Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Latin Latin Madoka More Latin 2: Thermodynamic Boogaloo

This post is adapted from the script for Latin Latin Madoka More Latin 2: Thermodynamic Boogaloo, a panel Viga and I presented at Anime Boston 2013. As an adapted panel, it has a rather different structure than my usual essays; also note that some portions are repurposed chunks of the original Latin Latin Madoka More Latin, although most of the content is new.

As promised in the title, we start with that most exciting of topics, thermodynamics. Woo. You may have heard economics referred to as “the dismal science.” Well, bullshit. The real dismal science is thermodynamics, as witness the three basic laws of thermodynamics:
  1. Energy is conserved. You can never create or destroy energy, only change it from one form to another. You can’t win.
  2. Entropy increases in a closed system. In other words, energy in a closed system becomes more disorganized and less usable (which is to say, it becomes waste heat) until ultimately everything breaks down in what’s called “heat death.” You can’t break even.
  3. Entropy drops to zero in a perfect crystal at absolute zero. But the closer you get to absolute zero, the more energy it takes to get closer, and it would take infinite energy to actually reach it. You can’t quit playing the game.
Note that the second law applies to a closed system. If you have an open system—one where energy can come in from outside—entropy doesn’t have to increase. For example, life on Earth doesn’t need to worry much about entropy, because we’ve got a big ol’ giant fusion reactor hanging over our heads, pouring energy onto us.

The problem is that the universe is a closed system, and there’s no “outside” to get energy from—that’s kind of what “universe” means. The universe itself WILL eventually run down into heat death, reaching a state of perfect disorder, a vast cloud of undifferentiated, gradually expanding and cooling gas. Of course, if you could create energy from nothing, that would be basically the same as importing it from outside the universe, but that requires breaking the first law.

Oh, and just to be extra fun—these are the most experimentally confirmed and reconfirmed findings in science. Not even gravity has as much empirical support as these three laws—they are as close to absolutely certain facts as any science can be. And extra, extra fun—Emmy Noether did some very impressive math and proved more than a century ago that “energy isn’t conserved” is a synonym for “the laws of physics change over time.” That’s not a whole lot better—avoiding heat death might not be worth it if it means gravity just randomly turns off some days!

That’s what the Incubators are trying to change, and it turns out that the laws of physics can briefly change or be broken (which is mathematically identical to being able to make energy from nothing!) when magical girls do their thing, and especially when they become witches.

But there’s more to entropy in Madoka than the science…

The theme of decay is everywhere in this series. You can see it in the way Mitakihara City starts clean and beautiful, but ends up ruined by Walpurgisnacht. You can see it in Sayaka’s descent from happy kid—the most playful of Madoka’s trio of friends—and warrior of justice to depression, murder, despair, and ultimately becoming a witch.

It’s also in the way Homura’s every attempt to turn back the clock and fix things makes them worse. In the first timeline Mami and Madoka die fighting Walpurgisnacht, but Walpurgisnacht is defeated and no new witch created. In all other timelines Mami doesn’t live that long, not to mention Madoka becoming a progressively worse witch at the end of each timeline until the fifth.

But the biggest example is the way the characters’ wishes turn against them. They each get what they wanted—Kyubey always honestly fulfills the wish—but soon find that they regret it anyway. Once gained, the thing they desired quickly sours—Kyoko’s father commits murder-suicide, Sayaka saves the boy but loses him to another, Mami survives but finds herself isolated as a friendless orphan, and Homura eventually realizes her attempts to protect Madoka are just increasing her suffering. Everything they wish for rots away.

This theme of entropy or the inevitability of decay is an important factor of Buddhist thought, which is a huge influence on Madoka. Buddhism uses the existence of decay to argue that this world is corrupt and corrupting, an illusion that must be seen past, or else it will use your desires—your wishes—to lure you in, and then trap you when the things you wished for inevitably decay.

Kyubey also talks about karma a lot. Karma is a very complex concept, and different sects view it very differently. The Buddhist view can be very loosely summed up as cause and effect: action plants seeds which grow (maybe in this life, maybe in the next) into consequences. Good actions lead to good consequences and bad to bad, but either way, it has the effect of trapping you in the cycle of karma, because those consequences lead to further action which leads to more consequences. The magical girl happiness-despair cycle works the same way, dragging them steadily down to witch-hood. The weight of karma also binds people to a cycle of rebirth, forcing them live over an over again, facing the burdens of the karma from past lives. Episode 10, in other words.

Enlightenment, the understanding of the true nature of the world, is the only way to escape karma--and it is only on the last cycle that Madoka learns both of Homura's time travel (the cycle of rebirth) and precisely what the Incubators are doing (the nature of karma). And Walpurgisnacht strongly resembles a lotus blossom (a symbol of Enlightenment) while at the same time the gear motif reflects the ever-grinding wheel of karma. Note that Walpurgisnacht is both where Homura always resets time—binding herself and Madoka more tightly—and where Madoka ascends to goddesshood.

Because, of course, that ascension has a strong Buddhist element, too…

Madoka resembles a figure from Buddhist mythology, the bodhissatva Kwannon. Kwannon was a young girl who nearly attained nirvana, but stopped just before she reached it. She transcended space and time to reach out to others and help them to Enlightenment, before finally ascending to nirvana herself. This helps explain the Virgin Mary connection, as well--people who syncretize Buddhism and Christianity often identify Kwannon and Mary together, and when Christianity was illegal in Japan during the Edo period, underground Christians disguised statues of Mary as Kwannon, and eventually fused them into a single goddess, the cult of Maria-Kwannon.

Madoka resonates with Kanon quite strongly. Like Kanon, she is an incarnation of compassion and hope, sacrificing herself through all of time and space to help bring others to the same heaven she has attained. Kanon can see Nirvana, but holds herself back from that perfection—how much must that hurt? And she is at every point in time and space, sacrificing herself eternally to ensure everyone else can be with her. That’s pretty much what Madoka does in the final episode.

There’s also Marian elements to Madoka, which makes sense if Madoka, Kanon, and Mary are all versions of the same ideal goddess of compassion, hope, and salvation. For example, the rose is a symbol of Mary, and Madoka has a rose on her bow that blooms when she begins to ascend. The show is also a retelling of Faust (as we covered in detail last year), and Madoka fulfills the roles of both Gretchen (who ends up serving Mary in the afterlife) and Mary in that story.

Finally, the music Kyosuke plays when Madoka and Sayaka watch him in the final episode is Ave Maria, a musical setting of the Latin prayer known to English speakers as “Hail Mary,” requesting Mary to ask for the forgiveness of the person making the prayer.

Moving on to something completely different…

Madoka is a clear example of postmodernism in anime. Postmodernism, as a philosophical and artistic movement, is mostly interested in the ways in which we construct meaning. Postmodern art, generally speaking, is art that deliberately calls attention to the way in which it constructs its meaning; where most art tries to hide the technique and create an illusion of reality, postmodern art demands that you notice its artificiality. The main technique by which it does this is to strip signifiers out of their normal context and then treat them as if they’ll still work anyway. The simplest example is breaking the fourth wall, which pulls the work out of its normal context of existing entirely in an imaginary world, and smashes it against our own reality.

None of the characters in Madoka break the fourth wall to come out of the show, but the witches break it in the other direction—their barriers are in a different art style, and the characters notice and are freaked out by this. It’s the fourth wall breaking into the show instead of out—one of the elements of the show that we’re normally supposed to ignore according to that vile “suspension of disbelief” idea is actually a part of the story.

Another way in which the show calls attention to the way it and other works construct meaning is by bringing up, and then dismissing, common magical-girl generic elements. In essence, it does for magical girls what Neon Genesis Evangelion did for mecha; what fans tend to call a genre deconstruction, though an actual deconstruction is something very different. What Madoka and Eva do is take common elements of the genre and play them as straight as possible, while removing the narrative conveniences that make them work. Eva deconstructed the super robot genre by showing how psychologically devastating it would be to place the fate of the world on the shoulders of a child and force them to face monsters. Madoka does the same with magical girls, as well as showing the isolation their superhero-esque roles and secret identities create. Mami's death, for instance: she dies against a third-episode monster of the week, proving this is not the sort of magical girl series where the girls have plot armor, or where the big Final Attack always works.

At the same time, just as Eva ultimately returns at the end to the core shonen theme of a young man embracing hope and self-determination to cross the threshold into adulthood, Madoka embraces the core magical girl theme of a young woman evolving into a powerful, maternal goddess-figure able to protect the world. It takes the genre apart, but puts it back together again as something new, and in so doing sets a new benchmark, a new standard of what the genre could be.

The question, of course, is why Madoka is playing with the form and genre like this. And the answer seems to be that it’s trying to reach beyond itself, to break the fourth wall in a novel way—not the wall between work and reader, but between work and author.
The truth is, I haven't always been this way. I have often written pieces that didn't have a perfect ending, but by the last chapter the protagonist would still possess a belief that "Although there will be many hardships to come, I still have to hold on."
But ever since I don't know when, I can no longer write works like this.
I have nothing but contempt for the thing men call happiness, and have had to push the characters I poured my heart out to create into the abyss of tragedy.
For all things in the world, if they are just left alone and paid no attention, are bound to advance in a negative direction.
No matter what we do, we can't stop the universe from getting colder, either , and on the same principle. This world is only maintained in existence by a series of logical, common-sense processes; it can never escape the bondage of its physical laws.
Therefore, in order to write a perfect ending for a story you must possess the power to break the chain of cause and effect, invert black and white, and act in complete contradiction to the rules of the universe. Only a heavenly and chaste soul, a soul that resounds with genuine praise for humanity, can save the story; to write a story with a happy ending is a double challenge, to the author's body as well as the mind.
At some point, Gen Urobuchi lost that power.

By having the non-diegetic space of art style invade the diegetic space of the characters’ awareness, a bridge is formed between inside the story and outside. By raising and dismissing generic elements, Urobuchi can stress-test them, and discover how strong they really are. In short, by redeeming her universe Madoka can prove to Urobuchi that he still has the power to write a happy ending; she has redeemed not only her universe but her creator.

In this sense, the series serves as a leap of faith for Urobuchi. The leap of faith is originally from theology, and originates with “Lessing’s Ditch,” which posited that there is no way to make a rational, evidence-based argument for Christianity, but it can be generalized to any moral belief system. Basically, Lessing’s Ditch argues that the is-ought problem—that there is no way to logically get from “here’s how things are” to “this is what you should do” unless you start having some kind of beliefs already—is insurmountable; you cannot ever know what action to take or what to believe in based on facts or evidence alone, but must have some kind of moral principles or values you take on faith. Kierkegaard then took this a step forward by introducing the “leap of faith”—though he originally called it the leap to faith--the idea that, upon reaching the ditch, one can consciously choose to leap across. That, in other words, one must make a decision to believe in something before one can make any other meaningful decisions.

This is exactly Urobuchi’s problem that he tackles in Madoka: he is aware of the nature of the physical universe, and it leaves him paralyzed, in despair, unable to write anything but misery. In Madoka, he creates something he can believe in, and now can take action—even though, ultimately he created his belief, leapt to faith.

Speaking of morality, we’re going to wrap up by discussing the characters as examples of different approaches to morality, starting with Kyoko. Kyoko is a hedonist; she lives for pleasure. Originally she pursues immediate gratification like food and games. At this stage she is completely selfish, willing to sacrifice people to familiars so they’ll grow into witches and provide her with Grief Seeds. However, her interactions with Sayaka slowly leads her to become less selfish, and to start to crave more enduring pleasures such as friendship. Ultimately, she dies betraying her own principles, acting entirely selflessly as she sacrifices herself not even to save someone, but just to ensure that Sayaka is not alone.

Mami is hard to place, but she may be a deontologist—that is, someone who follows a set of rules, principles, duties, and rights in determining right and wrong. In particular, she seems to be driven largely by a sense of duty. However, she has so little screen time it’s hard to be sure.

Sayaka is a study in virtue ethics—that is, instead of following a set of rules or principles, she tries to act consistently with certain virtues or follow the example of some ideal person. She basically has a picture in her head of what a hero is like, and she tries to imitate that image. However, because she is fixated on imitating something that isn’t her, she loses sight of her own needs, and falls into despair. She is unable to cope when her self-image doesn’t match reality, first when she learns she’s basically a zombie, and later when she appears to have murdered the two misogynistic jerks on the train.

Kyubey is a utilitarian; he believes that the right thing is what does the most good for the most people. This leads him to conclude that it’s okay to cause great suffering for a few people and to treat others as livestock instead of people, and this leads directly to his downfall: Because he didn’t care, it never even occurred to him (or his people) to try to find some other way of circumventing entropy, or even just to get the full informed consent of the magical girls! He doesn’t understand why humans value such things, but he clearly knows that they do, or else he wouldn’t know which information to keep secret until after the contract is done. But because things like respecting the values of others, obtaining consent, and being honest are not factors in a utilitarian decision, which only ever considers what creates the greatest benefits, he creates a situation in which Madoka rewrites reality and forces him into a less efficient path to saving the universe.

Madoka and Homura are two approaches to care ethics. For both of them, right and wrong are emotionally determined; we see both of them carefully considering their options, but that consideration is not purely rational; it’s a combination of reason and feeling, and compassion and empathy for others are key parts of their motivation. Both of them value other people as individuals; the main difference is that Homura practices an in-group care ethics, where she only cares about the people closest to her, while Madoka cares about and feels empathy for everyone she meets. This is key, because ultimately compassion, empathy, and hope become cosmic forces. Madoka, of all the characters, is the one who comes across as the most moral, because she wants to make people happy—not in the utilitarian sense of clinical, detached decision making, but in the sense of wanting to know the people she encounters and put an individually crafted smile on each of their faces.


  1. You repeated a lot of what you said last week, explaining certain parallels. Oh well, this wasn't planned like a normal essay so you can be forgiven for that.

    I personally find the part with Gen Urobuchi’s personal struggle to find a happy ending fascinating. I was watching the show as it came out week-by-week with a group, and we all "knew" it was going to end in despair. It was fascinating, we couldn't look away, we had to see just how far he would twist the knife at the end. We anticipated the ending like crazy, but there was very little room for hope that it would be happy. After all, we knew the guy's recent track record and he'd written that short essay on how and why he could no longer envision a happy ending because he couldn't picture things ending happily in reality.

    And then... it ended happily. Not ambiguously, not with a stalemate, not with a phyrric moral victory. Not everyone survived and it wasn't any of the girls' ideal (except maybe Madoka herself) but this was a genuine, unmitigated happy ending--heck, it even involved undoing most of the worst tragedies of the last eleven episodes.

    It was stunning. It was unexpected. It meant more to me than a hundred "default" happy endings and a hundred plainly-telegraphed tragedies. The feeling you get from a happy ending in a story where you were genuinely expecting tragedy is something special. I can only name one other story that I remember making me feel that way, that being Higurashi (and even then, it was telegraphed from about halfway through the last arc and there was an awful lot of Fridge Logic about the time travel that the characters seemed to be intentionally ignoring).

    So yes. Happy, sad, what I love most of anything in an ending is being surprised. Really surprised. It's a thing 95% of literature would never dare do, or flat out can't, but it's oh-so-worth it.

  2. It's been recently theorized that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is more a trend than an inexorable slide, albeit a trend that we currently have no idea how to guide.

    If I were better at this sort of analysis, I could probably craft some sort of metaphor about that, but all I can think of is something amounting to "Just ignore a conundrum and it will solve itself," which ironically is the one problem I had with the moral thesis of Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

    In the long term, I see very little difference between Madoka's and Homura's versions of care ethics. They both practice in-group care ethics, the only difference is the size of the group they care about. Madoka cares about the people right in front of her, and helping each of them individually, which is certainly the correct course of action for those who have the time and resources to do it... but for those with larger responsibilities (like, say, saving the universe from heat death), it can have the effect of shortchanging (or even dehumanizing) those not currently in front of you. It's prioritizing some people's problems over others.

    Kyubey is a great villain, but he's not an indictment of utilitarianism. His version of utilitarianism is the equivalent of Twilight's version of skepticism in "Feeling Pinkie Keen."

    There are a gazillion better ways for Kyubey to go about his goals, with the tools and information he has available, that would still be utilitarian. It's not just that he doesn't understand others' values; he's a villain because he doesn't even really understand his own values, the code he thinks he's following.

    1. I don't think Kyubey is necessarily going about his goals in a *sloppy* way. It's hinted pretty strongly that they put their best scientists to the task and found that turning people into witches is the most effective way of siphoning energy into the universe. And certainly given that target he's got an efficient (virtually self-sustaining) racket going. Plus he knows all the right lies to tell at the beginning. The only thing I could possibly accuse him of doing wrong is committing to grant the wishes before he hears them, since that risks wildcards like Homura or Madoka popping up (though I bet even Homura's wish is an outlier).

      The real thing Kyubey does "wrong" is that he chooses the "defect" option in the prisoner's dilemma. Consistently. Of course he does, since what he wants is morally right and what they want is morally irrelevant due to scope. It's a no-brainer, right?

      Except the OTHER problem with always defecting in the prisoner's dilemma is once people figure out that you'll always sabotage them to get your goal, they'll start sabotaging you to get their goals. The whole concept of "justice" amounts to a built-in drive to make defecting be the optimal strategy. So Homura pushes herself way past her limits just to spite him, and in the end Madoka changes the rules of the universe to one that's slightly better for her but much worse for him, and both consider those acts to be moral obligations.

      Basically, given his set of goals Kyubey is a perfect utilitarian as long as you assume that nobody else has any agency whatsoever. That assumption turns out to be wrong, and in the end he's left wishing he'd just tried to strike a compromise (or would be if he could remember it).

    2. I don't think Kyubey actually has a choice when it comes to the wishes. Based on a few things he says (especially the conversation with Madoka right before Homura shoots him), the impression I get is that it's the girls' own power that grants the wishes, Kyubey is just a sort of catalyst to give them access to their power. I don't think he pays any attention to what they're wishing for, as long as he can yank a soul egg out of them and get the witch process started.

    3. I think if you "assume that nobody else has any agency whatsoever," you've kind of missed the point of any ethical system.

      Similarly, 'efficiency' isn't given a priority over side effects, even under the "cold, calculating" logic of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism does acknowledge and allow for the fact that moral courses of action are often harder, more complicated, and less fun than immoral ones. Every moral code ever devised by man is fundamentally based on that fact, because if that weren't the case, then we wouldn't need moral codes at all.

      If the end goal is a binary "Does this course of action prevent heat death Y/N?" then the correct (under utilitarianism) method of achieving that goal is the method that causes the least suffering to those affected. That's pretty much the whole criteria.

      So, according to the moral system attributed to him here, Kyubey's method was a logistical failure because it was a moral failure, and vice versa. The fact that his racket was doomed to fall apart in the long run anyway was a feature, not a bug.

    4. Sorry, when I said "agency" I meant "ability to make decisions", not "moral weight". A baby has moral weight but not much agency. He probably still gives them moral weight, it's just dwarfed (in his mind) by the moral weight of everyone else.

      And anyways, we seem to be operating under different reads for how much he thinks he can do. You seem to be implying that he can prevent heat death indefinitely, AND that he can do so even if he picks a less efficient option. Whereas I assumed that no matter what he does he can only postpone it, and he can postpone it a lot further if he pursues an "efficient" option. If nothing else, every girl he converts pumps in a finite amount of energy so he can only postpone it by some multiple of however long he keeps the racket going, and humanity won't be ripe for the picking forever unless his species intervenes openly to lock us in a technological and probably social stasis.

    5. Huh. I thought it was stated that there is a net gain in energy (under Kyubey's method, at least) that surpasses the loss.

      Also, I assumed there were other races besides humans being exploited in the same way.

    6. Yes, he did state there was a net gain in energy whenever he did his thing (which is, thermodynamically, synonymous with "syphoning energy into the universe from outside"). And there probably are other planets he can harvest from, but he can't get an infinite amount of energy from every human. The less efficient his method, the more people he has to do it to get the same effect.

    7. Well, one side effect of the universe continuing to exist is that other civilizations will arise, and individuals from those civilizations can be channeled to. That's why the incubators are doing this in the first place.


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