Being Dragged Along: The Characters in Madoka Magica

In lieu of finishing part 2 of my “SHAFT’s Edge” post (which I’ll get around to) I will instead quickly comment on something more recent: Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica.

I don’t read a ton of anime blogs, but between the ones I do read, twitter buzz, and Pixiv fanart, it’s safe to say that this show is generally well liked. I like it too, but not nearly as much as others. In fact, given SHAFT’s body of work, I don’t understand why people like this show so much when the studio has way better titles to offer. But I’m not going get into the whole well of complicated feelings I have for the show right now. It would be far more prudent to wait until it finishes, see where it goes, then write about it. But right now I want to talk briefly about what I think holds the show down the most: The characters.

In short, the characters just plain suck. I suppose by some metric they’re better than the characters in a show like To Aru Majutsu no Index, but at least in that show there’s some effort put into making those characters kind of eccentric and interesting. So, why do I think Madoka’s characters suck? Because we never really get to know them before that big wave of plot washes over their cute multicolored heads. Allow me to pose a counter example, and another SHAFT show: Sore Demo Machi Wa Mawatteiru. I was recently re-watching the last episode of SoreMachi, and it was one of the most moving episodes of anime I’ve seen in a while. I wasn’t completely sold on SoreMachi for its entire running time, but it’s a pretty good show, and I came to really like the characters.

The last episode focuses on one character’s quick and humorous trip to the underworld (which is apparently like going through immigration) matched against the pained cries of their friends back on Earth. The episode managed to be quite funny, quirky, but managed to genuinely inspire tears at the same time. And the reason why the cries of this character’s friends hit so hard was because you got to know this character very well through the show yourself, so you understand how they feel. For one episode alone to bring up such a well of emotions is a sign that your show is Pretty Good.

In Madoka, a character gets killed about three episodes in, and as a result there’s a strong emotional reaction on the part of the rest of the cast. But outside of the initial shock, it’s hard to really care about this character’s death since you never really get to know them outside of their stock archetype. And you especially can’t care about the rest of the cast’s mourning. As the show progresses, there’s a few more shocking twists, but it’s hard to really care about what’s happening to the characters since they’re nothing more than archetypes. The show makes no effort at all to really develop the characters in any big way before the big revelations come, and I think it’s unfair to expect us to care about what’s happening to them when we don’t know them as people.

Here’s a better example: Bakemonogatari. I’m sure someone’s going to get mad at me for comparing light novel writing to anime writing, but Urobuchi mostly does visual novels, so I don’t think it’s unfair to compare the two. Bakemonogatari is a series of short stories that are over in the blink of an eye, but during the course of these stories we get to really know the characters involved. This is partly because in three of Bakemonogatari’s five tales, the characters are a pivotal part of the story: Senjougahara meets the crab in order to rid herself of the emotional weight on her shoulders, Kanbaru makes a deal with the Rainy Devil in order to get closer to Senjougahara, and Black Hanekawa comes about as a result of Hanekawa’s unrequited love for Araragi. And even in the cases of Hachikuji and Nadeko, their stories are closely related to personal factors in their life: Family life and school life respectively.

But as each tale in Bakemonogatari moves forward, the characters exchange a lot of dialogue that doesn’t have anything to do with the story. Instead, popculture references are dropped liberally, character quirks are explored thoroughly, and there’s a generally off-beat banter that’s very interesting. One could claim that Nisioisin is simply writing characters that are just like him, but I think that’s better than writing archetypes you can’t really relate to. As you know, I like it better when creators stick to what they know, and let their personalities shine through.

Characters in Madoka, on the other hand, only really ruminate over issues of the plot. The one clue to what kind of people they are can be found in their obvious-from-the-outset character archetypes… which are pretty boring. Madoka is the boring main character who doesn’t do anything (and cries), Sayaka is the genki girl with a good heart, Mami is the nice motherly figure, Homura is the mysterious girl, and Kyouko is the psychotic one. I mean, who cares? Well, I guess people do, but I sure as hell don’t.

So we have two issues: We’re not given enough time to really get to know these characters as human beings, and they just don’t stand out. I think the first issue would be solved by making the first half of the show an off-beat comedy, with issues of plot lurking in the background. The show would then launch into overdrive at episode six, speeding toward the finale at breakneck speed. You could do the same with 24 episodes, but you’d have a higher chance of more crappy episodes, unless you can really write episodes as good as Evangelion’s Magma Diver. I know Aaron Clark hates those early episodes of Eva, but I would not have cared as much about Shinji and crew if I was denied the pleasure of seeing them grapple against JetAlone.

The second issue would just be solved by getting a good writer on board. Well… good in my eyes, and we know that’s somewhat questionable. My friend Kransom asserts that my preference for characters in SHAFT’s back catalog of adaptations is due to the fact that manga writers are taught to make their characters stand out. Based on my experience with visual novel adaptations, I take it those writers aren’t taught similarly. Bakemonogatari isn’t a manga, but maybe light novel editors dish out the same advice as manga editors.

Even though I said something to the effect of “I don’t understand why people are so taken with this show” opening up, I actually kind of understand why people are so taken with this show, but after a chance run-in with Sub (I’m in New York!), he spelled it out for me: People are into the show because they’re fascinated by the world and the mysteries around it. I don’t play that game. I turn to anime for good characters first and foremost. Your world can be as mysterious as it needs to be, but if your characters just mope around and act like Archetype #374 all day, I find it hard to really care. Unless I like the archetype, that is.

It’s still a p. good show, though. I guess.

25 thoughts on “Being Dragged Along: The Characters in Madoka Magica

  1. People are into Madoka for the same reason they are into anything else with “shocking drama”. If people will like Angel Beats and consider it “engaging drama” then something like Madoka – which is at least trying a little – is a shoe-in. Characters simply aren’t important in this formula since they are mostly just punching bags.

    The formula’s basically the same as always with these shows. Instead of doing what the typical show of the genre does, you “cleverly subvert” the tropes – mostly by swinging to the opposite end of the extreme from sugar-coated childish nonsense to horrifically distorted adult nonsense. Your characters aren’t there to be identified-with, they are there to be punching bags. If they’re children, all the better.

    But it’s a formula that’s less common than the alternative, so it still works. Just be thankful Madoka isn’t a total write-off like Angel Beats. It’s basically Evangelion in mahou-shoujo form, but far less interesting because all of the highly-creepy psychological horrors are pointed out loudly (presumably to keep us from asking questions that will be addressed in the next “shocking” revelation).

    You don’t have a love-hate relationship with the kids, like you did with Shinji and Asuka. You can’t possibly care about Mami any more than you did for Charlotte, unlike say the whole Shinji vs Toji thing. QB isn’t so much a “monster” (like Shinji’s dad) as he is an unfeeling alien creature that gives us something convenient to hate.

    But then the show’s still only half-over, and it’s certainly proving that it’s not trying to be a psychological mind-screw as much as it is a classic Faustian tale that hopefully is just jerking us around to deliver something genuinely interesting. I think it could happen, anyway. It’s a good enough show to have me worried that Shinbo will end it on a stupid note like other decent anime he’s been involved with.

    1. I was mostly with you until, “It’s a good enough show to have me worried that Shinbo will end it on a stupid note like other decent anime he’s been involved with.”

      What’s goin’ on, mang??

      1. What do you mean? It’s “good enough”, kinda like Bakemonogatari, to hold my interest for 22 minutes a week without me wanting to switch over to something else. In that regard it’s beaten almost every other show this season. That counts for something, doesn’t it? :)

        1. More like, what has Shinbo “ruined” by ending something on a stupid note?

          He’s mostly done comedies lately, so I don’t really see how that’s possible.

  2. I don’t quite agree, however I can sort of see where you’re coming from too.
    Also, I don’t think Madoka Magica would’ve worked too well if it were an “off-beat comedy, with issues of plot lurking in the background” for the first few episodes. The plot itself prevents this from being a possibility without making it seem like something getting dragged on too long… which is also why I’m sure the director and writer chose not to take that approach.
    You’re right, Madoka Magica as a whole does place the mysteries and wonders of it’s world and plot over the depth of its characters, but this is how the show arranges its pieces to tell its tale.
    For example, the viewers aren’t made to care about Madoka due to personal character development on her part (yet, at least), but instead are made to worry for her due to the situation she’s been put in. Kyubey is pretty much a proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, and since the very start of the show this has been hinted at, and since even the very first scene, it’s been made clear that Madoka is his target. Yes, Madoka is not as personally developed as a character as she could be, but the situation she is put in, this dangerous magical girl world that she and her friends keep getting dragged into, is what causes us to worry, and to an extent care about her well-being.
    For Madoka herself, the show is using circumstance, rather than development, to make us care for her.
    On the other hand, Sayaka is actually get real character development in recent episodes. She’s probably the most developed character in the show at this point. And even her development is being used as a catalyst to push the plot forward and reveal more twists and truths of the world this takes place in.
    Mami, also, has gotten extremely popular lately, even with minimal development, her role in the plot seems to have given her a big fanbase. Well, at least that’s what all the fanart of her all over the place tells me.

    In the end, I guess what you’re buddy Sub said it pretty much it. People are intrigued by the world these characters are in, and care for them due to the circumstances this world brings upon them, even if personal development of the characters could be lacking. I suppose in a sense you could say… using the archetype isn’t bad, but rather it’s HOW you use it.

    So I guess I do see where you’re coming from, but for me, I find this series very exciting and suspenseful, and I’m seriously looking forward to what happens in the new episode each week. What new plot twist the show has to throw at us, and how the characters will all react.

    1. But I guess to each his one right? :) I actually found bakemonogatari kind of boring. The art style and animation was really good and unique, but due to classes, work, friends, and studying the only time I could usually watch it was super late at night , maybe not making my experience that enjoyable. This was actually one of the few animes that would make me fall asleep halfway, not really understanding or caring what happened to the characters after it was over but still I managed to to watch all but the last arc. Madoka magica , however, may not have a character development level like bakemonogatari , but to me story is just as important as the characters, especially an interesting one. As I said in the beginning, I guess to each his own :) Most of the time I’m still only able to watch anime late at night, but so far Madoka had kept me very interested in the story and characters , not making me fall asleep at all he he.

  3. They did put in some comedy in the first 2 episodes. It was dreadful.

    I mean, I agree with the fact the characters are dull. They are more a collection of ideals than actual people, hence they only act as plot devices. But it’s because the characters are dull that the show wouldn’t, and didn’t, work as a comedy either.

  4. It’s a different kind of relationship to the story. Think of Greek tragedy: There isn’t much to know about Oedipus, but you’re still supposed to feel shock and sorrow when he discovers that he killed his father and has been having sex with his mother all along.

    Now I’m not saying an anime is on par with Sophocles… No, scratch that, I am. :) It’s just entertainment of a certain type. Madoka and Sayaka were enjoying the good life before Kyuubey came along, so there’s a lot of cathartic pleasure to derive from their fall from grace. Detractors will call it emotional porn, but I think that cheapens something that isn’t worse than the usual character-driven drama. Just different.

    1. And if we take into account the Faust quotes, combined with Goethe’s powerful neo-Classical streak (in spite of being the undisputed king of the German Romantics), why, it’s an entry waiting to happen!

  5. What 2DT said, but also I think there are some characterization that happen throughout the show. To call it punching bags or whatever is not seeing the nuances. Or maybe I should say, some punching bags are better than others. (But Angel Beats? Totally missed the point IMO.)

    On the other hand I have a hard time believing that it takes JetAlone or Magma Diver to really bring you close to Shinji & crew. Some people can bond with people quickly, others take their time. Maybe you’re just a cold and introverted nerd Wah, so it’s harder for you to get interested in this stuff so quickly. It’s not your fault, but it’s not the show’s fault either.

    As to light novel and Bakemonogatari, I think that’s not a feature but a bug. I mean a lot of that modern light novel shit is basically coming up with weirdo characters, trying to sell the whole package based on it. It’s no different than stuffing a bunch of characters in your average moe anime, where each character is based on combination of 3 archetypes. Nisioisin just does it better than the average hack; his stuff is at most interesting, never actually any good… But at the same time it makes good anime adaptation material.

    Because I don’t know about you, I want my character to be interesting because they are well-developed, not because of tropes. Bakemonogatari is full of that trope shit and the development on character is average at best, and only really in the case of Senjougahara. I mean it’s not even Spice & Wolf level of character development, and that stuff is fanfiction quality!

    To put it in perspective, like, people like One Piece because it’s so masterfully written on the large scale, but also because there’s 10+ years worth of anime and manga content to develop the same dozen characters. Nothing Shinbo touched can hold a candle to that. So when you say “no character development” because there has only been a few episodes I think that’s not convincing at all.

  6. I have a feeling that there simply isn’t enough time in a season to fully develop characters and THEN put them in horrific and dramatic circumstances. Perhaps if Madoka Magica was planned to be 24-26 episodes long from the onset, we’d have more developed characters that we can have an emotional attachment to, but as you said, we also risk of having crappy episodes.
    It may also be interesting to note that most magical girl shows depend very much on character development and attachment rather than plot where as Madoka Magica tried to do the exact opposite.

  7. See, I think you got it right on the nose there, and I actually happen to be one of those people who really likes this series. The characters really aren’t very interesting at all, and compared to Bakemonogatari they are really pretty bad. But the setting and the world and to a certain extent Kyubei’s on again, off again malevolence, coupled with the lack of a concrete characterized antagonist, makes the show interesting enough for me for 12 episodes. God forbid that this were a 24 episode show though, it really really wouldn’t work.

  8. I hear what you’re saying, and I also see the characters as being the weakest point of the show. Where your criticism falls a bit flat, though, is where you try to force the narrative in a certain way. I think 2D made a good point in this effect.

    We don’t need to know or fall in love with the characters before the story begins. As you write, these characters are swept along by the story. And it’s through that story that we learn about them and grow to know them.

    A couple of my favorite shows from last year embody this. The Tatami Galaxy’s characters were simply tropes realized. But through the narrative, they were developed and, by the end, full, likable, complex characters in their own right. The same can be said about Katanagatari, wherein the characters were quite literally swept by a journey before we got to know them. It was through that journey that we got to know them.

    In the case of Madoka Magica, we’re seeing the effects of ordinary school girls swept into a magical world that tests them in extreme ways. And that’s interesting and fun, regardless of how much we knew them beforehand. And in fact, by seeing how they respond to the stresses of this narrative, we get to know them. In ways much closer than just seeing them in everyday life would have done.

  9. I agree with the lack of drama or a sense of connection with the characters, it took me out of the show at times. Episode 7 on the other hand made me feel for Sayaka and I hope the other characters show more complexity in the coming episodes. I think the show (well the early episodes at least) needed to capture a mood that was better at letting the viewer know that the characters were going to be dragged through hell. Alien nine comes to mind. It did a good job of setting up “that” kind of atmosphere where you dread for what the characters are going to be put through next. Madoka may still be able to pull it off, if thats the ultimate direction the story is going to be taking, one of tragedy and regret. I just hope it ends on a high (or is it down?) note and not on neutral ground.

  10. I think it’s easy to care about these characters because they are human and they are in this horrific situation — 2DT makes this point better than I am. Then there’s a certain fascination as the full extent of the horror gets revealed with each passing episode.

    But I think your friend Sub also has a good point: I was a science-fiction fan before I was an anime fan, and the anime I like is anime that presents us with an interesting world, and works out its ramifications, just as most science fiction does. For that, characters can be ciphers because their job is primarily to experience the world so that we can experience the world through their eyes (I suppose one could even extend this analogy to nebbish harem protagonists).

  11. I get what a lot of these comments are saying: I want the show to one thing, and the show just isn’t supposed to do this thing. I understand that, but what I don’t understand is how a story that doesn’t have a strong set of characters can be enjoyable to so many people. People are of course entitled to their own opinions, it’s just I haven’t seen someone rationalize why they like it very well. It could just be a case of different strokes for different folks, in which case I’ll never really understand why someone would like Madoka’s writing over the snappy dialogue in something like Bakemonogatari.

    @Baru
    No matter how dangerous the situation is, I won’t care if it’s happening to some fictional character who hasn’t proven themselves as an interesting person to me.

    @Scamp
    That’s why I think they should just change the characters completely and make them off-beat and weird people, ie actually interesting people. Also I guess I missed the comedy, probably because Urobuchi isn’t as good as Maeda when it comes to that sort of thing.

    @2DT
    I have no idea what Greek Tragedy or Sophocles are beyond their names, and the relevance of Faust quotes and the Goethe connection are lost on me. Maybe if it drew on a well of old junked up Japanese pop-culture (like most SHAFT shows), I’d care.

    @omo
    I’d be interested quickly if the show presented me with interesting people right off the bat. As it stands they’re just boring people I can’t relate to. I am a cold introvert, but I think it’s Urobuchi’s fault for not being able to write strange and interesting people. I mean, who cares about normal people? Wait, I guess people do… I don’t really get that.

    Also, for all this talk about development in the comments, I never really mentioned anything like that. The characters can stay the same for thirteen episodes and nothing can happen to them, and they’ll grow on me. But if they’re actually cool people, I’ll be more interested from the get-go.

    I’ll grant you that maybe probably I guess the characters in Bakemonogatari are a collection of tropes on a very technical level, but when you think about it, people in real life are usually just one “trope,” and it’s usually a boring and shallow one. That’s kind of how it is with Madoka’s characters, and I just don’t really care. At least in Bakemonogatari the characters clearly see the world differently than others, and approach things uniquely, even if that’s just because Nisioisin makes every character a bit of himself. Like I said, I actually like that. It’s good to breathe yourself into your characters, especially if you recognize that you’re a weird person, then your characters will actually come off as cool people and not lame people. Again, different strokes for different folks, but I don’t really care about development unless its a crazy transformation like Simon in Gurren Lagann. And most anime doesn’t do that. Sayaka’s had a good turn around, I will admit.

    @thedigitalbug
    I think the plot is moving too slowly to be super-duper interesting. There should be at least two twists per episode instead of just one at the end. That’s why I think it’d be better if the story was compressed to six episodes in the second half, and just shot forward quickly. Not super quickly, but I think the show could afford to be faster.

    @lvlln
    Doesn’t work for me. I have to want to hang out with these people before I can really care about them, UNLESS the story is fast and interesting enough that I don’t really have to care about them as people, and eventually come to like them. But like I said, it’s too slow, and has way too much time devoted to people moping that I don’t care about. That said, most of them time was concentrated in two episodes.

    @Groove-A
    I think it’s too late. Like I said, I like the show, but for it to just be “alright” to me halfway through is basically a failure for a SHAFT show.

    EDIT: Okay, I guess it’s not too late: Episode eight was really good.

    @dm
    I guess they’re human… but boring humans, like I’ve said countless times in this comment. Maybe if this was for some reason a true account of things that happened to real people (hah) then I’d care, but if you’re fiction you really have to work hard to make me care about people who don’t exist. Heck, even if these people did exist I’d still have a hard time caring about their plight since they’re so painfully run-of-the-mill. Give them gimmicks, obsessions, passions, something. Not just a generic personality that I’ve seen time and time again. Unless it’s one I like, of course…

    That said, upon watching episode eight, Sayaka’s descent into madness is enjoyable.

    I find stuff with more realistic settings to be more interesting because I can relate to them, and real life is typically way more interesting than something a writer can make up. I can appreciate the mysteries Madoka throws at us, but like I said, it’s a bit too slow moving and I forget about it after a while. And visually, the world is quite arresting.

    PS: Okay, I just watched episode eight and THAT was pretty good. Not that the characters themselves got that much better (save for Homerun-chan and Sayaka) but as far as atmosphere and plot revelations go, it was really good.

  12. The characters in Madoka are good because they have a solid and delightfully explicit foundation. They have defined norms and values. For Sayaka, this is her (in reality not-so) self-sacrificing attitude. For her antithesis, Kyouko, it is her (in reality not-so) egocentric attitude. Even Mami is given a clear foundation, her search for someone to be with. Homura is an unkown factor but her foundation will undoubtedly be explained in some cumulative episode. Madoka has a complete lack of foundation, her justification in the story is the desperate search for a foundation. It is this asset, the core of the character that drives all of the actions in this event packed adventure. There’s an amazingly small amount of time devoted to fluff and when it is, it is done awkwardly, purposely so.

    This is also why I think the characters in Bakemonogatari are good. They have a clear motivation that drives them. Both Madoka and Bakemonogatari are character driven in the sense that these characters take actions in their situations. The difference is that the situation in Madoka is universal for every mahou shoujo and the situations in Bakemonogatari are dependant on the person (is what the writer decided to be the formula). In Madoka, things vary by having different persons cope with that universal situation. This is also why I think that having an outstandingly eccentric personality in Madoka detracts from the actual message. It is not their quirkyness that needs to be fundamentally different but their foundation. And it makes for some very strong individuals.

      1. To each his own. Like someone else said upthread, just because you fail to connect to the characters and story isn’t the show’s fault, especially when there are a ton of people who HAVE connected to the characters. Proof that the show is not entirely fail to all audiences – just people like you. And like the poster above said, nothing wrong with that either. You call them boring – I call them relatable.

        This actually reminds me a lot of people complaining about the new FMA:B anime adaptation’s treatment of Nina – because only one episode was dedicated to her in FMA:B vs the several in the original FMA anime, suddenly all these people were complaining that “we didn’t get to know Nina so the [spoilery spoilery spoilery] event that happened to her didn’t have much emotional impact.” To not feel the same amount of emotional impact basically requires you to be a monster, I think.

        1. I’d like to think that typically nothing is ever a show’s fault. Unless it’s total shit… like Gundou Musashi.

          I don’t think I ever said the show was doing something badly, it was just not appealing to me in one way. My opinions on the characters should not be taken as a statement of fact. I know some people relate to them, but you know: this isn’t their blog. This is MY blog, for MY opinions.

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