Science Fiction Masquerading

… as a magical girl anime. From left to right, those are Kyoko Sakura, Sayaka Miki, Mami Tomoe, Homura Akemi and Madoka Kaname, and they make up the main characters of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, a anime series from, you guessed it, Japan. On the surface, you might lump it together with shows like Cardcaptor Sakura or Sailor Moon, but that likeness is only a facade. PMMM is not a light-hearted friend making show about fighting ambiguous evil without asking critical questions about why or how. It’s a science fiction series that might border on horror. Central to the plot are aliens, time travel, zombification, as well as questions about morality, free will and the nature of the soul. These characters are middle school students. Mami is the only upperclassman.

reaction animated GIF


The character of Kyubey, the cute kind-of cat-like creature you see here, was designed with intention of being both cute and dark. That is our alien, though the characters do not know this at the start (with the exception of Homura, but her start is a crucial exception – we’ll get back to that). It is a perfectly rational and amoral monster called an Incubator. Incubators offer young girls the chance to have any wish of theirs granted in return for engaging and eradicating witches. In other words, become magical girls. The ultimate goal, however, is for these girls to devolve into witches themselves. Incubators harvest the emotions of humans to counter entropy in the universe and have discovered that there is not greater release than that which occurs when a girl transforms into a witch.


When we’re talking about witches in the context of PMMM, however, we aren’t talking about a magical woman. We’re talking about a sucking black hole of despair that infects people to destroy themselves. The first witch that Sayaka kills has infected so many people that they’ve gathered together and are about to commit mass suicide, one of Madoka and Sayaka’s uninvolved friends included. They create chaotic and irrational labyrinths to protect themselves and trap victims. (On a side note, the mixed-media collage style of this animation is super cool.) The mixture of unlike elements reflects much of what we’ve looked at so far in class – at the construction of monsters by creating this which fits into no classification, at the extreme otherness that goes on.

Did I mention that this is not a children’s show? Even after Mami is killed by a witch, Sayaka makes a wish to heal a boy she likes and becomes a magical girl and attempts to take over and protect Mami’s territory, which leads to conflict with Kyoko. The redhead is another veteran magical girl whose after the abandoned territory. In the middle of one of these conflicts, Madoka steals Sayaka’s Soul Gem and throws it off the bridge in a fit of desperation. Unfortunately, this causes Sayaka to drop – temporarily – dead.

Kyubey reveals the true nature of being a magical girl. As soon as the contract is made, it rips the girls soul out of her body and transforms it into a compact, easy-to-carry Soul Gem. From then on, their body is nothing but hardware. They have become near invincible zombies. Sayaka’s Soul Gem is returned to her by Homura, but by then the truth is out. Sayaka takes the news badly and spirals into irrevocable despair. She refuses to clean her Soul Gem with the Grief Seeds that are dropped by defeated witches (This is to force magical girls to continue fighting witches if they want to live) and it becomes entirely corrupted. Sayaka is turned into a witch that immediately attempts to kill both Madoka and Kyoko. Kyoko sacrifices herself to destroy Sayaka.

The most important factor for this story is Homura. Each magical girl has magical abilities that differ from one another. In Homura’s case, her ability is directly connected to her initial wish and her power is time travel. When she became a magical girl herself, she was a diminutive girl fresh from the hospital who was befriended by Madoka in particular. In this time line, Madoka became a magical girl first. When the worst witch of them all, Walpurgisnacht, threatens to destroy the entire city, Mami, Sayaka and Madoka all take it on. Mami and Sayaka are killed and Madoka’s Soul Gem is corrupted by using too much magic. She persuades Homura to kill her by destroying her Soul Gem before she turns into a witch. Homura then makes a contract with Kyubey to allow her to save Madoka. Hence, the time travel. However, she ends up watching Madoka make a contract and die or be killed something like thirty times?


Kyubey is persistent in its attempts to make a contract with Madoka because her magical potential is exponential as a result of the multiple time lines now tied to her. She would be the best magical girl, then become the wickedest of all witches. The energy release would be unpredictably high. When Walpurgisnacht comes and Homura is facing it alone (again), Madoka makes her decision. She abandons her family, finds Homura and Kyubey and makes her wish to stop all magical girls from becoming witches. The granting of the wish requires the rewriting of the universe and Madoka is transmuted into the Law of the Cycle, in which she appears to any magical girl at the point of transformation and destroys their Soul Gems. Homura is the only one who remembers that Madoka ever existed.

If we ignore the Rebellion story line (which is mostly Homura becoming the antithesis of the Law of the Cycle), it’s a happy ending, but it certainly isn’t happy getting there. What we find in something like this is just another example of how flexible and involved the genre of science fiction is, and that it can present itself in a myriad of forms by pretending to be something else. Everything’s a masquerade for something.

4 thoughts on “Science Fiction Masquerading”

  1. So many spoilers! I would be upset if I hadn’t already seen the thing. Pretty GIFs though. Moving on.

    I, personally, would not call this science fiction, more like a mash-up of genres. Other? A Post-Modern Mosaic? It just uses whatever it wants from any genre and makes it work. Sure, it could be called Urban Fantasy or Science Fiction but as an English Major I feel that it is my responsibility to complicate everything and read too deep into it and when it comes to Post Modernist works which often refuse classification and any semblance of meaning, I can have a field day with this stuff.

    One more quick note. It’s the 18th today and yet your post says you posted this on the 19th. Unless you switched timezones after class or did the mundane thing and set your clock ahead, you’re talking from the future.

  2. This poses a very interesting question about anime as science fiction. I understand how this could be seen as science fiction, I however feel that this particular anime focusses too heavily on magic to be considered science fiction. The anime as said includes aliens and other characteristics found in science fiction but defeating them relies solely on the magic these girls have. So I would say that it may science fiction adjacent or reminiscent of science fiction, but I wouldn’t classify it as science fiction.

  3. Both of these are good criticisms of my choice to attempt to classify this particular show as SF. The suggestion that it may be a Mosaic genre, or Adjacent SF, raises an interesting question in my mind. If it’s displaying science fiction conventions, but isn’t science fiction, than what is? Does the nature of the genre exist in the interaction between those conventions/tropes and the story itself, or in weighting them against tropes from other genres (such as magic)?

    Anime as science fiction is interesting as well, as there are some really distinct genre lines in most anime. I’m not going to lie, when I watched Pacific Rim for the first time, I couldn’t help but think it very much like an anime. With the mechas and the aliens, it reminded me largely of the Neon Genesis aesthetic (I’m getting around to actually watching the series), and similar arcs with other mecha anime.

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