Title: Puella Magi Madoka Magica (Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica)
Genre: Drama, Magical Girl, Psychological
Director: Akiyuki Shinbo
Producer: Atsuhiro Iwakami
Script: Gen Urobuchi
Music Composer: Yuki Kaijiura
Puella Magi Madoka Magica starts out ominously: thrust into an apocalyptic setting, Kaname Madoka is faced with the choice of either becoming a magical girl or seeing a girl fighting a powerful enemy die all alone with no help in sight. But before Madoka can decide, she wakes up. Nothing but a bad dream! It then seems to be your typical shoujo series, as she concerns herself over girlish things, eats breakfast with her family, and hangs out with her friends Sayaka and Hitomi. Then at class time, a new transfer student is introduced, and it happens to be the girl Madoka saw in her dream: Akemi Homura. Wasting little time Homura confronts Madoka and tells her to live her life and to value the things she loves. But merely days later while hanging with Sayaka in the music store, a voice calls out to her. Soon enough she and Sayaka meet Kyubey, a cute creature who claimed that it has the power to grant a wish to those who choose to become a magical girl and sign the contract, and Mami Tomoe, a powerful, likable magic user.
The setup seemed innocuous enough: Homura, who set out to kill Kyubey, is perceived to be the bad magical girl, the mysterious one whose motives are unclear, while Kyubey and Mami were the good ones, fighting the terrible witches who infiltrated and distorted humans in a depressed or bad state. From Episodes 2 to most of 3, it was Mami semi-training Madoka and Sayaka as they contemplated whether or not they A) wanted to become magical girls and B) decided on what type of wish they wanted Kyubey to grant. Once Mami is not only killed, but killed in such a fashion that made her seem inconsequential, like a bit character that dies and no viewer gives two cents about because we known nothing about the character, is when all of the conventional traits most come to know or hear about magical girl shows is flipped and never really turns itself back over. That’s because in this anime, if one decides to become a magical girl, then a price must be paid; and as the show goes on, the responsibilities of a girl who decides to make the contract are revealed, leaving those who did sign up know that no matter what they do, their fate is decided.
To sum it up in one sentence: Puella Magi Madoka Magica is going to be one of those series that will forever be held to the highest of standards, even if years down the line and a new generation of anime fans rise up they will say it has outlived its time or it’s merely good, but not great. That is fine because times have changed and surely new animes will be created that may influence their thinking. For now however, the current generation gets to experience a twist in the magical girl genre: one that may have been done before, but may not be as convincing and heartbreaking as Madoka Magica. Why are there so many people who cosplay Madoka, Mami, Homura, etc? Why are there critics and bloggers praising the show left and right? Simply because it’s good, and gets just about everything right that many other anime series fail to establish in their shows.
As you all probably know, anime is, for the most part, the same. We will always have anime set in schools, fighting fantastical characters, and/or chilling doing nothing but talking about their boring lives. It is works like that that may or may not cause people to burn out, that makes people accuse the medium as feeling stagnant, and that makes some people complain about every little thing about a show. So when I get to watch a work like Madoka Magica, I give it kudos for at least attempting to be something not of the norm, since I get tired of the same, usual shows that is different in terms of direction, flair, and characterization, but nothing else. Madoka obviously borrows elements from other magical girl series, so it’s not that original, but its willingness to go and experiment with different visual styles and the addition of a darker element reminds me of how far the anime medium can go, instead of being constrained to the usual tropes and traits. However, it also means there’s little forgiveness if you screw up in most of the aspects of the show; see Choas; HeAd as an example. Madoka doesn’t.
It doesn’t because it tells an effective, depressing, and compelling story revolving around the role of a magical girl. Like all things, there is usually a price to pay for obtaining something of power. In Madoka Magica, it seems almost too good to be true: not only is a girl allowed to become a magical girl, but she can have any wish she wants granted? Sure there’s the fear of death when she fights, but otherwise there doesn’t seem to be major side effects right? Well, if not being human and faced with the possibility of becoming a witch if that Soul Gem is not filled with a Grief Seed is not a side effect, then there’s something wrong here. This is but one of the many signs that point to being a magical girl is not as cracked up as it’s supposed to be, as the show started out semi-fluffy to downright messed up. If the writing wasn’t anywhere close to solid, the show would have fallen apart. Kudos to Gen Urobuchi. I contend it was too dark for its own good, never letting up until maybe the end of the series; but if nothing else, the writing he did kept me hooked with each episode. Not to say he might have overdone it–questioning Madoka at every point of the series wore me out–but they came at effective times, keeping the flow moving well enough and letting the actions speak for themselves.
This story makes everything else in Madoka more effective. When I first saw the character designs of Madoka, they didn’t particularly grab me in any special way. In the show however it fits, contrasting from almost all of the other designs in the series. There are those that range from the bizarre–we have cutouts of ugly looking witches and familiars for example–to pretty cool, such as the multitude of guns Mami pulls out of the ground and how she uses it–shooting, swinging, and tossing it at her enemies. The sometimes bleak imagery makes the show stand out in a pleasing, yet twisted way. The soundtrack makes me feel either sad, want to punch someone in the face, or is dramatic in the right spots. These elements were solid to high quality, making Madoka great despite its premise.
However, what I think fell somewhat short were the characters. We have Madoka, the one character we wait on, deciding whether or not she wants to make the contract; Mami, that seemingly cool and strong magical girl that we view as a character who didn’t have a choice to become a magical girl and ultimately didn’t have a choice in living; Sayaka, that usual sidekick to the main character who openly bears her ideals and flaws to us; Homura, a seemingly anti-social, cold girl who in truth and probably expectedly bore many scars that changed her personality; Kyouko, an openly barbaric girl that changes her tune from a disastrous revelation; and to Kyubey. Once viewed as a kind creature with its smile always on display as it hung out with Mami and the two aspiring magical girls, as the series progressed Kyubey’s real intentions came forth, at the cost of a girl’s humanity. The characters didn’t deter my experience of the show–however, I felt they weren’t convincing at times, as if there just wasn’t enough back story or one more detail that would have made the characters work at a consistently great level. Homura’s strange action later in the series (Episode 8) towards Madoka was kind of odd, and I didn’t expect it…and not in a good way. Kyouko attempting to befriend Sayaka seemed forced; there wasn’t enough events, even with that revelation regarding their souls, for them to bond that quickly. The characters overall I felt were good. But they missed very good to great for me.
Yet they sold me enough. They convinced me on how dire being a magical girl can be. So ultimately, Madoka Magica sold me from start to finish. The ending may or may not be satisfactory–I thought it was ok–as to whether it should have ended like that, but it ended with a theme that the show maintained throughout its run: that you can’t expect to have good without expecting to have the bad. There will always be a negative side to things as much as there is a positive; in this case, the positives that we’ve seen or heard of in most magical girl shows are largely absent in Madoka, as we focus on the negative side of obtaining such a power. Of course there are animes with that type of theme, but a good portion don’t execute it to a quality level; if nothing else, Madoka Magica accomplishes this. So in short, yeah, you’re gonna have to watch it, not even just for the enjoyment, but even just to discuss the messages the show tried to send.
This series is streaming for free on Crunchyroll.