I loved Puella Magi Madoka Magica from the moment I first saw it. The heroine’s epic sacrifice to save the world and inject an unforgiving karmic system with grace resonated so powerfully. And not just with me, as I soon learned, but with pretty much all of Christian otakudom.
But then I watched Rebellion, the sequel movie, and wrestled with it half the night and in wrestling, realized that the original series left much to be desired in terms of achieving true redemption and grace and demonstrating that transformative life-giving expression of love embodied by Jesus on the cross. I had been duped by Madoka’s selflessness and missed the most important point—one that Homura never lost sight of—namely, that Madoka’s sacrifice was not rightly hers to make.
She was playing God.
And so in Rebellion, Homura takes it upon herself to play the devil in order to disrupt Madoka out of her transcendent state. Madoka was never meant to be God. And when she tried to save the world, she ended up a depersonalized concept and not the relational savior that Homura and the other magical girls needed; that humanity needed.
Yuki Yuna doesn’t make the same mistake. She’s the heroine of the dark mahou shoujo series named after her, now in its third season, Yuki Yuna is a Hero: the Great Mankai Chapter, and very much following in the footsteps of Madoka. But this series is no Madoka-derivative and instead, as I’ve said before, takes things in what I consider to be a far more interesting and compelling direction over its sequels than we’ve seen with Magia Record, the Madoka Side Story. That said, Yuna is most certainly in direct dialogue with Madoka and in last week’s episode 11, she fixes Madoka’s greatest mistake.
For this entire season, Yuna has been grappling with the same choice that Madoka confronts in the final episode of PMMM, only in this week’s episode, Yuna comes to a very different conclusion. In the Great Mankai Chapter, Togo and the Hero Club share Homura’s insight in time to save Yuna from herself, and a very different kind of redemption of the world results. One that, though lacking a messianic figure to evoke the kind of easy Christian parallels we can make to Madoka, is at the end of the day much closer to the gospel message for humanity than PMMM.
Let’s dive in.
Having saved her best friend Togo from the wrath of the gods in the previous season, and struggled back to sanity in the wake of the toll they exacted on her in the process, Yuna spends season three hiding the fact that all is not well. That in fact she has not yet finished paying the price for her friend’s rescue nor, more importantly, is the battle against the enemies of humanity truly at an end. She covers up the mark of the curse that appears on her chest—the equivalent, perhaps, of an increasingly cloudy soul gem in Madoka—and decides to shoulder the burden in silence, alone. She plasters a smile on her face and keeps up the happy act.
She has been chosen to pay the price that will save humanity. And she’s willing to do it.
There’s some complicated Taisha religious lore that goes with this as well, reinforcing the sense of Yuna’s exceptionality—that it must be she who lays down her life, and exchanges her humanity for oneness with the Shinju or Divine Tree in order to end the war. Like Madoka, she must give up her earthly life and transcend in order to save her friends, country, and humanity in general from destruction.
But in episode 11, she doesn’t do it.
She plans to, even turning down the offer of a spiritual ancestor, the hero Takashima Yuna, to take on the curse and take her place. It’s a generous offer, but our Yuna refuses. This is her burden to carry through to the end. And as that end approaches, Yuna’s resolve is unwavering. She submits to the Taisha elders and prepares for the Shinkon wedding ceremony that will effect her transcendence and turn her into a savior.
At the same time, another drama is unfolding among the Sentinels, the girls who serve as military backup for the Heroes and make up for what they lack in magical abilities with their martial skill, floating ships, and religious dedication. These girls submit to the Taisha priestly hierarchy unto death.
Except for Kusunoki Mebuki, the captain, whose father responded to her childish excitement at being drafted for Hero training with the injunction not to allow herself to become a stepping stone. She didn’t really know what he meant at the time, but as her comrades fall to her left and to her right, tossed at the enemy like so much cannon fodder, she begins to realize that he was giving her permission—nay, invoking her even—to decide her own fate even if that meant disobeying orders.
At first, she simply tries harder to keep everyone safe. But on the day of the Shinkon wedding, Yuna is not the only human sacrifice lined up by the Taisha. So too is Mebuki’s dearest friend, the miko or priestess Kokudo Aya, who must lead a contingent of adult priests in transcendent prayer to power humanity’s greatest weapon, a giant tower cannon, and buy time for the ceremony. In other words, she needs to pray to the point of surrendering her selfhood, allowing her body to disintegrate into dust.
Like Yuna, Aya is committed to this sacrifice. Like Yuna, she tells no one what is being required of her. And like Yuna, she walks toward her fate with a gentle smile on her face, reconciled to her pending non-existence and already dissociating from the person known as Kokudo Aya. She will play her part to save humanity.
When Mebuki realizes what is happening (prompted by the fact that the sacrificial prayer is not actually working), she bursts in on the ceremony and demands that Aya choose for herself what she wants to do, giving her permission not to do and say what is required of her by the religious institution and her years of training as a miko. After a dramatic pause, Aya’s mask of selfless serenity finally cracks in the face of her friend’s tears and anger on her behalf, and she cries out that she wants to survive.
Together, she, Mebuki and the surviving adults renew their prayers and miraculously, it finally works. What they were told would only happen if enough people prayed obediently and sacrificially enough, came about instead when the beautifully human desire for life was confessed honestly in the context of loving friendship, and became the basis for the prayer. It was the prayer of the few, aligned with life, that availed much.
This same sequence of events plays out with Yuna as well. In episode 11, the efforts of the Hero Club to rescue Yuna from her Madoka-like self-sacrifice finally see fulfillment as Togo makes it to the unearthly realm where Yuna is laying down her humanity and dissociating into a pink spirit-like being (albeit still clothed, unlike Madoka). Like Mebuki, she demands that Yuna speak honestly and make a decision of her own volition and not according to duty or notions of saving the country. It’s a painful exchange, for Yuna has secretly been isolated and alone, alienated in herself from her friends for far longer than was Aya, caught up in her perceptions of her duty to brave it all alone. Eventually she too confesses that she wants to live and not die; that she wants to retain her humanity and not transcend—all the truths that Homura tries to wring from Madoka in Rebellion.
All the truths that we sometimes lose sight of as Christians.
Like Yuna and Aya and Madoka, I think we sometimes get self-sacrifice, submission and obedience really wrong in the church. Sometimes we take on burdens that are not ours to carry—burdens of salvation for others and the world; burdens of self-effacement that would have us disappear into oblivion, like the priests who turn to dust; burdens of obedience to authority and church hierarchy that strip us of our agency and humanity. We do it for good reasons, selfless reasons, honorable and righteous reasons, just like these religious magical girls, but our reasoning is misplaced.
Because we’ve forgotten the most important thing: the world already has a savior, and it isn’t up to you or I to do it over again. Humanity was never meant to play the role of savior.
This is what both Aya and Yuna learn, and what Madoka has yet to understand (massive anticipation for the upcoming film!).
When Aya stopped praying from a place of submission to a fate of oblivion, and instead embraced life, a miracle was released.
When Yuna cried out for life and her humanity, it opened the door for a cloud of witnesses—the Heroes who had gone before—to intervene and break the barrier that had arisen to isolate her.
And more importantly, Yuna’s decision suddenly moves Gyuki, her little spirit-mascot who may actually be something far greater, to release Yuna into her ‘final form’, the greatest mankai or blossoming of the Hero. Once in this form, Yuna takes her last stand against the enemies of humanity. But it is not her Hero Punch and plucky resistance that wins the day. Rather, Gyuki and the other little spirit-mascot figures that have accompanied the girls all this time, silently, gently restore the world to its prelapsarian state in a shower of flower petals, returning it to how it was before the enemies of humanity began to consume it.
Yuna takes her stand having chosen to retain her humanity, and it turns out that this was exactly what was needed to save the world.
So there is no messianic figure in Yuki Yuna, but there is a clear sense that salvation and redemption are not the work of humanity—not even of the purest, most courageous and self-sacrificial pink-haired teen-aged girl. Salvation and redemption in Yuki Yuna instead play out on the spiritual plane, beyond what the eye can see and words can articulate; it does not proceed from the best efforts of human beings. No hero, no matter how sacrificial, can save the world.
And yet, the world is saved in this episode.
Miraculously, incomprehensibly, and most unexpectedly—it is redeemed and restored. And it happens when heroic girls who are willing to die, instead choose to pursue life and love.
There is still one episode remaining in the season, and maybe we’ll get more of an explanation as to how and why exactly the world has been restored. Or maybe we won’t.
Maybe it will remain somewhat mysterious, just as it is in real life—despite all our attempts to put it into language and make it sensible through theology. Maybe the girls of the Hero Club and we, their faithful viewers, will have to simply take it on trust and embrace the truths that we were not created to save the world, but rather we were created for life and life in its fullest; for love and love eternal. We were created human and not divine or angelic or even magical. And part of being human means that we get to let God be God and thus the savior of the world. We get to let ourselves be saved, and then live fully in that expression of divine love toward us for the rest of our days. We get to live and love and not die; fully human, fully redeemed, fully alive.
Madoka, come back to earth and return to your humanity. We miss you.
Yuki Yuna is a Hero: the Great Mankai Chapter can be streamed on HiDive. I recommend you start at the beginning. It’s worth it!