Is this what we would get if Christopher Nolan attempted a magical girl anime? It is heavily influenced by its pedigree and yet it stops to ask itself constantly “How would this actually work?” It manages to make dark and gritty a genre well known for its colorful sparkles and obnoxiously sweet exterior. Although you wouldn't know it by looking at it.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica follows in the footsteps of many decades of genre-defining work, most notably the epitome of magical girl anime Card Captor Sakura. CCS itself was merely an attempt to coalesce the genre into a pure and effective form, learning from past pioneers like Sailor Moon and using CLAMP’s industry experience as a launch pad. Let’s run through the checklist:
- Protagonist is a young girl, Madoka, who does not have powers at first
- Must fight evil beings, in this case “witches”
- The girls transform before fighting
- Transformed they wear cute outfits (lots of skirts, frills, ribbons, etc.)
- Involves working as a team with other majokka
- Talking cutesy animal sidekick, in this case “Kyubei”
- Keep their magic identities secret from classmates and family
- Use magical artifacts to transform and/or fight, in this case “soul gems”
Yep, we’ve definitely got a magical girl series here.
But I believe the strong comparisons and obvious genre-fulfillment to be more than intentional. Many have described Madoka Magica as a deconstruction of the genre. This is possible only by first setting up the pieces in the traditional fashion before turning the whole thing on its head. Along the way, the show will attempt a dark spin on the conventions by asking how this might, given a future where certain beings exist, actually work, usually always to grim results. Where it shines is in its continual cleverness in answering these questions and revealing them in dramatic and sometimes subtle ways. It is a show that sports a deceivingly cutesy exterior and isn’t afraid to shock you with violence and death (though not in a juvenile/gimmicky way like, say, Elfen Lied).
A lot could be spoiled about the plot, which I will attempt to refrain from doing here, but suffice to say there are several twists and revelations along the way. The show is kept tight, mostly, at only twelve episodes, and while it sometimes struggles with pacing here and there (especially the first half) it never suffers from outright filler. This is much appreciated, too, as it has a lot of world-building potential and little time to show it.
While it is about magical girls, there is a distinct lack of some of the usual staples. Transformations are usually quick with little fanfare, never stopping the action to watch a 30-second transformation while everyone else waits patiently. The girls also usually fight with real weapons like guns, swords, and so on. They live harsh lives full of violence and solitude that goes unrecognized and unappreciated since their identities are kept secret from regular people, even their families (if they have any left). They become unable to live normal, care-free lives, instead bound by their need to fight every night, forsaking their social lives and sanity in some cases. It isn't even a question of duty or justice or anything noble, in fact some of the girls are distinctly not nice, but rather the witches they fight drop seeds that replenish the magical power necessary for them to survive. Some even become viciously territorial as a result. Did I mention this was a very dark take on the genre?
The animation quality is a mix of stupendous and good, mostly split between the environments and characters. Backgrounds are vast, detailed, pristine, and futuristic. Special effects are also top-notch. Characters themselves, however, tend to be a little iffy at times, with a very desaturated and almost sketchy feel. They fit the genre by being simpler and cutesy but they also feel a bit out of place inside the impeccable cityscapes and especially when the action starts.
Of special mention are the “labyrinths” where the witches dwell and the girls must venture into to battle evil. They involve mixed media and a whole lotta LSD-powered imagination which is frantic and confusing but also just incredibly eye-catching and unique, for they are rarely the same twice. In fact, battles themselves are usually full of cool and imaginative choreography. Suffice to say, the series as a whole, especially the action, is quite a visceral treat, even with the occasionally dodgy character animation. And it would be remiss of me not to mention that Yuki Kajiura provides her typical evocative score. The only complaint here is that if you’ve heard her work before (Noir, .hack//Sign, Tsubasa Chronicle and more) this won’t be anything new, but while her style is always distinct and the same it is still always very good.
If it has any major weaknesses at all it would have to be the characters. Many of them are awfully stock cliché archetypes, and while several do end up redeeming themselves later on it is usually too little too late. Worst of all is Madoka herself who spends the entire show basically useless and feeling sorry for herself and everyone else. I get that it is sort of required given that the major plot question for the series is “Will Madoka become a magical girl?” and so it has to wait until the end to resolve that big question, but it still means she spends eleven episodes basically as an annoying crybaby. Beyond her plot uselessness despite being the focal point (literally, even), fundamentally she lacks an interesting personality. She’s got no skills, no concrete desires or dreams, not even any male characters to be smitten by or slowly grow close to (see also: Yukito and Syaoran, respectively, from CCS). This is all especially disconcerting as it isn’t like this problem hasn’t been solved/avoided before in many works prior, even within the genre.
I enjoyed Madoka Magica a lot and really got a kick out of its clever take on the genre, but even so if magical girl isn’t your thing you probably won’t be won over solely by its savvy spin. Despite the “deconstruction” it does to the genre it is still, ultimately, very much a magical girl anime, though certainly a very different and distinct one all the same. So adjust your expectations accordingly. It is a shame there aren't more stand-outs like this, for good or bad, as I enjoy seeing fresh takes especially in genres saturated with clones.
As of this writing, you can watch Puella Magi Madoka Magica for free on Crunchyroll. (It’s even in glorious 1080p if you’re a premium member!)