Note: This post will be somewhat spoilerrific. You have been warned!
Every so often, an anime character leaves an immensely indelible impression on the wider world of anime, giving us a positively poignant paradigm shift. In an entertainment form typically defined by tropes played straight, and by basic genre synthesis, these characters are a notable rarity. So when they arise, it can be useful to take a step back, and to wonder what impact they might have.
And so I think that it’s important to look at the character of Kyubey, of the anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
My position is that Kyubey is the most important anime character since Haruhi Suzumiya, and possibly more important than even her.
That’s because Kyubey will forever change how we perceive certain animes, and how conflict plays out in more action oriented animes.
First of all, Kyubey will undoubtedly alter how we approach magical girl animes.
This image above may soon seem quaint, a nostalgic throwback to sweetly scented simpler times when magical girls were as pure as the driven snow, and their familiars were as trustworthy as angels.
What’s that you say?
“Angels? Trustworthy? In anime?!”
Why, yes, that is a good point. Angels are frequently divided against themselves in anime, as they oddly are not always on the side of angels. 😉
One merely needs to look at Disgaea, or Tales of Symphonia, in order to see this, although anime has many more examples of villainous angels than these.
But then, this has not always been the case. Villainous angels (at least of the non-fallen variety) were practically unthinkable at one time. Now they border on the cliche.
Somewhat likewise, the magical girl familiar being a villainous figure was unthinkable at one time, and perhaps as recently as just a few months ago.
But Kyubey has changed all of that, by making the unthinkable reality. He is, as such, a true original. A testament to the fact that even in the era of TV Tropes, there remains room for genuine creative originality.
Unfortunately, though, this may not be apparent on one’s first viewing of Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
While Urobuchi and Shinbo have produced a carefully crafted compelling anime here, the true nature of Kyubey was hinted at too quickly and too heavily given how late the key reveals damning him would come. As such, the full scope of his impact can be hard to perceive simply through watching the anime that stars him.
No, to realize how Kyubey changes everything, it helps to watch an older magical girl anime shortly after you watch the first 10 episodes of Madoka Magica. Or if not a magical girl anime, then something close to it…
Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle is an eloquently beautiful anime, full of successful heroic determination, boldly bright smiles, and unflinching idealism. I sincerely recommend it to anybody in the mood for classic fantasy, as well as to anybody in the mood for joyous escapism.
Oh, TRC puts its protagonists through trials and tribulations, but there’s always a sense that they will emerge victorious, and better for it. At least, that’s the sense I have 14 episodes into the anime. Perhaps its ending is darker than I expect.
But one thing that I know for certain is the good nature of this cheerfully cute critter.
Say hello to Mokona, star of multiple animes, and cheerleader extraordinaire!
In this Card Captor Sakura AU (which Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle is, by the way), Mokona plays the role of the classic magical girl familiar. Ever faithful and true, there can be no doubt that Mokona is squarely behind our heroes, and wants them to be happy and succeed.
In this vein, he is like other magical girl familiars, who always have the best interests of the magical girls under their care at heart. Yes, such familiars can sometimes be harsh taskmasters, as we see in Sailor Moon, but you always know that their heart is in the right place. And this was a safe assumption. A safe assumption that could be made until this guy blew it full of holes…
There was a time when a scene like this would leave viewers in tears, or at least given a nasty jolt. But not this time. This time it no doubt resulted in triumphant cheers!
That is because Kyubey has forever changed the way we perceive magical girl familiars. It is because he does not have the best interests of the magical girls under his “care” at heart. In fact, he wants them to fail. He wants them to turn into their worst nightmare, that being witches, in the case of Madoka Magica.
He is also a coldly unemotional being, hiding behind a facade of chipper support for many a teenage girl.
He is a predator, a fiend, and yet he twirls no mustaches, and releases no laughs. He is not merely a moral inversion of the classic magical girl familiar, he is the complete antithesis of them.
His thinking is on the universal, his morality alien, his goals abstract.
Whereas other magical girl familiars represent a fantastical escape from reality, Kyubey represents a cold hard reality, including even the exploitation of natural resources for questionable ends. He cares about ‘quotas’, whereas other magical girl familiars care about people.
He is as far apart from Mokona as a character can get. He makes one think of Halliburton meets the Borg. Nothing farther from a young girl’s fantasy could possibly be imagined.
And hence, when I look on other magical girl familiars, I now realize how fortunate their respective magical girls are. They were given super powers, with no catch, at no cost, and with the sincere aid of an adorable mascot. Whereas the goodness of a character like Mokona is something once took for granted, it no longer will be so going forward. Their selfless goodness will hence gain greater respect than before, I think, but also, for some viewers, increased disbelief.
And that is but the first and most obvious effect of Kyubey.
The next effect is how he will change the perception of villainy in anime.
Almost all anime villains, even the great ones, fight you head-on. They are like external forces brought crashing down upon you, with their destructive aims made clear.
But Kyubey is different. Kyubey has one core character trait that I’ve never seen define an anime villain before, as it defines Kyubey.
What is this core character trait, you ask? What is this word that you could find Kyubey’s picture next to in the dictionary?
This word is insidious.
In that one word, you sum up everything you need to know about Kyubey. He is incredibly impeccably insidious. Just look at all of the ways “insidious” is defined at that link I provided. Each and every one of them can be applied in one way or another to Kyubey.
Kyubey beguiles young idealistic girls, making them believe in him, and then leads them down into paths of haunting regret.
In any other magical girl anime, this girl above would have been a gallant heroine, a triumphant champion of truth and justice that would make Superman himself proud.
But in Madoka Magica, she is destroyed by insidiousness personified.
Kyubey has hence risen the bar for what counts as effective anime villainy, which is rather ironic given how his goals are not rooted in maliciousness for its own sake, but rather in combating entropy.
The Joker would laugh uproariously at “the jokes” that Kyubey pulls on unsuspecting teenage girls, but the true joke is that Kyubey isn’t even doing it as a joke.
By being such an effective archetypal character, but also an original one, Kyubey shows what the anime world can put forth when it’s willing to break from convention. He shows the stories that can be told, and the coolly captivating characters that can be created, when anime directors and writers do not feel bound by convention and cliche.
Whereas most recent blockbuster animes, like Ore no Imouto and Angel Beats!, were constructed out of bricks of tropes and mortar of genre glue, Madoka Magica is constructed out of an appropriately alien substance to the world of anime.
And so while Kyubey is the anti-magical girl familiar, Madoka Magica is the anti-anime. The anime that does not honor the established paradigm, but rather seeks to smash it into unrecognizable pieces.
Not all of the above do I write easily, for I do like conventional magical girl anime.
But then anime as a whole has become far too reliant on convention in recent years.
Ore no Imouto, for example, was a shoutout to every anime convention under the sun, a veritable orgy for otakus to take comfort in.
Well, at some point, the human intellect desires more than simple comfort or familiar pleasure. It desires something new, challenging, daring, and interesting.
And that is something that Kyubey has brought us. Given his past record, and given the impact he’s already had, it’ll be interesting to see what else he may ultimately bring to the world of anime…