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.