Oh Madoka… I have always had fairly mixed feelings about the series that have added up to a rather more neutral impression than most folks. Overall I still consider it a good show but I’m not quite sure I see in it all the things the majority of fans seem to. Admittedly I have only seen the original anime series and none of the movies or manga, but to me it always seemed a little…unrealized.
Of course I’m probably wrong about that. The series’ ongoing popularity and the undeniable mark its left on the medium in general is proof that it was something special indeed. Also Kyubei is and always will be best evil Pokemon… spoiler. Actually while I have you here, spoilers galore. I’m going to talk about some big old Puella Magica Madoka plot twists, beware. I’m sure no one has ever done that before. If you haven’t seen the show…please forget about that Kyubei thing. He’s not really a Pokemon…
As I was saying, Madoka has a huge amount of potential. It’s absolutely packed with fascinating elements but between the half dozen plot twists and shocking reveals, the tons of characters, the complicated universe with its own unique assortment of rules, the 12 episodes end up feeling very cramped and few plotlines are really given a chance to shine. It’s frustrating because you can really see how great it would be to learn more about any of those threads but we’re left we a near taste of what could be. Let me show you what I mean, let’s talk about Sayaka.
Sayaka Miki is Madoka’s best friend and her character foil in early episodes. She’s energetic, outgoing and a little brusque, where Madoka’s is quiet, timid and cautious. They complement each other well and the series makes sure to drive the point home by giving Sayaka an all blue color scheme in contrast with Madoka’s pink one.
Sayaka is introduced to the world of Magical girls at the same time as Madoka and her eagerness to take on the role in the hope of bringing about positive change is instrumental in convincing Madoka to follow suit. Unfortunately, it’s that very same deep rooted idealism that leads Sayaka to harsh disillusionment, causing her to lose herself and become a witch. This moment represents the moral shift in the series, forcing Madoka and the audience to re-examine their preconceived notions on the nature of magical girls, heroism, right and wrong and really everything we thought we knew…
It’s a pivotal plot point that has certainly made an impact but for me, it always felt emotionally shallow. In order for the entire narrative to neatly fit into the allotted number of episodes, this reveal has to come at roughly the mid way mark as there is still a whole lot of story to tell. Furthermore, the initial hook required the audience to care at least somewhat about Mammie while the ultimate resolutions is only satisfying if we’ve built up enough of a connection to both Himura and Madoka’s, and their relationship has been thoroughly fleshed out.
As a result, everyone else’s character development is pushed to the sidelines. That girl with the ponytail and tragic backstory – don’t remember her name. Their non magical girl friend, you know, whatsherface… Sayaka does fare marginally better than the extras but in my opinion she simply doesn’t get the chance to grow beyond spunky best friend archetype. So when her downfall comes, I cared about the plot implications but not about the character that much. I wasn’t heartbroken by any means and carelessly moved on to the next plot point as if nothing had happened.
This isn’t good though. Madoka doesn’t really go into that much detail about its lore or sci-fi aspects. It has some great fight scenes but not enough to call it an action anime. What ties the series together, and its biggest selling point, is the raw visceral impact it has on it’s audience. Yet, when the best friend and sunny happy genki girl got viciously cut down before our very eyes, I just shrugged.
It’s not only that Sayaka was a virtual stranger to me, there’s also a saturation problem to deal with. A lot of stuff happens in Puella Magica Madoka, and I mean A LOT. By episode 6 I’d already had 4 shocking reveals, three surprisingly gory and uncomfortably cruel scenes and at least one betrayal. What’s one more grim twist at this point. Not to mention that I hadn’t been given a chance to catch my breath or a reason to crack a smile since this whole ordeal started. I was a little exhausted. It makes it harder to care…
Not that it was all bad mind you. As a plot device, Sayaka does her job superbly. She lets us in on yet another convoluted layer of the narrative in a way that’s both dynamic and organic. She gives Kyubei a perfect excuse to go on an exposition dump without it feeling forced and she is faithful to her role as a tool to the very end, as Kyubei appears even more callous and inhuman by remaining unmoved by the situation.
Unlike my usual character posts I don’t particularly like Sayaka. I don’t dislike her either. I simply don’t know her. What I do know is that Madoka is a good show that was just a few episodes short of being fantastic. But it overreached a bit and found itself wavering under the weight of it’s own ambition. And that’s incredibly obvious when you look at the character of Sayaka. She is a character entirely created to serve the plot and there simply wasn’t enough time to make her into a complete person. She deserved better than to be reduced to a simple device and Madoka would have been a better show for it.
26 thoughts on “Sayaka, We Hardly Knew Ya”
I actually really like how Madoka handles its characters and while yes, they are all servants of the plot and Madoka’s narrative, they serve their purpose and each has enough shape about them that I became attached. I much prefer this style of story telling to shows that spend episodes with very little happening for the sake of introducing a character and their story just to eventually kill them off and hope that I will care. It wasn’t really Sayaka’s death that mattered here so much as Madoka’s reaction to the death, and that was where the impact hit home.
I had the opposite reaction. I didn’t care at all about the characters and that detracted from the story
Bloat is a huge peeve of mine, and a big reason I’m not really all that into anime. Madoka is anything but bloated, as you pointed out, and that’s probably why it’s one of the few series I liked. I love the density of its narrative.
But, I think the reason Sayaka comes off as so flat (and I agree with you) is that she’s set up as the prototypical magical girl/Kyubei victim. She’s a regular girl who takes the deal so she can make a silly little-girl wish and ends up destroyed. Not like Mami or Kyoko who used the wish to get out of legitimately bad situations and don’t even seem to have too much trouble living on borrowed time. Sayaka is sort of a stand-in for Kyubei’s typical target, of course she comes off as being sort of generic.
That’s actually a fantastic point. I hadn’t considered it that way and it puts the character in a whole different perspective. Thanks. I still think it lessens the emotional impact of the downfall but as a utilitarian character she is very effective.
Huh. I learned something!
So much feels
It’s hard to get around them, right?
For a show like this
I was trying to think of what to say here for a while and all I can say is that a lot of Urobuchi’s series are short. This show is definitely not as fleshed out as it could be and I agree with you. It’s good, just as amazing as people think it is. I can also say that I love Psycho Pass as well, but at 22 episodes and a movie with no sequel seasons at all, it does explore the world but not as well as it could be. (Maybe that’s because I’m comparing it to Stand Alone Complex which is the series that I prefer?)
Thank you for your concern. She’s been having some dental work done, so it’s not much fun for anyone, but today was pretty much just checking on work already done.
Now, back to Kyouko: after Madoka ditched Sayaka for Mami’s glamour, it was Kyouko who found and valued her. Moreover, she fell for her. Ship this or ship that, I don’t care–Kyouko fell hard for the feisty girl who wouldn’t be bested a second time, be it in love or battle. And so it was to Sayaka that Kyouko offered her real self: the frightened, guilt-ridden child; the temperamental predator; the lonely, aloof warrior; and, perhaps out of place with those others, the supportive lover.
And that leads back to comment about Kyouko’s being the purest sacrifice portrayed in the original series. Homura’s love for Madoka led her into an existence of perpetual sacrifice for Madoka’s sake, but one based (initially, at least) upon a sense of obligation. Furthermore, her sacrifice made no room for what Madoka herself wanted. Mami’s sacrifice wasn’t so much a sacrifice (intentional) as a miscalculation. And Madoka’s ultimate sacrifice of her humanity into godhood rings rather hollow to my old Irish blood. We Irish were never much for institutional loyalty, being much more prone to personal loyalty. And while Madoka offered herself in order to save all the magical girls–and ergo all the witches whom they fought–it became an impersonal sacrifice for an ideal, not for any individual. In my mind, the impersonality of it robs it of a certain claim to purity.
Kyouko sacrificed herself to save the soul of her fallen friend and lover. Whereas Sayaka’s suicide was based in despair and hurled her soul into reincarnation as a witch, Kyouko deliberately instigated her own death–clearly suicide–in a blaze of love and reunion, hoping that by doing so she might overpower Sayaka’s despair and reclaim her soul from its torment. Hoping to do so. She had no guarantees, but was willing to give her life on the chance–the chance–that her sacrifice could save the person whom she most loved in all the world. In my own mind, there can be no worthier motive, no purer sacrifice. It crushed me when Madoka pulled her little “look at me, I’m a goddess, now!” bullsh_t and nullified Kyouko’s beautiful, powerful act of love. Yeah, Madoka, you screwed Sayaka over again, didn’t you? Cast her away as your bestie, then couldn’t even let her have someone else care enough about her to act on it. You selfish, vainglorious cow!
Anyway, off-topic a bit at the end, but I truly loved Kyouko’s character, and it still upsets me the way her sacrifice was made to be made for naught. Kyouko was and remains the real deal!
Now, this is interesting. I think Madoka‘s story telling is very good, though not perfect (pacing being the most obvious problem – I agree they need more time, but not all that much – and that some of the elements were a bit undercooked). It’s interesting that you say you’re a big fan of Urobochi. I’m not. I haven’t read any of the Fate novels (though I’ve seen Fate/Zero, and that was pretty good), and most of the other things I’ve seen where he was involved make it hard to tell who’s to blame for what went wrong (often it’s not the writer). I’m not that fond of Psycho Pass; I like the first half, but later it falls apart, and I can’t take the big reveal seriously (not because it’s a bad concept per se, but because all the thought you’d put into the show up to this point was practically meaningless). It’s a fine show, and I’m on the whole positive on it, but I could have done without the last quarter (I also thought the main villain was better as a shadow figure than as a player himself). So, I truly think Madoka contains the best writing, out of all the shows he was involved with.
Second, I find it interesting that you say you hardly knew Sayaka. I find her the best-developed character in the show, and the emotional core of the thematic arc of the story (whereas Homura/Madoka are the bracket that hold it all together and are emotional core of that level). The show used her to explore the system, and made her an idealist, but making her simply an idealist would not have worked. From the get-go, she felt like a conflicted idealist: she wants to be a good girl, and reacts harshly against selfishness. Kyouko is her foil; an ex-idealist who saved her sanity by embracing a darwinist outlook (on the surface). Sayaka couldn’t accept that, and lashed out at her. But in the context of a wish-engine, that’s denying herself. It’s a master-stroke of writing, here: were she really an idealist, she’d be fine with her wish, because her cush got better and that’s all that matters. But she’s the sort of hero who has an ideal world in her head, and gets mad when other people are different. Her true wish is to get together with her crush, but she would never want to be the person who makes a wish like that. Getting together via magic is not a good idea, so she displaces this onto healing him. It’s not a calculated move, and she doesn’t do it to make him feel grateful; she does it because she wants to be a “good girl”. She wants to be kind of person who can selflessly be happy for others, without a reward of her own. And she knows she’s not that, and that’s exactly why she makes the wish. It’s an act of denial. And that’s precicely why Kyouko’s path isn’t open to her: she can’t give in to selfishness.
There’s a complication here, too. Being a hero also requires strength. Early on, we see her admire Madoka’s mum, a carreer woman who makes her way in a world of men. But she doesn’t see the same person Madoka sees, when her mum comes home drunk and needs someone to take care of her and listen to her rants. She sees the role model, but not the human. So she holds herself to impossible standards. So her idea of strength is either based or at least influenced by an example that’s incomplete. Her biggest error is the feeling that a strong person, a just person shouldn’t have bad feelings, or should not give in to them. How do you think she would react to Madoka’s mum, would she be the one, instead of Madoka, to take care of her? I see conflict potential, or maybe disillusion.
So when she learns that her body is no longer “who she is” (she’s now her soul gem), she can’t accept that. There’s a way the world should be, and it’s not like that. The world she wants to protect should also not include sexist assholes on the train, or kind teachers with problems. Has she become this to protect that. When she finally snaps, she’s exhaustedly calm, calling herself an idiot. She’s really always known about her inner conflict, but had no way out.
People like her drive me up the wall, and in fiction they usually annoy me the most out of all. Here I was sympathetic to her all the way through. It’s really not that easy to write a character like that and have me understand and care. But Madoka managed. There was none of that serves-you-right feeling that I often have when idealists fall (it’s hardly ever the extent of my feelings, but it’s usually part of the package). I did genuinely feel bad for her.
Most people would agree with you – it’s definitely Urobochi’s most popular show. I personally had more difficulty relating to these girls I guess
Forgot this. Look at Star Wars for another analogy. Vader was just a witch, a magical boy who gave into his dark side..
I get the matrix reference. My first impression was that the show was a deeper analogy about how organizations can delude someone into thinking they are a hero of justice and then work on their darker side to turn them into a destructive terrorist. If they didn’t convince girls to become magical girls, there’d be no witches.
The part about needing the energy? I didn’t take it literally. Humans are an “energy” source for other humans. Any terrorist organization (or nation-state for that matter) needs hatred to grow. So they create monsters to do hateful things. This creates return hatred which is used to turn more people into monsters and the spiral continues.
Stop looking for magical shortcuts. There will still be misery and unhappiness in the world, just no imaginary villains to go on jihad against. There is no simple monster you can kill and make the world a better place, for there will always be replacements.
Digging even deeper I ran into Nietzsche and this is what he told me.
“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.
And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
To me, that is the existential root of the issue in Madoka. Stop gazing and accept that life isn’t fair. Simply be the best nonmagical person you can be and in the end you will triumph.
Kyubei is, indeed, the most evil of pokemon.
That’s a really great thesis. I should rewatch it with that in mind
Yeah I love this show…
Mainly because it’s so succinct with it’s everything. Could it have been more enjoyable? Definitely.
But I kinda feel that it’s pacing made it much more memorable… it made it feel much more archetypal. While thats usually a bad feeling, I thought it kind of went well Madoka’s role as a savior. Tbh, I didn’t really see her as much of a character either…
Then we had the Rebellion movies which made me reevaluate my view on the series and the role of each character- and it really cemented Madoka as one of my favs. Metafiction is the best icing!
Unfortunately the show didn’t motivate me to seek out more. That central premise was just too…I didn’t like it. It was very Matrix like.
The central premise?
That’s a little vague, so I’m probably misunderstanding you…
Like I personally had issue with the idea that teenage girls were the most emotional people on the planet… But I’m not sure if that’s what you mean.
Was it the entropy thing? I thought that Kyubey’s reasoning was much more terrifying than Fav’s wimpy brand of sadism (MagiPro).
If it wasn’t your thing… I guess I can’t blame you. I’m surprised that I liked it so much myself.
I think that any show that tries to feed me the concept that humans can be used as an energy source better have the math to back it up.
Basically I thought that releasing emotional energy of hissy fits was just too flimsy a motivation for all the events that were happening and just didn’t mesh with the physics we were presented.
Otherwise I agree – Kyubei is best evil pokemon.
Madoka being a strong contender for my all time favourite anime, you can easily guess where I stand on this one. All I can say is that you will find it difficult to get the most out of Madoka if you read and evaluate it as a “nice story”. You know, the kind that presents nice characters in a nice setting and then plays fair as it takes you by the hand and gives you the opportunity to learn all about them.
That’s one form of storytelling, certainly. But you should probably watch/read Urobuchi more like you read Akutagawa Ryuunosuke. Are the characters “well-developed”? Does the story make you feel good and complete? A straight yes is not the answer for those stories. But their singular focus on the author’s internal struggles lets them reach heights other stories can’t. I wouldn’t exchange what was achieved in Madoka for a tame, well-rounded story that other creators can provide.
This said I’m a big fan of Gen Uborochi. Psycho Pass is one of my favorites.
I have also read most of the Fate books written by Urobuchi as well as Uta no Saya. When considering his other works, as well as some of the expositional pacing in Madoka I was under the impression that they may have been a bit rushed to get all the story into the original runtime. I could be wrong, either way great anime.
Thanks for your comment.
Every Madoka episode is bursting at the seams content-wise. I find that a great treat. And I’m unusually grateful for the wicked Shinbou as the director, as I feel the story would crumble under anyone but a mad genius. We know Urobuchi didn’t have much experience with anime scripts at the time, so a lot of the strain was on the execution side of things how to fit and express the story within the limitations of a single anime season.
You have that scene in one of the rehash Madoka movies where they discuss why magical girls don’t just hide in a corner and avoid fighting witches. That wasn’t in the original series and I can just imagine the staff discussion at the time of the original run: “Can we get away without explaining that in-show? They’ll fill in the blanks themselves, right? Because we BADLY need those 60 seconds for scene X”. The idea cracks me up :D.
I don’t see the 12-13ep per cours as anything sacred, so I sure wish there was more leeway in that regard. But there is a perverse pleasure in watching skilled people taking on those limitations. Like making music without proper instruments etc.
“It’s frustrating because you can really see how great it would be to learn more about any of those threads but we’re left we a near taste of what could be.”
I think that’s also part of what makes Madoka great – that they show us that there’s a lot of depth to the world. That’s it’s huge and complicated and bigger than we can follow up on. For I didn’t feel frustrations, I felt eagerness (to know more) and loss (that I couldn’t)….
well I guess you could say that about every sow with underdeveloped characters. It’s nice way to look at things I suppose
That girl with the ponytail and tragic backstory–Kyouko, the most fascinating and tragic character of the group, and the one who made the most pure sacrifice (sorry, Madoka.) Gotta take my wife to doctor’s appt right now, but will resume this later. . .
I hope it goes well.
I look forward to the rest