I’m not an expert in Japanese Anime. When I was young I was a passionate fan of Future Boy Conan and A Little Princess Sarah and I must admit I still have the entire collection… but nothing more. Like the other children, I used to watch Captain Tsubasa, La Seine no Hoshi, Candy Candy, and The Rose of Versailles. During the last ten years I have loved and loved Miyazaki’s movies, but who hasn’t?
However, a couple of weeks ago my best friend told me he had a great piece of work to show me, thus we met at his house and began watching the series. It was Puella Magi Madoka Magica, aired in Japan between January and March 2011 (two episodes were delayed until April because of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami). Between 2012 and 2013 three movies were also released. Each episode of the original series lasted 20 minutes and that evening we watched the first three. I was left speechless. I couldn’t imagine a plot like that and was stunned by the incredible variety of figurative languages. Above all, the narrative structure was fascinating. The plot and drawings were multi-layered and left space to a number of interpretations (psychological, social, religious, etc.).
Art. The first thing you will note about Madoka is the incredible variety of figurative languages. Images are realised mingling several techniques (collage, painting, digital, watercolors, etcetera) and really are dense. They convey a number of meanings and surely reach their best in the “evil” characters, the Witches. Witches are artworks. They are not real characters but the remains of old characters who were destroyed by despair. They are the other side of the coin, the yang of their ying characters. They are mental labyrinths where the human beings get lost. Each witch thus deals with a particular theme and searching the net you will find an exhaustive – and exhausting! – guide to the incredible number of interpretations and symbols.
Places. Places are entirely symbolic, like theatre stages. I was particularly stunned by the school, a majestic white building. It made me think of a sacred place like the Taj Mahal. It shines against the sky at the end of a long white path and no unessential character never appears between the child and the great school. Besides, the interior is a geometrical sequence of transparent classrooms which resemble golden cages…
Scenes. Scenes are symbolic as well, even if you can’t catch everything at the first watching. I was particularly fascinated by a scene at the end of the series. Madoka’s mother speaks with Madoka’s teacher in an extraordinary location. They are at the counter of a huge pub. You dominate the entire room and see them from the back, then the camera get closer and in the end shows you some close-ups. For a bunch of seconds, if you pay attention, you can see that the room is lit by two great lights. On one side you have a red light, on the other everything is lit in blue. You can see some captures here:
Tragedies have already started to happen in the secret world of children and this is the very moment when adults have to face them. It is clear that you are witnessing a titanic comparison between two kinds of woman. On your left you see a successful career woman – coldly lit in blue – while on your right there is the funny, frustrated, feminist teacher… apparently a loser but warmly lit in red. It is a moving moment, because they both lack the capacity to understand the sense of the tragedy. They know they are irremediably too adult to unravel the mystery and have to rebuild their vision of the world. It is then worth saying that in Madoka the 99% of characters are women. Madoka is about women above all.
Religion and Philosophy. Religion in Madoka is both metaphorically and concretly referred to. I surfed the net and read that Madoka is a sort of “answer” to another famous anime, Evangelion. I haven’t watched it yet so I won’t cover this point for the moment. However, Madoka undoubtedly is a Christ figure and Homura surely transforms herself in a devil, but I was more fascinated by the philosophical interpretations of the dicotomy. In fact, “Holy” and “devil” also are psychological interpretations. The girls clearly come to represent a sort of ying-and-yang couple which unavoidably constitutes the essence of the human condition. If Madoka transforms herself in a deity – Hope – in order to save her friends from despair, in the reality she also generates despair because Homura – who remembers her – cannot reach her. I couldn’t help thinking of Harry Potter... Voldemort is condemned to damnation because he has split his soul in order to gain eternity. He is our narcissistic self but also our incapacity to accept the end of life and love.
Homura and her Paradise Lost. Homura surely is the most interesting and complex character. She condemns herself to damnation because she cannot accept both the death of the object of her love and to belong to a cynical universe. We immediately identify ourselves with Homura. She cannot give up thus she endlessly comes back to the past just to find the way to change the future. She is our loving self. And as we all know too well, to love is to create a universe. The object of love really is a deity who can change the laws of the universe, like Madoka. Our parameters, our evaluation of reality, our expectations… everything changes if we love. Thus, this Christ figure called Love and Hope can also be considered as something even more intangible and philosophical. It is our true self, our memory of paradise… something we cannot accept to lose. Obviously, it is not by chance that tragedies like the story of Madoka and Homura take place at the beginning of adolescence.
Depression. Sometimes Madoka clearly speaks of depression as well, in particulary in the third movie, The Rebellion. Trying to build a gentler universe, Homura ends up harboring too much pain, loneliness, and despair. Her soul gets lost but she cannot transform herself in a witch because she has come back to the past too many times. Too many times has she broken the law trying to regain her love, she thus turns up in a separate world, a mental prison that is worse than death itself. Like Voldemort, she has lost a piece of her soul each time she has refused the rules.
I think Madoka is a great and ambitious work of art. Just watch it without expectations, because it will break each and every preconceptions. It won’t entertain you. Like the best stories of the human history, it will slap you in the face and then give you a new perspective. You can find the entire series on the net both in English and Italian.