Puella Magi Madoka Magica, the anime event of the decade, has come and gone. Speculation regarding the finale will rage on far longer than the show's compact broadcast period, and the next generation of creators will hold its influence close to their hearts. Will it prove to surpass Evangelion, as frenzied fans had clamored?
As Kyubey promised Madoka as he persuaded her to form a pact, "You have the power to change the rules." But before we understand the potential impact caused by Madoka, we need to understand where the rules stand, and to do that we'll explore the concept of chara and character.
A chara exists as an icon composed of visual shortcuts. The success of a chara lies in their moe value, or lovability. Chara represents marketability. Hello Kitty is the ideal chara—A simple yet instantly recognizable design, cute as a button, and with no context outside of the fact that she is Hello Kitty.
In contrast, a character can exist independently of their context. They develop a sense of presence and verisimilitude through their actions that allows them to continue on after the text concludes. A strong character has a clear worldview and personality.
Shinji Ikari, despite his flaws, or rather precisely because of them, is a solid character. He may not give the audience what they want, but the fact that his ambivalence is frustrating to us shows an emotional attachment. We want to see him succeed, do well, and overcome himself. The drama of the series rides on the personal investment we make. If we don’t care about the character, the plot falls flat.
With his ten-dollar haircut and reserved personality, Shinji was designed to be an everyman. And while this helps us project ourselves onto him and form the necessary emotional bond, it hurts his marketability. He has no chara. He’s got no zazz, no visual punch. Shinji’s got no moe. Which brings me to my next point:
It does not follow that a strong character be a strong chara. Fully developed characters may lack the elegance that makes a chara compelling enough for a consumer to purchase their goods. Likewise, a chara may have no redeeming features as a character, but be iconic enough to move a product based solely in their design.
Pokemon stands at the pinnacle of chara recognition. What they lack in personality they make up in moe factor. You’d have to make a concerted effort not to like them. The "Who’s That Pokemon?" segment that bookends commercials proves their primal appeal. We can pick them out by silhouette alone, a useful skill when navigating the toy isle filled with products jockeying for our attention.
But a mishmash of personality quirks doesn’t make a character worthy of investing emotional capital. Characters are built on the internal consistency and believability of their actions.
How do the magical girls of Madoka Magika perform under a similar stress test?
There’s the irrationally exuberant best friend Miki, the busty older-sister Mami, the bratty candy-chomping kid sister Kyoko, the taciturn tsun-tsun Homura, and the ditzy heroine Madoka destined for great things by mere virtue of her status as the main character.
No one could blame you for closing your browser in disgust after the first episode. Hell, after the first ten minutes!
But then you’d miss the greatest slight of hand ever attempted in anime. Once they make their initial impression on the audience, these genre tropes are sided out for a deck of ironic punishments dealt out with wickedness and pathos not seen since the Divine Comedy.
Miki plunges from the height of hope to self-destructive despair; Mami’s role as a mentor meets a Faust-like end after achieving true happiness; Kyoko’s snacking cements her fate as human cattle chewing it's cud; Homura’s detached nature stems from the trauma of watching her friends die agonizing deaths ad nausea as reward for attempting to save them; Madoka is erased from existence, her memory as forgotten as her impact during life.
The inherit limits of their chara give way to relatable characters. You stare in awe as the dull chrysalis splits into a dazzling butterfly. Will it survive to take flight, or be crushed on the stalk as it waits helplessly for its newfound wings to harden? The death of a character hits twice as hard, weighted with the impact of lost potential. There is a romanticism in that—You mourn what the character could have been, and never lament the failure they became.
A show like Madoka wouldn’t have been possible twenty, or even ten years ago. Not due to a lack of creative vision or technology, but because the infrastructure wasn’t there—No moe database means no pre-fabricated chara, which means no expectations to betray, no twist of the knife, and no subsequent drama.
Madoka is the end result of everything that has come before her, all the reiterations of the same settings, all the repeated players acting out their lives in slightly divergent ways.
Now ask yourself: For the length of this article, have I been referring to Madoka the heroine, or Madoka the TV series?
Both. I argue that the series and character are one and the same, and should be viewed as such. Allow me to explain.
One of Madoka’s central themes is karma, the idea that all past actions (causes) define our present self (effect). A great miracle will result in equally great despair. The life of the universe expands itself into dead entropy. All sums cash out at zero. Madoka’s god-like powers were further augmented each time Homura spun the wheel of Samsara—the Buddhist cycle of life, death, and reincarnation
In the same way, the artistic impact of the show itself is amplified by everything that’s come before it—years and years of magical girl nonsense and moe tripe. The karma of the industry. How is it that Madoka exploded like a supernova when it should have collapsed under its own weight like a black hole?
Recall what Madoka’s mother said in Episode six in reference to Miki—make your best mistakes when you’re young and still have the energy to bounce back from them. And more importantly, if I may add—when you can still learn from them. Past errors pave the way to future greatness. Suffering under the yoke of moe was a burden necessary to till the soil for Madoka to bud forth. Ten years spent enduring hellfire in the crucible of Akiba-Kei anime proved to be well worth the suffering. The industry still has a bright future ahead of it, if we’re willing to pay the price.
Does this make her, and by association the anime, a martyr? Not a chance. Especially because her noble sacrifice, the so-called Deus ex Madoka that has the interwebs clamoring with speculation, was not a sacrifice at all.
Step back and consider for a moment exactly what quality it was that Homura’s time warps brought out in Madoka. It wasn’t some ill-defined strength or gimmicky super power. It was her inherent love, her compassion that could relieve the suffering of all sentient beings in the universe. When I said that Homura spun the wheel of Samsara I was not being figurative. Homura didn’t reset anything—remember that all sums are equal to zero—she merely carried everything equal steps backwards, the karma of each character weighed only heavier on their shoulders with each reincarnation, resulting in an increasingly tragic scenario with each go.
This notion can help us find solace in the otherwise heart-wrenching scene at the end of the series between Homura and Madoka’s would-be-family. The mother quips, “Madoka? Is that some anime character?” This line could as easily either make your bottom lip quiver or be dismissed as a 4th-wall breaking throw away gag that production house Shaft is infamous for. Yet there’s so much more to it.
The mother and son are stand-ins for the audience. People in the real world are having this exact same conversation as you read this. “You don't know Madoka? You need to see it!” Five years from now critics will be saying, “That's so Madoka.”
Madoka has transcended chara and character. She is a now a key word, free from the limitations of the medium and liberated to spill over into our word