Madoka: Tragically Magical Girls

There’s so much that I want to tell you about this show, but telling you would be a disservice to you and to Puella Magi Madoka Magica.  This show deserves better than that; I might even go so far as to say that it deserves to be watched.  I’m not saying that it is the alpha and omega of anime (or even of magical girl anime), but it is exceptionally well made.  From the standpoint of appreciating artistic storytelling craft, this is a show that you will want to see.

The art itself is of variable quality.  Some episodes received more time and effort than others, in part because of the end of the show’s release schedule coinciding with the 2011 tsunami.  Background facial animation, for example, is minimal regardless of episode, while the last two episodes truly shine with the extra time that the studio took to release them after the tsunami.  But the anime’s visual design is just as fascinating and worth attention as the storyline itself.  The witches, foes of the show’s magical girls, are bizarre and appropriately unsettling, and each feature their own distinctive style of illustration.  More on that later.

However much I liked the studio’s fascinating art choices, my favorite part of Madoka still has to be the storyline.  I’ll try not to spoil you, so let me put it this way: if you want a happy show, you should pick something that doesn’t have schoolgirls struggling to shoulder the burden of protecting the world.  Sound interesting?

At first glance, Madoka seems like a fairly normal magical girl show.  I’m no expert on the genre, but my better informed friends tell me that it plays to all of the expected conventions shortly before twisting them in generally intriguing directions.  As an outsider to the genre, what I found most interesting was the way that the show so clearly managed to forecast its direction to me without spoiling any of the good bits.  The later episodes come with a series of revelations and climactic scenes that beautifully build and resolve the tensions which have been established throughout the course of the show, and in one case in particular did so by surprising the hell out of me.  And all of it made sense.  That made me very happy.

I’ll admit, I didn’t really care for the main character for a very long time.  I much preferred the side characters instead.  But again, this too made sense to me by the end of the show, and I was better able to appreciate Madoka as the credits rolled.  It also bears mentioning that the show’s pacing is spectacularly well done, moving from a slow slice-of-life story to something more like a bittersweet exploration of the impossibility of saving the world and living to tell the story.

There isn’t much more that I feel safe saying about the plot without risking even bigger spoilers, so let’s talk about witches instead.  Witches, in Madoka, are disorienting and terrifying.  They change reality around them to reflect their natures, surrounding themselves with a labyrinth of their own making.  That’s cool, as far as villain designs go, but the way witches and their labyrinths look in the show is spectacular.  They’re a departure from the animation design of the rest of the show, often surreal and dreamlike in nature, with meaningful underlying motifs that you learn more about and come to recognize as the show progresses.

I should be clear; the first time I saw a witch’s labyrinth I very nearly stopped watching because I was so off put by the sudden animation change.  But I soon came to appreciate the way in which they both created a clear boundary between the real and the surreal, and offered deeper insight into whatever it was that the girls faced.  In short, I now think they’re totally rad, and this show has changed my expectations around what animation should look like.

There are so many other things that I would love to talk about.  Which characters I liked, who I thought was suspicious, how people redeemed or failed to redeem themselves.  But I can’t say more without spoiling you, so… if you thought any of this sounded interesting I hope you take a look.  And stay far away from the

*SPOILERS*

*NO REALLY, PLEASE DON’T RUIN THINGS FOR YOURSELF*

Thank goodness, our central heroine isn’t actually stupid.  I was worried there for a while, watching the show and not feeling like I could really connect in any way with the central narrator.  I’m glad that she made a rules-breaking wish, since those are generally the only ones worth asking for (or, you know, bargaining away your life as you know it for).  The show’s darker take on being a magically enhanced defender of the world is excellently done, but I was worried that we would watch Madoka make a relatively stupid decision.  I’m glad my fear that the show might not keep its integrity and instead let Madoka get away with a stupid decision was baseless.

I was also glad to see Homura’s reveal, and see the way in which she had shaped the world around her own time-breaking wish.  Ever since the interrupted fight between Kyoko and Sayaka I had suspected that Madoka would only make her wish in the last episode, but it wasn’t until Homura’s backstory was revealed that I realized that the show could end with Madoka dying again and Homura breaking down and going back in time once more.  I’m kind of glad that things didn’t go that way, but having that be an option made everything even more interesting.

I could keep going for quite a while, but I have to post this article at some point.  If you have any thoughts to add, feel free to comment.

 

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2 responses to “Madoka: Tragically Magical Girls

  1. Good timing, I rewatched this just a few weeks ago. I was sort of expecting it to be less interesting than I remembered, and while the first few episodes felt a bit slow, the rest was still quite fun, which is just a testament to things like the art making every episode feel interesting.
    I’m with your friends on the stereotypical magical girl front, I’m just glad I got sat through enough episodes that I got to the good parts – these days I tend to give new anime very little time, so I might have skipped it accidentally.

    • Yes, the first few episodes are definitely sluggish. I’m not sure whether that was done out of a desire to have footage to use in selling it as a typical Magical Girl show prior to its initial release, or if they wanted to show us how few pressing reasons Madoka had to become a magical girl. Not that those are the only two options. The show totally makes up for it later, though I wonder if they could have sped things up and kept the same level of overall engagement.

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