I critique anime, games, movies, books, and more, getting to deeper levels of analysis and thought than many other critics on the web.
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 haunting 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 drives 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.
Rachael Lefler (author) from Illinois on June 05, 2018:
Maybe "ambivalent" is a better word than "passive". Ambivalent means being pulled between two extremes. That describes her a bit better than "passive" although the two can be taken the same way colloquially. Madoka is internally conflicted. She may start out sure that she wants to help people, but she becomes very unsure about how to do that in the right way. And it is true that she lacks desire, for herself. She can't think of a wish she wants for herself. Not even a parfait. Or nothing "big" enough of a wish. Maybe Homura had gotten to her on a subconscious level there though. You have to remember we're seeing a version of Madoka who only exists because of Homura's meddling with time.?
Anyway, this article is a bit old and could use some fixing. Seeing how much you care really motivated me to edit it. Expect changes to this article by the end of the week.
Rachael Lefler (author) from Illinois on June 05, 2018:
You bring up some interesting points. What I see as defining her as passive is that she's so influenced by others. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's more like saying she follows where the situation takes her. Which is fine. She seems afraid of confrontation or hurting people, but as you said that's probably just a Japanese thing. Sayaka and Kyoko are more American-like. Originally Homura was weaker too. These characters are interesting because they change due to Homura's meddling with time travel. Clearly the main timeline Madoka is intended to appear weaker or less decisive than the Madoka in the timeline where Homura first met her, when she was already a practicing magical girl. You see a lot of carefree confidence in that Madoka that the current Madoka lacks, but that's also because it's going back in time and we're seeing who she was before making the contract. It's clear in the "first meeting Homura" timeline that Mami's training had a positive effect on her personality. But I do think that the intention of the show is to show how the time travel makes Madoka weaker as it makes Homura stronger, like equivalent exchange. Homura is nearing despair because she's afraid her time travel will make Madoka someone so different as to be unrecognizable. Sure, she's still more confident than the original "Moemura". But the fear is there - that supporting and sheltering someone too much makes them more weak and too reliant on other people. At least in this show however, it's a good thing to be a little more hesitant to make a big decision. Sayaka thinks she's in the kind of magical girl show where magic doesn't come at a cost. She doesn't see the downside to it. She makes a foolish decision quickly and without enough information. Madoka, by waiting longer to make a decision, sees more of what's really going on with magical girls. I guess you could say she's curious or more open-minded, if you want to frame it in a more positive way. I don't see a passive character as a bad thing by itself. Sometimes it's necessary for them to just be a lens through which the audience sees this cool imaginary world. Madoka is much cooler to me than your average shounen protagonist because she doesn't just rush in or rush to fighting so quickly.
Sergio Meira on June 03, 2018:
Actually, I rather disagree with your description of Madoka Kaname's character (with all due respect -- I just see a different thing here). Let's see:
1. "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."
Well, actually, in that she shows what I'd like to call "normalcy." Wondering if this or that is "too flashy" is the kind of thing I see everybody doing. "Being afraid to make mistakes" is more of a Japanese trait, I'd say -- and I'm not sure her mother is right. Notice, for instance, how she saved the suicide party people in Ep. 4: is this what someone who "plays it safe" and is "afraid to make mistakes" does? Note also how she tries to convince Sayaka to work with Homura and Kyoko: she's not "playing it safe" for HERSELF, she's actually criticizing a close friend's choices and suggesting she'd be better off doing things differently... Note also how she offers to go with Sayaka in her first witch hunt, even though she has no powers to protect herself: again, that doesn't look like "playing it safe" or "beying afraid to make mistakes"...
2. "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."
Well, considering the big change involved, and how she doesn't know much about either Mami or Homura (she met both during the same day), I'd call that being prudent, not indecisive. At every moment, it seemed to me Madoka knew what she wanted to do: three times she was about to become a Magical Girl to save her friends, and three times she was prevented from doing so (twice by Homura, once by Charlotte eating Mami). I think of Madoka here as someone who does know what she wants to do, but who keeps being forced by external forces to do what she doesn't want to do.
3. "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."
Here I agree. And I'd add that this is the quality that makes others see her as indecisive or passive. I don't think she is either, but to Western tastes, if you're kind, you also have to be indecisive or passive -- kind characters who are strong-willed and active are rare if at all there. I think Madoka is one such character: strong, but kind. Which is why Western audiences typically misinterpret her behavior.
4. "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."
Well, she says in Ep. 1 she'd like to get love letters like Hitomi does. She clearly has nothing against having a boyfriend (it's one of the wishes Mami suggests to her). It's simply that this is not happening in her life at the moment. Since we all have had moments in which we don't have boy/girlfriends in our lives, I don't think you should take that as a character feature for her. It may simply be a question of timing.
Also, she did NOT spend so much time "on the fence" about being a magical girl. By episode 3, she was sure she wanted it -- before Sayaka was. Mami's death changed her mind, but certainly that would have happened to most people as well. After that, she was certain she did NOT want to be a Magical girl -- she didn't say so, but expressed it clearly to Sayaka in Ep. 4. After that, it was all Kyūbē traying to force her into situations where she'd have no other choice -- and when she thought it was the only way to save her friends, she immediately decided to become a magical girl (once in Ep. 5, and once in Ep.8, both times for Sayaka) -- but Homura stopped her. It's not that she is "on the fence", it's that the other players force her to do what she doesn't want.
5. She's passive. Like I said before, she rarely does any actual fighting, at least, not in the main timeline of the show.
That's because she had no powers. This is like saying Sayaka was "passive" in Ep. 1-3 because she had no powers -- she talked a lot, but did nothing. Madoka... immediately accepted Kyūbē's plea for help and tried to save him from Homura. Later in Ep. 4, she saves the suicide party people by taking that bucket and chucking it through the window, thus showing her courage. And then she goes on to help her Magical Girl friend by going with her, at considerable risk to herself. Is this "being passive"? This would be like saying that only Magical Girls can be "active" (since they are the ones with powers that allow them to actually confront witches). So nobody who isn't a Magical Girl can be "active"?
As I said above, I think Western audiences have problems with characters who are both strong and kind, especially if they don't have special powers; so they tend to misinterpret Madoka, who is both, as being actually weak-willed or passive. (I could argue that all the others, who kind of conform to the Magical Girl system and apparently can't imagine a solution other than just fighting harder, are more "passive" than Madoka, who actually does see the way out and goes through it.)
JackMayson on November 15, 2017:
Madoka was a crybaby/scaredycat/didn't actually "shine" as a main character (until episode 10 and 12) or whatever people called she was, but she's neither weak nor useless. I believe the main reason was due to Homura's wish, not her advice (because in dangerous situations, Madoka didn't seem to care about it that much). Homura's wish was to reset her meeting with Madoka and this time she'll PROTECT MADOKA - instead of being protected like before. Madoka in the first timeline was rather strong and heroic than the later - she didn't even cry or lose her will to fight when Mami died, had no regrets, even smiled to Homura and said goodbye. The typical heroine personality, right? But from the 2nd timeline onwards, she blushed and cried more often. It's because Homura's wish changed her personality.
Even though I said Homura changed her personality, Madoka has a "core" that couldn't be changed by any cause: Hope. After Mami's death, Sayaka's broke down, Kyoko's sacrifice, Homura's crazy story and Kyubey's emotionlessness, and all those things happened together in a month - she still hasn't gone crazy yet - and that's pretty strong for a "crybaby" girl with good family and friends and has no painful experiences. Madoka's hope was presented in every timeline (as far as we have seen):
The first: needless to say.
The second: She turned into the witch, but it was due to using too much energy, not because of despair.
The third: The darkest one in the shown timelines. Madoka broke down after the death of her teammates, but she still hoped in defeating Walpurgisnacht. And after that, she sacrificed herself for Homura to turn back time - she still hoped Homura to be able to change their fate, even at her last moments.
The fourth: She made a contract for a girl she didn't even know, and hoped to help her.
The recent (or the 100+): Became the concept of hope itself, transcended time and space to bear the grief countless magical girls from every timelines. Which means her hope was stronger than infinite despair.
Her hope was simply unbelievable, I believe Madoka has been represented hope and selflessness - even before her transcendent. She's purely selfless and kind to everything - the type of personality I don't think it exists in real life (or in this anime, other than her), but that's what makes she's so strong to me.
Yama on August 26, 2017:
Madoka isn't as useless as a character you make her out to be. Infact she's one of the only characters that get shit done and is the reason Homura is even alive.