How Yuki Yuna is a Hero Challenges Madoka Magica's Legacyby Christopher Farris,
‘Sacrifice’ is a concept that appears frequently in storytelling. Heroes sacrifice themselves to save the day, villains try to sacrifice others to achieve their own ends, even everyday people sacrifice their time and efforts to achieve their dreams. One anime series this season notably embraces sacrifice as a core concept; the second season of Yuki Yuna Is a Hero continues with the ‘sacrificial magical girls’ angle that the previous season revealed as its twist partway through. But Yuki Yuna is not the first magical girl series to put a darker spin on the genre's formula through the systematic execution of its adorable heroines. Pretty much everyone these days knows who paved that particular road.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica casts a pretty long shadow for a series whose darkness is its most discussed asset. But it's the way it uses that darkness that makes Madoka Magica so successful, and its theme of sacrifice also directly relates to Yuki Yuna. Throughout Madoka Magica's run, its team of magical girls end up getting killed off one by one, leaving only Homura to fight before Madoka sacrifices herself for everyone. On a surface level, these deaths come across as existing for shock value, to surprise the audience with an idealistic anime girl getting gruesomely murdered. However, within the framework of the story being told, these deaths are genuine sacrifices on the altar of the show's subtext.
Take the first and most memorable death: Mami's beheading at the hands (well, mouth) of Charlotte. While most viewers had already guessed Madoka Magica was hiding some darker secrets, this shocking moment removes any doubt about the series' goals. In that respect, Mami is being sacrificed for the sake of the story's intent; we wouldn't understand what kind of story Madoka Magica was unless this character was killed. Similarly, Sayaka's breakdown and falling to become a monstrous Witch exists to demonstrate the way the magical girl system works for the audience, while Kyoko's subsequent self-sacrifice to defeat her exists not only in service of her character development, but also to leave Homura alone as the only magical girl left before the final battle.
These deaths are impactful in emotional ways that affect the audience, but they're also necessary to setting up the mechanics and themes of the story. Thus they fit the definition of sacrifice as a loss that must happen in order to achieve something. The need for sacrifice underpins everything that happens in Madoka Magica; the core plot is kicked off in Homura's first timeline when she refuses to let Madoka simply sacrifice herself to save everyone, a point that comes back around by the end when Madoka does so again on a much grander scale. This anime was revolutionary not just for being shocking and subversive, but because its story was willing to make impactful sacrifices in order to achieve ideas that similar stories had not been able to express before.
So what does Madoka Magica's legacy and the role of sacrifice in its story have to do with Yuki Yuna Is a Hero? As often happens, several imitators popped up to in response to Madoka's success, carrying on the idea of dark magical girls without being able to give each death in their own dark stories a story-driven purpose. Daybreak Illusion was a notable early imitator, which so fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of character deaths that its killed cast members were resurrected at the end with no consequences on the overall story. The more recent Magical Girl Raising Project managed to use its many gruesome magical girl murders as stepping stones to the plot's resolution, but covered little new thematic ground in the process. I would say that Yuki Yuna has been the series to pick up the sacrificial concept of Madoka Magica and run further with it.
If I'm being honest, Yuki Yuna's underpinnings of sacrifice are hardly subtle. Unlike in Madoka Magica where the character deaths were only sacrifices in a meta-textual sense, Yuki Yuna eventually reveals its magical girls as literal sacrifices: offerings to their guardian gods whose consuming powers drive away invading monsters and delay the end of the world itself. However, Yuki Yuna's interesting spin on the system is that the characters don't actually have to die in order to serve as sacrifices. Rather, exertion of their powers ends up depleting some sort of bodily function, be it eyesight, use of their legs, or even their own memories. While the revelation of how this works is initially a surprise to the girls and the audience, the show makes it exceptionally clear is that these heroes would still make those sacrifices to save the day even knowing the consequences.
That character agency is the key progression Yuki Yuna makes to the theme of sacrifice presented by Madoka. A climactic conflict comes to a head in the series' first season when Fu, enraged at the Hero System for taking her sister Itsuki's voice, resolves to attack the Taisha agency governing the system. She gets talked down by Yuna who corroborates with Itsuki that even if they had known about the disabling effects of the system, they still would have fought the encroaching monsters anyway, because their commitment to heroism is what makes them a team of heroes. For the most part, the characters in Madoka Magica were sacrificed to see the story move on without them; only Madoka made a deliberate and pre-meditated choice to give up her life for the good of everyone else. By allowing all of the magical girls in Yuki Yuna to make that choice on their own, this series effectively turns its whole cast into Madokas and keeps them alive in order to continue impacting their story with their choices.
The sacrificial characters staying alive is itself a rejection of Madoka Magica's equation of sacrifice with death (or Witch-ification, a kind of undeath). Within the series, the heroes' fairies turn exist explicitly to prevent the girls from being killed, no matter the cause. The second season reveals an even more potent reason for this mechanic; a previous hero named Gin was killed in battle, sacrificing her entire life to safeguard her world and fellow magical girls. Gin's death carries with it all the earmarks of a tragic anime sacrifice, complete with shocking gravitas and an episode-long funeral service. However, it's notable that the Taisha decided that her death could not be repeated, updating the system for heroism to allow for sacrifices of a non-lethal kind. It makes sense from a story perspective, but it can also be read as a meta-textual response to Madoka Magica; the point of this ultimate sacrifice has been made in the story, so it need not be repeated.
In this respect, Yuki Yuna Is a Hero comes off less like as an imitator of Madoka Magica and more as its own response to that series, which allows it to be more innovative in its ideas rather than feeling derivative. Yuki Yuna acknowledges Madoka Magica, but it's not beholden to its same ideas and execution, and it even seems to be challenging Madoka's approach to its story and characters. The girls of Yuki Yuna eventually regain the bodily functions they sacrificed for their power boost, with the Hero System revised again for the sequel half of the show's second season. This is seemingly acknowledged as the Taisha realizing that the girls had earned back what they lost, but it also carries further significance in meta-text once again. The previous sacrifices had served their purpose for the story, and the characters were allowed to continue relieved of that burden for the audience's sake as well as their own.
Of course, the updated Hero System comes with its own caveats, signaling that new takes on the Hero's Sacrifice may be forthcoming in the story's final act. At the time of this writing, Yuki Yuna Is a Hero still has a couple episodes left in its second season, and the rules of the game are already changing again. It remains to be seen how this story will conclude, but these magical girls will certainly need to make some sort of sacrifice to prove themselves as true heroes once again.
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