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Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica Review

May 5, 2011

story 7.5/10

Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica screenshot

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.

animation 9/10

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.

sound 9/10

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.

characters 7/10

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.

overall 8/10

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.

Anime Info

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 Middle 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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About the Author

VivisQueen's avatar

VivisQueen

I'll review anything as long as there are words in the dictionary to describe it. Disagree with me? Want to leave feedback? Please do, but take a look at my personal rating scale first.

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halfey avatar halfey
May 8, 2011

"Your anime list begs to differ."

Thanks for believing everything you see in my list, which is rarely-randomly updated. It greatly FAILED you. So what would you do then if they were in my list (and what if my list was all empty)? Are you saying that you could have agreed with me if those shows were in my list? Say, if you really wanted to be combative against my comment you should have been pointing to what I was wrong instead of resorting to irrelevant, ad-hominem argument like that.

BrainBlow probably is right, there's a difference between objective factors and subjective factors in assessing the value of a series. However I'm only half-agree with that since it's implying great shows may have low rating or bad shows may have high rating. People giving this show a low rating is not a problem to me and I wouldn't mind if it was 1 or even 0 but I prefer to make it clear that this show does revolutionize something (if not everything) about mahou shoujo genre instead of denying it (I believe I've made it clear why I said so in my previous comments). Making references to older series is not a bad thing either and I don't care even if older series already revolutionize mahou shoujo genre according to what some people said here but I'm not buying it if people say "the older series is better" just because since they revolutionized it earlier. Alright, Madoka Magica might not be the first one that revolutionized it (of which I might have missed the points to say so) and even if I believe this show did revolutionize mahou shoujo, that is not the factor that makes me think it's great. It's more like how it revolutionize it (or should I say how it deconstruct the genre, if people don't like me using the word 'revolutionize') that made me come to a conclusion that this is totally a new idea.

Sorry but for me "unrelenting shocking value" does matter in giving high rating to this show. It's the new, revolutionary, and unexpected things that gives the "shocking" factor in this show. Therefore if I'm not giving high value to what is fresh and revolutionary then I'm not sure what else. Regarding my views on older mahou shoujo series, let me explain it again, if the first revolution did not give enough impression then it is a failed revolution or not revolutionary at all. People in the past might have been defensive to tell that Utena/Princess Tutu is revolutionary, and people in the future might not buy it if they're told that Madoka Magica is revolutionary but that's just normal for every new and old things. How revolutionary a thing is, it's only valid in it's time. Future fans will find something more revolutionary than Madoka Magica but for now, as long as the validity is still here, I'm going to say it's a revolution in mahou shouho genre.

BrainBlow avatar BrainBlow
May 7, 2011

I think people here have a problem differing between the objective factors of the series and the Subjective factors. Even a show You'd rate 7 objectively can still be one of the most enjoyable series you've seen.

Good review, I appreciate such objectivity on a series that seem to be getting quite the hail of fanboyism. Now I don't run the risk of becoming disappointed by the hype.

AirCommodore avatar AirCommodore
May 6, 2011

"This is still a NGE of mahou shoujo to me. Why? Take a look at Sailor Moon & Card Captor Sakura. Also let's not forget the other mahou shoujo anime with serious tone tone, which is no other than Nanoha. I've watched them all (yes, Sailor Moon too) and I do agree that they have their own seriousness too at some points in their story but I personally think none of them (except Nanoha) come close enough to Madoka Magica."

Your anime list begs to differ. Nanoha is the only other magical girl show on it. I don't think you quite understand what I was saying. You can't decide that something is revolutionizing a genre that YOU HAVEN'T EVER SEEN.

Otaking09 avatar Otaking09
May 6, 2011

Unrelenting shock value does not maketh a great show. Certainly not an 8 rating. Still, I'll agree with the art and music. A little surprising that you were more forgiving towards not having Madoka, herself, be as cool or important. I'd give that category a 5 max.

In any case, I thought this review was quite funny in how you said this gave the genre "teeth", but you're labeling each "tooth" with another series. Made it hard to really tell if this show has ANY stand alone quality.

Nice writing altogether; think I got more enjoyment from this review than the entire show put together.

halfey avatar halfey
May 6, 2011

"I don't think people that claim this is the NGE of mahou shoujo have watched much mahou shoujo besides Sailor Moon and maybe some Card Captor Sakura."

 

This is still a NGE of mahou shoujo to me. Why? Take a look at Sailor Moon & Card Captor Sakura. Also let's not forget the other mahou shoujo anime with serious tone tone, which is no other than Nanoha. I've watched them all (yes, Sailor Moon too) and I do agree that they have their own seriousness too at some points in their story but I personally think none of them (except Nanoha) come close enough to Madoka Magica. Nanoha, being the closest in comparison to Madoka Magica, maybe a serious-flavored mahou shoujo anime but it still retains the generic characteristic of this genre; simple battle between good and evil, protagonist and antagonist. Madoka Magica does not deal with that issue, instead it brings us up to a much higher level, where we simply can't tell what is good and what is bad, because the characters are essentialy fighting with their own self, fighting with emotions, relationships, decisions, etc. Yes I know there are enemies too (those "Witches" and later on the "curse demons") but it did not categorize the characters into the good camp and the bad camp, like what previous mahou shoujo anime did. That is what separates Madoka Magica from the rest of mahou shoujo anime, making it unique and exclusive.

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