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Sep 30

Anime Review – Puella Magi Madoka Magica

We Magika Gurl Now

To you, Madoka Magica may well be the show that defines the magical girl genre. For me, it was a subject of snide jokes and abuse for years. “People only remember it for episode three” “Its Shaft’s usual nonsense” “It has lesbians of course weabs like it” And hey, the random snippets and episodes I’d seen all validated that opinion. Then, in 2012 I watched Pscyho-Pass, my anime of the year and as I’d later learn, penned by Gen Urobuchi, who also wrote Madoka. Fast forward to today, with myself stuck in a rut unwilling to watch more first episode trash, it seemed a good time to jump into my backlog and find a show to drag me back into anime. And with Madoka (or more accurately, Kyubey) staring into my soul, it seemed the right time to put this demon to bed.

For the first few episodes, Puella Magi Madoka Magica starts off as a very stereotypical magical girl show. Just make a contract with the adorable Kyubey and not only will he make you a kickass magical girl able to fight witches and live out your heroine fantasies, but he’ll also grant any one wish you choose! It’s a win win.

Well, no, not quite. And it’s here that this show goes from forgettable me-too to genre standout. For all the hope each magical girl brings into the world, there must also be despair to balance it out, and that despair is the driving force behind the entire show, looking beyond the idyllic surface to the murky truths beneath. Just why is Kyubey making magical girls and granting wishes? What exactly are the Soul Gems that allow them to fight the hordes of evil? And where do said witches come from anyway? The show descends further into the rabbit hole as it progresses, but in such a natural manner you don’t realise how deep you’ve sunk until it’s too late.

Left to right – Madoka, Sayaka, Mami, Kyouko, Homura

But for this type of show, you need a solid cast of characters. Firstly, there’s the titular girl herself, Madoka, whom’s decision on whether to become a magical girl or not is one of the main plot points of the show. With the most magical potential Kyubey has ever seen in any candidate, a lot of what happens is a result of her actions, despite her bland “I care for everyone so much I cry out of happiness” shtick. In most shows, she’d be a forgettable lead, but in this universe she offsets the grim tone well and acts as a sort of moral compass as everything falls apart.

Next up is Homura, the mysterious transfer student with a cool and harsh demeanour to Madoka, as she does everything possible to deter her from forming a contract with Kyubey, armed with knowledge beyond her experiences, so not even Kyubey can get a true read on her, specialising in explosive magic. And speaking of Kyubey, he pairs off well with Homura, with an unspoken history between the two as they try to understand the other. Certainly his same cheerful expression and attitude betray none of his motivations, another long running question the show asks. Add in a way with words most salesmen would die for, telling only the truths that need to be heard as he wins more girls to his side, and you can’t help but be intrigued by the mystery of his existence.

Rounding off the cast is Sayaka, Madoka’s school friend and another candidate chosen by Kyubey. Smitten with Kyousuke, a musical prodigy unable to ever play the violin again, it’s clear where the first half of her story goes, but her desires to help others no matter what cost to herself take interesting directions after the inevitable transformation. Then there’s Kyouko, a veteran magical girl and the closest this show has to a tsundere who takes great interest in the actions of Sayaka, starting off as her rival but evolving into much more.

Finally there’s Mami, a girl so popular with the anime community she won Saimoe a few years back. Another veteran, she ends up mentoring Madoka and Sayaka in their early days while explaining a lot of the joy and grief of the magical girl world. Having never found someone to share the burden with, Madoka offers to be the friend she could never have, for better and for worse.

It’s somewhat sad then that the main thing you’ll remember from each girl is her hair colour, though it works in well with their personalities and magical girl outfits. Doesn’t take a genius to also figure out from their wide faces they’re from the same designer as Hidimari Sketch. But credit to Shaft, they’re mostly on top of their game in realising the girls and their world. While the first few episodes suffer from a lack of polish and artistic direction, with awful zoomed out shots and the witches just looking like random messes than out of world oddities, by the fourth episode they’ve worked out their weaknesses and the show kicks into high gear. And yes, the backgrounds look gorgeous, as you’d expect from Shaft. The contrast between the ultra-modern schools and shops made of more glass than I knew existed and the decrepit, industrials haunts of the witches works wonderfully.

And then there’s the soundtrack. The first few episodes do a great job of suckering you into the happy atmosphere before the show flicks the switch, with new ending themes and a far darker soundtrack that suits the descent into hell the show becomes. I’d say it’s some of Yuki Kajiura’s best modern work (other stuff she’s done is Fate/Zero and SAO, the latter of which had the soundtrack be one of the few standout elements in a sea of disappointments).

Which brings us towards a conclusion. Certainly my opinions have changed somewhat. It’s well paced, well written and after a certain event, well directed. There are a few quirks, Kyouko goes from hating Sayaka to being her best bud unnaturally quickly, and the Walspurgisnacht never gets explained, it’s just an apocalyptic event that happens to force some events, but these small irritations only stand out because the rest of the show is so well made.

You could call it a deconstruction, but even Wikipedia has no clue what that means, let alone me, so instead I see it as a more brutal and grounded take on the magical girl genre, that asks questions most shows take for granted. Everybody has goals and endgames, but all the human cast have their weaknesses and insecurities, and when all is said and done there is no perfect happy ending, which fits the show to a tee. But perhaps the ultimate stamp of quality is I went into this really, really wanting to justify a Mehdoka attitude I’d had for years, and yet here I stand telling you that Madoka is great, and one of the finest shows in its genre. Butch Gen strikes again, and long may his shows reign.

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Back in business baby. To all the new guys and gals, make sure to come along to the sessions! 6pm in OL1 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I know from chats with the committee they’ve got some awesome stuff lined up. And don’t forget to like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and pleeeaaaase sign up to the forums, the more the merrier. Let’s all make Anicom awesome this year! =D