Character Discussion: Madoka Kaname
Madoka Kaname is, to be honest, not mine or many fans' favorite character on the show, even though she's (possibly, arguably) the protagonist and titular character. She just doesn't do very much at all until the end. She's kind of like the plot's football. Various characters fight each other to get Madoka to do what THEY want, but nobody, not even Madoka herself, really knows what SHE wants. So we have to ask ourselves, why is she written like this? And what's redeeming about her as a character, despite the fact that her indecision and inaction make her dull?
Let's take a closer look at Madoka Kaname.
Its not that Madoka doesn't know how to be happy, but that Madoka will choose to sacrifice her happiness for the sake of others. She puts on a brave face, but if you look at it, her actions are motivated by her feelings of worthlessness. So she doesn't consider her life a big loss. By contrast, Homura places a high value on Madoka.— Reddit User: dman8000
What's interesting is that, even though the show's title Puella Magi Madoka Magica basically translates to "magical girl Madoka magic", and Madoka is depicted as a magical girl in the opening song sequence, she never becomes a magical girl proper in the present timeline the show takes place in. When she does make her wish, she becomes a transcendent, god-like being, much like a Boddhisatva in Buddhist mythology, rather than a magical girl. The magical girl form of Madoka Kaname is a ghost of sorts, a haunted memory of previous timelines that only really exists as part of Homura's memories.
Which brings us to a critical question about the show. Is Homura the true protagonist of the series? Yeah, the first episodes are told from Madoka's perspective, no mistake. But, it is the actions and memories of Homura, not Madoka, that drive a lot of the plot. In some action scenes, things happen like Sayaka fighting Kyoko or Homura fighting Mami where Madoka is merely an onlooker, passively reflecting on actions taken by others, rather than taking action herself. She watches as Sayaka becomes a magical girl, then a witch. Kyoko is more active and tries to turn Sayaka back somehow, but dies in the process. Madoka never takes an important, decisive action herself, except at the very end, when she rewrites reality with her wish.
Madoka's Key Characteristics:
How can we characterize Madoka?
- She plays it safe. In the beginning of the show, she wonders if wearing red ribbons is too flashy. Later, her mother says Madoka's main problem is being too afraid to make mistakes, so that she never takes big, decisive actions.
- She's indecisive. This is largely due to the fact that, while Mami keeps telling her about how awesome being a magical girl will be, Homura keeps telling her not to change. She's not sure who to believe, so she chooses the safest route of inaction.
- She's kind and caring, and a good friend. In the original timeline, those qualities led her to defending Homura and becoming her friend. This quality is why Homura is so taken with Madoka.
- She has little to no desire of her own. She never expresses interest in a boy, and spends so much time on the fence about being a magical girl because she has no real big wish for herself. She's basically content with what she has.
- She's passive. Like I said before, she rarely does any actual fighting, at least, not in the main timeline of the show.
She's kind of similar to Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion, or Hamlet, because both characters spend a lot of time uncertain of what to do. I think this type of character is interesting. It is in stark contrast with many "action hero/ine" protagonists who would just charge into battle with their magic swords or guns akimbo and pound away at the enemy without thinking twice. These kinds of characters are more caring, more thoughtful. I think Madoka's charm is her indecisiveness because it is caused by her best qualities; she doesn't want to be involved in violence. She wants to do what is best for everyone. That's why her wish becomes the most unselfish wish of all time, which also makes her wish the most powerful wish of all. This leads to her becoming "Madokami", a physical embodiment of the concept of hope.
Inspirations for Madoka:
Madoka as a character is inspired by Hamlet, as the witch in the first and second episodes is called Gertrud, named after Gertrude, the queen in Hamlet who is Hamlet's mother. The plot is also influenced by Faust, a play about selling one's soul to the devil for earthly pleasures. Gretchen is the name of Madoka's witch form, and that is taken from the name of a character in Faust. The analogy is that Faust's devil, Mephistopheles, is the basis for Kyubey. He offers little girls one otherwise impossible wish, but their souls become trapped in soul gems. Then the girls become inhuman creatures, destined to turn into the very monsters they fight.
Madoka is inspired by Hamlet. Madoka resembles Hamlet, in that while Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father, Homura gives Madoka a grave warning in the first episode, vaguely worded but very spooky. In both cases, they spend their story wondering whether to trust what they've been told by a mysterious entity or not, and their indecision, their lack of action, is the focus of the narrative.
Madoka also seems to be inspired by Ophelia in Hamlet. Ophelia is Hamlet's lover and potential marriage candidate, famous for going mad, telling everyone to go f*ck themselves with the symbolic language of flowers, oh, and wearing white.
According to Wikipedia:
"The early modern stage in England had an established set of emblematic conventions for the representation of female madness: dishevelled hair worn down, dressed in white, bedecked with wild flowers, Ophelia's state of mind would have been immediately 'readable' to her first audiences" Oh, I'm sure that is nothing at all to do with this scene.
Issues With Madoka's Personality
When I talked about Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion in another article, I said that he is hated (especially by American fans) for traits that would not get him nearly as much hate as if he were female. If you think about Shinji as female, to a lot of people, his passivity and worry over hurting others becomes reasoned compassion, rather than a lack of masculinity that must be hated. Many fans, as it turns out, prove me right by showing a lot more compassion for Madoka than many of them have for Shinji. They both essentially do the same thing as characters, including crying, yelling that the system is unfair and cruel, and wallowing in sadness and self-pity. Both are given the Call to heroism at the start, but they both freak out and stand there while stuff happens more often than they do anything active and heroic. And both of them end their stories in a similar way; Shinji becomes a sort of time capsule, a lone eternally preserved human soul who may one day restore humanity in the end of End of Evangelion, and Madoka becomes Madokami, a goddess-like being representing hope, ushering in a new cosmic order without witches.
But, alternative character interpretation IS pretty rampant in this fandom. Every character gets people liking and hating them in forums. Many people dislike Madoka because she doesn't do much of anything, because she's such a passive character. I get that this is intentional, an attempt to deconstruct the archetypal flowery maidens of ancient tales. But, as a protagonist, her passivity and naiveté could come across as boring, or annoying. That depends on the viewer and their expectations.
Madoka is basically describable in terms of what she's not. She's not a weary veteran on the brink of utter despair like Homura, she's joyful and optimistic. She's not cynical like Kyubey or Kyoko. She's similar in optimism to Sayaka and Mami. However, she's not as passionate or emotion-driven as Sayaka. She's not as confident as Mami, since Mami is a veteran magical girl, and she is merely a potential recruit watching from the sidelines.
One thing that's interesting to ask about is, does Madoka hate herself? She doesn't have a rant like Shinji does, where he says "I'm dishonest, and a coward, I'm not a good person," etc. But, she seems to be self-giving out of a kind of sense of her own inferiority. Is she just being politely self-deprecating in a typical Japanese way, or does she struggle with a personal lack of self-worth? Well, one thing that helps Madoka is she has supportive and loving parents, which is something Shinji lacks (obviously). Maybe she doesn't have that level of self-hatred as a result, but she does seem to have indecisiveness born from a lack of self-worth.
She also doesn't seem to have a strong sense of identity or will, she goes along fluidly with whatever her friends are doing. Mami's death becomes a kind of wake-up call for her; it's when she realizes she's not playing a child's game, and this "magical girl" stuff is dangerous and much scarier than she would have initially imagined. She's defined by reacting to things, and has very little of her own personality.
Madoka's Weakness as a Decoy Protagonist
Madoka is set up as the protagonist, and is in fact the main viewpoint character for most of the series. We see some characters apart from Madoka, like Kyubey talking to Homura alone and Sayaka talking to Kyoko alone, so the perspective is third person omniscient. But then the show reveals that it was actually about Homura all along. Homura's time travel was the reason Madoka had become so powerful. I believe that Madoka became passive in this timeline because of Homura's actions; without Homura's confusing but dire warnings, she would have simply become a magical girl for the sake of being one. Madoka has no real motivation to do that, she just wants to be special. She comes to an age where it's understood that changes require sacrifice, and the original timeline has her boldly meeting that sacrifice and acting as a strong person.
But what Homura does by warning her not only changes what she does, but it looks to me that Homura also changes who she is as a person, making her more indecisive, nervous, and passive. In other words, she seems to get weaker as Homura gets stronger and more confident. When someone has a powerful bodyguard, they don't need to be as strong.
Is Homura acting like a stalker or abusive boyfriend here? Maybe. Whether you see Homura's affection for Madoka as purely innocent or kind of insane is up to interpretation, but this is a show that makes the point over and over again that purely selfless actions, like Homura's, are incredibly rare, and thought by people like Kyoko to not exist at all. But then again, Kyoko essentially proves herself wrong by being willing to die to confront a witchy Sayaka, so... Yeah, the philosophy of this show is complicated. I don't think they present any one philosophical viewpoint as correct in all circumstances. Instead, they present them and show some of each one's drawbacks and flaws, letting the viewer decide who was right and who was wrong. (I have another article where I talk more about the philosophies represented by different characters in the show, it's rather a philosophical salad bar.)
Madoka's weakness could also be a feminist commentary on the Damsel in Distress trope. Many magical girls in magical girl anime are based on fairy tale princesses, and both Eastern and Western medieval literature had a thing for girls who were innocent, pure, who act as living McGuffins to be claimed by heroes.
Contemporary critics take issue with this handling of femininity in old stories, because they point out that stories should affirm the capabilities of women, instead of teaching girls that they are helpless and in need of constant reliance on men. So could it be that Madoka is a deconstruction of this trope?
Other fairy tale concepts show up, including a reference to unicorns and mermaids to represent Kyoko and Sayaka, respectively. (I want to do a page on them in the future.) In the same-fictional-universe manga, Puella Magi Oriko Magica, Kyubey is referred to as a "fairy". It makes sense, in many legends, fairies are the ones sending the hero on his or her quest, and they also sometimes grant mortals magical powers. They're not always so benevolent, and can deceive or manipulate humans, but they usually play a role in rewarding virtuous actions. Sounds sort of like our familiar tricky alien friend.
At any rate, Puella Magi Madoka Magica seems to be making the case that, if you treat someone like a precious doll that must be protected, that's what they will become.