This piece contains spoilers for several episodes of Puella Magi Madoka Magica. If you haven't seen the series, it's probably best to skip this.
It's been a while, hasn't it? With reviews and conventions getting in the way, it's been difficult for me to keep up with some of the items I've really wanted to write, including this column. Though it's fallen on the back-burner a bit, I've really been looking forward to this entry in particular. I've had plenty to say about the other characters in this series, who together help enrich the story and make it into the compelling piece that still has people talking more than a year later. There's only one character, though, whose story I can safely say this story is truly about, and surprisingly that person isn't Madoka; The character whose struggles help comprise the basis of this particular magical girl story, whose imprisonment in a Samsara-like cycle of repeated mistakes and suffering, truly is lone-wolf character Akemi Homura.
I've talked previously about the importance of female friendships and relationships to this story. In Homura's case, her friendship with Madoka forms the backbone of a narrative which has played itself out several (perhaps countless) times to increasing degrees of non-success. Without further examination, this seems to suggest that the ultimate "reward" of trying to do something for someone else is the destruction of that relationship; as with many of the other interwoven character arcs in this series, Homura makes her wish in order that someone else might benefit - Madoka. With each timeline resulting in an increasingly dire conclusion, it would seem to suggest, albeit cynically, that the support offered from one woman to another is an idealized and unattainable concept, one which only leads to pale reflections of success and even more heartache.
Of course, the real problem is that the wish has unintended consequences that cause it to backfire. Like others before her, Homura's wish is based on a selfish desire - rather than Madoka sacrificing herself during the battle with Walpurgisnacht, Homura wishes for the ability to rescue her, thus keeping her as a friend. There's an element of Groundhog Day here, in that the assumption is that Homura might eventually be able to get everything exactly "right" and save the day while still maintaining the friendship. The unfortunate reality is that her unsuccessful attempts appear only to add to a cosmic burden that transforms Madoka from a confident, outgoing high school girl to one who's more reserved and hesitant to make decisions.
Before I go further, I think that it's valuable to look at the type of character type (or types) Homura embodies. Homura's characterization almost seems like an in-joke to people who are aware of how moe character archetypes operate. Homura begins, as we find out in the tenth episode of the series, as a typical, sweet Meganekko ("glasses girl") who's befriended by the outgoing Madoka. Homura initially lacks will and appears devoid of power, both physical and personality-wise. Her attempts to defeat the likes of a garbage can are cringe-worthy, and her lack of endurance (brought on by the fact that she's physically unwell), only seem to add to how endearing she's supposed to be, speaking in terms of prevailing female character design "wisdom." As she begins to repeat history, the emotional burden of doing so begins to transform her personality from that of a meek, powerless introvert, to someone whose knowledge of the way in which the world works has darkened her personality.
Why I look at this transformation in terms of moe archetypes is primarily because in most other cases, these archetypes are absolute; characters who begin their lives as dojikko or lolis or tsundere remain within those boundaries for the entirety of their existence. This series plays with our expectations, demonstrating that the "dark girl" who doesn't seem to get along with anyone and who has a blunt personality began her life as someone shy and quiet. It demonstrates a logical and, at times, surprising arc of development that once again subverts our expectations of what an anime series which is seemingly based a great deal on moe aesthetic and archetypes can and should be.
The transformative aspect of Homura's character development is important because it describes one aspect of her relationship with Madoka that I haven't really seen adequately examined yet - the way in which the progression of their relationship describes an alteration in the characters' power dynamic. Though many of the actions Homura takes seem to transform her relationship with Madoka in unintended ways, because of each trip through the cycle, Homura herself becomes more powerful in certain respects. She heals the problem with her heart and becomes physically fit, she learns to use firearms in order to enhance her time-stopping abilities, and she becomes more cunning and almost singularly focused on her primary goal. Not all of these powerful traits are positive; in order to convince Madoka not to become a magical girl, it almost becomes a necessity for Homura to become blunt and unfriendly towards her. The implication, though, is that through her devotion to Madoka, Homura has become a person able to make decisions and take action, rather than waiting helplessly in the shadows while something hopeless comes to claim the lives of those she loves.
Madoka's transformation is something of a different story, and one that I'll reserve for the next entry in this series. Suffice it to say that, while it doesn't always appear that her half of the relationship is a positive one, Madoka too undergoes a more subtle shift in attitude and power, from frivolous and thoughtless to decisive in the most powerful sense. Her road to that point is simply lengthier, at least in terms of how the series presents it to the viewer.
There's a very clear message here that it's knowledge that ultimately equals power. While the truth is not always kind and the method of reaching it almost never pleasant, it's always better to have all the information at your disposal when making large decisions. This may be why Kyubey is so often seen as an "evil" character, despite his amorality; his deceptiveness is a result of omission and almost none of the girls with whom he contracts have the entire picture when they sign on the dotted line. Sometimes the weight of these after-the-fact realizations are too much for the characters to bear; Sayaka in particular succumbs to depression soon after learning that her body has become an empty shell and her soul an object. Homura, though, takes this knowledge (as well as the information she has on the appearance of Walpurgisnacht and how to defeat it) and does with it what she can in the face of cosmic, opposing odds. Despite her increasingly grim prospects, her love for her friend gives her determination, and she never gives up hope. Perhaps this, even more than her tragic, transformative story, is part of what makes her a favorite character of mine.
Even if she weren't as well-realized as a character, her existence does cause one to question whether that strange individual at work or at school who doesn't engage with anyone or who seems standoffish might not have something going on in their life that makes them that way. As someone who has always been shy and whose shyness is often mistaken for arrogance or aloofness, I can certainly say that the standard of sociability that we have in place does seem to emphasize falseness in our interactions rather than reward the process of getting to know someone. I guess it doesn't surprise me that moe is such a popular concept in anime fandom; it's easier (in the sense that it's literally less work) to love a girl who's cute for a singular reason that's tailored to one's personal preference than it is to deal with the combined messiness of a real woman's hopes, dreams, faults and problems, at least for those people who would rather we sit down, shut up and get back in the kitchen (or simply be 2D waifus).
I think what ultimately endears Homura to me is that, where some of the other girls are emotionally destroyed by the unintended consequences of their wishes, or are forced to become cynical and jaded in order to cope, Homura instead accepts these consequences like a duty she has to her friend. While she does have moments of emotional fragility - who wouldn't? - her maturity and determination define the person who she has had to become. It's the rare anime character who is offered the opportunity to grow in this way.
Next time, Madoka finally gets her time in the spotlight, and we'll talk about the other side of her relationship with Homura, as well as her relationship with her mother and how that helps define her character.