get by through absolute faith in a clear ideal. Sayaka has made a vow not to regret her actions, and she doesn’t plan to break it. Her identity hinges on her belief in true justice; if she gave that up, she’d be giving up herself. It’s the very stubborn resilience that makes these two so similar that also makes Kyouko unable to help Sayaka. And so the two part, Sayaka marching into the fading light as Kyouko bitterly returns to her own core values.
But Sayaka doesn’t get much time to rejoice in her moral victory. With Kyousuke returning to school, things swiftly change in her life, as Hitomi reveals that she also has feelings for Sayaka’s crush. Hitomi somewhat unintentionally throws Sayaka’s convictions in her face, giving her time to confess, but asking if she can be honest with her own feelings. But Sayaka’s feelings are a mess; she’s motivated by her own heroic identity while hating herself for being a magical girl, and unable to believe there’s anything good about herself. Sayaka’s beliefs are incompatible with life in general, much less being a magical girl, but Kyubey happened to catch her at a moment where life was just barely allowing her to be an idealized, adolescent version of herself. Kyubey being good at what he does is what results in people as unsuited as Sayaka becoming magical girls.
Sayaka’s last battle is one of Madoka Magica’s most beautiful and terrible visual spectacles. Captured within a silhouette frame, she charges again and again against a defensive beast, her movements matching the many heads of the witch’s powers. The narrowing of her perspective is now reflected in how the world appears, a binary plane of black and white. It’s a beautiful dance that turns first desperate, and then vicious, as she tears her enemy to pieces while letting her emotions disappear. Kyouko appears to help her, and the chains briefly become a helping canopy, but Sayaka tosses her rival aside. If maintaining her convictions and holding onto herself are incompatible, then Sayaka will just have to give up on herself.
This article was made possible by reader support. Thank you all for all that you do.