The Otaku Corner: Madoka Magica

Welcome to The Otaku Corner, Man In Black Reviews’ go-to place for all things anime. Before we move on with today’s review, I want to run a little test. I want you to take a good look at this picture.

If your initial response to this picture is something along the lines of “ OMG KILL IT! KILL IT WITH FIRE!!!”, then you already know what this show is all about. The rest of you just keep on reading. This is Madoka Magica.

Madoka Kaname is your average middle school girl with a normal life who loves her family and friends and strives to do the best in everything she does. One day she meets Homura Akemi, an enigmatic exchange student who gives her a cryptic warning: “Never change who you are, or else you will lose everything you love.” Later, Madoka and her friend Sayaka run into Homura again, who is revealed to be a magical girl. They also meet mysterious, cute little creature named Kyubey, who offers them the chance to become magical girls themselves and fight witches (demonic beings who feed on negative human emotions) in exchange for granting them any wish. Indecisive about what to wish for, Madoka and Sayaka are given a chance to follow Mami, another magical girl, on some of her witch hunts to see just what it’s like. What they learn is that being a magical girl isn’t as heroic as it sounds on paper. They constantly put their lives at risk, they have to defeat witches or become one themselves, the wish you choose will have dire consequences, and they all serve a much more sinister purpose than anyone could ever imagine.

The magical girl genre of anime has been around for quite a while and, for better and worse, hasn’t evolved much at all in its history. It’s been satirized, parodied, and paid loving tribute to the point that the homages nearly outnumber the actual genuine productions. Shows like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura pretty much stick to formula, that being the adventures of a teenage girl bestowed with magical powers fueled by her emotions and moral righteousness who uses said powers to fight off evil while simultaneously balancing their normal life and trying to keep her secret identity hidden. It’s a positive genre for little girls and as such is generally cute and fluffy and girly by nature. For the first few episodes, Madoka Magica doesn’t look like it will deviate from this beaten path, but very quickly (three episodes to be exact), things take a turn for the worse and the show reveals itself to be a dark, twisted psychodrama where everything can, and does, all go to hell.

Fans who try to describe it to outsiders often say that this show is a dark deconstruction of the magical girl genre in the same way that Watchmen was for superhero comics or that Neon Genesis: Evangelion was for the giant mech genre. While I definitely see where everyone is getting that idea from, I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Is it dark? Hell yes! Is it a deconstruction of the magical girl genre? Yes, but that wasn’t the intention of the creators. It’s kind of like how Lee Harper intended To Kill A Mockingbird to be a simple love story, but ended up writing one of the most important racial commentaries of the century. Gen Orobuchi in turn just wanted to write an interesting, thought provoking fantasy but ended up subverting the magical girl genre in the process. A lot like Watchmen (which did intend on subverting superhero comics, but for comparison’s sake just go with it), Madoka Magica doesn’t really take apart its genre as much as it reaches down into its deepest bowels to reveal its darkest elements, put them under a magnifying glass and take them to its most realistic and psychological extreme. But that’s not to say it’s just dark for the sake of being dark.

Madoka Magica is, at its very core, a tragedy. While most magical girl shows do have their emotional moments, it’s relatively stereotyped for being fluffy and cheesy, which is where those kinds of shows seem to be right at home. Sure, it has its lapses at the beginning, but it’s all a facade. I was actually surprised at how emotionally attached to these characters I became and was really saddened by their fate (let’s just say not everyone makes it out alive and the survivors aren’t exactly unscathed). Seeing the tragic stories of characters like Homura and Kyoko, witnessing the horrific fate of Mami and Sayaka, and the eventual reveal of Kyubey’s true motivations truly keeps you invested. Sometimes I could feel a tear or two trying to squeeze its way out and other times there were moments of shock and disbelief where I could feel my heart beating through my chest. This show will rip your heart out and stomp it into the dirt, but it earned every stomp and, strangely enough, you’ll feel a weird mixture of heartbreak and gladness when it’s done.

I also have to give the writers props for being able to handle such a tempestuous story in such a short time. This anime is only 12 episodes, which means you can plow through the whole thing in only a day, but it also means that there’s little to no filler and can focus on straight-up plot. Unfortunately, 12 episodes isn’t a lot of time to wrap up a plot and you’re going to have some loose ends. What really surprised me with this show was just how well the conclusion was handled. As the show went on there seemed to be a lot of unanswered questions, but towards the third act, not only do some some of the loose ends get tied up (some, not all, we are talking about 12 episodes here), but completely turns things around and raises the stakes higher than ever before. The character development was brilliantly done as well. Sayaka’s story as the show progressed was heartbreaking to witness. Homura, who came off as a cold-hearted bitch at the start, was revealed to be the most fleshed out character of them all. And Kyubey… Yeah, he may look cute, but trust me, when you’re done, the mere sight of his face will make you want to beat him with a shovel. For them to give this Faustian fairy tale this much depth with these kinds of characters in that amount of time is nothing short of a miracle.

Animation wise, this show is absolutely beautiful. While the art style for the real world is the typical soft lines, crayon like pastels and bright colors you’d come to expect with most girl oriented anime, it’s still nice to look at. Where the animators’ creativity really shines is during the fight scenes in the different witch’s labyrinths that the girls must enter to confront their enemy. Each one is completely unique and utilizes a different animation style. Some use jerky cloth cutouts and magazine clippings, some use nothing but bright lights and muted shadows, others use smeary watercolors, and so on and so forth. There was a lot of experimentation that you don’t see in a lot of anime and the makers of this show clearly had a lot of fun dreaming up some of these scenarios. Equally beautiful is the musical score, done by the wonderful Yuki Kaijiura. If the music sounds a tad familiar, it’s because she’s done other anime like .hack//Sign, Tsubasa Chronicles, and Pandora Hearts, and is one of the few anime composers who has a very distinct sound. It’s sort of a blend of pulsing techno, sweeping orchestrals and epic Celtic music that is specifically designed to tickle your tear ducts, and is well worth listening to on its own merits. The English dub is serviceable albeit kind of weak. Cristina Vee’s Homura and Cassandra Lee’s Kyubey being the stand-outs, but the rest are a little too squeaky for me, especially when this show would benefit from more naturalistic acting. I personally prefer the original Japanese, but the dub here is fine too.

So in the end, Madoka Magica is a harsh, complex, dramatic show from a genre not known for it harshness, complexity or drama. It’s one of those shows of rare caliber that presents true depth without being pretentious or condescending, and I definitely see it having a place among the modern classics. I haven’t even scratched the surface of everything that makes this show as beautiful as it truly is, but it’s nigh impossible to delve any deeper than I already have without spoiling the whole thing. Besides, this show needs to be seen to be fully understood. It’s an all around work of art. It just wouldn’t hurt to have some tissue nearby.

I give Madoka Magica 10/10.

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