Ever since episode 1 of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, many bloggers have been making confident statements about how the show looks to be a dark subversion of the magical girl anime. While that is certainly accurate on some level, it seems to be the case that a lot of people don’t quite understand how exactly Madoka Magica is a subversion, simply because they don’t understand the subject itself. In other words, a good number of people writing about Madoka Magica don’t actually know the magical girl genre, despite the broad statements being made. Thus, I am going to address at least a few misconceptions.
Misconception #1: Magical Girl Anime Are About Good vs. Evil
Correction: Magical girl anime are about “before” vs. “after.”
While there are some shows which pit our heroine(s) against a dark force, the vast majority of magical girl anime and manga do not even factor in the good/evil dichotomy. Instead, they will focus on how the magic changes their own lives or how it changes the lives of those around them. Those shows which do have a good deal of fighting often have it in service to something else; in those instances, it’s generally more about protecting others than it is vanquishing villains. So when someone says that Madoka Magica is different because it doesn’t have “Good vs Evil,” they are basically incorrect in the sense that magical girl shows were never really about good and evil in the first place.
Misconception #2: Magical Girl Anime Say, “You Don’t Have to Change a Thing!”
Correction: Magical girl anime say, “the magic isn’t as important as who you are!”
Yes, the “Be Yourself!” message is fairly common in magical girl shows, but there’s a distinct difference between this statement and the misconception. One implies a static existence, while the other points to an active one. The self-improvement thus happens with the help of magical powers, but it is usually the catalyst for change, with the real reason coming from within.
Misconception #3: Sailor Moon/Nanoha is a Typical Magical Girl Show
Correction: Sailor Moon is more of a typical fighting magical girl anime and Nanoha is an atypical fighting magical girl anime, while a typical magical girl anime is more along the lines of Ultra Maniac or Fushigiboshi no Futagohime.
This ties in directly with misconception number 1 and it’s fairly understandable why people make this mistake. Sailor Moon is a very significant show in the magical girl genre, and for many anime fans the very first mahou shoujo anime they ever watched (myself included), but it wasn’t really typical for its time. Certainly it has had its influence on later series, probably most notably Pretty Cure, but Sailor Moon combined the magical girl anime with the team dynamic popular in live action tokusatsu and to a lesser extent giant robot anime, and used that as a platform to deliver action-packed fights, but don’t confuse what Sailor Moon added to the genre with what the genre is fundamentally about.
Similarly, Nanoha is a show made for otaku, taking the magical girl formula and targeting it directly towards an older male audience–much like Madoka Magica itself–but it draws a lot from Sunrise action and mecha shows and adds a cup of moe. It’s also understandable why this might be an anime fan’s main exposure to magical girls, as fans who might have avoided the genre as a whole may have been pulled in by what Nanoha did differently, but that is the Nanoha formula, not the magical girl one.
“So what exactly is Madoka Magica subverting, then?”
To understand the answer to this question, we have to know the basic theme of the magical girl anime, which is how magic can make your wishes come true, or let you do things you couldn’t before. This can be portrayed by having a character, generally a normal girl, come across their magical abilities, or it can directly target the audience (which it generally assumes to be young girls) and have a girl who already has magical powers from the start. Either way, a magical girl show typically says, “Wouldn’t it be great to be a magical girl?” You can see this in pretty much every magical girl show aimed at girls, be it Cardcaptor Sakura, Majokko Megu-chan, Shugo Chara, Minky Momo, Ojamajo Doremi, and yes, even Sailor Moon. If the show is geared more towards male otaku, then the theme might turn into “Wouldn’t it be great to know a magical girl?” but the opportunity magic gives you to change/better your life is the crux of it all.
On some level magical girl anime are about the exploration wish fulfillment, and when you keep that in mind the true nature “dark” element of Madoka Magica becomes clearer. The dreary aesthetic of the witch realms, the violence, and the ambiguous morality in the characters play a role, but the most important point to consider is how the magical mascot Kyubey offers the chance to make your wish come true at the “price” of becoming a magical girl. The fact that the wish-granting comes with some sort of unknown, unquantified, and unqualified cost is where the direct subversion is strongest.
“How much are you willing to sacrifice to make your wish come true?”