I think Puella Magi Madoka Magica is pretty neat. I wrote about it not too long ago but it’s a series I frequently feel compelled to write about. I probably consider it my all time favourite anime series, whatever the heck that’s worth. It’s a series of great craft and empathy.
One of its biggest achievements is how it pulls off its core mystery elements, which isn’t an easy thing to do. Make no mistake, there are a ton of stories that handle mystery really badly. They can be hollow or even downright deceptive. Some would even accuse Madoka Magica of this, but I’m going to make the case that it’s quite the opposite. Madoka Magica is a series that gets mystery.
I’m going to come back to a word I used before in relation to Madoka Magica: Empathy. I don’t count myself an expert of narrative, but empathy is something I understand in my bones. It’s the reason we can even vaguely coexist as a species. “But what does that have to do with Japanese cartoons rando person on the internet??”, you might ask. Besides being a fundamental part of human interaction it’s also fundamental to storytelling itself. There’s an almost infinite number of things that can make a story work, but for people to truly connect with a narrative they need to be able to relate to it. Of course not all of us relate to the experience of being a teenage magical girl (but if you do this is probably a story for you). So what we tend to relate to instead is emotional truth. The experience of seeing tangible human feelings play out and being able to see yourself in them, even if you’re far removed from the actual context of events.
That’s nice and all, but you might be wondering what that has to do with mystery. A lot. If a mystery reveal later in a story lets us understand and relate to a character more we should be engaged with that character in the first place, or at least engaged with whatever else is happening in the overarching narrative. Madoka Magica’s core mystery is Homura Akemi.
If you haven’t seen Madoka Magica (in which case GO SEE IT ASAP!!) and you’re bothered by spoilers now is the point to turn away… but if you do please come back and finish this later!!
Anyhow, we first see Homura in a dream and then later as a mysterious exchange student at protagonist Madoka’s school. An interesting starting off point, but it’s everything surrounding that mystery which allows the series to maintain investment for the better part of 12 episodes. Homura takes Madoka out of the classroom and asks Madoka if her family and friends are important, and then tells her “If they are, then you should never think of changing yourself. Otherwise, you will lose everything that is precious to you”.
A super cryptic statement, one that becomes understood in the full context of Homura’s long and painful timeline spanning quest to save Madoka from the incubators. I actually recommend re-watching the series primarily for this scene, as the full context gives a lot of nuance to Homura’s subtle gestures. But to first time viewers there isn’t much to invest in with Homura just yet. She’s mysterious and she has an unknown relation to Madoka, and that’s pretty much it. If this were the only information we had many of us wouldn’t really care a whole lot. The reason we’re able to care is because we happen to understand Madoka herself. It’s one thing that she can tell Homura she values her family and friends, but it’s another thing that we actually see it. That we actually see Madoka bond with her mother over discussing which hair ribbon looks best on her, that we actually see Madoka playfully teased by her friend Sayaka on the way to school.
You might have heard the “show, don’t tell” rule in High School creative writing classes, and while it’s not a hard rule that guarantees engagement it’s one way of letting the audience live vicariously through the experiences of a character. Because we’ve experienced Madoka’s relationship with those around her we’re able to relate to the emotions present in those relationships. Basically, we’re able to EMPATHISE.
Before I said that mystery can be a hollow or downright deceptive narrative device, which I think is partially self-evident. We ridicule bad plot twists in fiction all the time, and we see people like M. Night Shyamalan become memetically infamous for using them. For some people this can poison the well when it comes to the basic idea of a mystery reveal, and stories like Madoka are lambasted simply for having them. But as has hopefully become apparent by this point there’s a whole lot that can go into making a mystery reveal worthwhile. To do this a mystery has to be committed to, it has to be a consistent part of the fabric of the narrative.
So while we’re here let’s talk about an anime series that does this really… really badly. I could pick from a whole range of shows for varying reasons but I think I’m gonna talk about Charlotte. My thoughts on Charlotte are pretty clear if you’ve read my review of the series but basically I think it’s a very rubbish show. If you’re a fan of Charlotte that might sound mean-spirited, but I promise that your opinion is 100% valid and you’re free to like the show as much as you want!!
But personally I think it’s rubbish. And I’m going to try to explain part of the reason why.
Charlotte creator Jun Maeda is quite well-known for his “feels” dramas that many people feel strongly both ways about. Part of a lot of those dramas is some tragic twist, or a big dramatic reveal designed to make us empathise with a character. In saying that it should be noted the only one I’ve finished is Charlotte and I only kinda know the basic events of some of his other well-known stories. So I won’t get on a soapbox about anything else he’s done (if not for lack of information just for the fact that some people really like Jun Maeda and I know I might get flack if I come off as insincere).
But I digress. Charlotte is dramatically inefficient because its twists aren’t committed to before (or in some cases even after) they happen. They’re occasionally hinted towards, but they aren’t a consistent influence on the characters we see before us. It doesn’t help that the lighter scenes made to endear us to the characters often involve a bunch of abrasive slapstick gags repeated ad nauseam, taking minimal opportunities to casually get to know the characters as actual human beings. So the whole super important empathy thing I spoke about before isn’t able to drive it.
I’m about to majorly spoil the last several episodes of Charlotte so if you don’t want that then skip to the next bold text. I’ve already explained the gist of why I think this series is bad at mysteries so you’re not going to miss the point if you do, this is just a way I want to expand on that point.
Okay, are we good? Good! Where Charlotte really goofs is in its biggest reveal of all: the reveal that our main character Yu is part of one of many timelines, and the one he’s in is the one that protects him and his fellow teenagers with sorta special powers from evil scientists and terrorists. That’s heavy stuff but… well… it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. The mystery reveal of these alternate timelines shows up seemingly out of nowhere and makes the whole story switch gears at a moment’s notice. We thought we had a vaguely sci-fi melodrama story and suddenly it’s like “gotcha, now it’s a vaguely melodramatic sci-fi story!!”
I actually made the allusion to Madoka in my review of this series and I think it’s pretty apt. Madoka having multiple timelines is pretty cool, right? Well sure, I like time travel. But Charlotte doesn’t really accommodate its sudden interest in time travel with a meaningful context. It commits to making it a part of its world after the fact, but in doing so it’s largely incompatible with the prior two thirds of its narrative. Heck, it even brings back the dead little sister, actively distancing itself from its previous attempts at dramatic stakes. This kind of storytelling is deceitful and kinda crappy. Not only does it show a lack of faith in its established story but it leaves the audience with no reason to believe the mystery reveal should have even existed.
Okay I’m done talking about Charlotte.
Then what’s so different about Madoka? Put simply it’s the fact that it COMMITS to its mystery. Just as Homura and all her actions and characteristics are consistently built on her mystery Madoka as a narrative commits to being about the mystery of magical girls themselves. And said mystery isn’t defined purely by its big reveals.
With each new subplot we start to find the little things, the foundation being the character of Mami. Mami is the mentor figure who brings Madoka and Sayaka into the world of magical girls. As a mentor figure she imparts some of the things we don’t know yet. But in doing so we also understand Mami’s reasons for existing in this world. We understand the tragedy that took her parents and almost took her own life, we understand that making the wish was her only chance to live, and through that we understand that being a magical girl is all she has. Granted, Mami isn’t the most extroadinarily moving character in the story. But she’s a character who contains… wait for it… EMPATHY. She’s a human character who we come to know through both her past as a tragic figure and her present as a mentor, and that’s because the series takes the time to labour over demonstrating it. Demonstrating both her reason for existing in the world of magical girls and her value as a figure in Madoka and Sayaka’s lives.
It’s precisely because of this that her sudden death pays off. Before that death scene we’re treated to a sincere moment of warmth between Madoka and Mami. Mami lays bare her pretense as an infallible mentor and admits to her human weakness: she doesn’t want to be alone. Madoka, who struggles with a sense of self but feels strongly about helping others, promises to be there for her. To love and to be loved is such a simple obvious desire. But it’s one we all feel, one we all relate to. When you distill the motives of all the main characters and their actions down to their absolute core that’s the basic emotion you find. And it’s the reason we’re able to connect to the feeling of loss and pain when suddenly Mami is gone and we realise just how dark this world of magical girls truly is.
Again, it doesn’t deceive in showing us that the world is darker than it seems. Even some of the most die-hard fans of Madoka will sometimes say the series is happy-go-lucky before it all comes down, but it truly isn’t. From the very first scene we get a spooky ominous dream of Walpurgisnacht destroying the earth to the haunting tune of Kalafina’s ‘Magia’. Mami, as already discussed, is firmly established as a figure with a tragic past whose character is fundamentally influenced by said past. Madoka doesn’t pretend to not be dark, it just happens to get darker.
There’s no trickery involved, and that’s the way it should be. You’re not trying to show the audience how clever you are at making these mystery reveals. You’re trying to show them WHY THEY SHOULD CARE!! Madoka makes you care by tying its reveals to evolving character stakes. We see Sayaka’s character arc evolve first through her relationship with Kyousuke and later through her relationship with Kyouko, and the end point of her dissent is when we find out that magical girls are all destined to become witches. It’s the culmination of Sayaka and Kyouko’s character arc that finally brings Homura to lay bare her feelings, segueing into an intimate flashback reveal of her past. The characters expand the mysteries and the mysteries expand the characters.
The idea of plot twists and mystery reveals is to grab you in the guts. To bring out an immediate but lingering shock that sticks with you and keeps you invested. Where so many works go wrong is in their lack of dedication to the mystery. Their lack of dedication to proving their mystery is necessary let alone valuable. Madoka Magica demonstrates the power of mystery done right. We become invested in the before and after of the characters and the world. We’re made to empathise with the subtle expression of the mystery through varying perspectives. And we get to those big emotional reveals having a reason to care. Madoka Magica, if anything, is a story of pure good craft. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that.
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