Director: Akiyuki Shinbo
Screenplay: Gen Urobuchi
Voice Cast: Aoi Yūki (as Madoka Kaname); Chiwa Saito (as Homura Akemi); Emiri Katō (as Kyubey); Ai Nonaka (as Kyōko Sakura); Eri Kitamura (as Sayaka Miki); Kaori Mizuhashi as Mami Tomoe and Tatsuya Kaname)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles
Spoiler Warning: The paragraph explicitly dealing with major plot twists with be signposted so it can be avoided.
Madoka was an emotional rollercoaster, so to try to write about the twelve episode series is going to be difficult. It could be summed up as a deconstruction of the Magical Girl subgenre which Sailor Moon is the famous example of, where a teenage girl develops magical powers and an alternative identity to fight magical enemies, but that would be like saying Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-6) is merely a deconstruction of the giant robot genre only. The same theme that appears in anime for decade now appears here, hope even in the worst of circumstances, even in a world that is unremittingly bleak, but what's different here is that it's through a novel, extreme concept of the magical girl stereotype character being created through a Faustian pact. Like Evangelion bringing severe emotional weight to its content, the same is found here when two fourteen year old girls, Madoka and her friend Sayaka, encounter a cute cat-like creature who says he can give them any single wish if they become magical girls and fight witches, horrible deformities of people's souls who encourage others to commit suicide and feed off this type of death.
On paper, while the suicide aspect is dark, immediately brings to mind merely a slightly more adult and serious version of Sailor Moon, at least what people think Sailor Moon is, alongside the promotional art very deceiving to me of what I was ultimately going to get. Alongside Madoka and Sayaka are Mami, a slightly older girl who takes them under her wing before they even consider becoming magical girls, Homura, an unnervingly quiet transfer student who warms Madoka continually not to become a magical girl, and Kyōko, a misanthrophic magical girl who comes later into the show who only cares for the prizes slain witches leave rather than saving lives, the only thing she cares for being the vast quantities of food she is continually munching on. I liked the first two episodes, which have a lightness to them despite the dark subject material, from the humour of Madoka's classroom teacher to scenes of her family life, her mother a huge emotional crux she continually goes to for advice throughout the series. From episode three however, when a significant tragedy happens, what I jokingly viewed as one of the most depressing anime I've seen in a while builds from this shocking and unexpected death into a drama taken to the level of cosmic implications, taking the blatant metaphor in the story of a magical girl being a teenage girl becoming an adult and, letting the complications of emotional growth and awareness that all teenagers go through, be filtered through this dark fantasy from the perspective of Madoka. As she keeps hesitating in becoming a magical girl, she bears witness to the psychological trauma that takes place for everyone else, the magical girls and the witches not what they appear as the cute cat-mascot, Kyubey, turns out to be an alien with no concept of emotions whose purpose being the magical girls is literally described by him as cattle during an ethical argument with her. The series' message is very obvious and seen many times before, sacrifice and perseverance, but why the series does succeed is that, alongside its memorable visual style, is that it completely subverts the magical girl sub-genre and also allows unsettling implications to be written into the drama, where even the act of hope for one character can literally poison their soul and eventually turn them into a monster.
Magica is, openly from me, an incredibly powerful and beautiful made series, some of plotting abrupt but the bar is significantly high in terms of scope, gut impact and what quality is there. Here in particular the importance of a great voice performance really stood out. Even if I have to rely on English subtitles, unable to speak Japanese, every central performance (all done by actresses) stands out, making sure that it doesn't just become a misery fest of crying sequences and death but with sympathetic characters you care for. Even if the show sells itself on its lush character designs, bold and colour coded character designs by Ume Aoki which are memorable, a central figure like Madoka isn't just a cute pink haired teenager put in existential hell, but through the script and performances is utterly sympathetic even if the character is one in a long line of female characters who want to help everyone and will do everything to help others, a character type that could go badly wrong and become trite if it wasn't for the quality shows like this has. The visuals are also a huge factor to the show, sumptuous but helping subvert the tropes of the magical girl. Realistic city environments are contrasted by an inspired idea of the witches, far from monsters with a conventional aesthetic, being based on innocent symbolism. Their worlds within the main characters' world, called labyrinths, can be orchestral halls or full of food, whilst the witches can be drawn with crayon or cartoonish, big eyed creatures. From a circus theme to even the bottom half a giant schoolgirl who fires panties at people, they are whimsical and potentially silly monster designs from more light hearted shows given a severity when you witness the shock in the early episodes and what they represent, innocent symbols turned into the worst of humanity, made more unsettling when the cause of how the witches are created is revealed. The show uses a lot of digital layering and experiments with various animated styles, both making something as innocuous as a cotton ball with a moustache creepy but also helping with the fantastical nature of the show. While it cannot match the symbolic and surreal qualities of another show also from this year, Kunihiko Ikuhara's Mawaru Penguindrum, they both show that, whilst I miss the style hand drawn animation gave anime, that when it's at its best computer assisted animation after the 2000s, especially now, is capable of a new fantastical quality especially when the aesthetic is as bold as both of them. Like Penguindrum, Madoka shows the best quality of this new aesthetic style in that, alongside the voice acting, it allows a good script to be fleshed out with visual stimulus adding emotional importance. I could still joke about it being the meanest anime I've seen in a while, but it's not pointlessly cruel killing off characters for the sake of it, nor absurd to the point of being stupid, instead every plight felt to be poignant as much because of the production quality.
[Spoiler Warning: Skip ahead to after the next bracket if you don't want the series spoilt]
The style of the series, especially when it commits to its cosmic interpretation of its message, is ultimately rewarding after all the agony you suffer as a viewer if you can emotionally connect to it. Strangely the series ends the same way Serial Experiments Lain (1998) in some form, Madoka when all her friends baring Homura becoming witches or dead deciding to become an omniscient deity reverse this pain and save everyone else. The willingness to take risks, like killing off a central character you immediately love in episode three or the show's ending, which still is bleak as monsters still exist but means Madoka protects all magical girls from the fates they could suffer originally, is the sort of thing I love the most in anime. Its heightened and utterly melodramatic, a style close to the ridiculous that few western animated works is willing to attempt, something which appeals to me more than being safe and grounded emotionally without the fear of a beloved character dying or becoming a monster themselves.
[Spoiler Warning Ended. Read after this bracket to avoid spoiling the story]
In a lot of ways the series isn't really a magical girl show thought. There are action scenes, and they are of importance, but most of the story over twelve episodes is concentrated on the drama itself, most of the characters soon into the show immediately dealing with the implications of being a magical girl than stumbling upon it to their horror after time fighting witches for a few episodes. It suggests a speculative "what-if", the show perfect as it is, from someone like me as an anime fan who does like a good twenty four episode show. The series is brisk in its plotting, causing me to wonder what it would've been like to have a monster-of-the week episode or two, some more comedy or more time to spread a story that takes a month chronologically into a slower pace. Episodes for Evangelion which could've been seen as filler early on proved to add important characterisation to its cast, making what happened later on more meaningful, and while Madoka works perfectly as it is, double the episode length if done well would've still worked, more time with Madoka, Mami, Homoru, Sayaka and Kyōko as the central cast would've had just as much power as the economic plotting in the series as it stand does. The only real issue with what has been done with the series for real is that, rather than additional episodes, there are now spin-offs that capitalised on its success. Like another popular franchise Full Metal Alchemist (2003), this is a potentially troublesome issue as the story for it and Madoka were final, meaning any continuation ultimately undoes the ending people liked originally. After two compilation films of the original series, this new story Rebellion (2013) was released in Japanese cinema, causing controversy for Western fans both for undoing the series' ending and a controversial plot twist using a beloved character. Rebellion looks visually fascinating in screenshots, but again the stuff that's upset peoples makes me hesitant to view, something I have to deal with when I eventually cover it on the blog.