Have you ever wondered exactly what’s going on inside your friends’ heads? Of course you have. Have you ever wanted to take a surreal and frightening journey inside the physical manifestation of your friends’ thoughts, feelings, and worries? Maybe? No? Well, in these two series, you can!
Fiction provides us with a unique opportunity to see into the minds of others, in that we get to live out other people’s stories and lives and see the world through their point of view for a time. Fantasy and sci-fi elements that allow us to literally see into and interact with the minds of characters, such as the dream-diving in Paprika and Inception, take this a step further. Through literally venturing into a physical manifestation of another character’s mind, you can learn a lot about them that they may not show you on the surface, such as hidden insecurities and secret memories. And sure, as a writer you could get the same information across in a dream sequence that lets the audience see inside that character’s mind for a scene, but the act of physically entering someone else’s mental landscape is what I want to talk about today. It lets the other characters, rather than solely the audience, learn what’s going on in the subject character’s head, and does so in a way that also moves the plot forward and provides a physical adventure at the same time.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Flip Flappers are two series that, via magic, give their characters the opportunity to explore their co-cast members’ inner worlds, sending them all down a proverbial rabbit hole into surreal, symbolism-heavy, and often frightening landscapes that teach them (and the audience) something about their peers that they couldn’t have known before. The two series use a lot of the same tools, artistically speaking, but the consequences and emotional outcome of their heroes’ journeys into each other’s mindscapes is very different in each case. Heavy spoilers for both shows beyond the jump!
Let’s first look at Puella Magi Madoka Magica and the Witch labyrinths that function as our character exploration Wonderland. At first, the strange magical pockets of warped reality that our heroes are drawn into seem random and nonsensical. The use of mixed media, collage, and different art styles sets these worlds apart from the normally-animated “real” one, and the pile-up of dissonant imagery creates a sense of confusion and fear even before anything truly dangerous happens. The second Witch world they enter, for example, is sort of a cartoon candy land scattered with medical equipment. Imagery associated with sweet food and hospitals don’t normally go together, which makes the whole landscape bizarre and unsettling and undeniably not-of-this-world.
This seems to be just a fun exercise in level design, with the Witch worlds simply forming the backdrop to the frightening Monster of the Week showdown. This is true for all the Witch mazes Madoka and co. end up in over the course of the series, with no real pattern seeming to connect them until the characters—and the audience—realize that the monsters called Witches were once magical girls who transformed after their Soul Gems were corrupted. This reveal comes in the most heartbreaking form possible when one of our heroes, Sayaka, turns into a Witch right in front of our eyes. The characters—and the audience—are then sucked into her labyrinth, and are faced with a big and tragic “aha” moment where we finally realize that there is rhyme and reason to the chaotic collage of each Witch’s world.
Sayaka’s maze is full of objects, images, and symbolism that reflect and effectively tell her story. And because we’ve been there for Sayaka’s story, we recognize each aspect: the violins, the train tracks, the knight motif and the mermaid tail in the form of the Witch herself, they’re all relevant to the tale of how Sayaka became a Witch. Knowing this, and having a scenario where we can put the pieces together, we can then look back and realize that each Witch world is full of significant and symbolic details that tell us, if we analyze them hard enough, the story of the fallen magical girl that they belong to. A Witch world is an inner landscape, a dreamworld that allows other characters to literally get inside their head and see their inner thoughts and heartbreak.
As always, showing is much more effective than telling, for worldbuilding as well as character stuff. Actually seeing a magical girl we know turn into a Witch and suck everyone else into her personal-symbolism-filled maze is a much more effective way of revealing this twist and building the rules of this magical universe than if we’d just been told “Witches all used to be magical girls!” In the same vein, making Sayaka’s inner turmoil a physical, visible landscape for the other characters to traverse reveals that turmoil in a much more engaging way than if she or other people had simply spoken about it. It’s also an established part of Sayaka’s personality that she doesn’t talk about her problems and puts on a brave face, and the audience has seen her spend the episodes leading up to this transformation bottling up her feelings, so everything coming crashing down in such a spectacular way–with the creation of the nightmarish magical Witch world to mirror Sayaka’s psychological state–is the logical direction for things to go, rather than a twist pulled out of thin air.
In the most gut-punchy way possible, the Witch maze lets Madoka and the other characters know what was really going on in Sayaka’s head. It teaches them, and us the audience, about the world and about her while also moving the magical adventure along. Unfortunately… there isn’t much we can do with this information. While Madoka—and the viewers—understand how Witch worlds work and how much Sayaka was hurting after her transformation, the labyrinths are beautiful illustrations of tragedies that have already happened and can’t really be anything else.
Compare this to Flip Flappers, which also throws its magical girl heroes into strange and artistically distinct alternate worlds. Like in Madoka, each dreamscape the girls visit seems nonsensical and unconnected until you learn what exactly this space called Pure Illusion is: a dreamworld influenced and shaped by the people who enter it or people that they’re close to. Each seemingly random wonderland that Cocona and Papika travel through is, like the Witch worlds, a journey through somebody’s mind and life story, manifesting as a landscape full of magic and symbolism and sheer weirdness.
You, the viewer, then have a fun game on your hands of figuring out whose inner world the characters are visiting in each episode and what they represent. The wildly-colored rabbit-themed landscape in Episode 2 makes a lot more sense when you consider it was probably the inner world of a rabbit, showing the universe as Cocona’s pet (who is named after a scientist that developed a theory on “self-worlds”, as a neat clue to the nature of Pure Illusion for those who knew this) perceives it… a sensory overload where machines are scary, chewing on things is great, and the rabbit himself appears as a heroic and badass figure. The cold, quiet, desolate snowy landscape that the girls first visit makes a lot of sense if you see it as Cocona’s inner world, a manifestation of her feelings of isolation and being lost. The neon-lit, monster-filled mecha anime tribute in Episode 8 is quite probably the mental landscape of the robot or the geeky scientist that help them on their quests.
This reveal isn’t just handed to the heroes (or the audience) on a platter, though—Cocona and Papika realize the true nature of Pure Illusion when they accidentally venture into a deeper layer of an oil-painting-style world they’re fighting in, and end up reliving someone else’s memories. It’s here they realize that they’re inside their classmate’s mind, wandering around in her private mental landscape and discovering that she has past trauma and worries that she has never told them about. Once they’re out, Cocona is horrified that she’s invaded someone else’s private space and is wary that she might have even changed some of the memories that make Iroha who she is, given that she and Papika tried to erase the regrets they found inside the dreamscape. It makes her reluctant to travel to Pure Illusion again, in case she changes anything else, but it also gives her a new perspective on her artist friend that helps her understand her better.
Pure Illusion and the Witch labyrinths are both physical manifestations of people’s headspaces and life stories, revealing things that those characters would have otherwise kept bottled up. They’re both beautifully designed, heavy with clever symbolism, and have almost endless potential for analysis and exploration if you feel like picking their facets apart. They let the heroes of their respective shows look inside another character’s head and learn new things about them in ways that create a physical adventure and move the plot forward. They’re both fascinating and great executions of the idea, I think, but as I said before, they use their journeys inside the mind for very different emotional purposes.
The Witch worlds are a look inside the headspace of girls that have essentially already died, a picture of heartbreak that Madoka and company can’t do anything to fix if they tried—the only option is to exterminate the Witch before she spreads her tragic dreamscape and destroys things. Pure Illusion, however, is an exercise in empathy. Each trip there tells Cocona something about the people around her or herself, and she can use this knowledge and increasing self-awareness to change and grow, and help other people change and grow too. Cocona can try and help with the problems she finds within Pure Illusion, whereas even if Madoka does eventually erase the Witch system with her own unique brand of magic, her experience inside the Witch worlds serve mostly to drive home the tragedy inherent in a magical girl’s life. To put it one way, the Witch worlds are a full stop, Pure Illusion is a question mark.
This is not to say that either of these uses of the dream-diving trope is better or worse—that comes down to personal taste, I feel, since both results fit the tone of their respective shows. Sayaka’s arc in Madoka Magica is almost a textbook-perfect tragedy, and Madoka’s story is about being surrounded by irreversible tragedy but remaining hopeful anyway. Cocona’s story in Flip Flappers is about growing up and learning to understand herself and the people around her, learning that the world is a lot more complicated than it first appears and that everyone she knows has multiple facets and hidden depths. Given that this comes down to personal taste, I felt that what Cocona is given the opportunity to learn via her journeys through Pure Illusion is a nicer and more narratively satisfying set of moral messages, but what have you. These two shows demonstrate the versatility of the trope, if nothing else, and how a dip into surreal and wonderful worlds can provide perspective on the real one, as well as providing a visual feast and a plot-propelling adventure.
Have you ever wanted to take a look inside your friends’ heads, or your own? You might not like what you find there, especially if inner demons take physical form and have to be fought off in a magical battle. But fantasy fiction gives us an opportunity to exercise our empathy, in surreal situations or otherwise, and whatever the outcome within the fictional world, it’s important to remember that everyone has their own colorful and frightening inner landscape and we ought to be mindful of how we impact it.
Read more from Alex at her blog, The Afictionado!