|Oh, and this series has no queer subtext going on whatsoever.|
Puella Magi Madoka Magica can be understood as three distinct arcs, each focusing on a particular character or pair of characters and exploring a particular theme, although the themes of all three can be found in the other two. The first such arc covers the first three episodes, and focuses on Mami. Through her, it works through a fundamental internal struggle of the series, between its position within magical girl genre and its aspirations to be something new. This in turn can be viewed as a struggle between two competing shows, the fairly typical (albeit somewhat dark), heavily Cardcaptor Sakura-influenced series it initially appears to be, and the deeply unsettling offspring of Revolutionary Girl Utena and Neon Genesis Evangelion it evolves into. To simplify still further, this can be understood as a conflict between a false show or mask (as epitomized by the ending credits of the Blu-Ray version of the first two episodes) and a true show (as epitomized by the ending credits of Episode 3 on). In other words, what this first arc accomplishes is to set up a binary between the generic magical girl show audiences unfamiliar with Gen Urobuchi expect, and the dark deconstructive series he is likely to create, before appearing to settle on the latter.
The first episode, and thus Madoka itself, opens with a curtain rising. However, this is not traditional animation, but rather stop-motion animation of a paper curtain rising. Given that the difference between art and non-art is the frame–a story not framed as a story is a lie; a painting not framed as a painting is graffiti–a strong argument can be made that it is the frame that defines the art. In that case, we must consider the possibility that the stop-motion paper cutouts–and, more generally, the deployment of art styles far outside the norm for anime–are some in sense the definition of Madoka, a representation of its individuality as opposed to its existence as an instance of a genre.
This interpretation fits quite well, as we shall see, but first we must deal with Madoka running through a distorted, vast interior space, a checkerboard that evokes the warped spaces of Escher. Blacks and whites are sharply delineated here, clear binaries, but this space is not real. Unlike the latter part of Madoka’s dream, it does not appear to correspond directly to events we see on any timeline, but rather is a hint at the place where she will shortly encounter her first witch.
The latter part of the dream, however, is (as we eventually learn near the end of the series) actually a memory of a previous timeline. This is the reality of the series, as signified by the use of “Magia,” the series’ true ending theme. “Magia” will not play at the ends of this or the next episode; in the TV broadcast, the credits play over the final scene of the episode, while the Blu-Ray version has a cheerful (so long as one ignores the lyrics) song accompanied by happy images. “Magia” is not played as ending credits until Episode 3, the point at which the series abandons all pretence of being a normal magical girl show.
Visually, this portion of the dream is all grays of various shades, with little black or white. In the center of the ruined city is a dead tree, nature and civilization fallen together. Walpurgisnacht appears, her Harlequin form and massive gears implying artificiality and order, belied by wild shrieks of laughter. Everything is its opposite. Duality is an illusion; in Madoka all binaries collapse into unity. We will return here.
The episode tries to contain the revelations of this short sequence. The scene is played off as a dream, in much the same way as Cardcaptor Sakura–one of Madoka’s clearest influences–plays off its own portentous first scene. The opening credits which follow are also very typical for a magical girl show (again, so long as one ignores the lyrics), with Madoka’s very Sailor Moon- or Cutie Honey-esque transformation sequence into a costume strongly reminiscent of several of Sakura‘s.
Homura can do nothing about this intrusion except to say, “Oh no, not now.” She recognizes that this is inevitable; as an agent of the true Madoka Magica (note that she is the only magical girl in Madoka’s dream sequence) any attempt by her to preserve this safer, more comfortable false show is doomed to failure (as we will see again in both Episode 10 and Rebellion). That protection can only be accomplished–and only for a little while–by Homura’s opposite number.
Enter Mami. She positions herself immediately as Homura’s enemy, threatening her in order to protect Kyubey, who at this point in the story is still the cute, lovable mascot-herald who awakens the girls to their magic–it is only when the series drops its mask that he will drop his and become a manipulative devil-figure and take over the antagonist role. Mami and Homura share in common, as we will see, that they are experienced magical girls who wield guns, but are otherwise near-total opposites. Homura is new to the school, while Mami, as an upperclassman, has been there longer than Madoka and Sayaka have. Homura’s guns are entirely mundane, modern weapons, while Mami’s are magical flintlocks. Homura is all straight lines, dark colors, and purples; Mami is all curves (not just in her figure, but her hair as well), whites, and yellows. Homura is closed, mysterious, seemingly hostile; Mami is open and friendly.
Most importantly, Mami has the power to restore the false Madoka, where Homura does not. Her first act, before we even see her, is to define a safe space around Madoka and Sayaka within the witch’s labyrinth. She is able to drive off the agents of the true Madoka, both the witch and Homura. Her role in this episode is to restore order, returning the art style to familiar anime norms, healing the injured Kyubey, and enabling him to take his initial position as the Luna-equivalent, offering magical power to Madoka and Sayaka. With her positive attitude, determination and considerable power, Mami is a potent stand-in for magical girls past, and as we shall see over the course of this first arc, brings with her all the standard themes of the magical girl genre. So long as she stands in defense of it, the false series shall not fall.
She’ll simply have to go.
Next week: At least Kyubey offers a choice. That’s more than Luna ever did.