Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a misleadingly cute show about dark aspects of reality as portrayed through analogy. It tackles ideas relevant to capitalism, feminism, and even mental health in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. One character in particular stuck out to me: Sayaka. This character originally exists as an altruist. Sayaka’s selflessness leads her into decay as her arc progresses. This resonated with me and showed me things about myself that I hadn’t really considered before, making this show sincerely valuable for me.
First let’s analyze the show. Then I’ll use myself as a case study for how Sayaka’s arc is relatable. I will detail my own transformation into a “witch”. Be warned, my personal account is quite twisted, though only as much as Kyoko’s history, for those of you who know her story. So, I imagine that most of you who have seen Madoka Magica will handle it quite well. Still, prepare yourself!
I used AI-generated art to try to get Madoka Magica inspired pieces for this post. Some of it is cool. Some of it is disturbing. I hope you enjoy these botched imaginations of artificial artists. For those who haven’t seen the show, the art here isn’t very accurate, but it sort of resembles the art in witch’s labyrinths. There is a gallery of Madoka Magica inspired generated arts at the end of the page.
Cue the Spotify playlist for this article.
Analyzing The Plot
This essay expects that you have seen Puella Magi Madoka Magica, though for those of you who have not, I will briefly brief you on what goes down in the show. Spoilers ahead. I recommend you watch the show, but if you must continue, let us walk together. Madoka Magica is a story about magical girls, like Sailor Moon, except it’s really fucked up. Instead of portraying idealistic images of girls with beyond natural powers, they are girls who are recruited by a creepy predatory cat creature that is initially depicted as cute, friendly, and helpful. The cat creature, Kyubey, continues to groom the girls and gives a plethora of incentives to become magical girls via a contract with him. They are each offered a wish for anything imaginable, to which most result in horribly wrong outcomes.
The story advertises itself as cutesy and innocent but by episode 3 it becomes apparent that you were misled. This misleading component is amazingly symbolic and meta because the story is about a cutesy cat misleading the main girls of the show into seeking a life as a magical girl, which isn’t as ideal as it seems. In fact, it is one of the worst choices one could make. Similarly, the cutesy superficial cover of this “book” misleads the audience and subjects them to a story of pain and misery, a very beautiful one at that. Lesson 1: don’t judge a book by its cover, or else you might get tricked into a fucked-up contract with Kyubey.
Madoka herself does not even become a magical girl until the very last episode. The show is about Madoka being incentivized, yanked left and right, pulled away from becoming a magical girl and simultaneously pulled ever closer by the urgency and necessity of that power. The show is basically about the morality and insanity of girls contracting themselves to become magical girls. Overtime, Kyubey is realized to be a psychopathic alien species that is factory farming human girls because of their emotional vulnerability. The rest is a bit sci-fi and complicated to explain but basically the alien species somehow harvests what seems to be trauma of the most sensitive possible humans for use as energy or something weird like that.
It isn’t particularly realistic, but it isn’t supposed to be. It is a metaphor about how we exploit girls’ desires to belong in the world and program them to be some particular way, even when that way goes against their best interest. It is a metaphor for many things, but probably especially that I would imagine. The alien species justify themselves with ideas about the greater good and compare their actions to humans enslaving cattle for food, even going so far as to say that their kind treat humans better than humans treat cattle. The metaphors also fit in with capitalism as they are recruited in what is basically a pyramid scheme of magical girls killing each other and competing for survival and power, under the guise that they can attain some false ideal outcome dangled in front of their eyes like a carrot on a stick.
Madoka and Sayaka are best friends. Sayaka signs the contract with Kyubey far earlier than Madoka. This is depicted as a disturbing development. It bothers Madoka and seems kind of wrong or regrettable at first glance. Which is true, she can never go back to her life from before. Later, it is revealed that she is basically already dead, as becoming a magical girl means selling your soul. But why would she do it? Well, first of all, she did not know that she was selling her soul. That was only apparent once her soul gem landed on a moving vehicle, speeding away from her body and rendering her corpse lifeless because the reception of her soul couldn’t reach her body. Luckily, Homura’s troubleshooting fixed this problem. The soul gem was retrieved and returned, and Sayaka awoke again. Sayaka’s soul was trapped inside the gem.
Sayaka signs the contract because she wants to cure a boy of his paralysis out of love and what seemed like altruism at the time. Though, she was warned to distinguish between altruistic motives and the desire for someone’s everlasting gratitude. She confidently believes that she acts out of altruism, but then the boy and one of her best friends start to manifest a relationship before her unhappy eyes. This causes her to regret healing him, but also to become disgusted with herself that she would even feel something so selfish.
Her arc is ripe with self-sacrificial tendencies, which eventually begin to show the cumulative cost of such behavior, ripping her heart apart. Each time we do favors with no return of service, we grow a seed of resentment deep inside of us. Even if we do not believe that is the case. We often say that we expect nothing in return but yet the prime example of such a relationship dynamic would be pure parasitism. It is clear that people do not like parasites. Yet, parasites are the very ones on the end of the deal of situations in which we receive nothing in return. We do not actually accept the premise of a non-reciprocal relationship. We only say that we do because it makes people value us more, but most especially parasites. Which is the danger of this.
Sayaka’s case does not necessarily involve any parasites though. Instead, she keeps doing favors for others unprompted. The largest being that she sold her soul and sealed her fate in order to help a lover that can never know or repay her. Overtime, her lens of the world becomes one of a society of pure selfishness. While fighting witches, she allows herself to get hurt, but bears the pain to fight and vanquish the witches. As she fights one witch, she gives away the prize, a grief seed that is necessary to cleanse her soul gem. Due to this tendency, her soul gem eventually grows dark and shrouded in fog, a symbol of the resentment that she harbors. Once this occurs, her soul gem transforms into a grief seed itself, turning magical girl Sayaka into a villain, a witch. In a way, this transformation symbolizes suicide. Her self-harm escalates until she entirely loses herself to pain.
Most disturbingly, the evils she fought (the witches) have now been revealed to be previous magical girls who fell into despair much like herself. This mirrors her own descent into villainy. She isn’t truly evil, in fact, her motives seem to be pure justice gone wrong. As she tried to cling to her morality, she viewed the world around her as evil for not self-sacrificing like she had. Eventually, she aimed her sights at her best friend, Madoka, by suggesting that Madoka should sell her soul too so that she isn’t all alone in hurting herself while she endures the pain of fighting witches, as if this outcome would be fairer. This is essentially the last straw before she succumbs to becoming a witch. She realizes that she regrets everything and starts to really hate herself for the monster she has become. She is left with nothing, not even her soul.
She has become the infamous “burden” that the suicidal feel because their toxicity has grown too large and their influence on life is only detrimental to others. The idea that the self is a burden is like the final destination of toxic altruism. It is the idea that self-annihilation is the way to helping others. For those of you who have felt this, know that it isn’t true. Even if you are actually a burden, your death and the trauma this induces on others will be more of a burden than your life alive could ever be. Especially if you are a person who is worried about the burdening effect of your existence. If you really are worried about being a burden, you couldn’t possibly be so evil that your annihilation is less harmful than your existence. Your death will ruin people. It hurts but you should seek help and recovery rather than annihilation.
Sayaka’s arc is beautiful because it paints a picture of how altruism can go wrong. We often view altruism as simply a good thing. Sayaka’s naivety about this leads to her self-destruction. This is also why her arc is so relatable. Many of us live such a path of life. Giving to others at our own expense. Like Sayaka, even when we feel like we can shut out the pain, the damage that has been done eventually bubbles up.
Becoming a Witch
My own life is a testament to this. For 12 years, I was in a relationship with a girl that I loved. I shaped my entire life around her. Throughout our relationship, there was an immense pressure to drop away from my own life and invest in hers. I drifted away from all of my friends, only being friends with mutual connections. I grew distant from my family and instead I was immersed in hers. This pattern was a combination of our problematic tendencies together. She was afraid that I would leave her so there were subtle incentives for me to abandon any anchors that made living without her reasonable. Such anchors exist as a threat to the security of the relationship. They provide a way out. It wasn’t overt, but it played out that way in the end. As an example, I couldn’t be close with my best friend on their birthday because my ex continuously redialed my number and had immense jealousy. This kind of behavior made me push away my friends eventually, which resolved some of the problems I had with her.
Like Sayaka, I sold my soul to my ex. Why I would do this is something I still don’t fully understand. My traumas growing up are likely the root of this tendency. I didn’t really have much family to begin with, because my mother was troubled and fairly absent until the moment of her suicide, my father didn’t really raise me or even meet me until I was a teenager, and the rest of my family was and still is in disarray. I flow with the currents of life, with little attachment to the people around me. Yet, with my ex, I experienced love and a deep attachment. It filled a part of my heart that I never knew was missing. I think that was my vulnerability. The gaping hole in my heart was filled but as I filled the hole in her heart, it destroyed us both.
Now, as I walk through the world alone, I have developed a similar seed of resentment like that of Sayaka. After she left me, I’ve lost touch with all of our mutual friends, her family, and even some of my belongings. My whole life seemed to be dismembered. I sacrificed nearly all investment in myself to be with her and now it’s been ripped away, so I pay the price of my actions.
It doesn’t end there though. More recently, my altruism has been requested from a grandmother in need. She’s been experiencing severe physical and mental health issues, crippling her ability to be alone or even take care of herself anymore. Our history together is a bit rocky, as a I grew up to view her as a corrupt person. Choices she made, hurt my mother and my mother spiraled into drug use and eventually suicide many years after. Throughout that period, I was in and out of foster care. From my perspective, it appeared like my grandmother’s and mother’s choices destroyed my life.
Fast forward to now, and my grandmother’s place in life is analogous to the way my mother’s life was during all of this. My grandmother lives a life parallel, including using literally the same kind of drugs to cope with pain and anxiety. Her chronic health conditions have led her into near total deterioration. She may need to amputate her legs due to peripheral neuropathy and its consequences. She frequents a realm outside of reality, living in occasional psychotic episodes. The symmetry of my mother and her mother almost feels karmic. But I don’t think any of them deserve mistreatment or the pain that they suffer.
So, I decided to visit my grandmother sometimes to watch over her while her husband attends to important matters. While I stayed, she would enter psychosis. She would cry and beg me to move in, to become her full-time nurse. She had a nurse, but she didn’t want to lose all that money to the nurse.
This wouldn’t play out well though.
In the short time that I would visit (approximately 10 hours per visit), I would watch my own mind creep ever closer to oblivion as I tried to manage my emotions and pain. The first stage was a sharp, nearly unbearable stress response. My emotions would affect my whole body. There was an element of a rush, as if I were trapped skydiving. I would observe her crying in agony from the pain in her legs. She would describe the hallucinations that occur in her legs and sometimes slip into total delusion, believing that a device had been implanted into her or that she would soon be murdered by her husband. Every moment I spent there was focused on her presence. I could not easily check my phone or do anything else. I would sit and watch her, plugged into a direct stream of her misery and attend to often unreasonable requests that made no sense and even crossed my boundaries.
The next stage was total numbness. Like Sayaka, I realized I could push through the pain and learn to feel nothing. At least, that is how it seemed at first. The numbness kicked in faster and faster each time I visited. A faint sadness permeated my mind during those states. I would observe her pain but not my empathic response to it. I would not even observe my own pain. Similarly to Sayaka’s case, the muting of my pain was superficial. I was still hurting deep inside. I was hurting myself to “help” my grandmother. Though, I wasn’t doing all that much to help. Mostly just watching over her and being present to observe her slow agonizing demise as I slipped into her abyss, her labyrinth.
Stage 3 of my psychological transformation occurred each time that I left to return home. The relief led to some kind of disturbing state of ecstasy. While driving home, I would laugh to myself, in hysteria. I would drive faster, more recklessly. I would confront assholes more directly. It was a kind of freedom, not just from the anguish of my grandmother’s pain but from empathy itself.
Sayaka’s transformation to a pain-free state is eerily relatable. The way she laughs about it, seemingly inappropriately. It’s all so familiar that I couldn’t resist crying while watching.
After this initial burst of excitement, I’d fall into total numbness and lay in bed with no feeling for pleasure or pain, though it felt pretty miserable. After 1-2 weeks, this state passed, and the final stage kicked in. I was still desensitized to pain but now the apathy lifted, and my energy returned. I would hurt other people because of my pain and insensitivity to the pain of others. My sense of the disruption that comes from conflict was too weak and I began to succumb to chaos. A callous attitude took over my mind. Those around me couldn’t easily empathize with my situation and this led me to want to hurt them more so they could feel how I did before and to punish them for not empathizing with my pain. Their lack of empathy made them seem deserving of it. Though, I don’t think anyone deserves that in reality.
I developed ideas about how hopeless humans are and a kind of nihilistic attitude to life. Death didn’t seem to matter as much anymore. Some strange part of me even wanted others to hurt too. Something I am deeply ashamed of. I would share with people the depressive philosophies that had brewed in the back of my mind. Like Sayaka, I couldn’t see what about the world was worth fighting for anymore. Meanwhile, I was convinced that I was descending into sociopathy.
Becoming a witch is a metaphor for the way that despair leads us to act horribly in the world. As despair consumed me, my ability to function normally in life slipped out of my grasp. I had to pull back away from my job, which required me to utilize empathy and attend to other people’s emotions and needs. Slowly but surely, I fell apart. My money drained. On top of that, I was still recovering from the loss of my ex, her family, and all of our friends. It was like there was nothing left in life.
In real life, witches are contagious. They can drag us into their abysses. My grandmother is like a witch who crumbled from the despair of what occurred between her and my mother. She feels responsible for my mother’s suicide on some level. Now, I am going down that path to becoming a witch, but I refuse. I won’t allow it! The personal revelations that Madoka Magica has brought me through the arc of Sayaka have shown me that I can still change things. I will change things.
This negative tone my life has taken is probably apparent from the darkness of my recent video essays.
At the same time, I am realizing that our urge for fairness is a path to evil itself. We calculate and subconsciously track a debt that others owe us each time we act kindly. If others fail to reciprocate or be of value to us, we will often withhold our kindness. On the other side of the moon, there is the fairness of harm: revenge. The more corrupt we see the world, the more reasonable being evil seems. This is where Sayaka’s mind dwelled. Falling into an arc of retribution on the world, becoming evil, becoming a witch that inspires despair in others because the world doesn’t deserve kindness.
While watching Sayaka’s arc in Puella Magi Madoka Magica, this is where my mind went. Her urge for fairness and her constant self-sacrifice slowly led her to justify imposing sacrifices onto others. She felt that the world should be punished for their crimes. But more importantly, her own emotions from her personal loss twisted her mind such that she held others even more accountable. She ruined her mind with the hatred that accrued in her heart from the debts she created in others through her altruism. That is the price of the desire for everlasting gratitude from someone you do favors for. If the debt of gratitude is never repaid, you will be left in resentment and corrupted to believe that being cruel balances out the unpaid debt.
This is but one of the lessons that Sayaka teaches us. Be careful in how you make sacrifices.
Do not hastily give your soul away, because you need it too.
If you have suggestions for anime shows that you feel are as impactful as Madoka Magica, let me know in the comments. I’ve seen Clannad, Angel Beats, and I really LOVE Xenoblade Chronicles 1, 2, and 3. I’d also love to know whether you resonate with what I wrote here!
If you liked this, check out the book I just finished (free for now), The Psychonet. It explores many ideas from this blog and is designed to make you feel alive, emotional, and maybe terrified. It uses AI art and depicts a story about AI.
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Here are some of the strange art pieces that I got while trying to come up with AI-generated art using “Madoka Magica” as part of the prompt. The artist is Wombo.