I’m a little tired of this angle.
Nastier takes on familiar genres are all well and good. I liked Uta Kata, for example. But claiming that the nastier take is somehow more real, or naturally better, or is how the genre somehow should be is going a bit far (and riding the motorcycle of criticism over the double-decker buses separating is and ought). For at least two reasons.
First, because anything which is obviously trying to be more grown-up usually isn’t.
Second, because the base genre being nastified remains essential to our enjoyment. Whenever we’re saying ‘This is so dark! So real!’, our pleasure piggybacks on our knowledge of the light, unreal thing, with its fluff, frills, lack of character death, &c.
* * *
While we’re on the subject, why’re we all talking about Faust? He walked eyes open into his bargain, having deliberately (though possibly unsuccessfully) tried to summon something infernal. Mephy isn’t an unsettling and suspicious mascot, he is a servant of the Devil. The horror of Faust’s deal, once you accept the story’s premises, is that he and we both know its consequences, and we know he knows. Whereas in Madoka‘s case, with the story we have so far, everyone’s talking about possibilities and dark hints: its darkness comes from our lack of knowledge about its exact mechanics.
Oh, granted, some text from one of the versions of the Faust legend might have appeared in the show itself. But I don’t remember anyone deciding pre-emptively that Geass R2 was Dantean because of the text from the Purgatorio it showed us. In fact, the only person I remember writing about it concluded that it had very little significance. Maybe Geass had the wrong staff? (More likely it was the fact that it wasn’t very good, but I feel snide today.)
EDIT: Landon grasps and expands on the inadequacy of the Faust connection.
Yeah I was just comparing it to the Western comics of the 1990s (post-Spawn, I suppose) where every hero had to be reinvented in a darker, more hard-boiled, grittier version. It’s not “more grown-up” except in the sense that a 13-year-old is more grown up than an 8-year-old, which I suppose is something at least.
Hadn’t really thought about this too much, but yeah, I guess it’s all relative. Which doesn’t discount the darkety-dark version, but doesn’t make it necessarily an “improvement,” either, just because it runs more to our taste.
As for Faust, I think (other than text on a blank screen) the most prominent Hideaki Anno element that Shinbo enjoys using is that kind of pseudo-symbolism that’s not really symbolism at all. I believe Anno called it “things that just look deep” or something to that effect. Once you look beyond the barest similarities to Faust, there might not be much there, but it’s not intended “deep symbolic parallels,” more like… “slightly evocative.”
I suppose there are cases where a new take on the genre becomes a/the norm, and viewers’ enjoyment relies less and less, and eventually not at all, on the original version of the genre. But I don’t think this is one of those cases.
It’s possible that there’s some brilliant extrapolation of the Faust thing that I’ve missed or, more likely, happens in the unaired bit of the show, but yes, ‘slightly evocative’. I’m normally all in favour of allusion and symbolism, even when they’re entirely unintended by the people writing and animating the anime — I think what annoys me slightly about this case isn’t so much its presence in the show as the reaction of the audience, which wasn’t based on thinking through exactly what the parallels between the two stories might or might not be. Kind of like my complaint about writing about (here is our locus classicus) the crosses in NGE isn’t that they’re meaningless because the staff said they were, it’s that no one’s ever managed to write something interesting about them.
Heh. otou-san’s gravatar image made me chuckle a bit, since Gai was the first thing that came to my mind when I watched this week’s Madoka★Magicka.
Nastier is not always more real. But in this case it is. After all, we are talking about little girls being made to fight unknown evil. Cute transformation scenes and inspirational messages can only explore that idea so much.
Of course whether more real is better depends on the viewer. In this case, I think it is better because it appears to address my only reservation when it comes to mahou shoujo.
I would have thought the most real thing to oppose to unknown evil would be known good, like, er, inspirational messages? Also, to hear sdshamshel tell it, the general run of magical girl stories don’t necessarily pit magical girls against evil — it sounds like that’s more a feature of the action-focused part of the genre (in the vein of PreCure, Sailor Moon; I won’t include Nanoha since it’s a mecha franchise wearing a dress).
Still, while I have reservations about making it a rule for judging things in general, if that’s how it functions for you thas’ cool. Far be it from me to tell other people how they enjoy things!
Nastiness is not necessarily more “realistic,” but it makes the show more entertaining to watch. Character development in movies and books generally come from misery and despair. Sometimes it happens in real life too, but unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it doesn’t happen nearly as often as in fiction.
Nastiness does not always make things more entertaining. It can do, but equally it can put people off. And character development is not the be-all & end-all of good, entertaining storytelling that people seem to think. There are plenty of entertaining things with little character development (to pick an example more or less at random, the Song of Roland is incredibly enjoyable to read and has minimal character development). Having characters that change over time should be, if anything, a rule of thumb for writers. At the moment, it seems to be a way to please the crowd, but it’s a recent, contingent development. Adopting it as a universal aesthetic criterion doesn’t work (see also: showing not telling, avoiding god-from-the-contraption solutions).
I think the darker elements of Madoka Magica make it an interesting take on the genre, but it’s not necessarily more “real,” and that’s not why I’m enjoying it either. American comics were brought up in the comments, so I think it’s only appropriate to quote from an American comic, namely Flex Mentallo.
“Only a bitter little adolescent boy could confuse realism with pessimism.”