Adorable little magical girls have been getting into contracts for decades. It’s about time that someone asked what would happen if those contracts went wrong. Of course, the concept has worked in other genres (mecha show Bokurano is a strong recent example) but considering the magical girl genre hinges on naïve, wide-eyed adolescents trading security and peace of mind for adventure, more anime should be dedicated to the implied nastiness of it.
In fact, Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica exploits this contrast to brilliant effect. The magical girl genre was arguably the final bastion of innocence - almost every other had been corrupted by the cynicism of disenchanted youth. Short of turning Chi’s Sweet Home into Chi’s Domestic Violence, Madoka Magica represents one of the starkest genre subversions on the market. It takes all the sugary tropes - transformation sequences, colour coordinated outfits, hamster-cheeked character designs - and defaces them with an Immediate Threat of Death. The sheer novelty of seeing cheerful baby faces swallowed by a deep, groaning horror that just wouldn’t exist in the schema of Sakura Kinomoto (Card Captor Sakura) is enough to hoist us along on this bracing ride.
I sometimes struggle to recognise Madoka Magica as ‘mahou shoujo’ because of this. It wears the right costume but its feminine soul has been gutted out and replaced with the hot-blooded bravado of shounen. Just consider the macho dialogue and the stylised action focused on making everyone look cool; not to mention that cute girls acting violent is a gimmick more commonly targeted at male audiences (Elfen Lied, Narutaru, Gunslinger Girl). Often, I am tempted to describe it as Bokurano with magical girls and leave it there, although that again would be flippant and dismissive of Madoka Magica's special success.
On the other hand, I hear murmurs of ‘revolution’ in corners of Madoka Magica discussion, that it might do for the genre what Neon Genesis Evangelion did for mecha. If the argument is made on the basis that it brings dark, sophisticated themes to an otherwise shallow genre, then the revolution already happened with the superior Revolutionary Girl Utena and Princess Tutu (WATCH THESE SHOWS!). But if we mean attaining a broader, more financially rewarding appeal that might encourage further copies, then Madoka Magica is indeed well placed for such a title.
In any case, while the show may not be a fount of heretofore undiscovered genius, it wears ‘old hat’ stylishly. If we can laud James Cameron’s Avatar for being a smart person’s Fern Gully, then we can celebrate Madoka Magica’s more visceral recasting of everything Sailor Moon. Director Akiyuki Shinbo shows a surprising sleekness and control here considering his repertoire of scatty, irritating comedies. So bright and glossy is the story he weaves that the plot holes and frayed ends (often a result of the girls’ unique powers) hardly seem to matter. The show is able to give us a general sense of its trajectory while dropping thick breadcrumbs of surprise and beautifully designed battles to keep us skipping joyously to the end.
The cute human character designs by Ume Aoki (Sunshine Sketch) are the visuals' weakest aspect. All the girls in Madoka Magica have the same bland, bulbous appearance and are distinguishable only by their colour-coded hair and costumes. But as soon as the witches (the show’s antagonists) turn up, the animators begin to party. With monstrous bodies made of mechanical and organic parts, the witches look as tortured as implied. They bring along dancing evil spirits whose body parts are a collage of crayon drawings, photographic images, and CGI.
Their presence also warps the world into technologically crisp displays of smooth motion and atmospheric environs. The opening sequence sees the protagonist, Madoka Kaname, running through a chequered black and white world seemingly inspired by M.C. Escher. It's one of those nightmarish places where the landscape never changes no matter how far you run. And, though vibrant in some sense, Madoka Magica takes a leaf out of the Princess Tutu book and stuffs every fluffy nook with palpable wrongness. For instance, as Madoka and her friend Sayaka Miki sit on a riverbank, notice the eerie white wind turbines superimposed upon a jet-black silhouette of the city behind them. This approach of washing everything in murk is arguably heavy handed: the whole world is seemingly lit by a low-hanging lime light so that even scenes in broad daylight feature shadows slashing ominously across the ground. But it nonetheless succeeds at illustrating the show's uncompromising malevolence.
Yuki Kaijiura (the lady who made Tsubasa Chronicle sound epic even though it’s not) lays on a dramatic score whose main expressions are loneliness, despair, and disquiet. Some of the ditties on offer include euphoric choral works with grand, floating strings during action scenes, echoing xylophone tinkling for the more personal moments, and, when real gloom descends, eerie dance tracks with portentous wailing like angels singing warnings from the sky.
The appeal of the main themes seem less obvious. While the formulaic J-pop opening theme does not tickle my ear, the ending theme with its metal guitar and keening strings guided by brooding female vocals sure does. For younger or more traditional magical girl audiences, it could be the other way around.
Homura Akemi is not the titular character. She is nonetheless the standout one. She stalks through the narrative, emotionlessly delivering bursts of glorious action, all the while making perfectly clear that she knows something we don't know. Her emphatic performance is a welcome one because her co-star Madoka mostly remains a formless concept. While the script likes to remind us again and again that There’s Something About Madoka, mostly through prophetic lines of dialogue about her latent potential, she is ordinary and often watches confusedly from the sidelines while the horrors of battle unfold. The conclusion finally sees her take centre stage but that is too little development too late to encourage any attachment to her.
Sayaka, Madoka’s blue-haired friend and the only other memorable girl, falls squarely into the trench of subplot melodrama. But her idealism contrasts well with the show's cynicism and makes her role all the more poignant as soon as the main conflict kicks in.
And then there’s Kyubey, the show’s sardonic attempt at a mascot. Whether accident or not, Kybubey will throw up sharply unnerving memories of Dung Beetle from Bokurano. This is partly because Dung Beetle's sneering, pitiless performance is so indomitable that it haunts us at the slightest provocation, and partly because the two characters embody the same idea: cute things that are creepy. Kyubey’s wrongness stems from the disconnect between his sugary vocals and unsympathetic attitude; even the way he insists on asking the girls to contract with him at every given opportunity ceases to seem like genuine attempts to help and more like… something else.
The magical girl genre has been overhauled before - Revolutionary Girl Utena and Princess Tutu brought a sophistication desperately needed to drag the genre into the twenty-first century - but Madoka Magica has given it teeth to compete in the mainstream. It is not really made for innocent little girls but for a cynical audience who have long learned that pretty things are easily defaced and magic powers swiftly turned against us. The highlights are undeniably the lavish duels and its unrelenting shock value, but sometimes in a short work that is just enough to be great entertainment.
One night, Madoka has a terrible nightmare – against the backdrop of a desolate landscape, she watches a magical girl battle a terrifying creature, and lose. The next day, the teen's dream becomes reality when the girl – Homura – arrives at Mitakihara High School as a transfer student, mysteriously warning Madoka to stay just the way she is. But when she and her best friend Miki are pulled into a twisted illusion world and meet a magical creature named Kyubey, the pair discovers that magical girls are real, and what's more, they can choose to become one. All they must do is sign a contract with Kyubey and agree to fight witches that spread despair to the human world, and in return they will be granted a single wish. However, as Homura's omen suggests, there's far more to becoming a magical girl than Madoka and Miki realize...
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