Puella Magi Madoka Magica – Episode 9

Madoka Magica’s ninth episode opens with a terrible transformation, as the witch that was Sayaka Miki takes form. Not yet aware of the true nature of witches, Kyouko fights back against this new creature, asking what it did with her friend. But even if the audience hadn’t figured out the truth by now, Kyubey has finally spilled the beans.

Madoka Magica

Incidentally, this witch “twist” is one more of the points where Madoka Magica demonstrates the solidity of its narrative construction. As I’ve discussed before, in good fiction, the term “plot twist” is itself a bit of a misnomer. The truth about witches doesn’t come out of nowhere – it’s a natural extension of the ideas the show has raised thus far, and in retrospect, essentially the only way the existence of witches could resolve given everything else we know. It may be surprising if you weren’t expecting it, but its role isn’t just to surprise – it’s to slot another piece of a fully realized whole into place. The key to a good plot twist isn’t that the audience doesn’t see it coming – the key is that it makes everything else make more sense in retrospect, leaving the audience with a sense of “ah, of course that’s how this story works.”

In this case, the truth about witches is a natural extension of the way Kyubey treats all humans as resources, our existing knowledge regarding soul gems, and the way emotional strength seems to be tied to power in battle. Instead of being two disparate forces contrasted against each other, we now see that magical girls and witches form a cycle, one more in a series obsessed with such cycles. The tragedies we’ve already witnessed now feel even more inevitable, because they were born of the hopes that stood against them.

Madoka Magica

Sayaka’s witch form is itself a form of revelation, since now we see for the first time that the nature of a witch and their labyrinth reflects the magical girl who created it. Sayaka’s witch is a mermaid knight, a creature that emphasizes her Little Mermaid plot arc (the girl who sacrificed her identity to be with the man she loved), as well as her belief in stable, chivalrous justice. Winding train tracks evoke the moment that made her lose faith in the world, while musical notes form a chain that echoes her original wish. Sayaka’s witch lays her identity bare, and clues us in to the sad fact that all the witches we’ve seen have likely been designed this way, their deadly playgrounds a final reflection of the humanity they’ve lost.

All Kyouko can recover from that place is Sayaka’s body. Aided by Homura, the two of them run into Madoka, surrounded by barbed wire that echoes the reoccuring chains and train tracks emphasizing their fixed trajectories. “That is the inescapable fate of all who become magical girls,” says Homura. “She ended up bearing a curse of equal magnitude to her wish.” Her words again emphasize the cyclical nature of this story. Sayaka wanted to sacrifice of herself to save others – but in this world, everything evens out in the end. Attempting to break the cycles we live in is the constant, thankless work of humanity.

Madoka Magica

Kyouko gets understandably angry at Homura’s words, a contrast that once again points to Madoka Magica’s mastery of “twists.” Homura seems inhuman here, but that’s due to our incomplete information – when the truth comes, it will not only be shocking in its own right, it will make total sense of all the information we’ve received thus far. But taken on their own, Homura’s choice to use Sayaka’s death to scare Madoka, and her frank discussion of disposing of the body, seem like the words of someone who doesn’t care about anyone at all.

That leads into one more of Madoka Magica’s iconic scenes, as Kyubey pays a visit to the despondent Madoka. Madoka’s framing here mirrors Sayaka’s from earlier – not only does the show create a strong contrast between the light outside and the black chasm of her room, but even the chairs that defined Sayaka and Kyousuke’s bedside have appeared, emphasizing her loneliness and the people who have left her behind. It’s a touch that seems directly evocative of Bokurano’s chairs – symbols of those who’ve passed, small touches of individuality now all that is left.

Madoka Magica

Kyubey tells something close to the whole truth this time, discussing how magical girls are actually created in order to stave off the heat death of the universe. A sharp contrast is drawn between the philosophies of the two characters – Kyubey’s words make sense according to his goals, but they can’t even parse Madoka’s objections to his actions. On the other side, Madoka can’t even really think of things on the scale Kyubey is describing them, making even his theoretically noble (though likely just self-preservation oriented) mission feel like one more expression of his awful, impersonal identity.

The actual fantasy worldbuilding here serves as a fitting explanation for magical girls – what Kyubey is really after is emotional energy, and adolescent girls apparently expend the most emotional energy of anyone. They care about things more deeply, experience higher highs and lower lows. It’s a truism that anyone who’s been a teenager can likely relate to, but it also plays directly into Madoka’s characterization. Not only is Madoka insecure because she can’t appreciate her own emotional strength, but now we learn that it’s her very ability to care deeply for others that is being harnessed by an uncaring universe. But for all that, this explanation also points to the ultimate escape from this system. Kyubey’s race values humanity precisely because their emotional strengths defy the laws of the universe – powerful, intimate emotions like love or courage can actually break free of the cycle.

Madoka Magica

But for now, Madoka is only further isolated by Kyubey’s inhuman explanation. “In the long run, this arrangement benefits humanity as well” he says, but she can only think of the painful struggles of Mami and Sayaka. It’s the conflict that lies at the heart of almost all of Urobuchi’s stories; the contrast between the inhuman, goal-oriented values of a utilitarian system, and the dignity and value of the individuals who rally against it. The gilded palace and the ones who walk away. And he leaves with that final, classic utilitarian sales pitch: “if you ever feel like dying for the sake of the universe, just let me know.”

Kyouko takes the situation differently – in fact, her reaction seems like it might well echo how the old Sayaka would handle things. Having admitted to herself how much she and Sayaka have in common, she can’t let things end this way. She refuses to give up on Sayaka, darkening her own soul gem to preserve her body and grilling Kyubey on potential ways to save her. The scene ends with a line that directly echoes the pride of Sayaka, as Kyouko denies Kyubey’s help, finally turning her scorn on their true enemy.

Madoka Magica

Kyouko’s mirroring of Sayaka doesn’t end there. Her plan to save Sayaka requires Madoka’s help, and so the two meet once again, framed against the fairy tale characters of the unicorn and mermaid. We see a gentler Kyouko here, apologizing for her bluntness, clearly embarrassed about being this emotionally honest. Her plan involves depending on something the show has never valued up until now – Madoka’s true strength, the way she always works to connect with others. For the first time in the series, someone truly acknowledges Madoka’s value, saying “if anyone could do it, it’d be you.”

The Kyouko at the beginning of the series would not be saying these words to Madoka. The Kyouko from the start wouldn’t be proposing a wildly optimistic plan, and wouldn’t be offering to put herself in danger to save a near-stranger. That Kyouko would not – but Sayaka would.

Madoka Magica

While Kyouko was unable to reach Sayaka up until now, Sayaka’s words certainly reached Kyouko. Kyouko’s response to learning the truth about magical girls was to embrace something like Kyubey’s values, working only for herself, valuing others only insofar as they were useful to her. But watching Sayaka struggle against the nature of her contract didn’t just make Kyouko want to save her – it reignited her own belief in a higher justice, and in giving of yourself to help others. “I probably became a magical girl in the first place because I loved stories like that,” she says, speaking fondly on the fairy tales she’d been forced to abandon. Sayaka’s dedication to her ideals may have doomed her, but it also inspired Kyouko, returning her to the human compassion she had lost. And so, united by their communal love of an absent friend, two of Madoka Magica’s heroes connect for the very first time.

And so the two head off together, on the hunt for Sayaka’s witch. The chains that consistently mark their powerlessness are broken as the two approach, the camera emphasizing Kyouko’s fond feelings for her new friend. Madoka consistently laments her weakness and powerlessness, but if there’s anything that can save these girls, it’s exactly what she offers – friendship, understanding, empathy. When Madoka wonders once more if she’s a coward for not becoming a magical girl, Kyouko tells her off in her own blunt way. There’s nothing noble about fighting just because you can – in fact, she’d kick Madoka’s ass herself before letting Madoka become a magical girl. That’s what friends do.

Madoka Magica

At last, the two arrive at Sayaka’s final concerto. The mermaid witch wields a saber like a conductor’s baton, a sad parody of her former dreams. Madoka attempts to reach her friend using the only weapon she has, while Kyouko dances in the foreground, driving back ornate wheels that fall like reminders of the world they’re rallying against. There’s no pragmatism in Kyouko’s strikes now – all she has is her bond and her faith, a belief that she can reach Sayaka if only she doesn’t give up hope. Brought to their most fundamental point, the frame embraces the bond these two share, the way they mirror and complete each other. Kyouko accepts all of her friend; her pride and conviction, but her anger as well. And as they fall, Kyouko makes a request she thought she’d never make again, beseeching an uncaring universe to grant her one tiny request. The universe does not hear our prayers. But it is the fact that we make them that makes us human.

Kyouko knew this wouldn’t work, in the end. These girls do not truly have the power to change everything, to save everyone, or even to save the one person they care for the most. But the knowledge of success is not why these girls make wishes, and not why they sacrifice of themselves. “Salvation” is not the same thing as a happy ever after. In the end, with her strength fading and Madoka safe in Homura’s arms, Kyouko completes the task she came for. Embodying the strength of Madoka and Sayaka and every great human, she tosses her soul gem into the flame, spearing herself against the shadow of her friend. Sayaka is saved by the beauty of her conviction, a strength of spirit that brought Kyouko back to herself. Lonely in life, the two embrace a final connection at last.

Madoka Magica

But our human strength can only do so much. As Homura reflects on Kyouko’s sacrifice, Kyubey appears, grinning as ever at this newest turn of fate. Kyouko’s actions were selfless and honest and noble, the essence of what makes humanity great. But even through her victory, Kyubey moves closer to securing his own.

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13 thoughts on “Puella Magi Madoka Magica – Episode 9

  1. Kyōko’s heroic death closes what I sometimes like to call the ‘arc of sacrifice’ (or perhaps ‘arc of salvation’) of Madoka Magica, which includes episodes 7-9. There we see Kyōko’s redemption via Sayaka, which we can see as a justification of Sayaka’s ideals: now Kyōko remembers who she is again, so that, rather than convince Sayaka to become a selfish hedonist like her, Kyōko again becomes a selfless idealist like Sayaka. The fact that this redemption is immediately followed by Kyōko’s sacrifice, especially one so well executed as this was, is so tragicially beautiful that just reading about it and remembering it makes me tear up.

    Kyōko ends up being the character who “can’t get a break”. She suffered terribly, receiving blow after blow from life. She royally deserves the lucky break she asks for. Alas, this is Madoka Magica, where there are no lucky breaks, and being a hero and winning a redemption victory doesn’t guarantee anything. In a show like Pretty Cure or even Sailor Moon, the Power of Friendship and the kindness in Madoka’s voice might have sufficed to save Sayaka (and who knows? in real life sometimes friends do bring up back from the depths of the worst defeats and despair…).

    But this is not Sailor Moon. Here, there are no lucky breaks, no happy dreams, as the English dub says. Yes, Kyōko, your life sucked. A lot. To the very last minute.


    • It’s actually a (fan?)animated version of a scene from the manga that takes place after they die together. It’s cute but definitely sad.

      This whole episode is heartbreaking. Thanks for the writeup, Bobduh. The episodes themselves have had such a lasting effect on me that just reading about them feels almost like experiencing the show again with interesting liner notes added.

      • Same thing here. It is curious how this show leaves such a strong impression that just reading about it later on elicits an emotional reaction.

  2. Like I said on Twitter, the Kyouko/Madoka scene in this episode is easily one of my favorite in the whole show. Seriously, I just love the stupid wind-chimes. Just the way Kyouko’s character comes full-circle there is pretty great, though. “It’d be like one of those stories where love and courage triumphs. I became a magical girl because I loved stuff like that, Sayaka reminded me.” Dialogue is often pulling double or even triple duty in Madoka, but those lines are certainly some of the show’s best. Simultaneously the capstone to Kyouko’s entire character arc, but also recontextualizing her relationship to Sayaka. Sayaka not only reminds Kyouko of herself, but also of something Kyouko used to love and admire. And so Kyouko loves and admires Sayaka, who embodies those ideals. Not that everyone necessarily has to read their relationship as romantic, but that seems pretty close to a flat-out confession by anime standards.

    I’d never really considered how that scene reflected on Madoka, though. That Kyouko comes specifically to Madoka for her individual strengths, when she could have just as easily gone by herself. It’s almost overwhelming how much there really is to unpack in this show, these write-ups have been great. Which is why I’m definitely looking forward to seeing you tackle this next one…

    • I don’t think the fact that Kyōko asked for Madoka’s help can be seen as Kyōko’s recognition of Madoka’s inner strength and value. After all, how could Kyōko know what kind of personality Madoka had? They hadn’t really talked to each other up until then. All Kyōko knew was that Madoka was Sayaka’s friend (‘so the annoying bitch has an annoying friend, go figure!’ says Kyōko in the dubbed version of Episode 6; and again, ‘she was Sayaka’s… best friend!’ in the first part of Episode 9). How could she know any more about Madoka?

      It seems more likely to me that Kyōko was simply being honest and humble. She had certainly grown very fond of Sayaka, but she could not count on any reciprocation; after all, the best Sayaka had said to her, after finding out about Kyōko’s sad back story, was ‘I won’t hate you for it [= if you try to kill me], but I won’t lose.’ What chance could she have of reaching Sayaka in her witch state? Madoka, on the other hand, was Sayaka’s best friend. Kyōko knew at least that. What Madoka was like inside, Kyōko only got glimpses of when they talked as they entered Sayaka’s labyrinth.

      • Not to start an argument about the nature of the diegesis in poor Bobduh’s comment section here, but what Kyouko “knows” is kind of irrelevant. Kyouko can’t actually know anything, she’s just a construct of the narrative; she knows whatever she’s written to know. Kyouko understands Madoka’s value because that’s part of her role in that scene. If Madoka personifies the emotional core of the story, and I think Bobduh has laid out a pretty compelling argument for that, then it makes sense to have Kyouko’s first real conversation with her be a reflection of those themes and values.

        I mean, you can read it as “Kyouko goes to Madoka because she was closest to Sayaka” if you want. Though if we’re speaking strictly in those terms, couldn’t she have just spilled the beans to Kyousuke or appealed to her actual family? I think Bob’s read offers a richer and more textured version of the scene, so I’m inclined to agree with it.

        • I’m not sure I would be able to follow such a ‘diegetic’ argument, though I would certainly be curious to hear about it (an interpretive viewpoint from which characters shouldn’t be taken at face value as ‘real’ individuals within the framework of the world implicit in the work in question? interesting…). My claim is, of course, based on taking said characters at face value as ‘real’ individuals; and from this perspective, Kyōko couldn’t have known about Madoka’s personality. (I think this perspective does work in this show. Note how it explains part of Sayaka’s anger at Homura, when she says that Homura ‘just waited for Mami to die before killing the witch’: this makes sense once we realize that Sayaka didn’t see Mami binding Homura and thus couldn’t know that Homura tried to help before but was prevented to by Mami.)

          Now, I note that the fact that Madoka accepted Kyōko’s proposal (‘Hm-hm– I’ll help’), despite the obvious danger and despite Kyōko saying that she wouldn’t force Madoka to do anything if she didn’t want to, does provide evidence of what Bobduh and you are suggesting: that this show does want the viewer to notice Madoka’s inner worth. It may even be something that Kyōko herself realized as they walked into Sayaka’s/Oktavia’s labyrinth (‘you’re a weird girl… ain’tcha?’).

          As for asking Kyōsuke or Sayaka’s family… sure, but this would be more difficult, since she would have to reveal the whole magical girl situation to this person, whereas Madoka was already au courant. (It is an interesting question, and one that the show offers no real answer to, why exactly magical girls don’t reveal their status to other people. Why not warn everybody about the existence of witches, and be recognized as witch fighters? But if you assume that, for some unknown reason, magical girls don’t do that, then it follows that Kyōko wouldn’t want to ask for the help of Sayaka’s family, or of Kyōsuke.)

          • It is a good question, and one of the few that the show doesn’t really give a complete and satisfying answer to. My best guess for why magical girls don’t make themselves known is because few people would be willing to believe them. “I have magic powers that I got from a bunnycat that you can’t see or hear, and I use them to fight witches that you also usually can’t see or hear, but I swear it’s all real!”

            I suppose that’s not really an answer, though, considering that non-magical girls can still see transformations and such (“Now she’s attacking us in cosplay?!”), but Kyouko’s backstory shows that even if someone believes you, they might not react the way you’d hope. Not that that explains why no one else in the show ever tried.

            Maybe someone else has a better answer. The show explains so many things really well, but this one seems to be basically ignored.

          • I don’t think we need to assume Kyouko has information from outside of her narrative limits for this scene to work both as something Kyouko would do and as a thematic celebration of Madoka’s worth. After all, we’ve already seen that Kyouko’s been spying on Sayaka and Madoka for some time, and that she understands Madoka is Sayaka’s closest friend, and cares about her deeply (she said that outright just a couple scenes before). Kyouko doesn’t need much more information than that to declare that “this is something only you can do,” which validates Madoka’s identity whether it’s directly intended to from Kyouko’s perspective or not.

        • Indeed it doesn’t. Which is why I think Madoka’s acceptance (“Hm-hm–I’ll help’) is a sign from the show that her inner worth is being validated — which allows me to take Kyōko as a ‘real person’ and still see that Madoka’s strength is being shown.

          It is curious that so many people apparently miss on that, judging by the number of criticisms Madoka (not unlike her brother-in-arms, Shinji Ikari) receives for not being very active and spending most of her time crying. You’d imagine that, in both NGE and in Madoka Magica, the very fact that the show concentrates on such characters should give people some food for thought about the adequacy of popular hero tropes. But in many cases it doesn’t.

    • Kyouko is my favourite character in Madoka, when I heard she said “It’d be like one of those stories where love and courage triumphs”, I instantly knew that she has given the game away. Still I desperately wished that she could win, probably there will be another plot twist, although I knew it’s impossible. And Kyouko didn’t trust in her own words neither, as she wasn’t brave enough to check whether the grave seed will miraculously become soul gem.

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