Anime review: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Prior to my viewing of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, I had heard it described as offering to the magical girl genre what Neon Genesis Evangelion offered to mecha anime. I went in almost completely blind, knowing only a few bits of what was to come along with the plot of the show. At twelve episodes, Madoka does surprisingly well with its pacing, and covers all the necessary information within its allotted runtime. It also maintains an air of intrigue about it by consistently layering the complexity of what it means to become a magical girl. In the end, this anime does remind me of Neon Genesis Evangelion to a degree – the two deal with notably different themes, but both tackle genres that viewers have become some familiar with, so comfortable with the classic character themes and plot points therein, and opts to turn all of that on its head.

The initial premise of the first episode is quite consistent with most magical girl anime. The opening is impactful and provides a small taste of what is to come, but the routine of Madoka and her good friend Sayaka going to school, talking to their friends, and predicting when their teacher’s latest romantic breakup will be is exceptionally normal. It is the point when Madoka and Sayaka meet the new transfer student, Homura, that the story is truly set in motion. Madoka is warned in private by Homura that she should not abandon her friends, her family, the comfortable mundane life she currently has. While Homura does not come right out and say it during their first encounter, it soon becomes apparent that she wants to prevent Madoka from becoming a magical girl at any cost, despite the attempts of a cat-like creature named Kyubey to sway Madoka and Sayaka to making a contract with him. While Homura’s story is the last of the main characters to be fully realized, it is abundantly clear early on in the series that she is privy to information the rest of the characters are not.

There are five major magical girls who, alongside Kyubey, make up the main cast. Madoka is the central figure, and it is through her eyes that we, the viewers, are seeing the events that unfold. She believes herself very normal, very unexciting, and this sense of being exceptionally unexceptional is what leads her to question her own motives and character traits multiple times over the course of the series. Sayaka is more of a go-getter, and as Madoka’s close friend, she constant tries to perform helpful deeds to friends and loved ones. She is possibly more innocent than Madoka even, and her good nature goes at odds with Kyoko, an aggressive and somewhat selfish magical girl who is introduced around the halfway point of the series. Mami sees the least development of the lot, but is the means through which Madoka and Sayaka are directly exposed to the realm of magical girls and accompanies them on their first few witch hunts. Homura, being an enigma until late in the story, is largely an accessory to the other magical girls, intervening in their work and offering key information when necessary.

The animation throughout is incredible, and the show appears to have a higher production quality than most anime in this day and age. One of the real standout elements of this series comes in the form of the witch labyrinths the girls must traverse. These twisted fairy-tale-esque areas appear out of ripples in perceived reality, and each is represented as a collage of magazine photos pasted together. The jerky motions of the witches’ minions and the obscure yet highly creative designs of the witches themselves creates a series of unsettling environments that I simply couldn’t help but look forward to the next iteration of, due to the unique overarching motif each labyrinth exhibits. The soundtrack is decidedly melancholy on the whole, opting for a number of softer string instruments and piano parts, while the tense mood of battle themes do well to complement the dangerous and crazy environments where the witches are encountered, many of which appear as something of a classical European culture fever dream.

In truth, Madoka reminds me a lot of the Watchmen graphic novel, in the sense that it provides a more brutally honest and in-depth look at what ramifications taking up the mantle of being a magical would have on an individual – not only the tradeoffs and sacrifices they must make to gain such immense mystical powers, but also the psychological and emotional trauma they will experience as a result of becoming gradually more detached from friends, family, and society as a whole. For some magical girls, these personal challenges will weigh more heavily than others. When a candidate makes a contract with Kyubey, they are granted one wish. Some magical girls use this single wish on themselves, others grant a miracle to someone they know, but rarely do the girls understand the full gravity of what their new role in the world means. There are also certain side-effects to their powers based on what they used their wish on. Sayaka, for example, has the ability to heal faster than usual because her wish was used on healing someone else’s wounds.

While the other four see processes of character progression that prove consistently interesting and feel intelligently scripted from start to finish, Madoka’s suffers from a lack of believability at a few points. Some of her reactions to the hardships she and her friends must face fail to come across as genuine, though her development and role in the grand scheme of this story is handled far better in the late episodes. There is also a lack of cohesion between the magic themes, which are present from the first episode to the last, and the science fiction elements, which, while present from an early point, do not take on as large a role until after the halfway point. There are a few bits of information that are revealed that are intended to be hugely important to the overall plot, but come across as clunky and half-baked. There are a few ways that they could have incorporated these points into the magic routine and they would have worked just fine, but for some odd reason the show tries to push these late in the game, and with everything else that is going on in building toward the endgame, it doesn’t play out in as smooth a manner as I think the writers had hoped.

Madoka does not opt for the Neon Genesis Evangelion route of starting the show off as deceptively normal in tone, then eventually heading down a dark, dismal path. The serious, sometimes sinister nature of fighting witches is made quite clear from the outset, though it isn’t until the third episode concludes that the real danger these magical girls place themselves in on a regular basis is made strikingly apparent. There are some very heavy themes at play here, including suicide and the loss of one’s own identity or reason to be. While it may not display gore or utilize any real vulgar language, the story of Madoka Magica is not for the faint of heart, and I pity anyone who may have gone into viewing this series thinking that the happy-go-lucky intro sequence was an accurate depiction of what the series was all about.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

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