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MADOKA MAGICA Turns a Genre Inside-Out -- Behind Anime Lines

Shaft's subversive-as-hell magical girl series transforms one of anime’s fluffiest genres into its darkest - - to thrilling results.

There is something profoundly dark going on under the surface of PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA. Maybe you knew that already; maybe the fact that Wikipedia categorizes it as “magical girl,” “drama,” “tragedy” and horror tipped you off. I can nearly guarantee I’m a bigger spoilerphobe than you, so I’ll avoid talking plot specifics as much as possible, but there’s one essential fact that can’t be talked around: this show is messed up. And you deserve to know that going in.

I'm okay with tipping you off about this only because I went into MADOKA MAGICA with a vague idea of what to expect and still found myself impressed and surprised at virtually every turn. Imagine how different watching AUDITION would’ve been if you had no idea you were sitting down to watch a Takashi Miike joint. Even with the knowledge of what you were getting yourself into, watching that movie transition from a quiet, almost cute love story into a violent and deeply disturbing horror film is enough to put most people into shock. MADOKA capitalizes on that exact misdirection: even if you have a vague sense of what lurks beneath the show’s surface (as I did), you invariably buy into its initial tone and still end up with a twisty and frequently shocking experience.

MADOKA MAGICA tells the story of Madoka Kaname, a preposterously innocent and young schoolgirl who encounters a preposterously cute and cat-like creature named Kyubey. Kyubey comes bearing great news: Madoka and her best friend Sayaka have both been selected to become magical girls, and what’s better, both of them get one wish! All they have to do is ‘make a contract’ with Kyubey and they’ll be granted one miracle of their choosing - - not to mention magical witch-fighting powers.

MADOKA plays off some pretty typical (and awfully specific) mahou shoujo concepts that even a casual SAILOR MOON fan could recognize: magical items that enable the girls’ powers; grotesque, witch-like monsters to defeat; themes of violence and sacrifice and saving the galaxy. Even Madoka's familiar looks pretty familiar: Kyubey is a reflection of Sailor Moon's Luna in some startlingly direct ways. Both Kyubey and Luna are adorable, red-eyed talking animal sidekicks who provides their respective heroes with the means to become a magical girl, yet both don’t seem to fully understand how and why it all works.

Basically, MADOKA MAGICA wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but it manages to offer a revolutionary take on each these ideas. The magical items, the 'unrealistic' fight scenes, the motivations of the sidekick - - MADOKA has a dark and wholly unique interpretation of every single one, and every revelation is seperately used down the line as a harrowing plot twist.

What’s more, you can take Shaft’s terrifying interpretation of mahou shoujo and apply it to virtually every magical girl trope in existence - - to marvelous effect. By initially presenting itself as a fairly typical magical girl series, MADOKA effectively redefines the ruleset for every magical girl anime. Without giving anything away: after you’ve seen MADOKA MAGICA, shows like CARDCAPTOR SAKURA suddenly feel a hell of a lot darker.

This is a Shaft show, so unsurprisingly, it’s stylish as hell. Like BAKEMONOGATARI, whose look pretty much blew my mind last year, MADOKA is directed by the incomparably flashy Akiyuki Shinbo, and it shows. From the super stark, pseudofuturistic setting to the phenomenally composed quick-cuts to the mixed media visuals, MADOKA drips with steez. And as stark as it all is, it’s also detailed. Each episode has a few touches to remind you that this takes place in a time other than our own: touchscreen-controlled elevators, desks that collapse into the floor, DDR machines that produce holograms after each step. They’re small but neat details that help make MADOKA's world a fun one to explore.

As ultra-pristine and Shaft-y as the general animation is, MADOKA MAGICA’s characters all have faces - - specifically, eyes - - that appear almost penciled in. The characters’ hand-drawn, wide-set faces feels like a deliberate throwback to the magical girl shows of yore, and when they’re shown against these sleek, cold backgrounds, it gives the sense of modern anime and ‘old’ anime colliding. MADOKA MAGICA is sort of what happens when you drop innocent, cheery characters into a unfeeling, cynical 21st century setting. It’s an interesting choice from a show that makes a ton of interesting choices.

MADOKA isn’t visually flawless. Every episode or two, you’ll stumble onto a moment where the animation seems a little rushed. Still, it’s much rarer than in, say, PERSONA 4, where lazy animation was not only common, there wasn’t really much style for it to hide behind. MADOKA, on the other hand, has at least one guaranteed visually striking moment per episode: the Labyrinths. The Labyrinths are the reality-bending realms that the magical girls must enter to fight witches, and they are gorgeous. No two Labyrinths are the same, but all of them are surreal, crazy-looking mixed media masterpieces. They’re dazzling and disorienting, and are just one aspect of what is largely a visually delightful show. Yeah, the animation is occasionally less than great, but ultimately there's enough Shaft gloss over the whole package that it's still a joy to look at.

Mostly, though, MADOKA's story is what keeps you watching. Unravelling the exact mechanisms of the diabolically constructed universe is a treat. It's not perfect - - one of the show’s myriad twists feels a bit more obvious than the others - - but it's special as hell, and that counts for a lot. While I'm complaining, there’s one character in particular who shows up at the last minute and saves the day maybe five too many times, which ends up feeling like something of a... desu ex machina. (Ehh? Ehhhhh? Sorry.) Still, it’s a show full of revelatory moments, and they’re all so specific and interesting and horrifying that it’s hard to hold the show’s faults against it. You might be surprised how the simple addition of death, consequences and realism are all it takes to turn one of anime’s fluffiest genres into its darkest.

MADOKA MAGICA is not just more than it seems - - it’s more than that. It's a show with a gimmick, sure, but beyond the elevator pitch, it's a great-looking, wholly unique series with a plot well worth following. You should watch it. And since the entire series is available on Crunchyroll for free, you should probably watch it right now.

Nick Robinson is an occasional freelance journalist and a fairweather anime fan. Twitter is his favorite website - if you're into that sort of thing, followed him at @Babylonian!

Elfenlied1012on Aug. 19, 2012 at 5:13 p.m.

I love this show to death, more then I honestly think it deserves. Mostly for the superb in art and music (not the OP and ED but the in show music) the plot I think is original and well meaning in concept, but not really executed perfectly, functionally yes, but not was well as one would hope when compared to how wonderful the, but I've found that pretty true about all shaft productions.

takashichea moderator is online on Aug. 19, 2012 at 6:10 p.m.

It changed my views on Magical Girls. It's a good show with a dark view on human nature.

sickVisionz moderator on Aug. 19, 2012 at 6:28 p.m.

Cool show. I'm not as hot on it as most people because the only other magical girl shows I saw before this were My-Hime and My-Otome. Pretty much everyone is killed in tragic ways and it's a bit darker than Madoka so I didn't quite get what made Madoka so different and wake up call in anime. I also hate Madoka's character. I took her forever to get with the program and realize shit had gotten real and to drop the ultra positive naivety and once she did, she turned in a whiner and crier, two things I hate in male leads and discovered I hate in female leads as well.

I thought the time travel stuff was cool, but I like pretty much anything involving time travel.

metalsnakezeroon Aug. 19, 2012 at 6:31 p.m.

It incredible how these series change the way these types of shows are done and help push anime into being art instead of being cash ins. I would very anxious about waiting for each episode every week and was blown away at the end.

cynically_happyon Aug. 19, 2012 at 6:33 p.m.

I always wanted to see this show ever since I heard the entirety of the internet clamoring about it, and now that I know it's on crunchyroll I guess I'll give it a spin. Although I wonder if my enjoyment is gonna get dulled by the fact that pretty much everything about the plot's been spoiled for me at this point.

Daniel_Newton moderator is online on Aug. 19, 2012 at 6:36 p.m.

I've heard people mention this show before and I knew it was something special, but I didn't know it was that special. Just from reading this article I'm super interested and I can tell I'd really dig it. I'm probably juggling too many shows right now to start watching, but Madoka definitely just shot up the ladder of my shows-to-watch-next list.

Great article Nick.

While I'm complaining, there’s one character in particular who shows up at the last minute and saves the day maybe five too many times, which ends up feeling like something of a... desu ex machina. (Ehh? Ehhhhh? Sorry.)

Uggghhh... I take my last comment back.

zaldaron Sept. 28, 2012 at 10:24 p.m.

Man after having just finished this I will have to say I disagree with this show. The character that shows up to save the day has a reason to do so and the way she does is very well thought out so not sure I get the desu ex machina comment. As any who have followed my comments anywhere especially on the watch and learn articles knows...I have high standards when it comes to shows. This is now battling for my top spot in best shows of all time. If someone can direct me to a good guide on how to write reviews on this site I will try to find time to put up my own review. By far a five star show...more if I could give it that much.

Killer_of_trollson April 2, 2013 at 6:24 a.m.

Madoka Magica is very well-written in every narrative aspect(characterization, plot advancment, character develpment, and more) but the art isn't as good as people make it out to be, but it's still decent though.

The real reason behind the hate here is the fact that it's so barffing girly, seriously my little sister couldn't even take it after 2 episodes. I'm kinda forcing myself through that, but it's worth it.

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