When we think of heroes, the picture that likely manifests for most people is a savior. Whether a guy in colorful spandex fighting crime or knight with a sword staving off evil creatures, heroes go above and beyond to save others through their actions. The piece that really sets apart what a hero can be, however, is what they stand for. The most memorable stories of heroes are the ones that confront them with the cracks in their own morality, such as Batman refusing to kill even The Joker. These moments remind us that even the best heroes are human or at least fallible in much the same way. No matter how hard you try, you can’t save everyone. In some cases, you cannot save yourself. This is the case with Puella Magi Madoka Magica’s spunky, driven blue-haired heroine. Yet there is no doubt in my mind; Sayaka Miki is a Hero.
While every one of the girls of Madoka prove themselves heroic in some way, Sayaka envisions herself in the role quite easily. She has a deep empathy and desires to protect the people and world she cherishes in the sweet, fluffy way one may expect of middle-schoolers. Even her initial appearance as a magical girl invokes many ideals of heroism— shrouded in a cape, a white knight comes out of nowhere to save the innocent just in time. She also has flaws one might expect of a starry-eyed middle-schooler, such as deep self-loathing and naiveté (a relatable slate). She’s fiercely loyal to her friends, but she also has an inherent tendency to distrust (namely, Homura and Kyoko when they first appear). The key piece here is her wish, and more precisely whom it was for. Kyosuke is a longtime friend (and more importantly big crush) of Sayaka’s and she dutifully visits him as regularly as possible. He sits in the hospital recovering from an accident which renders him incapable of using his hands to play the violin he was so fond of. He sees no way he could possibly ever do what he loves again short of an improbable miracle, and it leaves him depressed. Sayaka, it turns out, is capable of just that miracle.
The hands are healed and Sayaka is now a magical girl, having been granted her wish by sociopathic space rodent Kyubey while foreboding red skies look on. Sayaka promises to never regret her wish, and then something else red falls into her life to really test the limits of that promise. Kyoko is someone much like Sayaka— her wish was for the sake of someone else, but she has come to regret this and now looks out only for herself. Naturally, this does not sit well with Sayaka, who holds on to her own rigid ideals of heroism as a selfless act. Kyoko has no time for such ideals— she is no doubt aware what destructive potential this rigidness holds and is eager to strike it down. While their initial hostile encounter ends in a Homura-induced draw, this feud leads Sayaka to declare to Madoka that she will fight anyone who is as bad or worse than the witches in the name of protecting those she cares about— even fellow magical girls. Her moral imperatives in her own heroic ideals outweigh seeing beyond the myopic nature of this stance.
Soon after a revelation would be made that would shock all the girls and leave Sayaka in particular shaken. The Soul Gem lives up to its name as when one is left without theirs— as Sayaka was— they cease living until it is returned; a person’s soul is actually housed in it. Soon after a clearly similarly shaken Kyoko attempts a form of reconciliation, walking Sayaka through her own wish and the tragic events it led to. Kyoko sees this as a warning in the form of advice from someone who was in a remarkably similar position, and came to know regret for it. This does not deter Sayaka, who pledges she will never allow herself to regret using her wish on the behalf of another. The ideals of her justice and heroism do not allow her to see that as anything but giving up on helping others, and she instead thinks of how much good she can do with this power. She holds firm to her righteousness, thinking of the many ways she can fulfill being a hero with her abilities.
Sayaka is not as stable as her resolute speech would have one believe. Kyosuke, the crush she made her wish for, has been approached by Hitomi— another girl who happens to be a close friend of Sayaka’s and Madoka’s. Hitomi does not want the dueling interest to dampen their relationship, as she is quite aware of Sayaka’s feelings. She gives Sayaka a chance to reveal her feelings first, but the soul gem revelation has left her too shaken to think she can approach Kyosuke, feeling as though she cannot ask her longtime crush to hold and embrace what feels to her to be nothing more than the body of a zombie. This also leads to thoughts that are naturally not so kind to Hitomi, and Sayaka clearly loathes that such thoughts even momentarily came into her head, as she tearfully confesses to Madoka. The limits that human error place on such rigid ideals are clearly shown in the self-loathing here, as Sayaka hates that weakness allowed a crack in her valuing her friendship and acts of saving people even when it is clearly an understandable emotional reaction.
The downward spiral continues as Sayaka seems to be increasingly detached and troubled. She angrily confronts Madoka, only to immediately regret doing so and declare herself beyond help at that point. She watches Hitomi and Kyosuke get closer from a distance and grows only more emotionally distant, even telling Homura that she is okay with dying. Riding a train late at night and with likely no real destination, Sayaka finds the real breaking point of her spirit as well as her ideals. The dark and dreary train is occupied only by Sayaka and two rather awful men. They sling revolting insults about women and a partner of one of the men specifically back and forth until Sayaka can take no more. She confronts them, defending the woman so ridiculed by the men and then wondering if this world is even worth fighting for. With her emotional state already critically fragile, forcing her to question her ideals and the world she wanted to save because of them pushes her over the edge. When Kyoko finds her alone, Sayaka admits that she can’t remember what she found so worth protecting, and that none of it makes much sense to her anymore. The disillusionment proves fatal, as tears are shed, the soul gem bursts open, and Sayaka Miki the hero is no more. Only a witch born of the bitter disillusionment and regret remains.
Sayaka could not save herself, but that doesn’t mean she has not saved others in some way. Kyoko is reminded of what drove her to become a magical girl, and attempts to rescue Sayaka from her witch form in whatever way she can. When this proves impossible, she sacrifices herself to ensure that Sayaka is not alone to the very end. Kyoko possessed the very same empathetic drive Sayaka had, and Sayaka managed to reawaken it within Kyoko, who now knows what she wants to protect. We see once more what mark Sayaka has left on the world as she watches Kyosuke play one last time. She is not free of the emotions leaving all this behind brings forth, but she is content to leave the regret behind knowing he will be happy with Hitomi and his continued playing. His life was saved by Sayaka’s actions, and he’ll never know that was the case despite how much joy the regained use of his hands brings him. She changed his life for the better by sacrificing herself. That’s what it truly means to be a hero.
Sayaka’s story is a cautionary tale, and some may be tempted to think she failed to be a hero. This idea of a hero, much like Sayaka’s, puts heroism far above a level humans can attain. She did indeed fail to balance her emotions and human error with her sense of justice as a magical girl, something that is understandable for a middle-school student suddenly tasked with saving the world, one would think. While all heroes are good, not all heroes are infallible. When it comes to someone like Sayaka, to be a hero is to be human— an empathetic human trying their best to protect what they cherish. Sayaka may not have protected herself, but she had a tangible impact on those around her. She revived that empathetic drive in Kyoko and gave so that Kyosuke could regain his ability to play music. Sayaka isn’t perfect, Sayaka is human, and most of all, Sayaka Miki is a Hero.