Anime Review: Puella Magi Madoka Magica
At the recommendation of several friends, I recently watched Puella Magi Madoka Magica. I watched eleven of the twelve episodes in two days. That alone speaks to the quality of this most excellent anime, which is one of the most creative, tightly plotted, and exquisitely animated series that I have seen in a while. The question at the heart of the show is, “what would it really be like if a group of high school girls were given magical powers and sent to fight evil on a daily basis?”. Yes, despite the puni plush art style and cheery theme song, Madoka Magica is a thorough deconstruction of one of the most classic anime archetypes: the magical girl. Ordinarily, I am not a fan of deconstructions, as they tend to be far too cynical, and do not give the good elements in what they deconstruct their proper due (I’m looking at you, Watchmen). Madoka Magica however, recognized the good of the genre, and while the story may be tragic, the heroines are still heroic. There is even a bit of reconstruction at the end, both figurative and literal.
Another reason the deconstruction works is because it is done creatively. The creators didn’t just take a carbon copy universe of Sailor Moon and stir in some cynicism and grimdark. They created their own setting, nicely detailing the laws of magic, the nature of the enemies, and the like (with one exception, because, as The Good Professor noted, every fantasy needs at least one thing that isn’t explicable). It is only as the plot progresses that, along with most of the cast, you begin to see the dark side of things (including a tangential deconstruction of Platonic/Cartesian mind-body dualism that I rather liked). All of this is nicely woven into the action of the story, so there was never a dull moment; it reminded me of how Jim Butcher carefully threads the relevant details about magic into the plots of his Dresden Files books while keeping forward momentum with his pacing. As for those laws and enemies…well, the downside to short, tightly plotted tales like Madoka Magica is that too talk in too great detail about the details is to spoil the fun of the story, so I will only say that I enjoyed the creators’ ideas very much and thought they were rather elegantly crafted.
The tale opens with one of those cryptic prologues you only understand later, featuring a giant swirly thing of Lovecraftian proportion, before quickly cutting to Madoka and her friends on their trek to school. Quite soon after, Madoka and her friend Sayaka find themselves first being chased by one magical girl over the life of a cat/bunny/squirrel thing, then being rescued from the witch’s lair they stumble into by a sceond, who has some kind of rivalry with the first. Thereafter, the catbunnything cryptically offers to make a contract with Madoka and Sayaka, and the rest, as they say, is spoilers. The plot, is both a compelling narrative and efficiently written, like a good Jack Vance tale*; not a frame is wasted. In fact, it may be too tight. While the story is excellent as it stands, I feel that an extra episode or two focusing chiefly on getting to know the characters better wouldn’t have gone amiss in heightening the emotional impact of the ending, and curing the eponymous Madoka’s blandness compared to the rest of the cast (my only other real criticism of the show).
As for the animation, my hats are off to the artists. The play of light and shadow is nicely done, comparable to The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. The character designs are creative and distinct, and the characters’ faces have a wonderful colored pencil-sketch like quality to them, especially the eyes. Oh, and did I mention the art-shifting? Whenever the heroines descend into a new layer of evil to banish the darkness there, the background art and enemy designs get…trippy; like Heironymous Bosch and Max Ernst went out to the pub, had a few too many, and ran into an equally drunk Goya, who convinced them they should all make a cartoon together. It’s fantastic, and, coupled with the brilliant scoring by Yuki Kaijura, conveys the mood and emotion of a chaotic showdown with the forces of grimdark like nothing else.
Now, as I said, my only really criticisms of the show are that Madoka is a wee bit bland and this could have been fixed by extending the show by another one or two episodes. I do have one niggling complaint though: why is there an awkward scene of almost-naked Madoka in the opening theme that has no real relation to the story!?!??! Whyyyyyyyyy?!?! It’s blatantly fanservicey and a
little really creepy. Just forewarning you all about that. Otherwise, enjoy the show!
*to me, the story felt like something that D.G.D. Davidson and John C. Wright would write together under the direction of Jack Vance, who would keep Davidson from adding even more angst and Wright from turning the show into a 5 season epic and 4 OVAs.
Update: Now available in the U.S. from Amazon. Also on Netflix.