Puella Magi Madoka Magica – Episode 8

“Like a spent gladiator / crawling in the colosseum ducts / he can count on his remaining limbs / all the people he can trust.”
The Mountain Goats

Sayaka Miki is falling apart. As she strikes again and again down on the fallen witch, we see a girl who’s completely given in to her anger, because she has nothing else to guide her. In the wake of her fight, she doesn’t even use this chance to protect herself – she tosses the Grief Seed to Kyouko, saying she doesn’t want to “owe” Kyouko anything. Sayaka’s need to be a hero has isolated her entirely now, and Kyouko revealing that they have much in common has actually made things worse for her. Sayaka doesn’t want to believe Kyouko is an older, wiser version of herself – she wants to believe she’s an enemy of justice, and thus foists that identity on her. What Sayaka wanted has spiraled beyond her reach, and with the situation no longer in her control, she reverts to her simplistic “I just have to be stronger to make this work.” But none of these characters are strong enough to make it alone.

Madoka Magica

Sayaka’s self-destruction becomes even more pronounced in the next scene, as she takes out her powerlessness on Madoka. Madoka only wants to help her, and what she says is true, but from Sayaka’s perspective, she doesn’t have any other escape routes. And so she lashes out, her unconsidered words to Madoka echoing both her soul gem and the scene’s background – splashes of darkness across deep blue. She pushes her friend away out of fear, and then immediately regrets it, once again taking the burden upon herself.

And then we’re off to a meeting between the two pro magical girls, where we finally get to see Homura’s very strange apartment. Homura’s home is about as cheery as you’d expect, defined by a wall of strategy-focused images and a giant mechanical pendulum. Kyouko asks where Homura gets her Walpurgisnacht (the traditional holiday that takes place six months from Halloween, incidentally) information, and Homura offers the vague, retroactively tragic “statistics.” Apparently Homura has fought this creature so many times she herself has become a statistically significant number of witnesses. Homura is reluctant to give up information on her power, and we immediately see why – Kyubey is always watching, waiting to emerge from the shadows and offer just enough information to put his charges off-balance (the “faster than I expected” is a nice touch, implying he did expect her to fail). He knows he’s not welcome here, but he doesn’t hold that against his marks.

Madoka Magica

Meanwhile, Sayaka gets to spend some time in the shadows herself, as she watches her crush be confessed to by one of her best friends. The lighting here makes a clear contrast between the worlds the two of them occupy, and having isolated herself completely, all she can do is throw herself violently into her work. When Homura tries to help her, Sayaka can only see her actions as suspicious, because that’s how she’s decided all other magical girls are. On top of that, she’s perfectly “happy” dying for her job, because with her body dead, she’s decided she has no other value. Sayaka has finally become the embodiment of her ideal, with no human desires left, but it brings her no happiness.

Homura, on the other hand, is thoroughly tired of Sayaka’s bullshit. She doesn’t care at all about Sayaka, but she’s still trying to save her for Madoka’s sake. The show sets up a somewhat bitter frame for this attempted rescue, with Homura framed as potentially drawing Sayaka back into the light, but both of them are too bound by their other goals to actually, honestly connect. In frustration, Homura almost kills Sayaka herself to save Madoka any more pain, only to be stopped by someone who truly does want to help Sayaka. And then we finally start getting details of Homura’s power, as what was previously “explosions and teleportation” is now clarified into a strange ticking shield and an actual grenade.

Madoka Magica

And then we arrive at That Scene. Riding aimlessly on the night train, no direction in mind, Sayaka overhears two young men talking about how they use and abuse the women in their lives. The scene is framed very differently from most of Madoka Magica – not only is it entirely in greyscale, but the shots here are grounded, incidental fragments of the train car that feel more mundane and real than most of the show’s fanciful visuals. In addition, the style of dialogue and even vocal delivery is different – these two men feel like actual real-life scumbags, any pair of everyday misogynists reminiscing on their recent conquests.

You could frankly frame the entirety of Madoka Magica around this one scene. This is the world women have to survive in – a world dominated by men who see women as resources to deplete, objects that eventually lose their value. You don’t need the constant pressure of a soul gem to understand that in today’s world, women have to reckon with a cultural paradigm that makes many people see them as running against time to make use of their value. Hell, in many anime, the jokes Madoka Magica makes about its teacher’s dating life would be garnished with allusions to how she’s “no longer worth much” because she’s too old to get married. The world is full of Kyubeys, and the fate of every woman in a patriarchal world is that they can’t escape riding the night train, and eventually learning the truth of this place.

Madoka Magica

Running into these assholes is the last straw for Sayaka. Rightly seeing herself in their conversation, she challenges them with the anger she couldn’t turn towards anything else. The world itself is too vast and impersonal for her to attack, even if the world is her true enemy. She loses faith in what she’s been fighting for, and the scene changes. The blue ripples that dominated her scene with Madoka now fill her body, followed by the musical notes that ended her earlier witch fight. Having been reduced to a dream and an ideal, Sayaka is consumed by all that is left.

And where there’s suffering, Kyubey always sees opportunity. Sayaka’s fall is a great chance for him, as it lets him pressure Madoka even more insistently. Kyubey’s talk of how Madoka would be a truly incredible magical girl feels like a grim parody, like he’s intentionally twisting that classic “everyone can be special” message to suit his own goals. But Madoka doesn’t feel special – she feels powerless, because what she wants isn’t to be a strong fighter, it’s to help the people she cares about. This scene makes for a strong contrast with the previous one – while Sayaka’s confrontation reflects the inherent injustices of the modern world in an antagonistic way, this scene emphasizes the way emotional strength and emotional labor is almost never valued at the same rate as physical strength. Madoka is indeed very strong and valuable, but her strength and value are weighed in terms that the world tends to disregard.

Madoka Magica

But even if Madoka can’t see her own value, Homura clearly can. In a sequence of shocking quick cuts, Homura destroys Kyubey and then breaks down herself, finally letting her repressed emotions take over. All of these girls are near the breaking point, but once again, legitimate connection is denied to them. Homura and Madoka no longer have the time to truly reach each other, even if Homura has finally arrived at a point where she’s ready to try.

And then we cut to the other pair who really should connect, who should be able to care for and carry each other. Kyouko reaches Sayaka at last, but she’s too late – having internalized all of her own “sins,” Sayaka can no longer be reached. She finally sees some truth in Kyouko’s words, but as she admits weakness to the girl who should have been her friend, tears fall and her gem breaks. Shattered by a hope betrayed, Sayaka’s dreams and memories flash before her eyes, the gem shifting and something dark and blue bubbling up from beneath. In a world like this, girls are not allowed to age gracefully into adulthood, surrounded by friends who love them in a world that respects their fundamental humanity. You are a magical girl, or you are a witch.

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7 thoughts on “Puella Magi Madoka Magica – Episode 8

  1. Sayaka’s fall has always made me think about the meaning of despair. You see, we often think about despair as being simply the absence of hope. Once we are confronted with a no-win situation; once we become aware of the fact that, no matter what we do, there is absolutely no chance we could win; once we understand that what we wanted so much — to woo someone’s affections, to protect those we love, to achieve something worthwhile, to prove our value — is simply not going to happen regardless of our best efforts; then this ‘inevitability of defeat’ leads to the loss of all drive to move forward, the ‘loss of hope’ that leaves us apathetic. Despair.

    But then, this is not really the case. People’s reactions when faced with hopelessness are not always apathetic despair. There are other attitudes. To quote Joss Whedon’s famous line from Angel The Series, “when nothing matters, then all that matters is what we do”. If there is no hope of winning the big war, as Angel realized there wasn’t once he saw that the highest level within the demonic law firm Wolfram & Hart was reality itself, then he was left with simple everyday acts of kindness, with how we behave towards each other as individuals as the real measure of the meaningfulness of our actions.

    Let us call this the positive response to hopelessness: it’s when we still find a motivation to continue fighting despite the lack of any chance to win. It’s actually a pretty common outcome: the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Palladin Who Fights His Last Battle, they all show us that there is more to fighting than simply having at least a chance of winning. There is the sensation of doing the right thing, or, better yet, of there being more in the world than simply winning this fight, something else (Angel’s kindness) that we can ‘win’ even if we lose the battle, something that somehow still makes everything OK, even though we know we are not coming home from today’s clash.

    This characterizes two reactions to hopelessness: the ‘positive’ (‘yet still we fight!’) and the neutral (apathetic: ‘why should we do anything?’) ones. Of these two, perhaps only the second one is worthy of the name ‘despair’; the first, positive reaction is apparently something completely different.

    And Sayaka’s fall points to another reaction, an even darker one. Sayaka made me think that there is a further step one can take to make things worse after one has gone through the ‘neutral’ response. After realizing that there is no hope left of ever achieving what one wanted to achieve, after realizing the pointlessness of even trying and losing all desire to do anything, there is a further step, a voluntary one that is not a logical necessity, since one can always stay in the ‘neutral’ reaction and end up in apathy.

    But Sayaka went further — after all, she was stupid… so stupid… so tragically, so humanly stupid…

    She not only realized the impossibility of achieving her goals; she also saw the pointlessness of even trying, the meaninglessness of the whole endeavor from the very beginning, even in the time when she still thought she had a chance. She looked back at herself, at her goal — to become an Ally of Justice, a True Hero — and she saw it all as meaningless from the very beginning. She saw herself as stupid for even having believed, in the beginning, that she had any chance; she saw herself as stupid for even having thought that this goal was worthwhile.

    This darker or negative reaction to hopelessness creates what one might call negative drive, or negative motivation. Seeing oneself as so darn stupid, so darn naive as to have dared believe that one’s goals — to woo someone’s affections, to protect our loved ones, to achieve something worthwhile, to prove our worth — was ever possible, or that it had any intrinsic meaning. If this further step is taken, then apathy is not really a possible reaction, because one is confronted with the shameful images of one’s past naïveté, Everything around seems to remind us of how stupid and naïve we were for having believed in something; it is as if the whole universe were laughing at us. We close our eyes, we cover our eyers, we scream in pain, trying to drive the laughter away; it is as if we were creating a barrier, a labyrinth around ourselves to isolate ourselves from this laughing universe. A labyrinth — but a labyrinth of what? We have to exclude as much as possible the things that the universe is laughing at, our ridiculous meaningless ideals and goals; but they were the things that defined our existence and can thus not be avoided, lest our labyrinth be made of Nothingness… so some perverted version of them is used instead, a version we oursleves can laugh at, thus joining the universal laughter we are trying to escape from, but in our own terms, to make it bearable.

    And the labyrinth is formed; we are isolated from the external laughing world, and left to contemplate some distorted version of that which used to give us hope, something we can still laugh at to somehow stop the pain from hurting us further. And while doing this, we take revenge on the laughing world by luring others in and destroying them as they enter our labyrinth. We are now Agents of Evil.

    This final or negative answer to the challenge of hopelessness is probably something that deserves its own name. It’s not the same as the neutral or apathetic despair. Perhaps ‘desperation’ would be a good word for it. Or perhaps simply chronic depression. After all, in that respect, Sayaka is very similar to Neon Genesis Evangelion’s Asuka Sohryu: the moment when Asuka says to Hikari ‘I hate everybody! I hate everything!’ is equivalent to the formation of Sayaka’s labyrinth; it is, in fact, the formation of Asuka’s labyrinth, from which she could no longer emerge.

    Three kinds of despair. That was part of the lesson I took from Madoka Magica.

    • Interesting take on the concept of despair. To comment, the “further step” that you’re describing sounds a lot like regret. And I believe your short essay underscores how regret should not be taken as a triviality when the abyss has become as deep as you described.

      Regret is a terrible agent of despair. It leads to abandon; to self-destruction; to death. Regret is the inability of the human being to grow. It’s stagnation. It’s self-damnation.

      Sayaka was more than a victim of circumstance, it seems. Her whole moral upbringing seemed completely incompatible with the reality of Magical Girls, hence the terrible decisions and the self-destructive path towards regret and despair. It’s a harrowing depiction of youthful abandon in the absence of kindred spirits; or at least the thought that there is no one who understands what it is you’re going through.

      And with that, I honestly do not know how to approach this situation. Is it necessary for people like Sakuya to fall before we realize the vulnerability that lies within each of us? What is remarkable about the show thus far is that we kinda end up standing in Madoka’s shoes. We aren’t Magical Girls. We honestly feel like we would like to do something for a friend like Sakuya if we saw her hurting the way that she was. I, for one, have personally experienced a friend get consumed by despair and regret and it almost robbed her of her life. And I commend this show for not trivializing these sort of things. These are real emotions and real issues that have implications on how we deal with hardship. And I love how this article brings in the idea of how the modern world is structured into an unforgiving paradigm that imprisons its constituents – of how one’s “worth” is seemingly pre-determined by sex or by race or by social status or, basically, by the status quo.

      This was a harrowing episode that really hits many issues that even I, personally, cannot begin to express without feeling utterly inadequate. But for what it’s worth, reading each of these essays always brings me a little insight, a little sadness, but at the same time, a little hope. I think it’s good to talk about the things that make us uncomfortable – something that Gen Urobochi has a knack for doing – because it’s in bearing down ourselves that we reach towards a greater understanding of what it means to be human.

      • We have all had our encounters with despair, and we have all seen (or sometimes been) people who ‘fall’. And perhaps ‘fall’ is here the right word, since it does go beyond despair, and this is what Sayaka did: she went beyond despair. She took the extra step.

        You compared this further negative step to regret. I think regret is a weaker concept: regret can be about an error (‘damn, I made a mistake’) that can in principle be overcome. In situations that connect with despair, like Sayaka’s, I think this additional step is not simply regret, but rather something else that Sayaka also had: self-loathing. Several times Sayaka thought of herself as ‘a terrible, horrible person’, more often than not because she herself could not live up to the ideals she espoused. To some people, this characterizes her as ‘stupid’ (and she would be tragically happy to agree…): she could have avoided that.

        To me, however, this shows a few aspects of the human condition that we often gloss over because we prefer to think of ourselves as mature beings capable of making rational decisions to pursue our best interests. As far as I can see, there is hardly any human who actually does that. Our rationality is imbued with emotionality; or intelligence is as much logical as it is sympathetic-empathetic (analogical, similarity-seeking).

        Sayaka’s self-loathing, rather than her regret, was the cause of her fall, of her choice of the negative despair I talked about above, a kind of despair that, as far as I know, has no name. Sayaka’s belief that she was already flawed (‘a horrible person’), and even more so after becoming a lich with her soul in an egg-shaped phylactery (‘I’m already dead!’ ‘I can never ask him to kiss me when I’m like this!’) made it impossible for her to stay in neutral, apathetic stage of despair. Sure, she could see the pointlessness of even trying (‘what use is a magical girl if she can’t even kill witches?’), and further on, she ‘realized’ the pointlessness of her original goal (‘is this… is this world even worth protecting?…’) — ‘realized’ in scare quotes, because this conclusion is not necessarily right; there are counterarguments that she is not thinking of, given her emotional situation –; but she didn’t stay here, at the point of apathetic despair. Her self-loathing (‘I’m a horrible person’) took her further on (‘I’ma horrible person because I believed this world was worth saving’ > ‘that makes me ridiculously stupid, ha ha ha’…).

        In this sense, it pains me almost beyond rationality to see that, as her tears fell in her last meeting with Kyōko, as she said her famous ‘I was stupid… so stupid’, she was… smiling. Ha ha. From ‘I’m a horrible person’ to ‘I’m stupid’, and now to ‘I’m hopelessly ridiculous’. Ha ha ha.

        And that’s the moment when the labyrinth emerges. That’s the moment when her final last thoughts — her face of astonishment as Kyōsuke played his violin — became distorted into the labyrinth from which she would no longer emerge, because everything else was too painful to contemplate.

        I have also seen people destroy their lives in this way, and I absolutely agree with you that this show does not trivialize this situation. Too many people dismiss such things as people being ‘stupid’ or ‘their own worst enemies’; and, however much truth there might be in such claims, they skip over the essential part of this: people like Sayaka do not choose the self-loathing that takes them over the despair threshold into the area in which they collapse into a black hole with an event horizon they can no longer escape from.

        Despite Sayaka’s own opinion, this is not entirely a choice. And friends and family can and should help, when they see someone hurting as badly as Sayaka was. It doesn’t always work — Madoka’s final attempt didn’t. But it does sometimes work, and that makes it worthwhile.

  2. “…this scene emphasizes the way emotional strength and emotional labor is almost never valued at the same rate as physical strength. Madoka is indeed very strong and valuable, but her strength and value are weighed in terms that the world tends to disregard.”

    Madoka herself is one reason why I love this show, and why I love anime as a medium, so freaking much. A gentle, unassuming, genuinely kind girl like Madoka wouldn’t get anywhere in a piece of Western media, because Western media glorifies the charismatic, extraverted, and physically strong. To me, personally, it makes a lot more sense that a girl like Madoka would end up Changing Everything, and not some hunky genius superhero.

    • What I also noticed is that Madoka is also extremely lucky, and she couldn’t even come up with a wish. She also has a “strong mother” as opposite to the “week woman” discussed in the train. Yet she is also kindhearted enough to give up her normal life to “help others”. I saw it somewhere that her wish in previous universe was to save a cat dead in a car accident).

      Thus I would say she is not any different from Sayaka, including her regret of not saving Mami and being a magic girl ( showed in the second universe)

      The only thing she has is her strength imbued by Homura and her luckiness that she can’t even come up with a wish.

    • Definitely agreed. I really love how Madoka, and how so many anime, focus on valuing characters for this kind of emotional strength, or even just living with dignity.

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