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Puella Magi Madoka Magica – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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In this world, there exist strange creatures that have the power to grant one wish to a chosen girl. However, in exchange, that girl must then become a magical girl and use their powers to fight against witches, evil creatures born from darkness that are responsible for murders and suicides. In the city of Mitakihara, a schoolgirl named Madoka Kaname and her friend Sayaka Miki are approached by a familiar named Kyubey, who offers to grant each of them one wish in return for making each of them a magical girl. Another magical girl named Homura Akemi tries to prevent Madoka from making such a deal, while Kyubey urges Madoka by telling her she will become the most powerful magical girl. However, contrary to the glamorous notions one would expect, a magical girl finds herself dealing with death, isolation, loss of humanity, agony over the value of her wish, and existential crisis. Madoka, following her friends, soon sees the darker side of being a magical girl, and because of knowing the truth about being a magical girl, she questions if she should become one as well.

The Mahou Shoujo (Magical Girl) sub-genre of anime has always been a genre not only aimed at exploring the realm of young girls with magical abilities, but many series include a variety of elements that coincide and reinforce such a seemingly simple premise. These elements range from fabulous transformation sequences, enchanted objects, conflicted identities, and cheerful and idealistic reflections upon youth and the power of magic use. Perhaps the most important element of the genre though is its focus upon the emotionally charged depictions of maturing alongside one’s duty to save the world from evil, as the responsibility of growing up is ever present through the form of radical villains, disastrous circumstances, and the loss of a loved one. While these elements remain the staple of the genre itself, series that subscribe to these elements are also usually upbeat in their portrayal of the young protagonists and the discovery of their newfound powers, emotions, and growing responsibilities of such. Director Akiyuki Shinbo’s Puella Magi Madoka Magica does contain all these elements as well, but inverts the outlook of the genre to a surprisingly significant degree, in turn making it quite an effective narrative on the very foundational premise of magical girls.

Written by Gen Urobuchi, a man known for his dark and twisted tales, the series is one filled with tragic consequences and dire circumstances. Essentially, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a deconstruction of the very mahou shoujo genre it subscribes to. While many series may look into the duality that exists between its young female protagonists as they attempt to live an ordinary life alongside that of being a magical girl, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a series that edges itself continuously towards exploring the dark recesses of becoming a magical girl, a choice that is given considerable weight, as the series ultimately suggests. Rather than rely solely on showcasing the magnificent nature in becoming a magical girl and all its joyous attributes, the series showcases the tragic results that stem from making that final leap into becoming a slayer of evil minions and witches, exploring the psychological states of self-doubt and personal criticism as the young girls come to grip with the harsh reality of their choice. It’s that choice that remains at the forefront of the series—a choice that fulfills a single desire, but only in exchange for a life of obligation. Whether it’s a choice to remedy a handicapped friend of their affliction so that they may be able to play the violin again, to wanting to reverse the grievous death of a friend, the series peers into the tragic irony that accompanies the life of being a magical girl. This is simply not a tale that attempts to romanticize “magical girls” in any fashion, in fact doing away with many of the genre’s—and audiences—conceptions.

As with numerous series before it, Puella Magi Madoka Magica also explores the idea of maturation coinciding with the battling of supernatural nemeses, but the realization brought about by the series conveys the true nature of a life of such responsibility—that of being a life of solitude and confinement to one’s duty. In many ways, the series is rather cruel in its depiction of the sorrowful implications of living such a lifestyle, but in doing so the series becomes a well-crafted and plausible look into a genre that has become quite tiring within the last several years due to its lack of creativity. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is not a happy series because of this directorial decision, a choice that may deplore longtime fans of the genre, especially those viewers who have grown accustomed to the simple and cheery-laden plots of past series. The narrative of the show is one of incredible fortitude as it makes its way through a diverse range of subjects that are explored in a matter that is both creative as it is courageous given the genre. Subjects such as death, psychological instability, suicide, jealously, and even rivalry are taken into consideration as viable dynamics of a plot that is as mature as it is sensible in its deconstruction.

Working as a rearrangement of the conventional understanding of the mahou shoujo genre, Puella Magi Madoka Magica’s biggest strength is that is focuses heavily on its characters and their outcomes instead of simply on their abilities as heroines of magic. The series remains grounded through its logical explanations of the decisions these characters make—whether it’s from Madoka’s indecision to help others because she is afraid to do so, to Mami’s discourse on the loneliness on being a magical girl, to even Sayaka’s inadequacy to work through her own feelings for the one she loves, the characters of the show are exemplary in their realistic deliverance of emotions and decisions. This is not to say that other series within the genre haven’t done the same, but one can certainly see that the darker tone of the series elevates the dilemmas that these characters face to a higher emotional sentiment. This realistic approach further extends into the realm of the story itself, where the logical construction of the plot helps in bringing a sense of practicability—with the universe approaching a heat death, the harvesting of power from the magical girls works as a way to stave off the impending disaster, for example—the series yet again repositions our perceptions on the mahou shoujo genre, expanding upon its ideas in new and imaginative ways.

With the innovative territory in which the show explores, the experimental nature of the animation also breathes much life into the show as well. With animation done primarily by studio SHAFT, the visual quality of Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a sight to see. With exquisite futuristic landscapes, to the intricate look of their interiors, the visuals remain quite strong throughout the series, with practically no reduction in animation quality to be seen between episodes. However, where the animation truly shines is during the battles segments that take place within the underworld where the magical girls and witches do battle. This is where the aesthetic value of the series comes through strongly in an original and creative fashion that is at times frightening as it is marveling to view. These particular segments within the show were done by animation duo Gekidan Inu Curry, a team that utilizes animation techniques such as stop-motion and hand drawn illustrations within their work. This approach lends the series a certain mystique that reinforces the bizarre nature of the underworld, giving us as viewers a visual adherence towards the psychological frameworks of the characters in their battles of personal confliction.

All these elements culminate in Puella Magi Madoka Magica being a compelling tale of redemption, sacrifice, and friendship. As a medium for storytelling, the series revitalizes—but doesn’t reinvent—the structure of the mahou shoujo genre, expanding upon a wealth of elements that produces a series that plays upon the very foundation of a genre that is often associated with a level of cheerfulness and fantasy. While these elements are indeed still present throughout the show to some capacity, the narrative is more attuned towards the fate of its characters rather than simply relying on the formulaic adherences that often hinder the genre as a whole. What the series ultimately does is parallels the ordinary nature of teenage girls—accompanied by all their emotional instability and conflicting thoughts—and places them within a supposed environment that will happily fill their every wish, which sadly proves to be rather difficult. Temptations in the form of wishes, these young girls are lured into a tumultuous lifestyle in their most vulnerable moments, and where the efforts by writer Gen Urobuchi and director Akiyuki Shinbo deliver a challenging and emotional take on mahou shoujo, completely deconstructing the genre itself—a courageous move that solidifies Puella Magi Madoka Magica as a series worthy of exceptional praise.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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Comments

  • http://seanny.net Seanny

    It’s been a long while since we’ve had a post-modern deconstructionist descent-into-madness sort of anime. Madoka Magica struck me as kinda oldschool in that respect, which is a little sad.

  • Miguel Douglas

    I agree with you Seanny. Madoka Magica also struck me as sort of a throwback to anime series from the 90’s, which is an approach we definitely need more of within today’s anime industry.

  • Makai

    Nice Review!

    Though I haven’t watched the series yet and I was never really got into the magical girl genre in anime, the hype and fan news/discussion really perked my interest in watching the series. There was so much talk/discussion at my anime club meetings. A veteran fan from my club who had already finished watching the series recommend that I watch other titles within the genre before in order to have a “real” appreciation of what Madoka had to offer. Several others urge me to do this as well.

    So I am in a bit of a bind. Do I make time to watch other titles in the genre or jump straight into Madoka?

  • Miguel Douglas

    Thanks for the comment and good question Makai. I would suggest what some of the members of your anime club have already said – give some other series a watch before delving into Madoka. It will definitely help in many ways.

    Perhaps it would be best to ask some of those members of your anime club to lend you some really good magical girl anime titles to watch. That should be enough to prepare you for Madoka (just as long as they’re not the 100+ episode series – unless your fine with that). But…if you’re really not up to it and you’re pretty familiar with the elements of the genre itself, I say you would still enjoy Madoka regardless if you haven’t seen many/or any of titles that subscribe to the genre.

  • Alexandre Sobreira

    Your review was quite perceptive and intelligent. I myself really liked this anime very much, and it’s really an interesting and somewhat innovative twist to the Mahou Shoujou genre (although we have a slightly similar moment with the disclosure of the truth about Emeraudo Hime and Zagato in MKR). There are some problems with the plot caused by the pessimistic view the story presents about humanity. The Incubator’s explanation to Madoka that he didn’t lie to them and they are blaming him (it) just because humans cannot take responsibility for their own mistakes is total nonsense: he did mislead them. Half truths are perhaps the most subtle kind of lies. However, either the author has no idea of the expected lifetime for the Universe (he seems to be thinking in terms of centuries, when it’s over a trillion years) or Kyubou’s race is VERY concerned about a VERY distant future, when all the races he’s talking about (including mankind) will almost certainly be extinct. And I don’t find it convincing the notion that his race doesn’t have emotions. That’s a foolish trope taken from Vulcans, and even the Star Trek people realized that wouldn’t work well. Emotions are one of the most efficient survival mechanisms living things have developed, and it’s unlikely any species would lose them in the course of their evolution.
    However, as a whole, a very good series. ASTONISHINGLY cruel (especially for Homura, poor thing will keep fighting on forever in the vain hope of meeting Madoka again!), but very good in terms of plot. very original. It’s now there among my top series, together with Haibane Renmei, Evangelion, Lain and Cowboy Beebop.