Spoilers for Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Puella Magi Madoka Magica is beloved (or infamous) for its unique take on the magical girl genre, depicting an exploitative system designed to turn its heroines into monsters. Since its release in 2011, fans have read this system through the lenses of gender, sexuality, ethics, and religion. Looking at this series through an economic lens reveals yet another layer of interpretation: a story about the cruelty of business models that profit off the worker’s suffering.
Kyubey, the magical girl mascot most likely to commit a tax crime, offers each of the main characters a contract to become a magical girl. To them, it sounds like a pretty cool deal. That is, until they read the fine print. When you sign up, you get the power to bend reality according to your biggest wish…. in exchange for dedicating your life to monster-fighting. The girls are enlisted to battle creatures made of human despair called “witches.” This means that the girls have essentially sold their labor for a promise of personal gain. If you live under a capitalist society, you can probably see where this is going!
Kyubey’s predatory profiteering pushes heroines to invest their souls in the multi-level marketing scheme of the universe. Under the system he’s created, girls enter into sketchy contracts they do not fully understand and perform dangerous work for a boss who considers them disposable. They are encouraged to fight each other for resources, ensuring that they never have time or energy to turn against the real enemy: the boss who roped them into this dehumanizing structure in the first place. While Kyubey might be a hivemind cat-creature from outer space, the parallels between his magical girl business model and real-life capitalist cruelties are worth exploring—especially the way the end of the series topples the system.
Philosophy of the Workforce
PMMM differs from other magical girl anime in many ways, but for the purposes of this analysis, the most important is this: In PMMM, magical girls are not born, but made. In many popular magical girl shows, a heroine has innate power within her, bestowed by an ancient moon goddess or a long-dead wizard. She has an intrinsic quality that makes her valuable as an individual. In this series, girls are appointed by contract, and only if they choose to sign. Rather than an inevitable cosmic duty, it’s more like a potential gig. The only special quality about Kyubey’s recruits is how good they are at completing the task of monster-slaying.
While this might sound like a great equalizer, it’s also an easy road to exploitation. Kyubey’s magical girls are essentially freelancers, quickly trapped in a cycle of continuous, precarious work without any protection and risking death every time they fight for their “paycheck”. Kyubey doesn’t feel obligated to provide protections for his employees, because to him, magical girls are not people. They are machines. Every magical girl is a disposable battery, a witch-fighting tool intended to be used up and then discarded.
The dehumanization of workers might be familiar to you, especially if you’ve ever held a minimum wage job in a service or retail industry. Under the work ethic that governs these environments, the worker is not a person, but the performance of a task.
With employees reduced to the output they produce, there forms a massive disconnect between the people in power—the CEOs, the stockholders, the management staff—and the people actually performing the labor. This disconnect can lead to a failure to empathize with the workforce. The gears in the machine can be immediately replaced with new parts if they start to slow down or make noise. This disconnect also makes it tough to understand the impact of seemingly inconsequential decisions. If a manager lays off a worker, it might mildly interrupt business for a day. If a worker loses their job, it can ruin their life.
Similarly, Kyubey maintains a professional distance from the direct experiences of his independent contractors. Every day his workforce of magical girls partakes in dangerous battles, while the one reaping the profit sits by the sidelines, sipping a metaphorical mimosa. Kyubey’s position is never threatened. The struggles of his workers don’t affect him. From his perspective, the system continues as normal, no matter how many magical girls he has to replace. In the contract-based system he’s established, there will always be more where that came from. There’s no shortage of would-be heroines waiting in line at his door for the promise of magical reward.
“A Necessary Evil”
So if this is such a bad deal, then how does Kyubey get anyone to sign up? This is where the little alien fluffball really gets to flex his B.A. in Marketing. A whole lot of his job comes down to deploying discursive rhetoric to encourage a certain worldview. Using weasel words and technical truths, he can spin the most horrifying situation as a positive experience.
Kyubey deliberately targets his message toward girls who are not in a position to make another choice. If Kyubey hadn’t made his offer, Kyoko would have starved, and Mami would have sustained fatal injuries following a car crash. In such a desperate situation, they take a bad bargain: guaranteed survival, in exchange for a lifetime of monster-fighting. The two options are to suffer or die.
But, naturally, that’s not the way Kyubey frames it. He makes the contract look like a deceptively positive choice: the opportunity to take control of your own destiny, a second chance at life in exchange for just a token fee.
Manipulative rhetoric is a valuable strategy, even for girls who aren’t on death’s door. Kyubey is a master of the guilt trip. A good person, he says, would help Mami and Kyoko. A good person would be willing to give up her personal future for the sake of the world. If you walk away from this bargain, you’re selfish; you’re the reason for all the suffering in this world.
The logic is distorted, but to a teenage girl who already feels ashamed or unworthy, it’s convincing stuff. Madoka and Sayaka genuinely believe Kyubey’s promise that their self-effacing sacrifice would contribute to a glorious cause.
Kyubey has successfully rebranded evil as “progress.” We’ve seen this same pattern throughout history. Consider the invention of gunpowder or the atomic bomb: technologies that changed the way the world was run, but for the purpose of efficiently controlling and suppressing other people. Or historical doctors, testing experimental surgeries and medicines on impoverished people like human lab rats. Or factory foremen, hiring under-qualified children to operate dangerous machines.
No doubt armies throughout history heard the same exact spiel: your sacrifice is necessary for the advancement of your nation. Each person is expected to yield their individual bodies for something bigger than themselves (country, religion, species). This misleading argument makes the message clear: If you value your own life over civilization’s long game, you’re not a good citizen.
Kyubey encourages the girls to disregard their individual feelings, and think of themselves as pieces in a greater plan. The societal pressure to perform selflessness (combined with a healthy dollop of self-loathing) is enough to make Sayaka sign the contract, literally selling her soul to Kyubey’s version of capitalism.
Kyubey’s marketing pitch works, and the girls are convinced that they’ve made the right decision. That they’re united for a common cause. So why are things so tense between them?
Capitalism is strongly tied to individualism. If you are unable to support yourself without assistance, it’s viewed as a personal failing. We judge people for filing for bankruptcy and overextending their line of credit, rather than critiquing the system that forced them into that choice. After all, it’s easier to tell a person not to drown than it is to tell the ocean not to drown people. This is the case in PMMM too; each character must take total responsibility for her own choice to become a magical girl, even if she was forced into the role. They are expected to pull themselves up by the bootstraps (a phrase originally coined in sarcasm to describe an impossible task) and endure the suffering alone.
Without a safety net to turn to, the girls feel isolated—and this isolation is compounded by how their work’s wages are distributed. Whoever slays a witch earns a Grief Seed, which can be used to restore magical power. Kyoko becomes territorial and sees the other girls as competition rather than collaborators, because she needs that reward to sustain herself. In other words, she can’t afford NOT to consider her coworkers as rivals.
Viewing fellow workers as a threat rather than a potential ally is actively encouraged by employers. Many offices offer a bonus reward for the worker who conducts the most business. Each person is judged for how much they contribute individually, rather than what they can accomplish together. On a wider scale, those on the poverty line are more likely to be worried about immigrants taking their jobs. They are encouraged to attack the individuals in their line of sight who are contending for the same resources, while the one dispensing the resources is hiding in shadows, far from view. And this class infighting between magical girls gains a whole new level of meaning when we find out the truth about witches.
Supply and Demand
Any magical girl who expends too much magic will become consumed by her own hopelessness. She turns into a witch: a vortex of negative energy. This means that, the entire time, magical girls have been fighting against… themselves. And this works perfectly well for CEO Kyubey: If the girls are so busy fighting each other, then they can never join forces against him.
With this reveal, it’s made clear that the witch crisis never needed to exist. Sure, it’s an efficient way to produce magical energy; but when you learn about the body count, the cost seems way too high. Like so much of our same-day-shipping, fossil-fueled economy: the convenience comes at a huge unseen cost.
On learning the origin of witches, Madoka is horrified. How could anyone knowingly allow so much suffering to happen under his watch? Kyubey, corporate to the core, holds no attachment to the lives of individual humans. These are all people he barely knows, who mean nothing to him and can easily be replaced with someone else. In Kyubey’s eyes, the real crime would be letting his profit-generating system slow down. It’s not that he doesn’t know what his workers are going through… he just doesn’t care. He sells the crisis of “entropy,” but neither the girls nor the audience are given anything but his word that his solution is the best and only one.
Kyubey has, like many before him, manufactured a problem in order to sell its solution—think of it like poisoning a well in order to sell water filters. After the problem is established, this system can more or less perpetuate itself. Much like a multi-level marketing scheme, every witch summons more magical girls to fight it, each of which become witches themselves, enlisting more magical girls in an exponential pattern. The demand for magical girls will never go away as long as there are witches.
Madoka as the Revolution
Kyubey’s business model is presented as necessary and inherent. As cruel as it is, once they’re trapped in it, the magical girls must continue to operate within this system, because there’s no other option… is there?
Kyubey’s bargain states that every magical girl gets the power to make one reality-warping wish. Madoka, who has spent the whole series observing the fallout of Kyubey’s manipulations, uses his own system against him in a sort of malicious compliance. Her wish is that magical girls will no longer turn into witches. This disrupts the system that Kyubey constructed to be a self-perpetuating source of energy, and eradicates his manufactured “problem.” Madoka warps time and space and essentially recreates the Universe, demonstrating that the cycle can only be broken by rewriting the rules.
In the new system, magical girls fight against the problems that mankind has created, which manifest as spirits that drop energy cubes instead of Grief Seeds. Instead of fighting amongst their own kind in a self-defeating machine, they are able to pool their resources against a common enemy and make actual progress. Madoka’s radical restructuring of magical girl society changes what the girls took for granted (you have to work to make a living) into something that would have been impossible to consider (working for the common good).
Under Kyubey, a magical girl who used up all her power would become a witch, creating a drain on everyone else’s energy and resources. You might recognize this fear in the real world: What if I lose all my money and become a burden to my family and friends? What if I add to their suffering? With Madoka’s new rules, the magical girls no longer need to fear afflicting the future with their debts. She institutes a karmic loan forgiveness, ensuring that no one will ever be punished for needing help ever again.
What does this mean for us?
Kyubey’s character is truly a masterclass in labor exploitation. He conditions his magical girls to view potential allies as rivals, and targets the most vulnerable candidates to continue his profit machine. His exaggerated evil might help viewers recognize those manipulative tactics when they arise in real life.
A lot of the criticism I’ve read about this show hinges around the interpretation that “girls are punished for having needs and desires.” And while there’s value to that gender-focused analysis, it also makes me wonder: aren’t we all? How many people are saddled with decades of debt from one medical emergency? How many of us took out loans for school without realizing how much interest will accumulate later? Or lost our jobs to be replaced by a younger, more able worker? We have all entered into a terrible deal, and we never even had the choice to back out.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a narrative of hopelessness. I ultimately consider PMMM to be an optimistic story. There is a way out of the cycle, but we have to be ready to give up the reality we took for granted in order to get there. Madoka herself shines a light on a possible future for us, if we can manage to radically reorient what we consider to be the “default” state of existence. Together, we can shake off the predatory economic ideology we inherited and restructure the world around unconditional empathy.