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Being a (Magical) Girl is Suffering: Body and Identity Crisis in Puella Magi Madoka Magica

English 312 Final Project, March 15, 2012
by

Galadriel Brown

on 2 June 2013

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Transcript of Being a (Magical) Girl is Suffering: Body and Identity Crisis in Puella Magi Madoka Magica

In her chapter on Ghost in the Shell, Susan Napier invokes "Donna Haraway's vision of the cyborg as a creature without human limitations." Although not cyborgs per se, the magical girls in Madoka have been freed from human limitations through the dislocation of their soul, the seat of their identities, from their human bodies, effectively rendering them into fighting machines. Kyubey explains this to Madoka and Kyoko (while Homura chases down the truck to retrieve Sayaka's Soul Gem), with its usual frozen smile and unblinking eyes (Fig. 9). Sayaka's body is effectively dead, only controlled by the relative presence of the Soul Gem, which is where the soul and personality of Sayaka actually resides. The soul unrestrained by the body is better capable of utilizing magic, Kyubey explains while in turn the body unrestrained by the soul is more effective in combat, as it feels less pain and is less vulnerable to damage, which can be healed easily with magic. He goes so far as to describe their bodies as "big robots." When Madoka and Kyoko express horror at this revelation, Kyubey reacts with confusion. "Why do humans care so much where their souls are?" Being a (Magical) Girl is Suffering:
Body and Identity Crisis in Puella Magi Madoka Magica A number of the films reviewed in class this quarter had a particular emphasis on female identity in a variety of situations. Whether it was the persona-shifting dream goddess in Paprika, or the hesitant shoujo Chihiro in Spirited Away, or the soul-searching cyborg Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. In any iteration, the female character was in a state of separation, from reality, from her home and family, or from her human body. The posthuman nature of the cyborg and arguably the dream goddess—as a separate and unrestrained entity free of physical constraint and corporeal presence not unlike Kusanagi after leaving her mechanical body for the Net—raises questions concerning the connection of feminine identity and subjectivity to the feminine body. These questions are perhaps best addressed by examining a new subject, the 12-episode anime series Puella Magi Madoka Magica and the body and identity of the "magical girl." Puella Magi Madoka Magica was a joint project between producers Shaft and Aniplex, directed by Akiyuki Shinbo (known for his work on Hidamari Sketch and Bakemonogatari) and released in early 2011. Initially, the series was marketed without any indication of its actual plot, presenting the character designs with simplified details and the general suggestion of the magical girl trope. In the trailer posted by Aniplex (Fig. 1), little information is offered other than the description of main character Madoka Kaname as an eighth grader with a normal life, followed by brief flashes of other primary characters. Crunchyroll columnist dai_loli recalls the initial release of the series, with little to go on other than these vague trailers, official artwork, and a few quotes. "Some early reviews were already shrugging it off as just another forgettable magical girl anime with great style and production values, but no substance. Nothing could prepare us for the spiral into despair that was to come[.]" The twelve-episode series was set to lull viewers into a false sense of security, and poised to pull the carpet out from under both them and the mahou shoujo (magical girl) genre. Figure 1: Puella Magi Madoka Magica trailer, Aniplex USA Mahou shoujo is a sub-genre generally falling under the shoujo (for-girls) demographic umbrella, and is most notably recognized and represented by the hit manga and anime series Sailor Moon. Magical girls are identifiable primarily through the typical "transformation sequence" in which her special abilities become apparent and her clothing transforms into a stylish combat uniform (Fig. 2). Tasteful nudity tends to be a favorite element of the magical girl transformation, and it is not unusual for the transformed girl to appear older or more physically mature than her mundane counterpart. As epitomized by Sailor Moon, the role of the magical girl is that of a hero defending the world against evil with the ultimate powers of friendship and love. Stories in this genre tend to emphasize cooperation and teamwork, as most magical girls work in a group of their peers. Figure 2: Mami Tomoe's Transformation Sequence Puella Magi Madoka Magica opens with what might be a lace-trimmed curtain (or a lace-trimmed skirt) drawing aside, rendered in cutout-style animation that becomes a key element of the series' visual landscape. The main character, Madoka, navigates a warped hallway, climbing a set of stairs to open an emergency exit door and finds herself suddenly on the precipice of an apocalyptic battle, a huge hourglass-shaped monster hovering over a ruined city. Madoka watches as another girl attempts to battle the creature, only to be beaten back. Horrified, Madoka asks, "Can someone like me really make a difference? Can I avoid this outcome?" and as if on cue a strange, disturbingly cute creature resembling both a cat and a rabbit, smile permanently affixed to its face, assures her that she can stop it. "Make a contract with me, and become a mahou shoujo!" Note: The term "mahou shoujo" was translated in the subtitles as "puella magi," the Latin equivalent of "magical girl." Figure 3: Kyubey, Episode 1 Madoka wakes up from her dream, but soon discovers that the girl she was dreaming about is Homura Akemi, a transfer student at her school. She meets the cat-rabbit creature, who introduces itself as Kyubey (Fig. 3), as well while Homura is hunting it down, and shortly afterward she and her friend Sayaka unwittingly wander into a "Witch's Labyrinth," a nightmarish landscape rendered in cutout-style animation (Fig. 4). They are rescued by another magical girl, Mami, who has made a contract with Kyubey and explains her role to Madoka and Sayaka. Magical girls, she says, are contracted in exchange for a single wish, which can be anything they desire. In exchange, they must spend their lives fighting Witches to protect the world from their negative energies—cited as being the cause of suicides, disease and misfortune. Mami encourages the two girls to accompany her on a few missions, acting as their mentor and frequently butting heads with Homura, who is intent on convincing Madoka not to make a contract and become a magical girl. Figure 4: Witch's Labyrinth, Episode 1 The plot seems fairly straightforward with only a few gently burning questions, perhaps slightly dark for the genre. Then in episode three Mami is abruptly decapitated and eaten by the second form of a Witch with a disturbing resemblance to the artwork of postmodern pop-artist Takashi Murakami. The series takes an abrupt U-turn, and all bets are off. The plot catalysts in this series lead the girls to interpret and negotiate their identities in a reality that constantly shifts around them. The full extent of this negotiation is well beyond the scope of this paper, and thus it will primarily focus on the positioning of self within a changing worldview, and the comprehension (or lack thereof) of identity within a posthuman body. Reinterpreting the self within a radically altered worldview Reinterpreting the self from human to posthuman In his treatise on his Little Boy exhibit, artist Takashi Murakami writes about the state of the Japanese consumer in his seminal essay "Earth In My Window." "The capitalist economy has become the world's philosophy. It proliferates because it offers the image of a society where life is easy and no one starves. Pleasure motivates everything. People create environments spurred by their own desires. In Japan today, we've nearly perfected a living environment based on consumer supremacy that's very comfortable, easy, and nearly stress-free."1 Murakami is commenting on the two-dimensional nature of Japanese popular culture reflected in the two-dimensional "Superflat" mediums of anime and manga, the illusion of a world freed from suffering by the act of consumption. Personal fulfillment is achieved with material wealth and accumulation of stuff, the instant gratification of convenience stores and discount retail chains. In the world of Madoka, material wealth is the fulfillment of a wish offered by Kyubey, and the full price of that wish, the act of consumption, isn't fully known until much later. It becomes ironically appropriate that the under-informed mentor Mami is in turn consumed by a monster bearing the face of Murakami's art, as if to say, "I told you so." (Fig. 5 & 6) Figure 5: The Witch Charlotte, Episode 3 Figure 6: Homage to Francis Bacon, Takashi Murakami The character Sayaka Miki expresses a similar sentiment midway through episode two, while she and Madoka sit on the roof of the school with Kyubey, pondering what to wish for. Unable to settle on anything she would be willing to exchange her life and future for, Sayaka states, "I think we're just ignorant." At Madoka's confusion, she explains, "We don't have wishes because we don't really know misfortune. We're ignorant because we're spoiled." Sayaka understands her position as a middle-class teenager in a capitalist society, along with Madoka and other girls like them, living in the illusory world free of suffering that Murakami described. Accepting Kyubey's contract would move her into a new system of capital, in which her only form of wealth is her life. She is confronted with this drastic change in identity, and the confrontation itself forces her to face the difficult realities of her comfortable, easy, stress-free life. The realigning world view surrounding the existence of magical girls and witches in turn realigns her personal perspective within the world. The importance of this perspective is highlighted by the mise-en-scene of the world inhabited by the girls. Their daily lives play out in the confines of a huge, ultramodern city with massive architecture and overwhelmingly vast skylines. Use of fisheye-lens techniques in the animation give the backgrounds a sense of engorged endlessness and every room feels unusually spacious, heavily windowed with high ceilings. The characters are constantly dwarfed by their surroundings, emphasizing how big and unknown the world is compared to the nascent young women trying to find their way through it, and ultimately position themselves within it (Fig. 7). Figure 7b: Mitakihara Cityscape Figure 7a: Mitakihara Middle School, rooftop Episode 6 of Puella Magi Madoka Magica laid out a defining moment and staggering plot reveal at the series' halfway point. Sayaka made the decision to accept a contract with Kyubey in exchange for healing her love interest, who had been convalescing from an accident. Her idealist views of being a magical girl lead her to face off against Kyoko and Homura in episode 6; however, Madoka, still an observer and ordinary girl, is concerned for her friend's shifting outlook and safety since her drastic change in identity, from ordinary to magical girl. Preparing to transform, Sayaka summons her Soul Gem, an egg-shaped jewel that acts as a totem and source for the girls' magical powers (Fig. 8), but before she can do anything, Madoka snatches it from her hand and tosses it over the side of a bridge, into the bed of a moving truck. Sayaka reacts with alarm and anger, but then promptly collapses, eyes blank and dead. Figure 8: Sayaka's Soul Gem Figure 9: Kyubey's Explanation, Episode 6 The relocation of the girls' identities from within their bodies to an external sphere in turn moves their sense of self beyond human. Simon Gough observes in his thesis on Puella Magi Madoka Magica and genre transgressions that "The soul gems, far from being a mere tool through which the magical girl uses her power, become inextricable parts of the girls' identities—without their totems, they are unable to function." Kyubey's assertion of the new status of the girls' bodies as mechanical "robots" further infuses their new position in the world as something not only superhuman but posthuman. Separated from her identity as a human girl, Sayaka mourns the loss of her body in episode 7. After letting another friend confess to the boy she'd made a contract to heal, she cries in Madoka's arms. "I'm already dead! A zombie! I can't hold him with this body!" Unable to embrace or tolerate the altered nature of her physical and spiritual selves, Sayaka ultimately gives in to despair, which leads to yet another shocking revelation. Magical girls who become tainted, who lose the will to fight and lose control of their identities, become the very Witches that they were created to destroy (Fig. 10). Figure 10a: Sayaka's Demise Figure 10b: The Witch Oktavia Conclusion As a series, Puella Magi Madoka Magica utilizes the magical girl genre in redefining ways, using shocking realism to undermine the standard tropes and themes within it. In the midst of Sayaka's demise, the false animal guide Kyubey delivers a definitive line of exposition: "Shoujo is an old word that refers to girls who haven't grown up. Since you grow into Witches [majo], it only makes sense to call you mahou shoujo." Kyubey's purpose in creating magical girls is ultimately to generate energy by siphoning the emotions of adolescent girls. His role as "incubator" for the mahou shoujo and their eventual transformation into Witches reflects the equally merciless incubator of patriarchal society that transforms girls into women. In this new interpretation, the feminine experience of growing from girlhood to womanhood is re-established as a process of pain and disappointment, tempered by flashes of hope and potential. The negotiation of identity is apparent in how the characters reinterpret themselves as their understanding of the world changes, first by discovering the possibility of becoming a magical girl, and then by discovering what being a magical girl truly means. By infusing the magical girl narrative with reality, the story becomes subjective to the real-world shoujo, a girl at the cusp between childhood and womanhood, negotiating her identity within an ever-shifting adult world. Bibliography dai_loli. "The Importance of Puella Magi Madoka Magica." Crunchyroll Newsletter. March 5, 2012, accessed on March 6, 2012. http://www.crunchyroll.com/newsletter/2012/03/05/puella-magi-madoka-magica-eerie-atmosphere-of-another-brand-new-anime#1805.

Gough, Simon. "Remember Madoka: Transgressing the Magical Girl." Bachelor's thesis, RMIT University Australia, 2011.

Murakami, Takashi. "Earth In My Window." In Little Boy: The Art of Japan's Exploding Subculture, edited by Takashi Murakami, 99-149. New York: Japan Society, 2005.

Napier, Susan. Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. English 312 Final Project, March 15, 2012
Galadriel (Binx) Brown
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