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Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

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In the first part of this post, I presented evidence to the strong Christian undercurrent present in the storytelling of Arpeggio of Blue Steel, complimenting the already broad list of examples medievalotaku presented in his original blog post. Because of those motives, medievalotaku views Arpeggio as a “spy anime”.

However, I have my misgivings about the series being branded as such. On the one hand, I would generally oppose the idea of works of fiction being “spy anything”, since that implies there being only one true interpretation, which is untrue of any kind of deeper fiction. On the other hand, while Arpeggio takes from the Christian worldview to create the foundation of its setting and plot developments, it is not afraid to criticize Christian ideals and discuss the present state of Christianity.

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One of the ways in which Arpeggio transcends being a mere retelling and introduces its own ideas is through its female lead: I-401 Iona. Unlike with Gunzou, the obvious Christ figure of the show, it is not easy to pinpoint which Biblical figure Iona resembles the most. I pointed out how. at times, she works as God’s messenger dove – the Holy Spirit. Yet there is certainly a master-student relationship between her and Gunzou more reminiscent of that between Christ and his apostles. Either way, as medievalotaku points out,    “[s]he is certainly Gunzou’s most perfect follower”.

If there is something unusual about Iona as a follower of Christ, though, it is that she is… a declared atheist.

– This is a navy graveyard.

– Graveyard?

– A place where we mourn the dead and where we let their souls rest.

– The dead? Those whose life functions have ceased? Is there any meaning to mourning the dead?

Like her sisters, Iona was born without a predefined belief system, except for the priorities established by the Admiralty Code. As such, she values reason and logic above all else. For her, the graveyard is “just a place”, while the actions of mourners are “meaningless”.

Viewers might be used to that kind of thinking from other science-fiction works involving machine-like intelligence. But it does not take long for the conversation to take an unusual turn.

– Meaningless, huh? But I think human progress might be all about finding meaning within those meaningless actions.

– …It is similar to how a growing system allows for irregular noise to maintain diversity and avoid the inevitable corruption of data throughout successive copying.

Iona’s parallel seems to surprise Gunzou at first, but he soon responds with a smile.

Through the conversation between Iona and Gunzou in episode three, Arpeggio shows the ideal of a relationship between a Christian and an atheist/agnostic.

Iona honestly admits the differences in their beliefs. However, Iona’s denial of Gunzou’s ideas, no matter how direct and to the point, does not become a personal attack. This is because at this point in the series, she holds an absolute devotion to Gunzou. There may therefore be no doubt that while she denies her captain’s words, she does not deny him as a person. We are not usually connected with each other in a special way like this. But, as fellow humans blessed with the same free will and reason, we should still at least be able to respect each other regardless of differences in belief.

The above-mentioned respect is often put into practice in the form of a no-touch policy. But like Iona and Gunzou, we should not be afraid to ask questions, and, when questioned, we should answer to the best of our ability.

Why is the above necessary? Partly because it is an opportunity for self-reflection. As they say, a teacher needs to know his stuff thrice as well as the regular person. But mostly, it is necessary for what Iona was able to do in the end – the forming of bridges and parallels.

It is worth it to look at the conversations as a win-win scenario, where both sides win to the extent they can gain an understanding of the other. It is crucial to realize, and accept, that our current positions are different, sometimes to the point of being mutually exclusive. But more often then we realize, we come from the same places, aiming for the same things. After all, we all share the same basic needs as human beings. The key, therefore, is to seek similarities and understanding even while acknowledging the differences.

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It is not immediately obvious what point the series is making with its messiah-atheist combination. But the answer comes in the second part of the same episode, with the crew of I-401 invited to a dinner party by an army/government official.

His demand: hand I-401 over to the government. His reasoning behind the demand: we are the government, our soldiers have proper training and you cannot trust that monster submarine in the first place.

Gunzou’s answer is negative, his reasoning equally simple: Iona, my crew and I have been risking our lives and achieving results; your army has failed to do anything for the last seven years, their “proper training” notwithstanding; I trust Iona much more than I could ever trust you.

On a superficial level, Gunzou and the official would seem to share a lot of similarities. They represent the same race, the same nationality and the same military background. They are similar to two people of the same religious denomination. Had it been the official who saw Gunzou offering the flowers in the graveyard, there would be no need to explain whether there is any meaning to mourning the dead.

But there is a great chasm separating the two men. That chasm can be described with a single phrase: “delivering the goods”. For all their ideological differences, Gunzou and Iona have no secrets between each other. On the battlefield, they can have absolute trust the other won’t betray them. Can Gunzou say the same about the official?

It is not difficult to see how empty the man’s arguments are. At no point does he mention what the government intends to do once they get their hands on I-401 or what great strategy they have in mind to beat back the Fog. In fact, complying with his request would require Gunzou to abandon his quest to deliver humanity’s last-hope superweapon to America. Add the fact that there is some obvious power struggle going on in the background between the navy and ground forces, and it can be guessed that the official represents some small clique who want to benefit from the possession of I-401, and his top priority is not necessarily the good of humanity as a whole.

The law is on our side, the official says, without thinking about the ultimate purpose of the law. Our troops had proper training, he says, without thinking what purpose the training was supposed to serve. His goals are the same as Gunzou’s, but in shape only – they are empty on the inside.

Unfortunately, that description might sound familiar. The official represents people of faith who have lost sight of their own core values in favor of formalities and appearances. The Church is on our side, they say, forgetting that the Church is there for the salvation of all people and God’s glory, and meaningless without that purpose. We attend mass and take part in all the proper rituals, they say, forgetting that the rituals are there to foster spiritual growth and lend them strength to do the right thing with their lives. Reduced to motions and appearances, the actions hold no value.

Gunzou rejects the man’s invitation and sides with Iona. There are times when Iona cannot understand his thoughts and motivations. The only thing she can offer him are her best and honest intentions, as well as actions carried out in accordance with her own reason and consciousness. But that, Gunzou realizes, is the only thing that counts.

Good is good, evil is evil. It does not matter whether the hand that performs the act belongs to a Christian, atheist, or whoever else. Virtue and sin make no exceptions based on plaques and connections. Arpeggio of Blue Steel aired in 2013, the same year Pope Francis assumed his duties. Pope Francis caused quite a buzz in the Christian world when he declared that atheists may be good people, and that if they walk the path of good, they walk the path towards Christ. That same message is contained in Arpeggio: to praise all good, and condemn all evil.

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Perhaps the most important scene of the anime as a whole is the birth of the titular Ars Nova ship: Gunzo and Iona’s struggle for survival after being sunk by Fog submarines and Takao’s sacrifice to bring them both to safety. Medievalotaku only offers a brief mention of the scene, perhaps because Gunzou’s readiness to sacrifice his own life for the crew seems so obvious a parallel of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. However, it is exactly because the parallels are so obvious that the discrepancies contained in this portrayal are so striking. And taking a closer look at those discrepancies is key to understanding the message Arpeggio is trying to get across.

First and foremost: Gunzou does not die. Why? Because his fleet and followers would not let him. The episode is not only an opportunity for Gunzou to show his selfless ideals, it is an important character development moment for two other characters.

First and foremost is I-401 Iona. Her efforts to save Gunzou are entirely in character and come as no surprise. Iona identifies herself most strongly as Gunzou’s ship and adheres to all his commands. It is early on in the series where she realizes, on her own accord, that she exists "not to let Gunzou die”. All is in perfect order then, until the moment when Gunzou orders Iona to sacrifice him. Iona hears the order… and refuses.

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Gunzou’s orders are Iona’s one Absolute Principle, her First Law of Robotics. It is through her refusal of the order that she proves herself a free and thinking being, human in all the ways that actually count. It is through her refusal that she achieves her greatest moral victory, because Gunzou’s orders are a test of fire that proves that Iona’s principles are genuine and hers alone. And yet, surprisingly, it is also through that refusal that Iona’s principles are proven to be the same Gunzou holds. Gunzou considers Iona’s life worth sacrificing his own, and Iona responds in turn. She looks beyond what Gunzou says, and sees what he stands for.

This is a powerful stab at Christianity, which values the moral growth of an individual… up to a point. Unfortunately, obedience often takes precedence over sound judgment in terms of Christian virtues. In what is one of the most troubling biblical passages. God demands that Abraham kill his son as a human sacrifice to Him in a test of faith. Interpretations differ, but Abraham passes the test, willing and ready to kill his son until God stops him at the last moment. Murder is, of course, a vile and grave sin. And Christianity makes no allowance for sins in thought – they are as evil as sins through action. Thus God orders His follower to sin, and Abraham does so, resolving to undertake one of the most repugnant deeds imaginable. (Logical somersaults follow to justify that.)

Had Abraham thought like Iona, he might have realized that God and evil do not mix, ever. He might have refused, and stayed true to what God stands for, rather than to whatever was whispering in his ear at the time. It might have been the Devil, after all, taking advantage of blind obedience like he does with human stupidity. But Christianity tells its followers they cannot fathom God’s will and urges them to suspend their judgment in favor of following others, be they priests or charlatans.

Iona proved herself human, and there comes a day when we must all prove ourselves adults: not doing as we are told forever, in sweet ignorance, but thinking about our actions for ourselves, so that we may take responsibility for them, learn from our mistakes and take pride in what we represent.

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But there is another lesson contained in that scene, and to pick up on it, we need to return to the starting point. Gunzou does not die. Why? Because his followers will not let him.

Christ spilled His blood and offered His body for the sake of His followers. You might expect Gunzou to do the same here, but surprisingly enough, the roles are reversed. As Gunzou is under threat of freezing to death (and/or suffocating), it is Iona who is slowly bleeding herself to death as she keeps a sinking ship fully operational to maintain life support. And, in the titular scene of the episode, it is Takao who offers her body to guide Gunzou to safety. It is only through this reversed sacrifice of body and blood that master and followers ultimately reach salvation.

This is a wake up call for Christians out there. Christ died for your sins once already. Now it is time for His followers to return the favor and carry His cross for Him. There are plenty of opportunities out there, every single day. 

The Fog ships passed the test. What about humanity?

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Spoiler warning: This post discusses the events of Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio / Arpeggio of Blue Steel in detail and contains significant spoilers.

I was late to pick up Arpeggio of Blue Steel last year, but it immediately shot up in the ranks of my favorite anime works from that period. Arpeggio is great fun as a self-contained sci-fi show, but there is also that religious undercurrent to it that I found fascinating. After all, Arpeggio was leaning very closely to classic Western ideas, despite its Japanese staff. Immediately upon finishing the series, I started looking around for a Christian look at the show, and medievalotaku obliged with a highly-detailed reinterpretation of the show as a parallel of the Bible.

As I read the article, though, I was surprised at how different the things medievalotaku noticed were from my own observations on the show. Turns out there was even more Christian material in Arpeggio than I thought! (But that possibility was one of the reasons why I wanted a more knowledgeable blogger to tackle the issue, of course.)

The following are my own thoughts on the religious themes contained in the show. While not a direct response to medievalotaku’s article, reading both should be interesting as a comparison of two perspectives on the issue.

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The Holy Feather

While medievalotaku became sure of the Christian undercurrent to the show in the couple final episodes, I found it impossible to ignore the evidence presented at the midpoint of the series.

Episode six of the show sees battleship Haruna, a competent and powerful member of the Fog, in a pinch in her battle against the human armed forces. The irony of her predicament is that, weakened though she might be at that point, she is not losing because of a lack of power. Rather, she is dead set on shielding the human child Makie, and thus finds herself in a hostage situation. Her best bet would be to kill the foot soldiers first, then go after the people controlling the artillery, but Haruna has just been taught that it is wrong to kill, and she chooses an uphill struggle of disabling her opponents without killing them. The army going after her has no concerns regarding any of the above points, obviously.

What we see, therefore, is Haruna getting punished for doing the right thing, for her love and her mercy. And while her newfound moral principles would not be enough for most people to throw away their lives, it seems increasingly likely with every second of the episode that Haruna will refuse to throw away either her moral integrity or the life of her friend – not even resorting to the lesser evil approach of prioritizing the life of her defenseless companion over the lives of their assassins.

Play nice and you will get punished, the scene says. It shows the thorny path awaiting those who choose to carry the burden of ideals. And in the final moments before receiving that cruel judgment, Haruna does something quite unlike a Fog warship: she closes her eyes and prays.

Somebody. Anyone. Please help us. Please save us. Somebody!

And then, with the wonderful “SAVIOR” soundtrack heralding it, help descends from the sky. With overwhelming, but precisely controlled power, the I-401 submarine Iona takes control of the situation. As user suburbanbanshee helpfully points out in their comment on medievalotaku’s article, Iona’s name can be traced back to the Latin word for dove, which also happens to be the Blue Steel crest. As Gunzou is the Christ-figure of the show, Iona arrives as the Holy Spirit – the messenger of Christ descending to aid the believers in their darkest hour.

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– Haruna, what are you doing here? 

– I am… We are trying to protect Makie… our friend.

– Is that so? Then I will help you.

Just a moment before, Haruna was still trying to tell herself that she only needs Makie to survive for the Fog’s purpose. Haruna wanted to believe she was acting according to cold reason, confused as she was to the newfound feelings in her heart. But Iona forces her to come clean and face the true motivation behind her actions. And once everything is laid open, Iona offers her unconditional help.

– 401, why did you help me?

– Because I heard your voice.

– What?

– ‘Please help,’ you said. And so I came to help.

The events of the scene parallel the promise existing between Christ and His believers. Christians are not promised escape from suffering. Indeed, the holy path is one of thorns. But Christ promises that in our most difficult hour, when a believer closes their eyes, speaks out and reaches out with their hands, Christ and the Holy Spirit will be there, listening and ready to offer help. The help Christ offers is unconditional, and comes with no price attached. The only thing asked in exchange for answering a prayer is a true and open heart.

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Submarine Morality

There are many more Arpeggio scenes that parallel those found in the Bible, and medievalotaku mentions many of them. Perhaps even more important than any single scene, though, is the fact that the setting of Arpeggio adheres to some basic tenets of the Christian worldview, even where this is against Japanese tradition.

One attractive feature of anime and other Japanese works, for me and many others, is that they often show human beings as capable of both good and evil at all times. Remember that psychopathic murderer from Fullmetal Alchemist who ends up saving the main character at the end “just because”? The Japanese proficiency at such portrayals of the gray areas in our morality might stem from the fact Japan lacks the tradition of the good/evil duality supported by the church in the West.

Still, the Japanese attachment to moral ambiguity also means that anime works will rarely take a definite stance on whether humans, by nature, lean more towards good or evil. Christianity has no doubts in this regard: everyone is a sinner, but God intended everybody to be good. Provided that they have the honest will to seek the light, God promises to support everyone in their spiritual growth towards good and, eventually, salvation.

This way of thinking obviously requires that we assume the existence of a universal morality, a concept avoided in most Japanese works, but present in Arpeggio, and how so! Universal morality not only exists, it seems to be infectious and jumping from one victim to another faster than the virus in the latest zombie flick!

Arpeggio can embrace the concept full on because of its unique cast of characters. The fleet warships are fully developed mentally, in the intellectual sense, but they are blank slates in the moral sense. Each of the mental models is therefore a small social experiment: will the pure mind sway towards love or hatred?

If you bet on love, you won big time. Haruna needs some three days to turn from a heartless weapon to the selfless pacifist described in the first part of the article. Hyuuga does not mind getting dismantled for the greater good. Takao likewise sacrifices herself to save the other members of her fleet. Kirishima… Kirishima likes playing the tough girl, but she is all plushy on the inside. (Hah!)

Those people all met while blasting supercavitation torpedoes at each other, and they were not throwing any punches! But the smallest bit of kindness is enough to attract them to the path of light. For the Fog warships, the concepts of good and evil are something completely new, and so, they are not immediately able to properly discern between the two. But this does not matter in the least, because good seems to be like a powerful magnet, pulling them towards the right path at every opportunity. By the point Haruna starts wondering how she came to possess moral principles in the first place, she is already an example to follow in terms of moral integrity.

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But while the outstanding moral qualities are still understandable, storytelling-wise, among those warships which join the protagonists, it is the antagonist side that proves beyond a shadow of doubt that the power of good is universal, and not to be trifled with!

Iona’s sister ships, I-400 and I-402, are very careful not to get within range of the good-magnet. This does not seem to help them any, though. Within minutes of moral small talk with Iona, I-402 can no longer remain professionally indifferent. Shaken, she demands that Iona explain her incomprehensible principles. There is outrage there, on the surface, but beneath it lies a desperate need to understand that great secret which Iona got hold of. The spiritual distance between the two is growing shorter than I-402 might realize, and this is reflected in her cutting down the physical distance between their avatars and reaching out her hand to touch, and try to understand, Iona. If God’s morality is indeed universal, it must be natural even to those who have never heard of God, even to those who have been taught a different brand of good and evil. This is the kind of good Arpeggio portrays – an irresistible force that attracts all without exception.

I-400 steps in to stop the talk between the two, but it is already too late. Mere moments later, I-402 will be making her first moral choice, and one which consists of throwing away her life to protect her sister. I-400 is outraged at seeing that act of sacrifice, accuses I-402 of being no different from Iona, and rushes at the Blue Steel submarine in a blind rage. She does not notice, of course, that she is getting entangled in the web of good. It is not rage that is the opposite of love, but indifference. I-400 can feel rage because she can feel hurt. And she can feel hurt at seeing her sister sunk by a torpedo because she can feel love.

The battle between the submarines soon ends with Iona’s victory. When I-402 apologizes to her sister for being unable to protect her, I-400 asks her why she would apologize. Then she reaches out her hand in a gesture of… Forgiveness? Acceptance? Or is it the same desire for understanding as was the case between I-402 and Iona before? Death claims I-400 before we can make sure of the answer.

The real heart-breaker, though, comes immediately after. As Iona cries for the loss of her two sisters, I-402 asks her why she would cry. Then she tells Iona that all Iona did was fight her enemies and sink them. When Iona tries to protest, I-402 cuts in: That and nothing else.

This might seem like I-402 berating her sister for her lack of logic, a stubborn rejection of emotion until the very end. But because this is the same I-402 that shielded her sister with her own body and still felt guilty for not being able to protect her, a different interpretation comes to mind.

From a logical perspective, there is no point in conversing with Iona at that point. But I-402 uses her last moments to absolve Iona of her guilt. Her insistence that Iona is not to blame is the only gift she can leave behind, the only way she can lessen the burden Iona will have to bear. I-402 shields Iona‘s heart no differently then she shielded the body of her other sister minutes before.

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It might seem surprising that while the Fog warships prove capable of extraordinary moral feats and astounding moral progress within moments from being exposed to the power of good, there are plenty of human characters in the series who are evidently short-sighted and concerned only with their personal interests. The key difference, I think, lies in the fact that the Fog warships are all like children. This is why their emotional reactions are all so intense, why they learn so fast, why Kongou’s seemingly deep-rooted hatred disappears like mist after a simple hug. It is no coincidence that Haruna’s thoughts and moral development are shown at one point to perfectly mirror that of Makie.

The kingdom of heaven belongs to children, and it is a great challenge to retain childlike faith even as we grow up, and encounter the temptations and gray areas of adult life. Many of the grown ups of the Arpeggio world apparently lost their way. And the road ahead of our Blue Steel fleet will not be easy either. As the world balance switches from one where the Fog was firmly in control to a more even distribution of forces, there will come times when they will have to choose sides and make difficult choices.

But well, if they cannot pull through, who possibly could?

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Straight from reading Japesland’s views on Sunday Without God – I see some anime fans (Japesland included) dissatisfied with the relative lack of God discussed straight out in the show. But while Sunday Without God was definitely designed to be unfinished and its themes unresolved – it is but the beginning of the story, and it is crucial that Ai not know the answers to her questions at this point in time – I thought it offered plenty regarding theological musings.

The first arc opens up with the long fought question: is God’s world indeed the best world possible? Humans get an opportunity to replace some of God’s rules with those of their own… and the result is not exactly pretty. But the personal story of Humpnie is more striking here. Only when his wish gets granted does he realize it was not what he wanted to begin with. Unlike God, man does not even have a perfect understanding of what is good for him or his own true desires. It is telling that at the end of the arc, Humpnie gives himself up to the original (God’s) order of things, even if it requires him to part with his long-lost daughter.

The second arc explores a society where the undead are kept stable and coexisting harmoniously thanks to science. Is death infinitesimally similar to life through science equal to life, or can something man-made never equal a divine miracle? Real-life parallels range from anything like in vitro technology to prospective cloning tech. At the same time, we see that God’s “absence” brings about the decay of morality as a whole – Ulla asks “Is death evil? Am I evil?” and that is indeed a question without an answer in that world, because with the values of life and death in flux, concepts such as murder and manslaughter likewise lose their moral meaning.

The third arc is all about perspective. The confrontation between Ai and her blind friend stands at the core here, with Ai wanting to save her, but the girl not wanting to be saved. Sounds familiar? Before the night of the escape, Ai takes the same position God does – waiting on the other side of the door with her arms open, but unable (unwilling) to take away the free will of those inside the room, and therefore forever waiting for them to extend their own hands. The girl being blind, and Ai becoming her guiding light is not likely a coincidence, and neither is the fact that the girl considers voluntarily remaining a prisoner of the school, like man remains prisoner of his sin. That her explanation for her actions is that “she is not worthy of her parents’ love, because she only causes them trouble” is just icing on the cake – “I’m a sinner anyway, so it’s not like God could love me”, anyone?

The fourth arc is a rejection of peaceful eternity, and therefore a call for the necessity of tears, death and despair in our lives as potentially building experiences that allow us to move forward. Rejecting all of those could only come with rejecting all change and progress – like Alice’s class living unaware in their eternal loop merely to turn their eyes away from the loss of a classmate.

Again, the show intentionally choses not to give straight answers to many of the issues raised above, which us understandable. Not only is this the opening act of the story, but admitting there are no clear answers to some of those fundamental questions is a sign of worthy humility on the author’s part. Will Ai find her own answers to those questions further along her way? I certainly want to find out, which is why I hope to get my hands on the novels at some point in the future.

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Not long ago, Nick Calibey at A Rather Silly Blog posted a two-part response in the ongoing Madoka and Jesus as Saviors discussion. While the posts that started the discussion at Alex’s Ashita no Anime blog were written from an atheist/agnostic perspective, Nick attempted to show the themes of Madoka Magica from a Buddhist perspective, then compare them with his own Christian beliefs. I would like to offer some of my own musings on the issue, presented as a response to Nick’s claims. My upbringing and theoretical background are purely Christian (Roman Catholic, to be precise), but I consider myself a practicing Buddhist. My comments will therefore be the reverse of Nick’s – with the Christian constructs based on a more technical understanding, and the Buddhist elements coming from personal experience.

Nicks’s posts can be found here and here. As both are very long and detailed, I will offer a summary of the point discussed before offering my thoughts on it. I will strive to offer as fair a summary of the points as my understanding of Nick’s post allows (and inevitably fail to do him justice), so you may read through his posts first, or go straight to my response, as you see fit.

Nick: Madoka herself is not the locus of salvation. Madoka’s own transformation is because of the karmic power of the universe, something that while humans interact with, ultimately lays external to them, and as such it is that karmic power that is the actual saving factor and not Madoka. Unbeknownst to her, Madoka had to wait for karmic time lines to build up in order for her transformation to occur since it is karma and not herself that is the locus of salvation.

As a side note, I cannot exactly agree with Nick’s notion that karma is external to the being it belongs to. Enlightenment signifies the individual cessation of karma, and the Buddhist endgame equivalent to the Christian Judgment Day is the universal cessation of karma, neither of which would be possible if karma were external to the beings of this world. To begin with, if we assume karma to be an external force, it necessarily follows that it holds little bearing on achieving enlightenment, as most variants of Buddhist thought hold that external factors are illusionary, and the way to enlightenment is through dispelling that illusion. Thankfully, this point is not actually that important for analyzing Madoka, so there is no need to argue this.

The reason why Nick thinks that Madoka needed to wait for karmic lines to build up is that he equates her wish and ascension/transformation with her act of salvation. This does not, however, make much sense from a Buddhist perspective. We may of course choose to view Madoka’s wish as the moment where she makes her Bodhisattva vows. We may see her ascension as the point where Madoka leaves behind the mortal part of her journey and gains eternity. Viewed like that, the event is certainly not without meaning to many Buddhist interpretations of the story. But if we are truly concerned with a Buddhist interpretation, then the crux of salvation must be enlightenment.

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Enlightenment cannot be granted by space squirrels (we are already born with the potential to reach enlightenment). Enlightenment is not concerned with power levels. Enlightenment is seeing things for what they are by conquering one’s attachments and aversions. Madoka was technically capable of achieving enlightenment in each and every timeline, as was every other creature existing in those timelines.

What was it then, that caused a change profound enough for Madoka to succeed in the last timeline, when she failed in every other? Certainly it was not the fact of her karmic burden and the potential power of her wish increasing – Madoka learns of her potential mid-series, long before she becomes capable of making her ultimate wish. In fact, Madoka’s impulse upon learning of the potential of her wish is to undo Sayaka’s transformation into a magical girl – a wish which would have surely ended in despair for everyone involved. No, the reason for Madoka’s change had to come later, and trying to grasp it means creating a new interpretation of the entire show for every answer proposed. Let me discuss just one possible answer.

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From the beginning of the series, we can see that Madoka holds a deep love for others. As she gets dragged into mortal peril again and again throughout the story, the only thing that allows Madoka to overcome her natural fear of death is her dedication and loyalty to her friends. Multiple times, Madoka is ready to sacrifice her happy and stable life and become a magical girl to help out the other girls – a decision always prevented by Homura in the nick of time. The flashbacks of the original timeline show that Madoka’s love reaches even further, as she immediately extends a helping hand to the stranger-in-need Homura, and takes on the responsibility of a magical girl to save the life of the cat Amy. A deep love and compassion for all beings is one of the ideals often associated with those who achieved enlightenment, yet the Madoka of previous timelines always ended up a step short of reaching salvation. The reason for that is simple. That Madoka loved all those around her, but she did not yet love herself.

Throughout the show, basically any comment Madoka makes about herself is full of self-deprecation. She says she is clumsy, stupid and has no redeeming qualities. Upon seeing the flashback episodes, many people were shocked – how did the cheerful and confident Madoka from the past timeline turn into the frightened little girl we see in the final timeline? But it is not to be underestimated how world-changing the experience of becoming a magical girl was to Madoka – in saving Amy, Homura and the people of Mitakihara, Madoka received undeniable proof of her worth for the first time in her life. This new awareness turned Madoka into who would become Homura’s savior. But from a Buddhist perspective, there is a tragic element to the hero Madoka born that way – she chooses to sacrifice her safety for others not only because she sees how precious their lives are, but also because she considers the risk to her own life a cheap price in comparison. She gains confidence in herself when fighting as a magical girl, but that confidence is largely dependent on the new powers and abilities she gained. Even as she grows as a person, the magical girl Madoka is still limited by her aversion towards herself and her new attachment to power.

Nick thinks that Madoka became ready for her act of salvation because she had stacked up enough timeline power. I believe that Madoka became ready the moment that Homura, always bearing her burdens in silence, broke down before Madoka in a display of emotion so raw that it could not be doubted. Before the impending Walpurgisnacht, facing a battle which could only end in failure, Homura states that she will go and fight and lose everything if it means saving Madoka, because it is Madoka alone that is worth the whole world to her. And it is not the cool and powerful Madoka affirmed this way, it is the clueless and ditzy middle school girl who is powerless to help her friends. Through this display of pure love and devotion, Madoka is forced to consider the idea that maybe, just maybe, her own existence is equally as precious as the lives of others. Madoka gains the confidence she had in some of the previous timelines, but does so without becoming a magical girl. Sacrifice and power are no longer necessary for her to establish her self-worth, and Madoka is finally awake.

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Countless times in the previous timelines, Madoka had been badgered into selling her soul cheap. But Homura teaches Madoka that her life is worth the world, and when Madoka next offers up her earthly existence, she will ask for the world in return.

The time-altering, dimension-smashing and world-rewriting fireworks Madoka shows us are impressive, but not key to her nature as an enlightened being. The fact she can formulate a karma-destroying wish in the first place is enough to show that she had fully awakened to her Buddha nature before making that wish. Madoka merely used the Magical Girl System in the most beneficial and efficient way possible – just like a farmer uses his plough to ready the field.

Christian readers might be puzzled – if I claim Madoka’s transformation was not key to her act of salvation, what would she have done if she had achieved enlightenment before a world-changing wish was within her grasp? Simply enough, she would never become a magical girl. She would go on living, saving people in the little ways that all of us can. And one day, she would die like everyone else. This is the humble Buddhist savior, working not with divine power and miracles, but with what she has at hand.

(Further reading: The Buddha and Miraculous Power)

Other points might be discussed in future posts, if time allows.

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