Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a story about Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow, our unconscious double and what it gives to us. For Jung, a Swiss psychoanalyst who extended the work of Freud, “the shadow is that hidden, repressed, for the most part hidden and guilt laden personality…” It is the part of the self that one often does not see, but when not expressed creates its own fate.
Of course, Madoka is also a story about magical girls—those who are chosen by and contract with incubators, mysterious alien beings who desire to control entropy. This contract involves the granting of one wish in exchange for the power to vanquish “witches”, destructive creatures who turn out to be a part of the incubators’ plans. Magical girls make a contract, fight witches, then inevitably turn into one, generating enough energy to resist entropy on a universal scale.
When we consider these two levels of the narrative together—the implicit and the manifest—we can see that above all, Madoka is a story about how when two people who are each other’s shadows meet, transformations and miracles can occur.
What We Do In The Shadows
One such pair is Kaname Madoka—an ordinary high schooler who is offered one wish and the miraculous power, to become a magical girl, and to vanquish witches, who are revealed to be the monstrous forms of magical girls who have fallen to despair, and Akemi Homura, a mysterious transfer student who wants her to decline the offer. They appear to be opposites, the cold older girl and the naive younger one, but as the story develops, we see that the two are shadows of one another.. Their story is echoed in the relationship between Sayaka Miki and Sakura Kyoko, a brash would be do-gooder and a laid back and self-centered veteran magical girl.
The concept of the witch—the monstrous form of the magical girl who falls into despair—seems to be the shadow, but it is just another persona—a mask that we use to hide from the world. Jung elucidated this concept in Two Essays On Analytical Psychology. For example, the witch form of Homura is focused on guilt and self destruction. The imagery of her labyrinth is dour—her hands in shackles, heading to the gallows, with her worst memory—being forced to shoot her only friend, Madoka, to prevent her becoming a witch, repeating over and over. Homura’s image in the story seems to contradict this. She is bold, snarky and straightforward. However, she carries her despair written on her back. Due to her guilt at not protecting Madoka from her cursed fate, she barrels into self destruction—reliving the same week over and over in an attempt to save Madoka. As she relives this week, she experiences the trauma of losing her only friend over and over again.
This is similar to Madoka’s path. After feeling responsible for Sayaka’s becoming a witch, and seeing that Homura is falling against Walpurgisnacht—a powerful conglomeration of witches that threatens the city—she jumps onto the path to self destruction. She becomes the “law of cycles”, a principle of hope that causes magical girls to disappear before becoming witches, and her individual characteristics fade as she takes on thousands of cursed destinies. Both characters believe they are not worth much, and thus, need to sacrifice themselves to matter.
Homura and Madoka are the main pairing of the story, and their stories mirror each other almost perfectly. Both Homura and Madoka’s wishes have, at their root, the desire to protect others. Homura wishes to turn back time to protect Madoka, and Madoka wishes to protect all magical girls throughout time from becoming witches.
Homura and Madoka integrate at the end of the series—by opening her heart to Madoka, Homura is able to absorb her shadow side. Homura starts to wear Madoka’s ribbons and her weapon becomes a bow, Madoka’s magical girl weapon. When one is made aware of the shadow, great power is unleashed.
Opposites and Parallels
The fact that Madoka ascends to “godhood” and Homura becomes “the existence known as evil” is a beautiful hidden parallel in the narrative. “In all chaos, there is a cosmos, in all order, there is a hidden disorder” Jung says. Madoka seems to bring order in the place of a chaotic world filled with witches bringing nightmarish labyrinths to the world, causing disaster and suicide in their wake, but her actions cause Homura to create a disorderly world filled with dreamlike Nightmares.
Every transformation demands as its precondition “the ending of a world”—”the collapse of an old philosophy of life.” Madoka’s witch form’s power is enough to end the universe as it was, but her ultimate form was enough to begin a new one. Homura rewrites the universe to separate Madoka the person from the law of cycles that Madoka had become as a result of her wish.
Kyoko and Sayaka are a side story, but in theirs there is synchronicity, another Jungian concept referring to a set of “meaningful coincidences.” These two girls also appear to be opposites, even trying to kill each other at first. But in episode six, they see how they are connected. Kyoko talks about how her wish on the behalf of someone else brought disaster. She wished that her father, a minister, would be listened to by other people instead of ignored—but her wish backfired, killing her entire family. Sayaka is confident that her wish to heal her crush’s arm so he can continue to be a violin prodigy won’t backfire, but when he decides to date her best friend, she becomes the mermaid witch—a nice callback to the Little Mermaid, who, in the pre-Disney version, became sea foam when her prince married another.
Kyoko has gained the knowledge of sorrow, and lashes out to protect Sayaka from what occurred from brash confidence, but Sayaka is too confident in herself to listen to her wisdom. Sayaka arrives at a Jungian perspective on life before she becomes a witch. She learns that the greater the light they bring into the world, the darker the shadow that they cast. However, that is not a fatalist tragedy—the shadow can become a fertile ground.
For Jung, “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” And that is precisely what Madoka does when she destroys the universe—she begins a new one, grounded in hope. In this new world, magical girls’ shadows need not be destructive, uncontrollable forces, but rather sources of strength, resolve, and self-knowledge.