Why "Puella Magi Madoka Magica" Gets Sadness Right
Sadness is one of the basic, universal human emotions. It is also shared by many animals; for example, dogs feel sadness when their owners are gone from home for a long time. Many animals show the ability to grieve and feel sorrow when a friend or family member is dead or suffering. In fiction, sorrow is a powerful tool that can be used to build empathy between the audience and the characters.
If it's done well, tragedy in film evokes an emotional response in the audience. If not, it comes off as fake and cheesy, like a bad soap opera. People love stories with sadness, because they resonate with our own sadness and help us feel less isolated by our struggle. And because characters feel more real if they react emotionally in a way that feels natural to us.
How "Puella Magi Madoka Magica" Shows Sadness
Puella Magi Madoka Magica is focused around the concept of sadness. The "tempter" figure Kyubey promises girls that they can achieve their truest heart's desire, one wish granted. But, the consequences of the wishes sometimes aren't all they're cracked up to be, like we see with both Kyoko and Sayaka. And, in exchange for the wish, the girls' souls are trapped forever in a soul gem, and they are required to use their magic to fight witches until they use their magic up or give in to despair, becoming witches themselves. Then, when a witch is vanquished by magical girls, her soul gem, now called a "grief seed" is consumed in order to replenish magical energy and somehow stave off the death of the universe via entropy. So basically, countless human lives are destroyed by Kyubey's mission to keep gluing the universe together. The whole system runs on despair and suffering.
While Kyoko, Mami, and Sayaka have very tragic outcomes, the most powerful sorrow in the show, it turns out, is actually that of Homura. It's a dramatic reveal at the end of the series that Homura has met Madoka many times before. She keeps reliving the same events over and over again via time travel. Each time, she's looking for a way to save Madoka by stopping her from becoming a magical girl and by becoming strong enough to defeat Walpurgis, a kind of arch-witch, by herself. We see Homura suffer on an endless treadmill of time travel as she keeps trying to do this and fails, and each time she fails, she has to watch everyone she ever cared about suffer and die, including Madoka.
She also feels the pain of not being able to communicate with anyone in a way they can understand. In one timeline, she told the unvarnished truth, but no one believed her, and Mami freaked out and killed herself when bluntly told the truth about magical girls.
So Homura is doomed to a Sysiphean fate: she has to keep trying to defeat the enemy, even when she can't make herself understood to people she's trying to help, who could help her if they only understood what she was trying to warn them about. So the sorrow is not just from one instance of seeing a friend or loved one die, but from seeing all her friends mistrust her, suffer, and die, heedless of her warnings from the future. This is the worst imaginable sorrow, and it's amazing that Homura clings to hope because of her love for Madoka throughout all of it.
How Other Anime Get Sorrow Wrong
Other anime shows (and movies and other forms of fiction) can sometimes try to evoke sorrow in the audience but do it wrong. This can be because they're using old cliches, or because the actors are over-dramatizing their sadness in a way that ends up being comical, or because the audience simply isn't given enough to make them care.
For example, I'm going to pick on recent anime Magical Girl Raising Project. I watched this one as it came out, but I got to be increasingly dissatisfied with what originally had seemed promising. What happened was, too many characters, not enough show. Since it's a "Battle Royale" anime, a death match (even though they gradually manipulate the characters to that point instead of like Danganronpa where it's introduced as such right away), each character besides the main character is likely doomed from the start. Like in every single other "Battle Royale" anime and like in The Hunger Games, the main character is an undeniable peach who doesn't want to kill anyone, who wins the melee due to luck anyway.
So, it has going against it that it follows a predictable pattern that it does not deviate from. Predictable patterns ruin emotional investment in anything on the part of the audience, because the seasoned veteran of the genre is going to know what's happening before it happens, no surprises, no reason to take interest. Sure, nothing is without cliches and old tropes, but fiction should always be striving to tell us something new as well. Magical Girl Raising Project doesn't do that really. The most surprising thing about it is some of the characters' powers and secrets in their back stories, but the plot itself progresses in a way that's very predictable, aside from the death of the main character's best friend happening earlier than I would have expected.
But the anime focuses too much on action and fighting, and does not give the audience or characters time to grieve. The Hunger Games does this better; after Rue dies, Katniss is left alone and mourning for the rest of the day and looks up at her death announcement that night, heartbroken. She also has to live with the guilt over the people she killed that day. In art, we talk about how "white space", the blank space in a composition, is as important as the space taken up by figures, objects, shapes, and patterns. In music, you have rests and pauses, and they're just as important to the music as the sounds. But Magical Girl Raising Project lacks these important pauses for sadness to really take root in the audience. We can't care that much about a dead character, because the anime moves on from their deaths so quickly, treating most of them too lightly. Even Snow White, who is basically the "designated griever", doesn't really have time after a while to think about all of the dead characters much because the plot develops so rapidly and constantly demands her attention, not letting her take any time necessary to grieve.
In contrast, Neon Genesis Evangelion does pauses in a genius way. While it's often misunderstood as lazy or low-budget animation, Evangelion uses long pauses to make the audience think more and feel more. The anime really manages to take you into the center of the mind of the main characters and feel what they're feeling. In my opinion, 13-ish episode anime don't have time to do this, usually. Think about your best friend in the world. Did you feel the way you feel about them now on the day you met them? Of course not. So why should we be expected to bond meaningfully with fictional characters in just a few episodes?
Puella Magi Madoka Magica is possibly one rare exception to this rule (and why, in the future, if I ever do a list of my top half-season anime, it will likely top that list). It does exactly that; gets us to bond meaningfully with characters in just a few episodes. Even though most of the characters die, each one tends to emotionally resonate with viewers in a big way.
How does Puella Magi Madoka Magica achieve this? Well, I would say it mainly works because it's focused and disciplined. Magical Girl Raising Project is like a butterfly flitting from character to character, not really lingering long enough with any one of them, and throwing too much detail at us to have us care about any one of them that much. It's simply numbers; if I had 40 baseball cards, I would probably remember less about each player than if I had a set of 10. Longer shows and long, epic fantasy series can get away with having more characters, because they have a bigger narrative space in which to let them roam. But the time constraints of a short, quickly-produced anime series do not allow for that kind of freedom.
Another important thing to note is that the tragedy in Puella Magi Madoka Magica is not merely violence. Some writers assume making something really violent and graphic makes it tragic by definition, that's not the case. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a tragedy about having one's soul trapped forever in a condition of suffering, a fear common to Buddhism and Christianity. It's not just about physical pain, but about facing an emotional pain that cannot be escaped or avoided.
So, to write sorrow, you need to have:
- Emotional weight tied to the main characters' actions and feelings.
- Pauses for grief.
- Deep discussion about the motivations and desires of the characters (despair is frustrated hope, so they have to hope for something in order for their despair to be meaningful).
- Time for the audience to feel like they've made a true connection to the characters in a natural way.
- Emotionally challenging circumstances, not just a mere physical threat.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica and other great tragic anime have the above elements, and usually, a show that tries to be sorrowful and misses the mark will be missing one or several of them.
Thanks for reading!