Title: Puella Magi Madoka Magica aka Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica
Format: 12 episodes
Dates: 6 Jan 2011 – 22 Apr 2011
Synopsis: 14-year old Kaname Madoka encounters a magical creature named Kyubey. He offers her and her friend Miki Sayaka the opportunity to gain magical powers in exchange for their promise to use those powers to fight the mysterious, invisible entities known as witches. The pair meets two other magical girls, Tomoe Mami and Akemi Homura, both of whom influence their opinions on whether to accept Kyubey’s proposed contract.
Directing: Eccentric and compelling; accentuates dramatic scenes with clever visual effects.
Visuals: Heavy on abstract and symbolic meaning rather than literal portrayal; technical animation quality is often mediocre.
Genre: Attempts to subvert its genre rather than follow established tropes, meaning that genre familiarity is recommended.
Music: Provocative and effective, especially the ED.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica was a head-turner before it started airing, boasting an impressive and unlikely staff list. Most of the credit for its success goes to director Shinbo Akiyuki and writer Urobochi Gen, both of whom cooperate to develop a series that tells a haunting story through an uncanny visual lens. Shinbo‘s contribution is dipped in his tradition of unrealistic environments and backgrounds, stylized action, and the excessive use of techniques like fisheye shots. Rather than portraying the world as it would literally appear, his direction leans toward creating an effect in the viewer’s mind through implicit meaning and surreal locales.
In particular, the show’s directing draws attention to itself as it aids and foreshadows the story’s development. Shots of Kyubey’s silhouette and shadow are repeated until they become disconcerting at best and terrifying at worst; the paper cut-out design of the witches invokes the same sort of discomfort as fairy tale-inspired horror stories, meshing the innocent with the macabre. The ending song is also notable in that it doesn’t appear until the the series shows its true colours a couple of episodes in. However, the high level of dramatization and foreshadowing comes at the price of the viewer’s emotional immersion: the events of the story, despite being compelling, begin to feel more like a tragic play than a relatable, character-driven crisis.
The core content is mostly solid with one or two minor drawbacks. On the plus side, Madoka Magica works fantastically as a genre deconstruction, corrupting both the common plot devices and the themes of traditional magical girl anime. Urobochi Gen is known for his work on psychological horror visual novels and he succeeds in crafting a world that’s cruel enough to raise eyebrows. Unfortunately, the sole objection I have to the series lies in this very fact–he crafts a world for his protagonists to suffer in rather than crafting protagonists to suffer in it.
More specifically, the series foregrounds the in-universe magical girl system over the characters’ own relationships, resulting in a story that’s more evocative from an intellectual point of view than an emotional one. The most emotionally challenging twist in the series relies primarily on a character’s back story rather than their actions up to that point. This issue isn’t helped by the way the show is constructed–the aforementioned issues of foreshadowing and genre subversion create a story that’s on one hand terrifying but on the other predictable. While the viewer can read the signs in the production that point toward it being a twisted rendition of the classic magical girl tales, the cast can hardly be expected to do the same. This is not necessarily a problem: the real joy in the story is to watch in horror as the inevitable occurs while taking note of the clever parallels with the tradition. Regrettably, this type of viewing experience comes at the cost of the individuality of the characters, and they end up feeling more like actors in a melodrama than human beings.
Character issue aside, it’s important to remember that the series succeeds almost flawlessly as a deconstruction, rife with parallels (both to the magical girl tradition and to Goethe‘s Faust), haunting imagery and music, and recurring images–such as Kyubey’s infamous smile–that accompany the story on its descent into the psychological horror genre. Add to this the fact that the show is above average from a production standpoint and the result is a solid, refreshing production that challenges genre preconceptions with a wonderfully stylized tragedy that comes only at the cost of slightly less real characters.
The Rating: 9
Reviewed by: Eternal