Latin Latin Madoka More Latin 3: The Search for More Mami

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This entry is adapted from my portions of the Latin Latin Madoka More Latin panel I will be giving at Anime Boston this weekend. As a result, it is a bit disjointed compared to an essay. It is also shorter than the previous LLMML entries because of a change of collaborator and therefore collaboration strategies. In the first two panels, Viga and I made the panel by sitting down and brainstorming the entire panel, then I wrote it all up. This time around, Kit and I divvied up panel topics and went off to write our own, so all I have for you is the topics I’m covering.

Regular readers may find some of this familiar from The Very Soil and the Rebellion review.

Spoiler Warning: Puella Magi Madoka Magica and the Rebellion movie.

The first three episodes of Madoka Magica can be understood as a struggle of sorts between the fairly standard magical girl series it originally pretends to be, and the dark meditation on hope and despair that it actually is, the kind of show that would have Magia as an ending theme. Mami is at the center of that struggle; just as the first act of a witch, before we ever see one, is to tear apart the anime art style and replace it with something creepy and strange, Mami’s first act, before we ever see her, is to create a safe space around Madoka and Sayaka where the witch cannot harm them. Her approach to fighting witches is flashy and visually appealing, and includes a signature finishing move with a called attack, all stalwarts of the genre for at least two decades.

She is also an instance of the Yamato Nadeshiko, the traditional Japanese ideal of the feminine—loyal, an excellent hostess, wise, mature, and humble, but with a core of steel. Like the traditional magical girl, she exemplifies these feminine virtues in a way that empowers her, but she’s not *too* empowered—she is continually subject to the male gaze, especially during combat sequences, with the camera focusing on her breasts, hips, and upper legs much more than for any other chaslideracter. Nonetheless, she is feminine, nurturing, and a leader and warrior, the classic combination for a magical girl.

Thus, it falls to her to fight to keep the “Magia” version of the series at bay, and it is only when she’s killed that it is able to take over. And again, her return at the end of the series to give Madoka her costume designs signals that the series is reintroducing some of the core magical girl themes it had deliberately abandoned, most notably hope.

By contrast, Homura is in many ways the harbinger of the Magia version of the series. Her function is to disrupt the status quo—her appearance in Madoka’s dream and school is the first strange thing to happen to her in the main series timeline, and though she fights to protect Madoka from the eerier elements of the series, she inevitably is a source of eeriness herself and ultimately makes things worse for Madoka.

She does not behave or look like a normal magical girl. She has elements of the “dark magical girl” that sometimes appears as the heroine’s rival—such as Pixy Misa in Magical Project S or Princess Kraehe in Princess Tutu—but notably she is not empowered by the villains, nor is she Madoka’s rival. In those first three episodes, she is positioned much more as Mami’s rival, with them nearly coming to blows multiple times.

Additionally, for most of the series she is the character least subject to male gaze, with none of the breast-and-hips focus Mami gets, and her costume lacks the bare midriffs, tube tops, and boob windows of Sayaka and Kyouko. Really, other than her transformation sequence in episode 11, the camera consistently treats her as a character to be watched rather than an object to be ogled, very unusual for a post-Cutey Honey magical girl.

She is actually very much like a witch throughout the series, in that her arrival always means something strange, serious, and probably mysterious is happening. She deforms the narrative by her presence, with even Kyubey noting that she is “wrong,” an outlier.

Even her power over time is consistent with this role, when we consider what time really is:
The three laws of thermodynamics are among the most solid and fundamental findings in modern physics, more certain even than the law of gravity. They are: 1. You can’t win. Energy can be changed from one form or another, but never created from nothing. 2. You can’t break even. Entropy always increases in a closed system; in other words, over time, the energy in a closed system converts into more chaotic, less useful forms until it becomes heat, which requires more energy to use than you get by using it. 3. You can’t quit playing the game. Entropy drops to zero in a perfect crystal at absolute zero… but to cool a system to absolute zero requires infinite energy.

Entropy, in other words, is a measure of the disorder in a system, and it always increases; all things decay. Interestingly, not only is this an inevitable process, it is the actual scientific definition of time; “the future” is *defined* as the direction in which entropy increases.

Now, most of the time this isn’t that big a deal. Life on Earth, for example, is able to keep running because it’s not a closed system; we have a giant energy source that hangs over our heads all day every day, just pouring free energy down onto us. As long as you can get energy from outside the system, you can keep entropy at bay.

But the universe has no outside; it *is* a closed system, which means that every second of every day entropy is increasing. Eventually, if nothing else destroys the universe first, we will reach the state known as heat-death: all energy in the universe will be heat, all forms of organization will be impossible, everything will decay into a slowly expanding cloud of slowly cooling gas, and nothing else will ever happen again, forever.

However! If you could break the first law of thermodynamics, and create energy from nothing, that would be the same as bringing energy in from outside the universe. Even if all the energy native to the universe has succumbed to entropy, you can use that outside energy to maintain structures and keep the universe running—and if you had a steady supply of that energy, you could keep doing it. Of course, it’s impossible to violate conservation of energy—unless, of course, you’re using magic.

Entropy is not the only form decay takes in the series, however. Emotional decay is also a quite prominent theme, particular the descent into despair and depression. Most obvious is the breakdown of magical girls into witches, as we see in Sayaka’s arc. What’s interesting here is that their magic is explicitly stated to come from wishes, i.e., hope, and as they consume it they descend into despair, which descent Kyubey uses to combat entropy. In other words, the entropic decay of the universe is being explicitly connected to depression and despair, and the magic needed to overcome it is likewise emotional. There’s a real resonance here with comments by Urobuchi in the Fate/Zero author’s notes, where he discusses the inevitable decay of the universe and connects this with a decay in his ability to write happy stories. He concludes that only a “pure soul” could reverse entropy and save him from this mounting despair that is beginning to threaten his ability to write at all.

This brings us, believe it or not, to a third kind of decay present in the series, spiritual decay. In Buddhism, the first of the Four Noble Truths which form the philosophical core of the religion is the inevitability of dukkha, or suffering. One of the three types of dukkha is the inevitable decay caused by the passage of time, because all material things are transient and eventual break down and are lost—entropy, in other words. Unfortunately, the weight of karma traps us in the material world, and we are thus unable to escape dukkha unless we can do something about karma.

Now stop me if you’re heard this one: A young girl achieves a state of transcendence, allowing her to escape the confines of the material world and free herself from suffering, but in an act of supreme self-sacrifice, she instead takes pity on the suffering of countless others, taking their suffering and karmic burdens onto herself so that they can transcend the material in her place. That is, in essence, the story of the Chinese boddhisatva Guan-yin, known in Japan as Kannon, and the clear inspiration for Madokami. She rescues and redeems her friends and her world—but remember what I said about the relationship between entropy and depression and Urobuchi’s previous writing. The TV series does, more or less, end happily, or at least with a better world. The implication is that even the author, unable to write happy stories because of the entropic decay of his own emotional universe—because remember, the world in which these characters live is the inside of his head—has been saved.

[elided bits Kit is covering regarding the movies, precisely what is meant by “Rebellion” in this context, and the power of story]

So, during the climactic battle in Rebellion, Nagisa and Sayaka reveal why they volunteered to leave the perfect bliss of Madoka’s nirvana-like Magical Girl afterlife for this difficult mission. Sayaka of course did it because she regretted leaving Kyouko behind, and Nagisa, in an apparent continuation of a running gag throughout the movie, did it so she could eat cheese. But that’s in itself interesting—if she loves cheese so much, how come her afterlife doesn’t provide her with any?
The answer, of course, lies in what cheese is—decayed milk. There can be no cheese in a spiritual plane devoid of dukkha, because without decay cheese cannot be created. There are good things, in other words, things that some of the magical girls love, not found in Madokannon’s world because they are the creations of decay.

In medieval European alchemy, one of the most important concepts was the process called putrefaction. In practical terms, this is just a form of fermentation, but spiritually it was related to the idea that life emerges out of rot. A piece of rotting fruit is disgusting and revolts the human senses, but it is also a riotous explosion of life, molds and maggots that nourish other living things, up and up the food chain until eventually all the natural beauty, all of life, depends on rot for sustenance. The alchemists regarded this as a profound spiritual truth, and that same spiritual truth, whether derived from alchemy or not, is key to the reason BOTH magical girls returned. Without putrefaction there is no cheese for Nagisa. Without the decay of Sayaka’s mental state and Kyouko’s resulting attempt to reach out to her, there is no friendship between the two of them. Everythign they shared, is a product of decay.

In other words, the cheese gag is actually far more than a gag; it is evidence that Madoka’s system is imperfect, that some of the magical girls she saves are unhappy in a world without decay. Death and decay are part of life, a part that Madoka is trying to deny. Only time and the inevitable sequels will tell if Homura’s system is any better.

We started the panel by discussing the opposing significance of Mami and Homura. That representation still holds in Rebellion; Mami is once again in the position of defending the status quo, the happier, safer world within the barrier with its traditional magical girl team and cute mascot characters and always-survivable monsters. And once again Homura is questioning and challenging that world, introducing new and uncomfortable elements from the alien genre of conspiracy thrillers, such as the notion that one of them is a traitor, that their memories are false, that what they’re perceiving isn’t real. Their fight, which was teased throughout the first three episodes of the series, becomes inevitable here, and Mami emerges as the clear victor. As of course she must be, because Homura is not bringing everything she has to bear; that part of her which is already a witch is trying to maintain this happy world, because she herself created it, so Homura is fighting herself as much as Mami.

At the end of the movie, of course, Homura declares herself to be a demon, earning nicknames like Akuma Homura and Homucifer. And of course, there are references to Paradise Lost hidden throughout the movie, just as references to Faust were hidden throughout the series. Put another way, just as the series is in many ways a Buddhist Faust, Rebellion is a Buddhist retelling of Paradise Lost. But does that mean Homura is Satan?

In the series, even though Madoka was the main character, it was a supporting character, Homura, who took the actual role of Faust, Similarly, in the movie, even though Homura is the main character, someone else is Satan. Homura’s rebellion, after all, is NOT against God, but rather against herself; the real rebel against Godoka is Kyubey, who like Satan in Paradise Lost believes that he is more qualified to run things, doesn’t understand anyone else’s motivations, gets his butt kicked in a war that tears apart Heaven, and is trapped forever in a Hell that exists inside him. In other words, just as he was Mephistopheles in the series’ version of Faust, he’s Satan in the series’ version of Paradise Lost.

But the real question is, is Homura good or evil? And the answer is, yes. Homura is a spectacularly morally ambiguous character. She reunites Madoka with her loved ones, returns Sayaka and Nagisa to worlds where they can get what they want, is working to end the magical girl system once and for all, is acting out of love, and holding the Incubators in check. These are all good things! Of course, she also destroyed one universe and is prepared to sacrifice another if she has to, has very clearly taken on the role of the Buddhist demon Mara, whose job is to use illusions and material things to distract people from their true potential to transcend this world—watch again that scene in the school hallway with Madoka. She deliberately taunts the other girls, forcing Kyoko to waste food, breaking a teacup behind Mami in an echo of the Charlotte fight, and erasing Sayaka’s memories, she’s motivated entirely by her own selfish desires, and she controls all the familiars and probably also witches. Her moral status is incredibly complicated—and so, like the movie itself, we end on an ambiguous note.

24 thoughts on “Latin Latin Madoka More Latin 3: The Search for More Mami

  1. Good stuff.

    I do have two things to say. First, is Demon Homura trying to antagonize Kyoko and Mami? Throughout the movie Homura's doll familiars enact her true desires – particularly in her confrontation with Sayaka, where the dolls appear to commit suicide and throw tomatoes at Homura. It's the dolls who want to take an apple from Kyoko, which suggests that on some level Homura wants to be Kyoko's friends, but Homura rejects that desire by rejecting Kyoko's apple. Similarly, when Homura knocks over the teacup, it sort of looks like she's reaching out to Mami. In fact if you watch the scene closely she's extending her hand outwards even after the teacup falls.

    Also, it's not clear if Homura is in control of the familiars. Certainly, her own familiars are doing things by themselves. As for the other familiars, this is something that is made more clear in the manga. In the manga version of Rebellion, the familiars are seen in the carriage that Sayaka and Nagisa ride in. Later, they're seen watching Sayaka reunite with Hitomi and Kyousuke. The implication is that the familiars were the ones that were involved in the Homulilly battle. Like Sayaka and Nagisa they are stranded, unable to return to the Law of Cycles. The presence of the familiars raises the possibility that the anime's witches – and maybe even the magical girls they came from – can return.

  2. Interesting thoughts. I would say that if the familiars represent Homura's subconscious desires, then they would be under her control.

    Either way, she's *clearly* trying to antagonize Sayaka, and earlier in the movie she says she “never liked” Mami; the only one I can sort of buy that she's trying to make friends with is Kyouko.

  3. Well they clearly are not entirely under her control – I mean, they throw tomatoes at her for crying out loud – but that doesn't mean they don't represent Homura's own inner thoughts. During Homura's confrontation with Sayaka, the familiars are seen jumping off a ledge, barefoot, with a bunch of shoes lying around. This is meaningless to an American audience, but deeply symbolic to a Japanese one – in Japan there is a perception that people often take off their shoes before committing suicide. (Which may be true, I have not found any hard evidence for this, but there's a bunch of anecdotal stuff out there.) If Homura's familiars are committing suicide, then it suggests on some level Homura wants to commit suicide.

    Homura doesn't say she never liked Mami, at least according to the subtitles I've seen. Rather, she says she was bad at dealing with Mami, which is an important difference.

  4. I can't agree with the term selfish for homura, Everything about her is self sacrificing, just because her actions to seperate herself from the three other puella are cruel and dark doesn't make them inherently selfish, selflessness doesn't have to lead to “pleasant” outcomes that people can look up to and idealize. it merely means you aren't doing it for yourself..

    As for who Homura is. Not 100% sure where she lies, but Homura “slays” madokami. and Gott is Tot is in reference to the humans who killed their god. Homura in some way can be representitive of the magical girl, or perhaps humanity in general.

    It feels like an incomplete thought to me, as I am having trouble fitting it into the other symbolism; the best I have though, is that Homura, in taking up the mantle of author in rebellion (which in some ways I also think the title might reference, given the clear divergence between the sweet ending some where hoping for, and the one given.) Much as God(oka) and the devil(kyuubei/urobochi) where authors, Homura, Humanity, perhaps the fans of the show, or simply the people who are not the author, are now in charge of their own destiny, Gott is Tot. Remember that Urobuchi mentioned he was leaving as writer from the franchise. He wants to see where the fans and quartet take madoka magica. In that sense, Homura's Rebellion isn't so much against madoka, as it is against kyuubei or Urobuchi.

    Do you have any thoughts? I'd love to hear others opinions.

  5. Well, the thing about Homura is that she desires to see Madoka alive and happy – and she is willing to sacrifice anything (and ignore Madoka's own opinions) in pursuit of this goal. Since she's only concerned with her own desire, that makes her selfish by definition. Her actions are self-sacrificing and perhaps self-denying, but that does not mean they are not selfish.

  6. no. by this definition selflessness is impossible, since madoka is only following her own desires, that makes her a completely selfish person. she is doing what she wants; to sacrifice herself for people she cares about. that is HER own desire.

    Think before you speak. Self denying IS selfless. period. The idea that some people will go through such mental contortions to insist that selflessness is pure and no bad could ever come from it is mind boggling. stupifying. Homura's actions are not for her own benefit. by definition, she is selfless, she is not concerned with her own situation, she is concerned with ANOTHERS.

  7. Definition of selfless: concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with one's own;

    Definition of selfish: lacking consideration for others;

    Madoka is selfess because she would sacrifice herself to save the world.

    Homura is selfish because she would sacrifice the world to save Madoka. The fact that Homura is willing to sacrifice herself does not change the fact that she would willingly sacrifice everyone else as well, if it was to save Madoka. The fact that Homura cares only about her own desire to see Madoka alive, safe, and happy is what makes her selfish – because she does not care about anyone or anything else.

    You know, saying “I'd love to hear others opinions.” and then saying “Think before you speak.” and going on some rant about how people are stupid for expressing an opinion is kind of mind boggling and stupefying. It's also hypocritical, obnoxious, and RUDE.

  8. Please keep this civil, Anonymous. There's no call for stuff like “Think before you think,” and if you say things like that again I will delete the comment. Please see the comment policy; this is your only warning.

  9. Comment deleted for violating Comment Policy 5.3. You were warned, anon; if you want to continue this discussion you should review the Comment Policy (handily available in the links in the top right of every page) and refrain from continuing to violate it.

  10. I could care less, but it certainly speaks of your character, or lack of it. This is your house I realize, and you're free to be a hypocritial tyrant at your leisure, But you are fooling yourself if you expect me to do anything but reciprocate on the level you are playing.

  11. Interesting thoughts as usual, Froborr.

    Do you really think Mami has a core of steel? I thought one of the points PMMM makes with Mami is that she just creates that appearance, but actually her heart is quite delicate.

    Did anyone at the conference bring up the existentialist interpretation of Rebellion? I was initially pretty skeptical, but I've found myself warming up to it lately.

    @AnonymousMarch 22, 2014 at 7:21 PM
    Please don't be like that. If Froborr blocks anonymous comments I'd have to register an account or something.

  12. Keep in mind, Mami has been a magical girl for quite some time (for some reason the number 3 years is in my head, but I don't know where it came from) without succumbing to despair. So yes, while she is lonely and sad, she is also a survivor. It's yet another parallel betweeen her and Homura, actually; they put up a front of being tough, but are actually in a lot of pain, while at the same time they are also continuing to function despite the pain.

    Nobody brought it up, but it is something I've been thinking about.

  13. Ah, I get what you mean, in which case I definitely agree. Mami is truly impressive, and the parallels with Homura you point out are quite apt. I always had this vague sense of “too alike to get past their differences” with those two, and you've helped me understand it better.

    I guess I'm just being excessively specific with the metaphors. Like in Homura's case, I would say that her steely resolve is really a facade; a mask of stoicism that conceals the truth. In actuality, it is fiery determination that keeps her going.

  14. I agree it's determination, but not that's fiery. Homura's determination is the determination of the sea wearing down a cliff or a tree root burrowing through solid rock. It's not hot-bloodedness, but rather a simple refusal to accept that she will fail. Which is why The Very Soil is named what it is and has the chapter titles it does.

  15. This may be a regional thing, but I really don't think of “hot-blooded” when somebody says “fiery.” To me, “fiery” conveys “intense,” “fierce,” “vehement” — that sort of thing. Whereas “hot-blooded” is more like “excitable” or “enthusiastic.”

  16. Mami “humble”? C’mon! She’s a showoff. I doubt she finishes all her battles with a twirl and cup of tea when there’s no idolizing little girls around to inflate her ego. Her design and weapons are the flashiest of them all. And when Homura points to her that bringing Madoka and Sayaka into witch barriers isn’t the most sensible idea, or that Charlotte is a dangerous witch, Mami just dismisses it, and behaves confrontationally – which is quite arrogant, imo.

    • These are good points! Honestly this post is old enough that I don’t remember what I was thinking about when I referred to Mami as “humble”; in my later episode-by-episode posts I talk about how flashy she is and how obviously she’s showing off in her witch battles.

  17. Looking at the one time “humble” appears, it’s in reference to the archetypal Yamato Nadeshiko, who I would very much expect to perform humility.

    Mami’s showy deeds do contrast with understated words. Both proceed from the same desire to be admired, and a canny understanding that showing works where telling may backfire.

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