Free will, Magical Girls, and Kyuubey.

I haven’t been getting my Puella fix lately, and as a consequence have found myself revisiting old episodes to examine more deeply what has happened so far in the show. Right away I was intrigued by some of the first dialogue in episode one.

“If you give up, it’ll be the end of everything, but you have the capacity to change fate. This unavoidable destruction, this sorrow–you can change it all. That’s why you have this power.” -Kyuubey

“Are you telling the truth? Can someone like me really do something to stop this? Can I really prevent everything from turning out this way?” -Madoka


For those who are unfamiliar with the problem of free will, it is the philosophical discussion surrounding how whether our choices or the past will affect the future. You can break down the debate into four major ideas, but I will be leaving out indeterminism as it doesn’t relate to the rest of the post:

Hard Determinism – A hard determinist believes that the past completely determines the future. Since all future events are caused by past events, the future is causally determined. It is not within our power to shape the future. Free will is an illusion.

Soft Determinism – A soft determinist holds that we can have free will even if the future is determined. We are free and responsible for our actions as long as these actions are caused in the right way. We can distinguish two different forms of soft determinism – Traditional Compatibilism and Deep Self-Compatibilism. The difference between the two being how the action is determined to be free (The former being not forced and by the agent’s own will. The latter being that it is caused by authentic desires).

Libertarianism – A libertarian insists that human beings are agents and that agents have special causal powers. They can initiate (cause) events on their own account and are therefore free to shape the future.

“This unavoidable destruction- … you have the power to change it all.”

This statement by Kyuubey is absolutely innocuous, and by itself does not bring about any real information. It is merely an interesting reflection of the statements based on a Libertarian view of free will. If we look deeper through the series so far, we can find more on this to try and get a clearer picture of what role Kyuubey actually has in mind for the girls. During episode 10, Homura’s plans to stop the Walpurgis Night and save Madoka are thwarted again. Before she disappears back into the endless cycle of time travel, Kyuubey leaves this sentiment:

“Sooner or later, the same thing would have happened anyway. Madoka, in this form, will probably destroy this planet within ten days or so. Well, the rest is your problem–humanity’s problem.”

Not only does he say that all of this was inevitable, thus contradicting his original statement that these events could be changed, but he also condemns the entire human race and their planet to destruction. He brushes it off as no longer his problem. Kyuubey is supposed to be a being without emotion that traveled to their planet (dimension, universe?) to collect energy for the purpose of slowing entropy. Earlier in the series, during episode 9, we learn of these purposes.

“It’s not like we hold a grudge against humanity or anything. It is all for the sake of this world we all live in. … Unfortunately, our species is incapable of what you call emotions.
“Are you saying that we should just die for you?”
“Do you know how many cultures exist in this universe, consuming energy every moment? Sometime in the future, you humans will leave the planet and join us too. It wouldn’t be nice if the universe was dying by that time, would it? If you think about it, it’s not such a bad trade-off!

Kyuubey puts up the argument for the ultimate sacrifice they are making, and presenting the fact that the sacrifice of one for the greater good of many is both logical and reasonable. There is no emotion involved in this view of that debate, so at first one would say that Kyuubey is what he says- An emotionless being here to collect energy and facilitate the universe, which also effects the future of the human race. Madoka pushes on, arguing that he couldn’t possibly understand how they feel, to which he replies:

“But we’re making the contract only if you agree to it. Isn’t that kind enough for you?”
You’ve just been tricking us!
We can’t understand what it means “to trick” to begin with. When you regret a wrong decision based on a misunderstanding, you humans tend to hate the other party for some reason.

Now wait a minute, in the same exact episode he contradicts himself again. When talking to Kyōko about Sayaka’s situation as a new born witch, we get the following dialogue:

“Is there any way to get back her soul gem?”
“None, as far as I know.”
“So, there might be one that you don’t know?”
“The existence of Puella Magi is itself against reaosn. I won’t be surprised no matter what improbable acitons you take.”

At first, this isn’t a direct contradiction, but if we listen to what he says to Homura during the final scene, we see the issue arise after she asks if Sayaka could have been saved:

That’s foolish! It’s obviously impossible!
“Then why didn’t you stop her?”
“Of course if it was a needless sacrifice, I would have stopped her, but her fall had a greater meaning. Now you’re the only Puella Magi left to face the Walpurgis, and not even you stand a chance alone. To protect this city, Madoka must become a Puella Magi.”

While he did not directly coax Sayaka into the fight, his motives were purely trickery. At this point in the series, we are aware that Kyuubey cares about nothing other than obtaining the most possible energy. He is willing, and plans to destroy an entire planet and give birth to a witch powerful enough to bend the laws of physics just to meet the quota. He said himself that he could not possibly understand the notion of trickery, yet his plans purposefully set up Sayaka to fail so that Homura would be unable to defeat the Walpurgis Night alone. Even Madoka herself says it:

“Can you save my stupid self before I get tricked by Kyuubey?”

So now that we have established that Kyuubey is either a liar or too naïve to understand that he is being contradictory in the first place. After all, his character is presented as small, innocent, and child-like. Does he truly not feel emotion, or understand trickery, but at the same time pursue plans that are inherently misleading? The complexity in this show is further compounded when we bring Homura’s time travel power in to play.

See “On Quantum Physics, the Fourth Dimension, and Magical Girls… Wait, what?” for a more in-depth analysis of Homura’s powers. For now, I’ll mainly be focusing on time travel in regards to free will and choice. Right away I assume that we can throw out Hard Determinism, because every time Homura travels back in time, she makes choices that cause events to play out differently. Despite this, there are specific major events that always occur, no matter what she chooses to do. Sayaka always turns into a witch. Walpurgis Night always shows up. Madoka always dies/falls while fighting. Supposedly, Mami always dies as well. While all of this is happening, the situations surrounding everything change. This is most highly conducive with the concept of Soft Determinism. The future may be determined already based on the events of the past, but they still have free will to go about their paths and decide how they will react to, fight, or agree with what happens.

Let us now assume that in their world, Soft Determinism holds the strongest grip as the explanation of free will and time. If this is the case, then we can further explore Deep Self-Compatibilism. This states that actions are free if they are caused by desires that are truly our own (authentic desires). Because Madoka is seemingly the focus of this story, I am going to take a leap of faith here and presume that Homura will never solve this series of disasters on her own, with her own choices. If she could, then theoretically it would have already been done. Because she can travel back in time, it means she has theoretically already been to every plane of events and this is backed up by the fact that in Madoka’s timeline, Homura already has these powers and has already been through all of the disaster before meeting Madoka in the first place. If Homura could solve the problem, then she would have already done so due to the paradox of time travel.

So then, at this point it would appear impossible for there to be a light at the end of the tunnel, but that’s where Deep Self-Compatibilism introduces itself. With the assumption that a choice can only be truly free if it is made by authentic desires, then we can explore why Madoka and her friends are stuck in this loop of disaster. Madoka, as a character, is presented to be indecisive and sees herself as “useless”. She periodically leads us to believe that her wish will be something like “I want to be useful, and to protect everyone”. At the start of the first episode, Homura strikes her with a hard statement:

“Kaname Madoka, do you value your current way of life? Your family, your friends–do you think dearly of them? I see. If that’s true, then you mustn’t ever thinking of trying to become someone else. If you do, you’ll lose everything.”

Homura is saying this to Madoka assuming that “change” means to stop being the useless, indecisive girl she is and join the Mahou Shoujo to fight witches. This puts a huge pressure on Madoka to avoid making this difficult choice. On the other hand, Kyuubey is constantly pressuring her to become a Mahou Shoujo, especially when the Walpurgis Night appears, or else the entire world will be destroyed.

So then, with all of this pressure surrounding the type of character that Madoka is, we see her fall to the pressures in the many different timelines. Each time, she fails to consider her own desires. Whenever she is asked or attempts to figure out what she truly wants, it ends up being brushed aside. I think that for the Mahou Shoujo to ever possibly win, Madoka has to finally make her decision based on her own authentic desire. Then, it becomes a true action of free will and breaks the deterministic view of the universe, causing a real change in events.

As this is the Mahou Shoujo genre with some light coming-of-age themes, doesn’t this idea fit in rather well with the problem currently presented to us? It’s up for you to decide, and if you got this far… Thanks for sitting through my long-winded post! I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Also, despite not getting to see the end of the series yet… I’m having a ton of fun discussing it with people. Definitely a positive side to these delays!

Until next time~

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About Anima

"You know, when you're standing on the platform at the station, don't you have things that cross your mind. Like, what would happen if you jumped?"
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22 Responses to Free will, Magical Girls, and Kyuubey.

    • Anima says:

      Wahh, I hadn’t seen that. Regardless, our posts touch on very different subjects. 😛

      • Anima says:

        Yours seems to focus on fate and themes in the story, whereas this post takes a look at the philosophical aspects of free will in their universe and why they are in the current situation. Plus Kyuubey is a sneaky little guy that might actually be lying!

        • Valence says:

          I dunno, the idea is that there is no such thing as free will…

          Can’t wait for episode 10 tho!

          • Anima says:

            I am arguing for the Deep Self Compatbilistic view that there is a very specific reason why they have failed so far, and what role this plays in why their future is turning out the way it is.

            I wasn’t arguing against free will, but for it.

  1. TRazor says:

    While he did not directly coax Sayaka into the fight, his motives were purely trickeryHe said himself that he could not possibly understand the notion of trickery

    It’s not trickery. Kyuubey just lacks business ethics, such as informing the other party about all the terms and conditions. It’s something like this – I give you a contract to buy a house. Documents are clean and approved by the government and such. Your lawyer A-OKs it as well. So, you sign the contract and buy the house. So, you move into your house and then realize that the plaster off the wall is coming off. Now, who will you blame for that? The contractor? His job is to show you the house and secure the payment. He did that. Finding out the quality of the product is entirely your responsibility. If you didn’t check the walls, it’s not the contractor’s fault.

    This, of course, is the free will that you talked about. Kyuubey gave them girls total freedom on their wishes and also the questions they can ask, as well as quite a time period. He told them that witches will come and go, and theymight kill their comrades. These naive girls, expecting milk and roses, faltered there. So, yes, this is soft determinism.

    Oh, and about the time travel thing, the sure things that always happen are a tad off the mark. Sayaka doesn’t always die. Madoka doesn’t always “just” fall. Meh, just grab a look at the various timelines and it should be enough. Of course, all of this doesn’t make a big difference, really…

    I’m not really interested in this anime any more (what, after Gankutsuou and Kaiji?), but I’m toying with the idea of an editorial…Let’s see how the voting turns out.

    *against reason (btw)

    • baka~ says:

      I think this innocence if a part of Kyubey’s trickery. In business, if you do not have the power to persuade, your product won’t sell. And in order to persuade an individual into buying your goods, you have to lose their knack for curiosity. For instance, if a buyer who explored every nook and cranny of the house asks “Is this house still in good condition?” and the contractor answers “This house is made by the best!”, was the question answered? What if after the purchase, a storm came and destroyed the house, can we truly blame the buyer for his negligence? Likewise, can we blame the contractor?

      No matter how cautious a buyer is, there will always be unforseen risks not evaluated but in Kyubey’s case, his contradictory statements scattered all over the series proves that he is well aware of how the game/system works. Also, do you think all adolescents are aware of their rights with such matters? They are young and are meant to make rash decisions (mentioned by Kaname Junko) it is natural for them to be misinformed and it is, unfortunately, natural for Kyubey to prey on such unwitting victims

      • Anima says:

        He is well aware of how the system works and he contradicts himself several times. He directly implies to Homura that he lead the girls to the situations they were in so that she was the only one left and would be forced to get Madoka’s help to fight Walpurgis Night. Is this not trickery?

        Also my main point in all of this was the problem of free will. Madoka has been fairly indecisive throughout the series and has not (as far as I can see) made the decisions about being a Magical Girl from her own true desires. She spends much time pondering it and trying to understand what she wants from it, but then the bad events with the Mahou Shoujo begin to occur and force her to make a decision before she is ready. For there to be any conclusion, Madoka must find out what exactly she should do and make that decisions of her own authentic desires.

        • TRazor says:

          In my book, that isn’t trickery. It’s destiny. If you notice, Kyubey himself (other than tempting the girls) doesn’t do anything to change the events in the timelines. Only homura does. He never really led the girls to situations. The girls hunted Witches, which would pop up randomly and was not under the control of Kyubey. So, if something happens over and over in 5 timelines, it’s fate and destiny, something that can’t be changed by one creature’s finesse.

          Madoka…to be honest, has lost my interest. Her indecisiveness has effecively pushed her to the sidelines, as a side character. She just doesn’t have what we call screen presence (also, air time). It’s quite obvious that she’s inspired by Shinji Ikari of NGE. However, what Shinji did so effectively, Madoka couldn’t.

      • TRazor says:

        Once again, it’s not trickery. It’s smart salesmanship. When the real estate agent we are talking about does that, can you sue him for “trickery” or anything of that sort? Somethings are buyer’s responsibility while some aren’t.

        Unforseen risks is not the category for “What are the implications of getting a free wish and magical powers”. The girls seem smart enough to ask at least that…or so I thought.

        Taking rash decisions is an understatement in this case. And yes, Kyubey did what any smart person ould’ve done. Remember, this is the fate of the universe we’re talking about here.

        • baka~ says:

          Not to strike a nerve or anything but smart, tricky, resourceful, we can easily lump these adjectives together and they will still interpret a person’s level of intelligence but not being the case, I am not saying that all tricksters are evil nor the agent had to be sued for being tricky. You cannot sue a person just because of their human nature. If anything, all of Kyubey’s actions have brought suspicion to the characters as well as the viewers. Is Kyubey evil? there are evidences but this is still subjective to how the viewer would take it. For all we know, Kyubey may even be the good guy of this series. It’s just the the seeds of doubt, contradiction, and suspicion that he sowed makes the viewers annoyed at his nature. And by human nature, things that annoy us we consider evil.

          I think the explanation for girls being smart enough to know of their rights may happen if they weren’t living such carefree lives. Remember in episode 2 where Sayaka mentions that they were all ‘ignorant in bliss’ and true enough, since they have lived pampered lives, the thought to ask Kyubey more of the details of the contract never occurred to them. Besides, after all the lies and revelations that Kyubey mentioned, can we guarantee that Kyubey will tell the truth once they asked the conditions of the contract? If salesmen ought to do the smart thing for their product to sell then they are compelled to lie right from the start.

  2. @fkeroge says:

    I wouldn’t think that he was contradicting himself anywhere within the show.

    “Once you give up, it’s all over. But you have the power to change fate. You just have to change this inevitable destruction, this sorrow- that’s why you have this power.”

    “Really? Can someone like me really make a difference? Do I really have the power to prevent everything from turning out this way?”

    “Of course. That’s why you have to make a contract with me and become a magical girl.”

    Kyubey here is stating the truth, if not in an overly twisted fashion. Madoka can change everything. She can bend laws of physics, for goodness sakes. However, Kyuubey NEVER said anything about the change being good. Madoka just asked him if she can change everything, to not let everything turn out in THAT particular manner. Kyubey, of course, just answers as directly as possible, and offers a contract.

    Also, he doesn’t promise Kyouko results, nor does he encourage her to go save Sayaka. He just says that there is no way to save Sayaka AS FAR AS HE KNOWS. But he knows everything there is to it, so technically, he isn’t lying, just playing with words masterfully.

    Still, this is a very nice post. I love philosophy and even though the philosophy of determinism and destiny is not my forte, I still like it.

    • Anima says:

      But wouldn’t you consider the playing with words masterfully to mask the reality of it all a form of trickery? Like TRazor referenced, he is almost a salesman. He can’t outright lie (false advertising), but he can do it in such a way that bends the reality of it until you get caught in the lies and fall for it.

      And thank you! My original point was to focus on just the determinism and free will, but then I got sucked into this Kyuubey analysis. 😛

      • @fkeroge says:

        We are not even sure if it is his intention to play with words. He just answers them in the most direct way possible.

        • Anima says:

          That is true. I may be looking into this more than necessary anyway. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how they conclude everything. What will happen to Kyuubey if they do beat Walpurgis Night? Will they continue to fight witches (no use of magical power = no tainting of the gem?), or will they all die?

          I think it’ll be interesting either way.

  3. @fkeroge says:

    I would like to inform everybody here that Madoka will finally be back on April 21. Apparently, episodes 11 and 12 will be aired consecutively. And, no, I’m certainly not joking. Check out their official twitter account.

  4. Nopy says:

    I think Madoka should wish for a cake if she wants to change fate. When you think about it, cakes make people happy, and the wishes the girls make are reflected in their powers. Going from there, wouldn’t Madoka just automatically make everyone happy and everything turns out well?

  5. ~xxx says:

    Kyubey is the master of the dark side…

    less to that he had been able to sell his expertise to innocent girls who in turn became mahou shoujo…

    and now, I will wait for the last two… Man, I’m beat.

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