The Suffering of Innocents in Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Post by
Roberto De La Noval

When Compassion becomes Demonic

 “[M]uch can be taken away and friendship remain, but when one party is removed to a great distance, as God is, the possibility of friendship ceases. This is in fact the origin of the question whether friends really wish for their friends the greatest goods, e.g. that of being gods; since in that case their friends will no longer be friends to them.”

– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1159a 4-7. (Trans. W.D. Ross).

In the much-celebrated chapter “Rebellion” in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov presents his brother Alyosha with a damning indictment of our created reality. It’s not God that he rejects, Ivan tells his brother—the concept of God is in fact so sublime an idea that Ivan thinks perhaps it would have been impossible for humanity to concoct. No, it is rather God’s world, this house of torments where the innocent suffer unutterable brutalities wrought by nature and the haunted dungeons of the human heart. Uninterested in the final and universal reconciliation between victim and perpetrator which Ivan believes Christianity to teach, this God-vexed seeker confesses that he hastens to “return his ticket” to that eschatological harmony, for there is some suffering so profound, some agony so wretched, that the human fist raised to heaven should never find an opportunity to relax: perpetual, eternal hatred of God for our world of woe is the only future a self-respecting soul can permit itself.

But what if God himself entered the fray, become subject to the worst wounds humanity could inflict, and submitted to it all for love? That is the only response Alyosha can muster in the wake of the religious ice bath to which Ivan’s reflections on theodicy have subjected him. Stunned, Alyosha grasps for the image of the crucified God, the one who bore the brunt of human freedom and forgave anyway. We need not detail Ivan’s reply, “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” for this tale is even more famous than the reflections on theodicy that provoke it in the novel. Nonetheless, I wish to dwell momentarily on Alyosha’s answer. It is not so much a rational counterargument—for Alyosha denies none of Ivan’s premises—as it is a symbol meant to make all argumentation halt and stutter. Before the face of this Christ, this God, could you still return the ticket? Would you not accept the bloodied hand extended to you from the tree and eat its fruit, starving as you are for justice and truth? Who could say no to that, to Him?

We are not given in The Brothers Karamazov any further literary elaboration of this rebellion. Ivan thinks it, claims it, but he does not live it. And to that extent, the shock of his “rejection” remains theoretical: gripping, but abstract. The readers can contemplate it but cannot see it through to its bitter end. To depict such a soul in all its pride, self-love, and utter conviction would require literary power of deep, and perhaps diabolical, skill. Remarkably, such a portrayal in fact exists, though to meet it, we must move from the Russian page to the Japanese screen. Allow me to introduce you to Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

Part I: Magical Girls and Christian Theodicy
Madoka (Pink), Homura (Purple), Mami (Yellow), Sayaka (Blue), and Kyoko (Red)

Look into the seemingly frivolous Japanese fantasy genre of mahō shōjo or “magical girl” television shows, and you’ll find a universe of of talking animals, supernatural battles, and demons clawing at the door of the workaday world, eager to unleash terror on the unsuspecting denizens of Japan. “Magical girls” exist to protect our reality from this persistent threat, all while balancing the demands of high school sociality and romantic intrigue. The genre boasts decades of development and inversion as writer upon writer has followed and broken the magical girl storytelling formula. But no series has brought as much critical fanfare to the genre as the 2011 hit Puella Magi Madoka Magica and its film sequel, Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Rebellion.

Tucked into this gorgeously illustrated, emotionally dense, and philosophically productive series is a rich narrative exploration of the problem of suffering, one worthy of entering into conversation with the 19th century archetype of theodical, the chapter “Rebellion” in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov (there is no evidence that the show’s primary writer, the acclaimed Gen Urobuchi, drew on Dostoevsky when writing the series, although Urobuchi’s penchant for having his characters discuss classic works of literature makes this a definite possible).[1] The comparison between the two works becomes even more apt when viewed in light of the “narrative polyphony” the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin noted in Dostoevsky’s work. A similar polyphony of perspectives can be heard in Puella Magi Madoka Magica (henceforth Madoka), particularly in the interplay between the series and the film sequel, Rebellion, that followed it. The music these two make concerns explicitly the philosophical and theological question of theodicy — how to justify God’s goodness in the face of evil and suffering — and especially as this question relates to the suffering of children.

The original series depicts the show’s moral and metaphysical universe as one in which suffering is endemic to human life and must be negotiated, kept at bay, through a system of sacrifice. This can only occur through the sacrifice of the magical girls themselves, who discover—only too late—that the fate of a magical girl is to become the “witches” they spend their lives battling. When the main protagonist, Madoka Kaname, decides to give up her life to stop this endless cycle, she unravels the very fabric of the universe, sacrificing her individual self to bring peace to all magical girls. Her apotheosis saves not just her fellow magical girls, but the audience too, providing the narrative catharsis to the increasing tragedy of the series.

The film sequel to the series, Rebellion, rejects this salvific sacrifice. Here the other protagonist of the series, Homura Akemi, finally gets her say, and her viewpoint is an entire condemnation of the moral logic of that universe which Madoka healed, as well as of her redemptive act itself. Rebellion is Homura’s film through and through; if Madoka’s character is the moral center of the original series, then Rebellion is Homura’s chance to “talk back” to the series, to question the moral validity of its conclusion. It is to this conversation that we as viewers are invited, to decide between the different answers Madoka and Homura offer to the problem of suffering and sacrifice.

Juxtapose Dostoevsky with Madoka, and immediately it becomes apparent how this Japanese series enriches the Christian discussion of theodicy, even if the show’s moral universe is primarily Buddhist and only occasionally—through still significantly—punctuated by Christianity. My task in this essay to prove the theological suggestiveness of the series, particularly to an audience I presume to be unfamiliar with the show. To that extent, this disquisition doubles as an apologia for a Western and theological audience to give a sympathetic look to Japanese animation for theological inspiration and dialogue. Let us turn now to the series and examine the conclusion which Rebellion overturns.

Part II: The Passion of Madoka Kaname
Homura’s Tragic Wish
Homura Akemi

Episode 10 (“I Won’t Rely on Anyone Anymore”) of the series will serve as a good entry into our discussion, for it is in this episode that the audience is finally treated to a fuller vision of Puella’s universe through the narration of Homura Akemi’s backstory. Homura is, first of all, a character of highest tragedy, a fitting companion to Oedipus and others in literature who have rattled the cage of fate only to find its bars unmoving. The tragedy of Homura’s situation becomes clear in Episode 10 as we witness her transformation from anemic and shy schoolgirl to hardened and emotionally cool magical girl. The catalyst of this emotional metamorphosis is, of course, the death of Madoka, Homura’s best friend who sacrifices herself in order to save Homura’s life during the first Walpurgisnacht (the cataclysmic advent of super-witch who besieges their hometown) Homura rejects this sacrifice. Luckily for her, she also possesses, due to her magical girl transformation, the means to perform that rejection on time and space itself. By resetting time, Homura relives again and again the tragic month that leads up to Madoka’s death, with Homura each and every time unable to avert the disaster she lives to undo.

One curious feature worth our attention emerges in this episode’s depiction of Homura’s tragic struggle. Madoka appears to us at the beginning of the episode as a strong, forthright, and full-blooded magical girl — utterly unlike the quiet, insecure, and unsure Madoka viewers have known so far in the show.[2] Homura, on the other hand, appears at the beginning of her story much more like the Madoka we know. It seems an inversion has occurred as a result of Homura’s interference with time: the more Homura attempts to avert Madoka’s cruel end, the more Madoka’s personality diminishes. This is a troubling fact, one which should tip off attentive viewers that Homura’s efforts to undo Madoka’s sacrifice — the consummate act of her fully-formed personality — are tantamount to undoing the very person Homura loves so dearly. Here is our first clear narrative tie between Homura’s actions in the series and her actions at the end of Rebellion. We will have occasion to return to this point later in our discussion.

There is thus a tragic irony in Homura’s heroic, time-traveling endeavors. This irony does not remain merely dramatic, however; it becomes apparent even to the characters in the series. Episode 11 (“The Only Thing I Have Left to Guide Me”) exposes this diegetic reality to viewers and to Madoka when Kyubey—the representative of the higher life forms (“Incubators”) manipulating the magical girls as victims for his economy of sacrifice—at last explains just why Madoka is supremely fit to become a magical girl more powerful than all others. Homura’s repeated undoing of time has compressed the fabric of the universe so much that Madoka has now become its karmic center. And it is this karmic compression which in turn will allow Madoka to make her ultimate sacrifice in Episode 12 (“My Very Best Friend”), a sacrifice far greater than the ones she had made in previous versions of the story, before Homura began writing her revisionist history through time manipulation. In attempting to prevent Madoka from sacrificing herself, Homura has instead enabled this Madoka to die the most perfect and salvific death. In this regard, Madoka’s final farewell to Homura (in the film version of the series, Puella: Eternal )— where she attempts to comfort Homura by telling her that she is the person she is today because of Homura, and that she will not let Homura’s sacrifices be in vain — strikes beautifully both with tragic irony in respect to Homura’s perspective on the matter and with elegance and grace with respect to Madoka’s free embrace of her suffering.

Let us recall the details of this final sacrifice. Madoka, because she is more powerful than any potential magical girl ever, is able to wish for whatever she desires with an absolute assurance of its fulfillment. Her wish: to rewrite the karmic law that magical girls must inevitably become witches and thereby to save all magical girls, and especially her friends, Homura, Sayaka Miki (who had already become a witch and accordingly destroyed), Kyoko Sakura (also dead), and Mami Tomoe (the first magical girl the girls meet, and their mentor whose horrific death in episode 3 indicates the dark tone of what is to come). This more than supernatural wish is only possible, as we have noted, because of Homura’s actions, but this is not the only reason the wish appears grandiose. Consider Madoka’s hesitance throughout the series concerning what to wish for in order to become a magical girl. She simply cannot make up her mind — another sign of her diminished personality compared to the Madoka we meet in Homura’s story in Episode 10. But we can also view this indeterminacy concerning her wish from another angle: Madoka does not know what wish to make because the only wish that can satisfy her self — which, as we have noted, has thinned more and more with each turning back of Homura’s clock — is now a wish that transcends all wishes. And the price of this wish is Madoka’s complete dissolution as a self.

One for Many: The Quest to Save the Individual
Madoka Kaname

It is fitting that Madoka’s wish leads to her dissolution; in some way, Homura’s actions have been working, ironically, precisely towards this end. Yet such a sacrifice is also perfectly consonant with the person Homura loved in Madoka in the first place, a person willing to sacrifice herself for the good of others. Here we return to our discussion of Dostoevsky and his chapter “Rebellion,” particularly with respect to Alyosha’s retort to Ivan that the sacrificial love of God manifest in Christ can render the suffering of the world morally tolerable. In this series, Madoka Kaname is the Christ figure. I will say more in a moment about the particular ways in which Madoka is a Christ figure in a particularly Dostoevskian mode. For now, let us recall the first scene we see in Episode 12 immediately following Madoka’s sacrifice. After Madoka and Homura share an intimate farewell — somewhere and sometime outside of space and time — the scene cuts to Kyosuke Kamijo (the boy whose musical career-ending physical handicap was healed as the wish accompanying Sayaka Miki’s transformation into a magical girl) about to begin his violin recital. He announces to his audience, and to us viewers, that he will be playing “Ave Maria.” This piece immediately contextualizes Madoka’s sacrifice in the interpretive framework of the sacrifice of Christ, the son of the Mary whom Kyosuke’s violin hails. And this is not the first connection we have seen of Madoka and Christ: already in Episode 11, when Kyubey explains to Homura that she is the inadvertent cause of Homura’s immense karmic destiny, we see Madoka stretched out by the ‘threads of fate,’ her small frame making a cruciform shape.[3]

But how is Madoka a Dostoevskian Christ? Not only does she fulfill Alyosha’s requirements—she is completely innocent and she suffers—but Madoka is also a child who offers herself in the place of all others, and especially in the place of her fellow suffering child-magical girls. In this vein we may note that though it is a commonplace that Puella serves as a subversion of the magical girl genre of manga/anime, this does not exhaust our interpretations of the fact that Urobuchi’s magical girls are, well, little girls. It is, after all, because of the suffering of the innocent magical girls — who courageously risk their lives in the fight against witches and whose fate is an assured devolution into the state of witches — that Madoka decides to make her sacrifice. She will offer her life in defiance of the laws of the universe that condemn magical girls to unjust suffering.

The clearest exposition of these laws comes in Episode 11 when Kyubey gives Madoka a tour through the history of magical girls. Kyubey here explains that it was the sacrifice of the magical girls that has allowed human society to flourish without the constant interference of witches: “Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think [the magical girls who gave into despair and died as witches] are foolish. It was thanks to their sacrifices that human society developed as far as it has. It was the suffering of all the magical girls throughout history that laid the foundations of the life you have now. If your civilization benefits from their sacrifice, why should the lives of a few people matter in the grand scheme of things?” Cosmic harmony and growth, therefore, depends on the sacrifice of one for the many. Recall that this is exactly the substance of Ivan’s protest against God and His world in the Brothers Karamazov: the price of freedom and eternal harmony is the suffering of innocent children. Ivan’s lament appears here in a different metaphysical and religious framework, the framework of karmic balance and harmony, but the complaint is the same in both systems. Children ought not to suffer for any greater good.[4]

You Are Now a Concept: Madoka’s Karmic Kenosis

Madoka’s sacrifice will rewrite the world such that magical girls no longer become witches. In this way, she overcomes the cosmic karmic system and the Incubators with it. She bypasses the Incubator’s trick of offering a girl a ‘regular’ wish and thereby sacrificing the girl’s life in order to keep propped up the entire system of sacrifice (what I will henceforth call “The System”). “I want them [the magical girls] to be at peace. If that goes against the laws of the universe, then I’ll just rewrite those laws.” Madoka’s sacrifice, then, is the end of sacrifice. But this means as well that her sacrifice will have consequences as unique for her as they are for the universe. In the first place, Madoka’s sacrifice frees magical girls through Madoka’s newfound divine powers. Kyubey identifies Madoka’s wish as an attempt to “violat[e] the laws of cosmic destiny” and to “become a god.” Through her wish, Madoka does indeed become the god Alyosha spoke of, the innocent one who sacrifices himself for the sake of all. Her sacrifice’s redemptive and substitionary character finds best expression in the sequence in which we witness Madoka visiting magical girls throughout history and rescuing them before they transform into witches. She speaks kindly to them words of good cheer; “I will take your burden,” “I will take your pain.” In this new universe, magical girls, instead of becoming witches when their Soul Gems accumulate too much despair, simply pass into the afterlife. Such is the fate of Sayaka, whose new death we witness in Episode 12 and the significance of which death only Homura—who was witness to Madoka’s deification—can truly understand.

Homura remains the only magical girl with knowledge of the previous timeline of Episodes 1–11, which means that she is the only person alive who remembers Madoka. This is because Madoka’s sacrifice entailed not simply physical death, but the complete eradication of personal existence alongside the death of her body. The magical girl Mami notes the severity of this sacrifice when she notes that “dying would be a kinder fate.” Stricken from memory, Madoka’s apotheosis means the end of her narrative identity. To her family and her friends she will be but a name, a vague memory forever far away and yet always on the tip of their tongues. Kyubey judges her to not exist personally any longer: “Your physical body is no more. You are now a concept.” Mami agrees: “You have become hope itself.” By rewriting the universe through her death, Madoka has become the new System — the “Law of Cycles,” as she is frequently called in the film sequel Rebellion.

One of the most satisfying aspects of this conclusion to Puella is the dawning realization of defeat in the character of Kyubey. The chief mouthpiece of the former System and the clearest identifiable ‘villain’ of the show, Kyubey is at first shocked by Madoka’s subversive wish, but his shock does not last long. In a conversation between Kyubey and Homura in the wake of Madoka’s sacrifice, Kyubey shows Homura a massive comet zooming through the realms of space, which comet he names the “existence that is Madoka Kaname.” This is Madoka’s new Soul Gem, and as such it is destined — so Kyubey believes — to eventually destroy another universe with all the curses from this world it has stored up in itself, through Madoka’s one act of saving all magical girls. Kyubey’s smug satisfaction, however, is shattered with Madoka’s appearance in her full regalia as the ultimate Magical Girl and her riposte that her wish to save all magical girls means that she has also saved herself. This is Kyubey’s ultimate defeat, and we witness its full effects at the end of the episode when we find Homura explaining to Kyubey that, in another timeline, Incubators were able to steal energy from magical girls who inevitably became witches. Kyubey is extremely intrigued by this idea, but he cannot decide whether Homura is telling the truth or whether she has simply cooked up this idea in her head.

The final moments of the show make Madoka’s non-existence most clear even while it raises the possibility that her sacrifice has left traces of her identity in the new world she has created. Near the end of Episode 12, Homura stumbles upon Madoka’s young brother, Tatsuya Kaname, drawing a stick figure of Madoka in the sand and repeatedly calling her name. Homura warmly recognizes the drawing, and this recognition invites Madoka’s mother, Junko Kaname, to ask Homura: “Wait, do you know who Madoka is? Is she some kind of anime character?…I don’t know why, but when I heard that name I started getting all nostalgic. Madoka…” Here Madoka’s transformation into a concept transcends even the boundaries of the show through Junko’s ironic quasi-breaking of the fourth wall. We as viewers are to remember Madoka not as an individual, but as a concept, as the show’s conclusion itself produces a certain kind of nostalgia in us, the same nostalgia Madoka’s sacrifice has left in the hearts of her friend and family.

And yet, as we have seen through the interaction between Homura and Madoka’s baby brother, there remains some ambiguity at the end of the series finale as to whether Madoka is truly gone. Homura finds herself still able to communicate, nebulously, with some entity recognizable as Madoka. We see this communication first in the moments after the final sacrifice: a naked and frightened Homura appears on the screen only to be embraced by an equally naked Madoka. Homura comes to understand the effect of Madoka’s sacrifice, and in response to her protests that she will never see Madoka again, that she will never sense Madoka again, Madoka assuages her fears: “It’s too soon to give up.” Even if all others forget Madoka, Homura will remember her and know her presence. As a token of such hope, Madoka undoes her two hair ties and gives the red ribbons as a gift to Homura — an exact reversal of Homura’s own hair untying in Episode 10, during which Homura pronounces “No one will believe me about the future. No one will accept the truth about the future.” This is when Homura “turns cold” and becomes the Homura we know throughout the series. For Homura, then, the undoing of her braids represents the abandonment of hope about the future; she must take the future into her own hands. For Madoka, her free hair (which will become flowing and regal at the moment she finally defeats Kyubey) symbolizes the confidence that the past will continue into the future as Homura’s memory. We can therefore read this gift as Madoka’s final request that Homura become the person she used to be, before she lost herself in despair. That the final, post-credits scene of the series finale shows Homura fighting the new curses of the world, wraiths, with Madoka’s ribbon snugly in her hair, suggests that she will indeed fulfill Madoka’s wish, at last accepting Madoka’s sacrifice and the world Madoka has created. We have every reason to hope, for the last thing we hear in the show is Madoka’s voice urging Homura on, “Do your best.”

Part III: Returning the Ticket
Divided Consciousness: Homura’s Labyrinthine Soul[5]

The reading of the series offered above can, as I have argued, be identified with the perspective of Alyosha Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s chapter “Rebellion.” Just as with Christ’s sacrifice in Alyosha’s world, Madoka’s sacrifice makes the world of sacrifice morally livable (by literally remaking the world). And yet the thought may have already dawned on the reader: the economy of sacrifice in some sense remains precisely through Madoka’s sacrifice, and so, even though no new magical girls will be sacrificed by becoming witches, Madoka’s world remains one in which the individual must be sacrificed for the many. Is Madoka’s sacrifice therefore not simply a restatement of Kyubey’s perspective, but condensed into the sacrifice of only one magical girl instead of all of them?

It is this interpretation of Madoka’s death that propels Homura Akemi’s rebellion in the film sequel to the series. Homura’s rebellion can be read as a version of Ivan Karamazov’s own “Rebellion” against Alyosha’s moral vision of sacrifice. Before entering into our analysis, however, it will be helpful to summarize the film briefly. Viewers begin the film immersed in a similar but altered Puella universe, one in which the magical girls we know from the series are alive and well, fighting together as the “Puella Magi Holy Quintet” (in scenes highly reminiscent of Sailor Moon, no less). Madoka, Sayaka, Homura, Kyoko, and Mami battle ‘Nightmares’ (new monsters which have replaced both the witches and wraiths we know from the series), drink tea in the afternoon, and go to school together. Life is perfect. Too perfect, in fact, and this leads Homura to begin questioning whether the girls are trapped in some fantasy world. Eventually she comes to the realization that they are indeed locked in a witch’s labyrinth, and the final revelation — for Homura and for us viewers — is that Homura herself is the architect of this labyrinth: she has become the witch par excellence. (The mechanics of how this is possible in light of the conclusion to the series we leave for the viewer to learn by watching the film). Madoka, seeing the suffering of Homura as she descends into witchhood, descends momentarily into the world — as an individual — in order to rescue Homura. Precisely at this moment, however, Homura snatches Madoka’s wrists, pulling Madoka from the divine realm and beginning the process of re-writing the universe’s laws once again.[6] This is her rebellion against Madoka’s universe — this is Homura, like Ivan, ‘returning her ticket’ to Madoka’s world — and the film ends with Madoka, Sayaka, Kyoko, and Mami trapped in the world which Homura, the new demonic god, has created.

This is the twist ending that has occasioned ‘a fan rebellion,’ with viewers crying foul at the supposed inconsistency between the Homura of the series and the Homura of this film. I find this purported ‘inconsistency’ is exaggerated and mistaken. Let us point out first that the Homura we meet in her own labyrinth (whom we may call ‘Labyrinthine Homura’) is completely of a piece with the Homura we knew from the series. Labyrinthine Homura’s frustration with her growing realization that she and the girls are inside a witch’s labyrinth; her insistence on uncovering the truth in spite of repeated warnings that she may not like the truth she uncovers; her anguish at discovering that she is the witch in whose labyrinth she is trapped; her desperate requests to Madoka to let her die within her own labyrinth — all these converge to heighten the sense of tragedy laced through Homura’s entire story, from Puella through to Rebellion.[7] Most movingly, in her protests against the Incubators who made her into a witch, Labyrinthine Homura recalls that she first became a magical girl in order to save Madoka, and thus she will not allow the Incubators to use Madoka after they have lured her into Homura’s Soul Gem. In response to Kyubey’s question of whether she is willing to die as a witch and give up her own salvation (granted to her by Madoka’s sacrifice) in order to save Madoka, Labyrinthine Homura answers with a resounding yes. All these observations suggest that Homura despises the intentions of the Incubators who are using Homura to break the ‘Law of Cycles’ in order to create witches (creatures, ironically, whom the Incubators could not even imagine until Homura explained them to Kyubey in the final episode of Puella).

Do Homura’s protestations and actions finally prove false and manipulative when Homura becomes not Madoka’s savior but her prison-master? The terrifying, small smile that plays on Homura’s lips the moment she grips Madoka’s wrists threatens to undo the entire film that has come before it. It is Homura, and not the Incubators, who exploits Madoka’s goodness and pity in order to lure her from the depths of her new divine existence back towards the vulnerability of suffering individuality. Homura, in the final moments of the film, outwits the Incubators, making them pawns in her game, though in the process she has rendered herself the very object of Labyrinthine Homura’s hateful reproaches.

This is the radical break in character that critics have found in Homura’s actions at the end of Rebellion. In making this judgment, they miss the broader clues in Homura’s characterization in the series, as well as the sustained discussion of the validity of sacrifice in order to keep suffering at bay. We have already detailed some of this broader background necessary for interpretation; let us now sharpen our analysis in order to show the narrative coherence between the ending of Rebellion and all that has come before. We can begin with the question of sacrifice.

The End of Sacrifice

We have noted Madoka’s return to individual existence in the course of Rebellion. This return happens first in the fantasy world inside Homura’s Soul Gem, when Madoka, attracted by the sufferings of Homura, is drawn into her labyrinth in an attempt to rescue her before she becomes a witch. This is, after all, Madoka’s new, divine role as the new structure of the universe, the ‘Law of Cycles,’ as Kyubey calls Madoka. This (re)-incarnation of Madoka into individuation continues the Christ-figure associations from the series, and these associations pepper the film throughout. They begin early, when Madoka’s teacher, Kazuko Saotome, predicts the end of the world, complete with solar and lunar eclipses and the second coming of Christ. We learn by the end of the film, as we watch the blood moons of the collapsing labyrinth, that the Christ figure has already come in the person of Madoka.[8] What is more, Madoka’s hidden, saving presence is acknowledged the moment Homura’s labyrinthine manifestation recognizes that whoever created this fantasy realm is dishonoring Madoka’s sacrifice. As we watch Homura gripping the feet of a stone relief depicting Madoka as a saving god, coming with angel wings and the breaking rays of the world beyond, we hear the labyrinth’s Clara Dolls chanting “Gott is tot, Gott is tot,” a dense refrain in the light of Rebellion’s unfolding. Firstly, Madoka was dead insofar as she ceased to exist individually after her sacrifice in the series; secondly, Madoka is ‘dead’ when we consider her loss of memory within Homura’s labyrinth; thirdly, Madoka’s ‘divine death’ will be most complete paradoxically when Homura wrests divine existence from her and subjects her to the new world Homura creates.

With the end of Madoka’s apotheosis comes Homura’s own. Madoka’s sacrifice made her a god; Homura’s transformation made her a demon. The effects of this transformation extend further than Madoka’s. Whereas the cycle of hope and despair in the life of magical girls remained in Madoka’s new world, albeit with saving emphasis found in hope, in Homura’s new world, hope and despair are transcended to reach the heights — or depths — of love. So Homura explains it, anyway, though we will ask in the conclusion of our analysis of Rebellion whether Homura’s self-assessment is ultimately convincing. In any case, Homura’s new world breaks the grammar, the rationality that is the only principle Kyubey and his fellow Incubators can understand; for this reason we see that it is only in Homura’s universe that the Incubators are finally conquered, having become instruments at the service of Homura.[9] And so, whereas Madoka’s sacrifice, although undoing the suffering of magical girls, nonetheless in the final analysis kept the System in place, Homura’s grasping at divinity completely undoes the System. Indeed, Homura does not lose her individuated existence like Madoka did — she remains in the world to enjoy the presence of the one she loves most, Madoka Kaname.

Divine Doubles
Homura and Madoka

When Homura rips Madoka from the divine realm, her Soul Gem overflows with chaotic chromatics, prompting Sayaka to ask, “What is that? Obsession, desire?” Homura would answer, “Love,” but we viewers may be excused for questioning this identification and siding with Sayaka’s description. In her re-writing of the laws of Madoka’s universe, Homura has achieved her goal: she has regained Madoka (“I’ve got you,” she says, gripping Madoka’s wrists) and so has accomplished her rebellion against Madoka: “I’m never going to let you go again, Madoka.” The suffering child, Madoka, whose sacrifice Homura could never finally accept, is now back and safe in the arms of Homura. Homura rebelled against the world of sacrifice — both Kyubey’s first world and Madoka’s second world — and won.

But at what cost? If Madoka’s own rebellion against Kyubey’s world entailed the end of her existence as an individual and set her for a perpetual fight against despair arising in magical girls, the cost of Homura’s sacrifice is more complicated. Initially Sayaka protests Homura’s world, and so does Madoka in the climactic scene of the film’s denouement. This scene is worth analyzing in detail. It takes place in the hallway of Mitakihara Middle School, and viewers will remember that this is the hallway where Homura, in Episode 1 (“I First Met Her in a Dream”), first cryptically pleaded with Madoka never to change anything about herself. Homura’s admonition to Madoka has now come true: all the changes that Madoka made throughout the series have been undone through Homura’s usurpation of Madoka’s divine prerogatives, and now she can keep Madoka exactly as she knew her and first loved her. When Madoka begins to remember her previous life, however, Homura interferes, clouding Madoka’s memory with magic. “You’re exactly as you should be, what you’ve always been,” Homura tenderly speaks to Madoka, and then, with a devilish glare in her eye, questions her with words reminiscent from Episode 1: “Madoka Kaname, do you treasure the world you live in? Or would you break its laws to follow your heart?” Madoka answers yes, but hesitates, confessing that breaking rules “just because [you] feel like it,” seems wrong. Homura recognizes in this reply signs of Madoka’s own future rebellion against the world Homura has constructed for her: “I suppose that one day you will also be my enemy.” Here we find the most explicit doubling of Madoka and Homura, for the viewer hears the irony in Madoka’s reply that breaking rules for feeling’s sake is wrong.[10] Both Homura and Madoka have broken the rules for the sake of feelings, but the content of those feelings is what distinguishes these two magical-girls-turned-gods.

Homura replies to Madoka that she will “keep wishing for a world where you can be happy,” and while she speaks she removes Madoka’s red ribbons from her hair and places them back in Madoka’s own, noting that the ribbons always looked better on Madoka. If we recall our analysis of the ribbon above, we find in this exchange of words and ribbon a salient fact: the red ribbon, as the symbol of sacrifice (note the association with blood, and that blood’s association with Christ), does not wear itself well on Homura, the undoer of Madoka’s sacrifice. Returning to Madoka her ribbons represents the rejection of the gift Madoka gave her in sacrifice — not simply the ribbon itself, and not just the new world in which magical girls will no longer suffer, but also the chance for Homura to return to the girl she once was.

But there is more to be discovered in this moment. We have already mentioned that Homura’s rebellion against Madoka’s world is a rebellion against the System, a System not adequately dealt with by Madoka’s death and apotheosis. One significant failure, in Homura’s perspective, of Madoka’s sacrifice is the fact that the Madoka’s sacrifice involved the suffering of two magical girls, and not one. That other girl is Homura herself.[11] Destined to remember Madoka when no one else in the world would, Homura carried a burden which proved in the end unlivable. From the first sacrifice Madoka made (in the timeline in which Homura first becomes a magical girl; Episode 10), the memory of Madoka had been intimately associated with pain; by the end of Rebellion, Madoka has become nearly identical with pain in Homura’s heart. “I remembered why I repeated time, and suffered over and over again: my feelings for Madoka. They run so deep, even pain has become precious to me.” So Homura explains to Kyubey, and here we witness the transformation of what was originally love of Madoka into a love of Homura’s own pain. This is why Homura’s subsequent explanation to Kyubey that it is love that is tainting her Soul Gem remains unconvincing. It is, rather, an obsession with her own pain, the desperate attempt to give meaning to the suffering she underwent time and again in order to save Madoka. Madoka’s sacrifice — to Homura’s mind — rendered her time-traveling trials meaningless, and so Homura had to ‘rescue’ Madoka from her divine existence in order to make meaningful her own suffering.

Demonic Compassion
Homura and Madoka

This point is not subtle; Homura, after all, calls herself not a god but a demon. In the Christian story that this anime has employed to give an account of Madoka’s sacrifice, it is God — and specifically the Dostoevskian Christ, as we have noted — who sacrifices Himself for the world. The archetypal demon, Satan, does not give of himself, but instead attempts to take away from God what is His through his heavenly rebellion. God gives, Satan grasps. In this light, consider Homura’s explanation of her new, divinized state: “I’m not a magical girl or a witch. Madoka is as sacred as a god, and I pulled her from the heaven. So if you want to know what I’ve become, I suppose, if anything, you could call me a demon now.”

Homura’s demonic existence now consists in ruling the new universe she has created, a universe which strongly parallels the labyrinth where we spent most of the film. Unlike that fantasy land, however, here there is no Labyrinthine Homura whose conscience protests the Incubators’ manipulation of Madoka. Rather, Homura has taken the place of the Incubators; now she exploits Madoka with ease by wiping her memory of all that came before. The undoing of Madoka’s personality that occurred throughout the series has now come to its full fruition. Madoka is trapped, frozen in the glass prison of Homura’s fancy—a fact lending the futuristic glass design of Mitakihara Middle School (where they all live) a colder, more sinister edge).

Is this love? We would do better to call it instead a ‘demonic compassion,’ a phrase I take from one critic’s description of Ivan Karamazov’s love for suffering children. His words on this point are apt here; “[T]here is a sense in which Ivan’s love of that little girl is always in danger of becoming a kind of demonic compassion: a desire that she not exist at all, a conviction that it were better she had never been summoned into the wounded freedom of cosmic time…Here one might even suspect Ivan of a willingness then to freeze her forever in the darkness of her torments — as a perpetual reminder of his revolt against heaven — rather than release her into a happiness that he thinks unjust.”[12] Homura believes it would have been better for Madoka never to have sacrificed herself. She cannot accept the happiness Madoka found in self-giving love; she cannot accept that Madoka’s sacrifice was not only necessary, but desired by Madoka; she cannot accept, in the end, Madoka herself, as Madoka reveals in her own speech before her final sacrifice: “I know what I want now more than anything else. And I’m ready to trade my life for it, with no regrets” (Madoka’s speech, Episode 12).

What we learn in these final scenes, then, is that Homura does not love Madoka at all. She does, in fact, hate her, and she hates her with the passion of obsession and desire directed towards her own pain, a pain constituted by her refusal to accept Madoka’s own love for her. Recall Homura’s words in reply to Madoka’s farewell speech before her divinizing feat: “But you can’t! If you do…then, everything I fought for — it’s all for nothing!” What initially drove Homura to love Madoka — Madoka’s own sacrificial love on that first Walpurgisnacht — is now the thing Homura wishes to extirpate from Madoka at all costs, even at the extreme cost of coercion. When we see Homura forcibly embracing Madoka in that final scene of Rebellion, we know that Homura’s ‘love’ can only be judged a satanic simulacrum of Madoka’s divine love. For this reason, if the Puella story continues in future tellings, Madoka must indeed become the enemy Homura predicts at the end of Rebellion.


If the above analysis compels in any way, I hope that the reader will find that Alyosha and Ivan have spoken through the mouth of Madoka and Homura. Puella Magi Madoka Magica and its sequel Rebellion show themselves to be profound meditations on the problems of innocent suffering our response to such suffering. This is Puella’s religious and philosophical import, and much can be gained by considering it alongside other meditations on the suffering of innocents, such as Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. For the Christian viewer, the story serves as a vivid depiction of the dangers hidden in Ivan’s undeniable pathos expressed for the victims of life’s uncountable unjust sufferings. The question it puts to Ivan, and to us, is this: would you desire as your friends those who, at the end of the ages, have forgiven all wrongs done to them, who have chosen joy and being over protest and death—those who, in fact, have become gods?


[1]  Cf. the discussions of literature in Psycho-Pass.

[2]  It is surely significant that throughout the series, whenever the possibility for Madoka to make a wish is raised, she repeats a list of reasons why she is completely unspectacular as a person. Her final self-sacrifice, then, appears to be Madoka’s own way of making herself extraordinary. Another tragic twist for Homura’s interference with time.

[3]  Cf. this shot with a nearly identical one from the second movie, Eternal, where it is Homura and not Madoka strung up with the lines of fate. This shot is accompanied by Kyubey’s explanation that Homura’s time-traveling travails are pointless; sacrifice against the System is, in Kyubey’s perspective, completely futile. It is this belief that Madoka’s successful sacrifice will challenge, at least to some degree. Considering the figure of the cross more broadly, it in fact appears throughout Puella in close association with the sacrifices of magical girls — to a lesser degree in the series, and to a great degree in the series’ two movie adaptations. In Episode 5, immediately after Sayaka sacrifices her wish for Kyosuke, a zoomed out shot of Kyosuke’s hospital reveals the reflection of the sun on the building in the form of a cross. In the first Puella movie, Beginnings, a cross stands prominently on the altar of the church that belonged to Kyoko’s father, a painful reminder both of the sacrifice Kyoko made for her father and the ultimate futility of that sacrifice in Kyoko’s perspective. Eternal takes us to a graveyard littered with crosses just following Kyoko’s sacrifice to defeat Sayaka in her witch form. An upside-down, ruby cross travels with the panning camera throughout the graveyard — an appropriate symbol that the ruby-red Kyoko has assumed a Christ-like shape in her sacrifice. Note that these two scenes are not in the series; it appears that the Christ-like character of the magical girls’ sacrifices was something the writers and artists wished to emphasize more greatly as they reworked the series for the movie versions.

[4]  We should add that part of Madoka’s frustration with Kyubey is the Incubators’ inability to understand that humans view themselves as individuals and not as anonymous members of a whole or a system (thus Madoka’s disbelief when Kyubey tells her not to mourn over the deaths of Sayaka and Kyoko, since they were bound to die anyway); on the reverse side, Kyubey remains dumbfounded that Madoka cannot view her life and the lives of her friends as so many anonymous heads of cattle fit for the consumption of higher life-forms. Madoka rejects the system, and thus she rejects Kyubey, who is the very embodiment and voice of that cosmic, karmic system. This embodiment is manifested quite literally through Kyubey’s cannibalizing his previous ‘spare bodies’ — individuals do not matter for the life-forms that are the Incubators: what matters is the collective.

[5]  My thanks to Sasha Urben for a helpful discussion on this portion of the essay.

[6]  A precise parallel, we may note, to Madoka snatching Homura’s hand at the final Walpurgisnacht before Homura becomes a witch or before she can use her time-traveling magic

[7]  And here we may note that in their warnings not to continue in pursuit of the truth, Sayaka and Kyubey perform the role of Tiresias to Oedipus in Oedipus Rex.

[8]  Thanks to Ken Oakes for pointing this connection out to me.

[9]  On the conquering of the Incubators, consider the highly debatable final, post-credits scene in which Homura dances past a dead Kyubey’s body only after we spy another Kyubey rustling through the grass behind her. If we follow our interpretation of Madoka as the New System once she becomes the Law of Cycles, can we read the dead Kyubey and the living Kyubey as signs of Madoka’s eventual revolt against Homura? Though her personality is ‘dead’ now, she will in the end return, just as the Incubators have done.

[10]  Cf. Madoka’s words in Episode 12: “I want them [the magical girls] to be at peace. If that goes against the laws of the universe, then I’ll just rewrite those laws.”

[11]  Cf. the comments of the reviewer of the film at Kotaku: “While the series had a happy ending for the most part, the simple fact of the matter is that Homura failed to save Madoka — despite her countless time loops. Then, Madoka leaves Homura as the only person in the world able to remember her. Thus Homura is forced to remember her failure to save Madoka in order to keep her friend’s memory alive. It must have been hell for her. It’s no wonder all this eventually drove Homura insane. I mean, after all the time loops, she was on the edge already.” Accessed 11/30/15. <>.

[12]  David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 88–89.

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