Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Madoka Magica: Growing from Chara to Character and Beyond

Puella Magi Madoka Magica, the anime event of the decade, has come and gone. Speculation regarding the finale will rage on far longer than the show's compact broadcast period, and the next generation of creators will hold its influence close to their hearts. Will it prove to surpass Evangelion, as frenzied fans had clamored?

As Kyubey promised Madoka as he persuaded her to form a pact, "You have the power to change the rules." But before we understand the potential impact caused by Madoka, we need to understand where the rules stand, and to do that we'll explore the concept of chara and character.

A chara exists as an icon composed of visual shortcuts. The success of a chara lies in their moe value, or lovability. Chara represents marketability. Hello Kitty is the ideal chara—A simple yet instantly recognizable design, cute as a button, and with no context outside of the fact that she is Hello Kitty.

In contrast, a character can exist independently of their context. They develop a sense of presence and verisimilitude through their actions that allows them to continue on after the text concludes. A strong character has a clear worldview and personality.

Shinji Ikari, despite his flaws, or rather precisely because of them, is a solid character. He may not give the audience what they want, but the fact that his ambivalence is frustrating to us shows an emotional attachment. We want to see him succeed, do well, and overcome himself. The drama of the series rides on the personal investment we make. If we don’t care about the character, the plot falls flat. 

With his ten-dollar haircut and reserved personality, Shinji was designed to be an everyman. And while this helps us project ourselves onto him and form the necessary emotional bond, it hurts his marketability. He has no chara. He’s got no zazz, no visual punch. Shinji’s got no moe. 

Which brings me to my next point:

It does not follow that a strong character be a strong chara. Fully developed characters may lack the elegance that makes a chara compelling enough for a consumer to purchase their goods. Likewise, a chara may have no redeeming features as a character, but be iconic enough to move a product based solely in their design.

Pokemon stands at the pinnacle of chara recognition. What they lack in personality they make up in moe factor. You’d have to make a concerted effort not to like them. The "Who’s That Pokemon?" segment that bookends commercials proves their primal appeal. We can pick them out by silhouette alone, a useful skill when navigating the toy isle filled with products jockeying for our attention.

Superheroes possess this same recognizability. Their costumes, from color schemes to logos, provide a visual feast of bite-sized iconography. This in turn is enriched by decades of back-story and character development, which is then digested into a compact symbol that represents a whole greater than its parts. 

Take Superman’s S as an example. Its iconography suggests truth, justice, and the American way; leaping tall buildings in a single bound; secret identities, the last surviving son of an extinct planet. All coiled up in a single striking S. The S stands for "super moe."
This is a good time as any to mention what is known by critics as the “moe database,” or a library of visual shorthand that has grown to also encompass personality traits. Imagine you have two columns—Symbols in Column A (glasses, pig tails, maid uniforms), and archetypes in Column B (tsun-dere, Goth lolita, little sister). From here you can mix-and-match a chara from any number of presets, like building an avatar for an online game. 

These established cues can make a chara an instant success with the target audience.

But a mishmash of personality quirks doesn’t make a character worthy of investing emotional capital. Characters are built on the internal consistency and believability of their actions.

We open our wallets to chara, and open our hearts to characters. Icons who possess both tend to stand the test of time.

Rei Ayanami is a modern representation of the harmonious union of chara and character. Her mysterious character draws the audience in, building up expectations only to betray them to great effect when she shows rare glimpses of emotion. On the other hand, her trademark red eyes and bob cut form the core of a chara that powers the Gainax marketing giant. But even after you take away these visual shortcuts, you’re still left with a solid, interesting character.

How do the magical girls of Madoka Magika perform under a similar stress test?

A cursory glance over the color-coded cast reveals a lineup of tired stereotypes transplanted thoughtlessly from any generic magical girl or moe anime.

There’s the irrationally exuberant best friend Miki, the busty older-sister Mami, the bratty candy-chomping kid sister Kyoko, the taciturn tsun-tsun Homura, and the ditzy heroine Madoka destined for great things by mere virtue of her status as the main character.

No one could blame you for closing your browser in disgust after the first episode. Hell, after the first ten minutes!

But then you’d miss the greatest slight of hand ever attempted in anime. Once they make their initial impression on the audience, these genre tropes are sided out for a deck of ironic punishments dealt out with wickedness and pathos not seen since the Divine Comedy.

Miki plunges from the height of hope to self-destructive despair; Mami’s role as a mentor meets a Faust-like end after achieving true happiness; Kyoko’s snacking cements her fate as human cattle chewing it's cud; Homura’s detached nature stems from the trauma of watching her friends die agonizing deaths ad nausea as reward for attempting to save them; Madoka is erased from existence, her memory as forgotten as her impact during life.

The inherit limits of their chara give way to relatable characters. You stare in awe as the dull chrysalis splits into a dazzling butterfly. Will it survive to take flight, or be crushed on the stalk as it waits helplessly for its newfound wings to harden? The death of a character hits twice as hard, weighted with the impact of lost potential. There is a romanticism in that—You mourn what the character could have been, and never lament the failure they became.

A show like Madoka wouldn’t have been possible twenty, or even ten years ago. Not due to a lack of creative vision or technology, but because the infrastructure wasn’t there—No moe database means no pre-fabricated chara, which means no expectations to betray, no twist of the knife, and no subsequent drama. 

Madoka is the end result of everything that has come before her, all the reiterations of the same settings, all the repeated players acting out their lives in slightly divergent ways.

Now ask yourself: For the length of this article, have I been referring to Madoka the heroine, or Madoka the TV series?

Both. I argue that the series and character are one and the same, and should be viewed as such. Allow me to explain.

One of Madoka’s central themes is karma, the idea that all past actions (causes) define our present self (effect). A great miracle will result in equally great despair. The life of the universe expands itself into dead entropy. All sums cash out at zero. Madoka’s god-like powers were further augmented each time Homura spun the wheel of Samsara—the Buddhist cycle of life, death, and reincarnation
before eventually burning out into nothingness.

In the same way, the artistic impact of the show itself is amplified by everything that’s come before it—years and years of magical girl nonsense and moe tripe. The karma of the industry. How is it that Madoka exploded like a supernova when it should have collapsed under its own weight like a black hole?

Recall what Madoka’s mother said in Episode six in reference to Miki—make your best mistakes when you’re young and still have the energy to bounce back from them. And more importantly, if I may add—when you can still learn from them. Past errors pave the way to future greatness. Suffering under the yoke of moe was a burden necessary to till the soil for Madoka to bud forth. Ten years spent enduring hellfire in the crucible of Akiba-Kei anime proved to be well worth the suffering. The industry still has a bright future ahead of it, if we’re willing to pay the price.

Does this make her, and by association the anime, a martyr? Not a chance. Especially because her noble sacrifice, the so-called Deus ex Madoka that has the interwebs clamoring with speculation, was not a sacrifice at all.

Step back and consider for a moment exactly what quality it was that Homura’s time warps brought out in Madoka. It wasn’t some ill-defined strength or gimmicky super power. It was her inherent love, her compassion that could relieve the suffering of all sentient beings in the universe. When I said that Homura spun the wheel of Samsara I was not being figurative. Homura didn’t reset anything—remember that all sums are equal to zero—she merely carried everything equal steps backwards, the karma of each character weighed only heavier on their shoulders with each reincarnation, resulting in an increasingly tragic scenario with each go.
Madoka did not die for your sins. Rather, she literally escaped from underneath the Karmatic wheel of death and reincarnation to transcend into Buddhahood. Forget Jesus—a more apt celestial comparison would be Amida (or Amitabah), the Buddha of comprehensive love who appears before the dying and escorts them to the Pure Land. Madoka sheds her tears for you, not the other way around.

This notion can help us find solace in the otherwise heart-wrenching scene at the end of the series between Homura and Madoka’s would-be-family. The mother quips, “Madoka? Is that some anime character?” This line could as easily either make your bottom lip quiver or be dismissed as a 4th-wall breaking throw away gag that production house Shaft is infamous for. Yet there’s so much more to it.

The mother and son are stand-ins for the audience. People in the real world are having this exact same conversation as you read this. “You don't know Madoka? You need to see it!” Five years from now critics will be saying, “That's so Madoka.”

Madoka has transcended chara and character. She is a now a key word, free from the limitations of the medium and liberated to spill over into our word
. A true God. The question is, did her advent save the industry, or damn it to another generation of derivative works? The wheel of Samsara continues to turn. All I can say for sure is this—I’ll gladly wait another decade for her second coming.


  1. You appear to have misspelled "Kyouko" as "Sakura". My apologies for the brief comment.

  2. I've never come across the term Chara before. Where does that whole idea stem from?

  3. astrange:
    Good point, if I'm referring to the other characters by their first names I should be consistent.

    I've noticed the term floating around for a while not amongst Japanese manga critics. It seems like an old concept that people have only recently been calling out since moe took over everything.

    Recently I've been reading Tezuka is Dead by Itoh Goh and he goes into great detail about the whole scheme of things.

    A more accessible example would be Red Letter Media's scalding review of the new Star Wars Trilogy where he asks people to explain the characters and they can only describe them based on their outfits, social status, or their relation to other characters at face value.

  4. Very interesting analysis yet that's almost exactly why I felt that Madoka's weakest point was its characters.

    Whereas Shinji and the Eva gang can (and has been shown to) be able to exist outside the trappings of robot battles and even existential angst, I felt that Madoka's characters, when removed from their context of being pawns in The Dark Side of Sailor Moon (perhaps more accurately PreCure). Mami sure makes her way of being the Big Sister type, but she is a paper cut-out when you take out the fact that she's little more than a plot device to show that this world is Serious Business. Sayaka is just there to confirm our worst fears about the nature of the Witches and Kyoko is there to add a Kamen Rider Ryuki aspect to the happenings.

    That all said, Madoka and especially Homura were interesting characters. Especially Homura in how our opinion of her changes completely from how the cold-hearted antagonist in Episode 1 to being the single most compassionate and tragic character in the entire show. Madoka as well is fascinating how we see her as a watering can through the entire show only to realize by episode 10 that, if anything, Homura had been stifling her growth and maturation by trying to keep her from becoming a magical girl.

    Even so, by far the most fully realized character without being pinned by the storyline was Madoka's mother. She is the rare case of an anime featuring an actual woman that isn't made into a cariacture or fantasy pin-up. She has more depth and dimension than Mami or even Kyoko ever got despite getting a fraction of the screen time. Alas, to take from your article, she is more character than chara. I can't see people going out there and buying figures of Madoka's mom when they can have PVC statuettes of Mami suggestively holding her muskets or whatever is going to come out in the UFO catchers at Akihabara.

    In hearing that Shinbo wants to do another series with the characters but as a straight-up slice of life show, I can't help but feel that this is the WORST possible step to take for the franchise. Far better that he simply explore the cynical yet enchanted world that he and Gen Urobuchi have crafted, as he has done in the side-story/prequel manga being released now.

  5. Fernando:
    In retrospect I might have given the girls too much credit. Even so, they manage to throw out some great moral quandaries that far outlive their screen time. Miki's selfishness disguised as altruism, or Kyoko's views on power and privilege, are more relevant thinking exercises than Eva's naval-gazing self loathing (Don't get me wrong, I love Eva, but there's a time and a place.) And like you mentioned, everything Madoka's mom says is solid gold.

    With a short run time and high body count it's unavoidable that some characters like Mami get thrown under the bus and are remembered mainly for their shock value... But what an effective shock it was, plot contrivances be damned!

    The fact that many of the characters are half-developed works for me precisely because they don't wear out their welcome. As soon as you start warming up to them, BAM! the sorrow is sprung and descends upon you like a trap. You're right that the show is manipulative in this regard, but this is one case where I don't mind being treated like dirt.

    And as you said, there's still 1st-stringers like Homura to really twist the in that knife in your heart.

    If Shinbo does that slice-of-life show, then perhaps we'd get the fully developed characters that the plot didn't allow for? Though I don't think either of us would be happy with the outcome. I've heard mixed things about the manga, but if you say it's worth it I'll check it out.

  6. I keep hearing good things about Madoka but true to your example I was repulsed by the entire show just from a glance at the cast, in all their lolified moe glory.

    They were a visual amalgamation of everything that turns me off of anime, especially TV anime these days and has me regard the mid to late 90's as the high point of the medium with shows like Evangelion, Giant Robo, Cowboy Bebop and Escaflowne setting the high mark.

    Today it takes something extraordinary like a new Ghibli movie, or any animated movie from an accomplished director to get me interested. Stuff like Paprika and Summers Wars are as excellent and reminiscent of the potential lost as they are most rare occurrences.

    Reading this article has me thinking maybe I should bear through my cringe and give Madoka a chance after all. Oh, moe, why must you be ever so repulsive?

  7. Moe is like terrorism; the psychological effect is the real danger. In practice, Madoka is about as sexy as Pretty Cure, which is to say not at all. (Unless you're going out of your way to find it!) You'll be too engrossed in the lighting, architecture, and bizarro paper cut-out monsters to get squicked out.

    As an original IP, I think Madoka stands on the same level with all the great shows you mentioned. I know it's rough at first, but stick with it through episode 3!

  8. It is exactly the psychological effect that deters me from moe, but then my brain is wired to trigger a different response when confronted with the moe database of tropes.

    To me the presence of such elements equal pandering, pure and simple. When my mind is set to consume a piece of entertainment any detected element that falls into the pandering category is a strike against it.

    Pander is and has always been a true mark of trash in entertainment. When seldom enjoyed it is always done so in an ironic capacity.

    I actually forced myself to sit through Madoka over the weekend. It was a rather contrary task to subject myself to when I had to choose to continue although every episode was brimming with pandering moe elements lifted straight from the unrefined underbelly of present day otakudom.

    Typical for anime of this sort things began to fall apart from a pure storytelling perspective once the layering obscuring the science fiction core was fully peeled off.

    Shows like Evangelion tend to get away with how weakly contrived their core plot trappings are by obscuring all crucial details beneath the murky depths of mystery and symbolism. When you cannot clearly see or be sure of how contrived and weakly written the plot is then you are just left wondering as people still are about Eva.

    Madoka is more upfront with its details which prompt the trap door of skepticism to swing open under the feet of ones suspense of disbelief.

    Maybe it was a translation error, but it is a fact that the energy of the universe does not diminish; it remaining constant eternally is a fundamental dogma of physics. What the concept of entropy actually boils down to is the energy of the universe being converted into more and more useless forms as it is being used to “work”.

    But we digress, that is only a minor gripe next to the show's main plot hinging on the fact that the emotions of adolescent girls having the power to reverse entropy.

    That plotline is about as contrived as all of the base moe imagery permeating the show. I know the point of your article is that such was necessary to heighten the impact of the tonal shift but I really must beg to differ.

    I think the moe elements detract from the quality of the show. This could have worked just as well had it revolved around adults and taken the form of such heavily anti moe works as Texhnolyze or Ergo Proxy. Hell, even Evangelion or Cowboy Bebop.

    What is common for all the aforementioned works is that just looking at snippets from them you know that you are dealing with something special. Madoka on the other hand looks like typical otaku fanbait trash from a glance, and even a few episodes in you are not in the wrong to assume your first impression standing firm.

  9. If other shows which do no make such decadent use of the moe database can have emotional impact then why did Madoka have to go out of its way to smear itself ugly with moe? To surprise? Surprise who exactly?

    Any connoisseur would dismiss it out of hand for too closely resembling the trash which years of experience has taught them to stray far from. It certainly also would be a hard sell to a more casual audience to whom the moe elements make it look too niche. No, this is not for me, its one of those weird shows for the otaku creep.

    Evangelion won so many accolades from otaku and everyman alike by appearing to be in possession of quality while being easy to digest for everyone at a glance.

    I’d argue Madoka’s decadent use of moe imagery and tropes only makes it easy to digest for hard core otaku. I don’t know, maybe the whole point of the production was never for it to appeal to anyone but them. I mean, pandering to them is the only way to make money these day, so maybe it was meant to bait exactly that crowd in by swinging what seemed like sweet, sweet moe candy in front of their face only to then smash it in later and laugh at them all. Out of spite even.

    In my opion the whole bait strategy could only work for that crowd, everyone else will have tuned out long before then. Most, like me, would not have made it further than taking one glance at the cast and scoffing in disgust.

    So outside of traumatizing some otaku did the unhealthy use of modern moe tropes really serve a purpose? I’d say no. It was and continued to detract from the experience, even after I had stopped forcing myself to watch and was doing so carried on interest alone.

    I mean did impact heavy shows like Evangelion need moe? Was Ayanami moe? Maybe she was back in the 90’s, but when put next to Madoka’s cast Ayanami is almost anti moe, which is really telling in how deeply we’ve fallen into the abyss.

    In conlusion I’d say Madoka was alright, but nothing deserving of a seat among the higher pantheon of the medium’s past. To get there it would need to ditch the pandering first,

  10. Thank you for sticking it out through the end despite your obvious discomfort with the show. I'm not going to argue with your reasons for disliking it as a lot of it boils down to personal taste and suspension of disbelief, but I think you are approaching its designs and reception from the wrong direction.

    Namely, "moe" is not synonymous with lolicon or cheesecake. Its simply guilty by association with the Akiba otaku who popularized its usage. Think of it as an established trope that grabs your attention right out of the gates, or gives you the smug satisfaction of being in on the gag. You could say that Tarantino has burning moe for Shaw Brothers films. Preference for blondes over brunettes or redheads is a real-world example of moe.

    As we become more knowledgeable consumers, we start to get wise to the tricks and genre conventions applied in all works of entertainment. Everything is working with the same base materials. After a certain degree of sophistication it's how the parts are synthesized that grabs us as much as, if not more than, the story at hand.

    Moe, tropes, conventions, pandering, call it what you will, they all serve the same purpose: To quickly rope us in with the familiar before whisking us off to someplace truly imaginative. One is not more virtuous for being from an arguably cooler genre. (Steampunk VS Magical Girls in the case of your examples.)

    So could the human drama of Madoka have worked as, say, a wrestling anime with burley men as opposed to petite junior high students? Probably, but it would have been grounded by a different set of rules that would have been broken in a different way.

    Magical Girl shows show us how to dream. Madoka shows us the cost of those dreams framed in the context of natural resources, a timely topic for Japan as I will explain below.

    In a way, you're right about the audience: Madoka was ignored by the general public during its initial run, just like Eva, Gundam, and Yamato before it. The cast of teenage girls in knee socks turned off potential viewers in the same way that Eva's teenage girls in skintight body suits did during its primetime broadcast: The 90's just didn't have a word to criticize it with.

    When the quake struck, it put the show on hiatus right before the grand finale, and the fan outrage was so loud as the permeate the press. This got Joe Public's attention (myself included)--what was this anime making all the noise? When Madoka came back on the air it was front-page news, an event in itself observed by a diverse group of viewers with one thing in common: Shock over the Walpurgis Night that hit Japan on 3/11.

    It was easy to project TEPCO onto QB: An inscrutable entity promising to provide for our every need. If only we had bothered to read the disclaimer before agreeing to the contract. Putting aside the plausibility of physics presented by a technologically superior alien intelligence for a moment, the important thing here is the zeitgeist. Together, with the Magical Girls, Japan learned that everything comes with a price, and that in cosigning their fate away, they made themselves equal parts victim and perpetrator.

    Madoka wasn't intended to be for the masses: It was midnight broadcast, after all. Regardless, its themes hit a nerve with the public once they sat down to give it an honest chance. This vouches for the integrity of the show.

    These culture-specific reasons may not sell you on the show, but they help explain why it looks the way it does and how it succeeded. Madoka is a bold step away from the cookie-cutter moe factory you're so opposed to. It proved that original IPs can still succeed in a field of derivative light novel adaptations, and hopefully will inspire further creative (and lucrative) works.

  11. Actually I think you misunderstand my critique of Madoka a smidgen.

    I do not have any inherent objection to moe which you seem to view as a purely stylistic choice. To me I hate what moe stems from, which is to say pandering.

    You might be correct in moe being used as a hook to bring people in. No different really than Tarantino or other overrated directors using faux cheezy cinema. True connoseurs do not need such hooks though, they know how to find great works without any bright neon signs beaconing them with, “hey, look over here!!”.

    See, in my opinion great works do not pander wantonly. Pandering is a cynical technique that exists for purely commercial purposes. It is a calculated marketing ploy used to target aim a piece of consumable entertainment at a specific lucrative market demographic.

    Ingredients purposefully mixed in because it is known to be agreeable to certain palates. Like tapping people on the shoulder and telling them, hey, you, I know you like this stuff, so this is for you, buy it.

    Whenever a creator does that they instantly lose my interest. That is like falling to your knees and begging for my attention, it is too pathetic for me to take seriously.

    I know what it all boils to all works of entertainment are created for the purpose of profit, so some iota of pandering is inevitable. But I always associate rampant pandering with crass works.

    When it comes to artists and their works I like to chart them on a 2D scale.

    On one extreme end we have a measure of pandering, or selflessness and on the other extreme we have a measure of selfishness or pretentiousness.

    Each piece of entertainment can be measured on this scale. If they fall too close to the pandering side then they are crass and void of substance. If they fall too close to the other then they are obtuse and inscrutable.

    Most great works of entertainment fall somewhere in the middle, with most of what is considered masterpieces falling closer to selfish extreme.

    I happen to think most great works of art are the result of an artist making it mostly for themselves, so they are inherently selfish. They were never cynically designed to appeal to anyone such as works of pandering are.

    Madoka has too much rampant Otaku pandering, which is what lowers it in my eye when compared to something like Cowboy Bebop which is very light in pandering, or Evangelion which starts off pandering but sheds itself of it completely and goes into full selfish mode near the end.

    On the pure selfish extreme end you have stuff like Angel's Egg which is completely free of pandering from start to finish but in the process is too obtuse to be easily enjoyed by anyone but perhaps Mamoru Oshii.

    What Madoka might be commended for is trying to show that perhaps shows design aimed at the otaku market can still aspire to be more than a soulless artifice with the cynical aim of selling DVD's, figures and body pillows.

    Maybe in the context of today's anime market which due to economic concerns has become extremely pandering and conservative Madoka is a seminal work. But removed of that context I still cannot value it as highly as the genre greats.