Madoka Magica Movies 1 and 2: A Roundtable Discussion

Initial Postviewing Impressions

Monsieur LaMoe: It was great. The visuals were fantastic, and the sound quality was awesome, with the amazing Yuki Kajiura soundtrack.

Wintermuted: I will just start by saying that I am in no way a fan of “clip show” features. They serve very little purpose outside of selling an already established property to another audience, while claiming to deliver scraps for the already invested.

Despite this, the first two Madoka films are a well-edited digest of the original story with occasionally updated backgrounds, new transformation animation, and updated music. If anything, this was akin to a beefed-up night at a friend’s house while peers catch up on a show. For the type of presentation this was, it was one of the least offensive of its kind, but this is clearly damning with faint praise.

gendomike: Both LaMoe and wintermuted are right, I think. The Madoka Magica movies presented the 2011 TV series in a straightforward, comprehensible way without losing too much. It’s still the well-crafted, emotionally powerful story that it always was.

The problem is that existing fans like ourselves have to judge them in relation to the series as well as on their own terms. And the word that kept ringing in my head right after I saw them was “remaster.” These movies are like those remastered CDs record companies released in the late 1990s-2000s that sounded louder and sharper than the original releases. You were really just buying the same record again, but with bonus tracks (new OP/EDs from Claris and Kalafina) and louder volume (literally in the theater—and analogously with the improved animation in spots).

Can something be both satisfying and disappointing at the same time? That was my feeling.

What did you enjoy most about the movies?

LaMoe: I enjoyed the visuals and sounds, and of course the storytelling of Gen Urobuchi. It was intense and deep. Watching it together with fans and friends, nerds, geeks, and otakus. And a dark theater at night, so the mood was right.

Winter: If anything at all, it was nice to experience the story on a large screen with brilliant sound. Of course there were snippets here and there of new animation, and the aforementioned backgrounds. But as I stated before, they truly are scraps. It was also nice to ostensibly re-watch the series without having to skip the opening & end credits.

gendomike: Watching the story continuously made the cohesion and crafting of Urobuchi’s story more evident. There wasn’t actually much fat to trim from the series, but there was some compression in favor of tightening Sayaka’s story, for instance, and eschewing some of the flashbacks in favor of portraying them in linear time. (Or not at all in a few cases, such as Mami’s flashback on how she signed her contract with Kyubey.) This helped make the story feel more concise and focused. Some of Kyubey’s explanation dialogue also felt less silly near the end, but I could be remembering wrong.

Visually, the upgraded transformation sequences, especially Mami’s first, shone brightly. Combined with the powerful Kajiura OST track “Credens Justitiam” it was one of the soaring moments that truly belonged in a theater, breaking out of the small screen limitation of the original.

Differences between movies and series

LaMoe: The new OP was really good. The chairs and tables at cafeteria were different in the scene where Hitomi basically told Sayaka that she would “NTR” her crush, a frail bishounen violinist. And the most memorable scene, during the OP, Madoka and Homura were rubbing each other’s cheeks, a very suggestive yuri innuendo, almost caused my head to explode, reminding me of Needless’ ED. That made my day (night)!

Winter: Along with what MLM mentioned, there was a greater emphasis on Kyubey’s philosophy and their relationship with objects. Most of the background updates take place in the first film, making many well-known settings more cluttered and borderline claustrophobic. There was fan service-laden animation for the transformations, as well as a new “opening” sequence that is repeated for both films.

I also noticed smaller changes such as the hair on a witch’s potential victim being changed dramatically, to Madoka being given a more sensible costume during a crucial scene. And let’s not forget a short new scene or two that help mend some cuts that offer very little in the way of anything new.

gendomike: I already covered some of the differences in my previous answer, but in truth the differences were not substantial. They were the equivalent of touchups and tweaks. One can argue that given how well-crafted the TV series was, this is how it should be, and many of the visual and storytelling changes did make things a little tighter and brighter.

Mami’s glorious transformation sequence was upgraded further in the film.

Are these movies necessary? Did they bring anything new to the table?

LaMoe: I doubt it, but I’m not against having options. I loved the first two films, because I didn’t get the same sense of the sublime by watching it on my laptop. On my laptop, the visuals were still great, but I didn’t really get sucked into the show’s unique worldview. Story-wise there was nothing new, but I think it really works well as a digest for people who never saw it before. I think the storytelling in the TV series was already really great. The movie version was better on visuals and music. Certainly, Shinbo’s visuals and Kajiura’s gothic music, and the intricate tragic mode of Urobuchi, that combination worked best on the films. I think anything new will be in the Part 3, which I’m looking forward to.

Winter: As a person who was collectively knocked on his butt by the original story and vision, I had hopes that this film version would take up a new, bolder take on matters. Sadly, what we have here merely amounts to that old saw—marketing. Outside of milking success, and hopefully gouging fans out of some additional funds, there is no good reason for this to exist outside of financial ones. Gone are the days of bold cinema interpretations such as the original Galaxy Express 999, and Adolescence Of Utena. While this is light years above Evangelion: Death, this still reeks of studio/sponsor routine that offers nothing new to think about, let alone experience.

gendomike: Heh, I like the comparison with Evangelion: Death, which was intended to buy time for Anno to try (and fail, since Rebirth was incomplete) to complete the ending. This is a much more straightforward proposition, and I see only two uses for it:

  1. to give existing fans the benefit of a movie theater experience. That’s not worthless, but it’s not enough to be truly satisfying;
  2. introduce new viewers to the story.

It is essentially a large recap episode, and given what we know about Shinbo and Urobuchi’s capabilities, I was expecting something more, especially since I doubt there are many in the second category watching these movies. As such, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend the films to those who have seen the series already unless having the cinema experience and upgraded visuals is worth the ticket price to them.

I just wanted an excuse to put this most screencappable of moments in.

The social significance of Madoka as a story

LaMoe: At first I expected Madoka to be a moe anime, but it totally betrayed my expectations by going into full tragic mode from Mami’s death onward. If Yoshiyuki Tomino was “Kill them all,” Gen Urobuchi is “Agonize them all.” And usually, the magical girl genre is moetically therapeutic to watch, but Madoka has totally ruined my moe. I think moe and agony don’t go together. Who wants to see moekko suffer? So, in that sense, Madoka was shocking, as if I was having “moe delusion” the whole time. New genre: torture moekko to bring down moe?

I think Madoka’s family was commendable. Madoka’s mom is a super career woman, and her dad stays home taking care of a baby brother. It breaks away from the traditional Japanese patriarchal family. There are more soushokukei boys right now, and many of them want to be house-husbands, staying home baking cookies and cakes. A little while ago, being house-dad was an embarrassment, but now it’s getting more acceptable, especially among the young generation that has the most otaku population.

So Madoka reflects that zeitgeist. Yet, even in more gender equal America, there are only 0.15 million house-dads. I only saw them on WifeSwap, so we still have work to do. But, to depict that in 2D is an awesome first step to take. I applaud that. So, that modern middle class family setting brings a new meaning to the anime scene, by sending a positive message about gender equality, thus making progress in society as a whole.

Winter: After now seeing the entire story from beginning to end at least four times, I’m more than a little confident in calling Madoka as an all-encompassing call-to-arms, not merely for the evolution of female roles in Japanese society, but of an entire generation weaned on feelings of disassociation and defeat after a great paradigm shift. It is concerned with society’s ambivalence toward the equalization of genders, and wonders why so many seem to be ready to throw in the towel at a moment’s notice. By establishing a world of mirrors and windows (with the title character’s name carrying “window”), Madoka is the means by which Urobuchi questions living within a society’s strict, often unreasonable social constraints. She is a window to a changing world that has long embraced a rigid construct made of gilded cages and manufactured values. Contracts must be read in full, and considered before choices are made.

Madoka is also deeply critical of past expectations of women (particularly young ones), and of many Japanese who have chosen to opt themselves out of the world, often avoiding any true challenge that may seem daunting. It is as much a meditation on faith and the lack thereof, as it is about facing up to the past, and being willing to carve your own path without need for petty reward. It is an often eloquently visualized celebration of persistence under fire, as well as a condemnation not only of otaku sidelining, but of generations’ worth of social pastimes.

And lastly, Madoka Magica posits that it might be good to examine the whys of our myths, and to not be afraid of questioning them, and thereby redefining them on a regular basis.

gendomike: All of the above. :) Not only does it contain the progressive elements that my colleagues have explained so well, it is a shining example of what is possible in anime with a strong writer/director combination. Urobuchi restrained Shinbo’s tendency to visual excess; Shinbo brought his flair for abstraction and off-kilter perspective to Urobuchi’s story. It also demonstrated that anime endings do not have to be abstracted or incoherent (I’m looking at you, Anno). Moe character designs do not always spell weak characterization and plot, or an infantizilation of women. It’s also the series that comes closest to actually using religious and spiritual elements cogently—again, as much as I love Evangelion, unlike what Anno did; he admitted publicly he only added all those crosses because they looked cool and sophisticated.

MLM: I think Wintermuted’s note about Madoka as a window is very insightful. Yes, “Mado” means window, and it reminds me of the Glass Church designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr.

Also, Madoka’s last name, Kaname, means “pivotal point, key point, vital point, axis.” In kanji, her last name is spelled “deer eye (鹿目).” I don’t know why it’s written that way, probably because it sounded the same. I don’t think it was because Gautama Buddha’s first lecture was at Deer Park so Madoka as a buddha was given that name. But, what’s sure is that Madoka is the culmination of all her predecessors: not just Mami and the other magical girls of her generation, but also the historical female figures going back to Jeanne d’Arc, Cleopatra, and even Himiko, the first historically recorded Japanese shaman queen. Yes, we can say that Madoka started the new Axial Age, or the new Jaspers’ Achsenzeit, and so Madoka’s family name “Kaname” means “Axis” in Japanese.

So, I agree with Wintermuted’s view on Madoka’s role as not only the advancer of women but also of her entire generation, and even on a much bigger scale, of humanity. It was a female character that became the pivot for that, which is a great step for humanity: and the one who made that footprint was Madoka, a shōjo, which I think is the most significant of all, since the pivotal figures have been exclusively male: Buddha, Mahavira, Jesus, Muhammad, Socrates, Plato, Lao-tzu, Confucius, etc.

Winter: Precisely. She is “us”. Always on the sidelines, watching, wondering, wishing. The story here is musing on what might or should happen next, that the viewer cannot always live vicariously through others, and must ultimately make a choice.

Religious and theological symbolism

MLM: When I watched the TV series, I thought the story was predominantly Christian like Evangelion, but probably because I’m Japanese with a Buddhist background, now I’ve come to think that there were also Buddhist elements like Tathagata-garbha thought. Madoka gained enormous power by repeating countless karmic cycles, with her experiences stored in Tathagata-garbha (Buddha-nature) or Alaya-shiki (Eight Senses in Saint Seiya). Her Buddha-nature reached the point to be Buddha, which was Homura’s unintended consequence in repeating time over and over. Then, Madoka becomes Tathagata, so no one can tell if she exists or not, as Gautama Buddha said: “For him who has disappeared there is no form that by which they say he is, exists for him no longer, when all things have been cut off, all kinds of dispute are also cut off.”

So to me, when Kyubey said, “Are you really going to be a god?” I thought “a buddha” would’ve been more accurate. So I find it pretty Buddhist, and I wonder if that’s where Urobuchi got the ideas from. I’d like to ask these questions if we have another chance to interview Urobuchi.

Winter: Well, my background best retains many of the themes and emotions from religious tales. And coming from Catholicism, it was easy to discern the path of the faithful as one fraught with pain, and recurrence. Much like MLM mentioned during the showing, Homura carries with her much of the faith of John the Baptist, creating a path for whom she sees to be humanity’s greatest sacrifice without considering the long term cost. But I also feel like there is enough applicability inherent in the Madoka world that it really speaks like a modern, universal allegory for Japan’s need to find its individual hearts and fight on.

gendomike: It is fascinating to me that Urobuchi was able to find both Christian and Buddhist resonances and have them fit together as seamlessly as they do. This is because, in part, there are some similarities in both the Christian mystical tradition and the Buddhist, but also because the role of Madoka is at once both Christ-like and Buddha-like. Here are some parallels that I found.

  • Madoka starts off as an ordinary, privileged person unaware of and shocked by the suffering of the world (Siddhartha Gautama’s earlier life as a prince and his encounter with the old man).
  • Homura is caught in a despairing cycle of futility in trying to fight the seemingly inevitable forces of fate (the cycle of karma and reincarnation), which Madoka’s action breaks.
  • Madoka literally draws the despair of dying magical girls into herself and gives them a peaceful end, preventing them from becoming demonic (Christ bearing the sins of humanity and defeating the forces of darkness),
  • and becomes omnipresent and invisible, promising to be with those who believe in her.
  • Homura is thus the first Evangelist, bearing an eyewitness to her saving work and dedicated to continuing her legacy.
  • It is the small child, the boy who would otherwise be her brother, who believes and remembers best who Madoka was (“if you do not become like little children, you shall certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven”), and Madoka is at this point only known by faith.
  • Madoka even tells Homura that she is going where Homura cannot (“where I am going, you cannot go”) but promises to return one day (the Second Coming).
  • Madoka did not begin as a Christ figure, but she ends as one, and also as the One that Homura longs to reunite with (a personal version of the Buddhist idea of Nirvana, or, alternatively, a version of the Beatific Vision).

I’m probably going to be writing the theological analysis of this series that I should have done last year. There’s a whole bunch to say about its view of the body and soul as well as theodicy. Stay tuned. :)

Some thoughts on the upcoming third movie

Note: the trailer for the third film, “Rebellion,” was shown after the end of the second film. It is a new story set after the events of the series. 

LaMoe: I’m looking forward to it. But I don’t know how they will come up with a new story since the original seemed totally complete, as Madoka herself has already become metaphysical. Maybe by changing the point of view? Much of the story was from Homura’s POV, so probably they will shift it to Mami’s? I don’t think we know much about Mami, about how she made a contract with Kyubey, while Homura, Sayaka, Kyoko, Madoka’s stories are all clear. In Aoi Bungaku, the Kokoro arc had each episode from each character’s POV, and it worked really well. So maybe like that? But hey, Mami is the only one who got large oppai among the magical girls, yes, she is the oldest, senpai, mentor, so as an oppai-seijin (oppai-planetarian), I want to see her arc.

Winter: I’m going to be honest. After such a movie experience, and from the footage we saw, I’m not terribly interested in another feature film. I feel like Urobuchi truly bled himself for all to see with the series, and truly said all that he needed to say. It’s the kind of work that asks for no expansion. For me, the final moments are probably among the best I have ever experienced with an anime television series, and end with enough heartfelt emotion and energy to help me envision a burning stage, while Shinbo and Urobuchi slam the mike, throwing out one last triumphant “peace” sign before leaving. Works beautifully on its own.

Life goes on. The fight always lives. (No further elaboration required.)

gendomike: it appears that the new movie will continue the story from where the ending left off, under the new witch-less set of rules that Madoka’s work made possible. Homura and the other girls will continue fighting wraiths under the new dispensation.

In my opinion, this is a mistake, because it dilutes the power of the original ending. The ending was powerful because Madoka solved that world’s essential spiritual problem: the existence of the universe will no longer depend on the human sacrifice of young girls. Moreover, the ending avoided the usual deus ex machina glibness because Madoka’s work did not completely end evil and suffering; she just transformed it into something more like how things are in our own world. This feels complete as a story. It feels over.

I suppose one could, in Biblical terms, see the third story as being like the Acts of the Apostles and showing how the fight continues even in the new world, but this doesn’t seem as compelling an idea dramawise. It reeks of sequelitis and a desire to continue a profitable franchise beyond artistic reason, and it implies that there was something deficient about the original ending.

MLM: Contrary to what my intellectual friends Gendomike and Wintermuted felt, because of the new Madoka films, I’ve actually come to love Madoka more after watching the films with my beloved Anime Diet otaku fellows and hearing their great insights and points of view. I didn’t really get Madoka at first when I watched the TV series by myself almost a year ago. I had no clue what was going on as a slow learner, but talking to friends and watching it again in a form of film, now I can safely say that I am a huge Madoka fan, though initially it ruined my moe and didn’t leave a good impression, although I thought it was unquestionably a masterpiece. So, in a way, it has strengthened my affection towards Madoka with a more positive attitude, and thus now I’m waiting for the third film to come.