This is probably going to be the hardest and most conflicted review I'll ever have to write. And here's why- I really like Madoka. No, I love Madoka. It's a great show. It's a blast to watch- I loved every minute of it. But that is subjective. That is my emotional reaction to the content of the show, which is not what a review is about. A review is an unbiased discussion of the facts, which allows the viewer to determine whether or not this show is for them.
I'd love to be able to say "Complex characters! Fantastic plot! Great music and animation!" and simply add to the array of 8s and 9s that this show has recieved. But I can't. Because, from an objective standpoint, I don't feel that this show deserves it. Objectively, this show is good. It continues a trend that was started by Princess Tutu and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, and takes it to a new level. But that's it. The show's not great. It's not fantastic. It simply isn't much of a step up from the two I just listed.
Reviewing this show has me caught in a Catch-22. Subjectively, I don't want to sell this show short... but I have to if I wish to remain objective. Thus, I need to compromise. I will attempt my hardest to emphasize the good points in each aspect, but take pains to point out that the problems in this show make it unworthy of the accolades it has obtained.
I loved Madoka. I loved the characters. I loved the plot. I loved the music. I loved the animation. If you still feel like checking this out at the end. Do. I beg of you, do. Love it. Love it as much as I do. Just don't think it's perfect.
You see that 6/10 up there? Typing that was like a punch in the gut. To me, Madoka had a fantastic story. It starts out as a typical Magical Girl show would, retaining a compelling plot that hooks you from the word "go", and then punches you in the gut at the end of the first act. From there, every single Magical Girl cliche or trope you can think of starts becoming twisted and distorted, to the point where it is a shoujo series in name only. The twists are at times awe-inspiring, at times fascinating, and at times outright creepy and disturbing. The story never stays static for long, and is a roller-coaster ride from episode 1 to episode 12.
So why am I giving it a six out of ten? Because that description up there glosses through some major problems that you have to forgive in order to enjoy the show.
Quick sum up: Madoka Kaname is your average teenage girl, until she meets a being named "Kyubey", who sucks her into a world where Magical Girls, under binding contracts, have to fight malicious beings called "witches". However, like every contract, there is a bit of fine print at the bottom. And Madoka has to watch as the world she knows begins to spin out of control.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica begins with the key flaw that I feel Nanoha ended up having: a massive identity crisis. It really feels like they were trying to initially lull viewers into a false sense of security, but it doesn't work. Because the music is often somber and brooding, the animation continually utilizes dramatic angles and shadowing in order to make a scene appear eerie, and the plot itself is clearly much more than it seems from the very beginning. There is simply no sense of security to lull the viewers out of.
But let's ignore that and focus on the actual plot of the story. Does it have extremely creative and interesting elements? Yes. Here's the thing: they picked the wrong character to focus on.
I'll get into this in a bit more detail in the Characters section, but Madoka is simply not an effective protagonist. In theory, it should be perfect- she's an average kid, who gets thrust into a situation that initially seems idyllic, but has to deal with the consequences when nothing is as simple as it appears to be.
However, the problem is that Madoka is never truly thrust into that situation. She is continually on the sidelines, watching the action unfold around her. There's a reason these characters are never our POV character- because it causes the audience to be just as disconnected from the action as they are. So we can never feel that we are a part of the show, because the main character isn't.
Finally, there is the show's obsessive need to end conflicts in the most anti-climactic ways possible. Sure, there are some nice little action scenes, but they are too few and far between. And whenever one of our protagonists are in a life-threatening situation, Homura Akemi (Much more on her later), will save the day. This is corrected in the show's concluding episodes, but it's too little, too late. And I won't go into the plotholes you have to handwave away. This show had scheduling problems, and it shows.
I would like to conclude by saying that this show definitely does benefit from a second viewing. Much of the dialogue itself is simply fantastically done, and the meaning of so much of that dialogue shifts when you know all the secrets the story is initially keeping from you. Despite my many complaints, I would like to emphasize something- if you can watch an anime a second time, and be able to see it in a completely different light, you are watching an anime with very good writing.
These will be short, and not just to compensate for how incredibly long the sections before and after it have to be. There simply isn't that much to say. The animation is incredibly fluid, and sets the tone quite well. As stated, it effectively uses "camera" angles and shadowing to its advantage, even if it is a bit over the top at times. Akiyuki Shinbo has the ability to be an extremely good director, and you can tell that he put a good deal of effort into this show.
The Witch scenes are some of the best examples of surrealist imagery I have scene in a while. They are surreal, off-the-wall, and beautifully rendered. The main complaint is the character designs- the female cast is clearly based off the same template, and are distinct only through convenient color-coding.
The music is simply beautiful. Yuki Kaijura created a beautiful soundtrack, that manages to evoke emotions across the spectrum- glee, dismay, and anxiety. Although I have no love for the opening or the first ending (I find them to be, in essence, generic J-pop with a decent beat), both the transition to the second ending and the second ending itself are simply phenomeonal.
The voice acting is also quite solid. Kyosuke's voice felt a bit high-pitched to me, but aside from that I have no complaints sub-wise. Kyoko's seiyuu in particular, did some incredible acting work in my opinion. Homura's seiyuu found the perfect line between apathetic and monotone and ran with it.
The dub is... adequate, at best. Most of the voices didn't work for me, and the script just didn't flow. Only listen to it if, like myself, you are a Karen Strassman junkie.
When a story is flawed, it lives and dies by its main cast. Subjectively, I found the entire cast excellent in their own way. By the end, they had all gone through some sort of arc, with fascinating struggles you had to sympathize with. These characters grabbed my heart and attention from the very beginning, and never let go. Their arcs both fascinated and moved me, and helped make the show worthwile.
Objectively? The weaker characters have the spotlight, and most of the great characters are relegated to the background.
Madoka Kaname is the shallowest main character. She is an average girl and... there isn't that much else to her. She is uncertain if she wants to become a magical girl, seeing pros and cons. She really doesn't have that much personality, and therefore the relatability the writer strived for simply disappears. Kyubey is similar. He has pretty much no personality for 99% of the show, and when his true self appears, it's more as a plot point than as character development.
Sayaka? She's certainly better than Madoka, but there still isn't that much there. She has a boyfriend she cares for, is extremely protective of Madoka, and has an extremely black-and-white view of justice. That's essentially it. While that final trait makes the end of her arc rather delightful, if anything it is overplayed a bit. She's likable, but she certainly doesn't have that much depth.
Homura Akemi is the only character in the main cast with a true personality. The problem? You don't get to have that personality fleshed out until the final arc of the show. For most of the series, she acts as an ominous figure lurking in the background, often acting as a deus-ex-machina, in order to resolve those pesky conflicts. In fact, I'll synopsize approximately 85% of her and Madoka's conversations for you-
Madoka: I'm not sure if I should be a magical girl.
Homura: Don't be.
Or to spice things up a bit-
Homura: *Citing event that just occurred* That is why you shouldn't be a magical girl.
Sure, you get a massive amount of depth which even explains every single one of her previous actions, but it's at the tail-end of the series. So, again: too little, too late.
Mami Tomoe and Kyoko Sakura are the two exceptions to the rule. They are interesting throughout, and as you learn more and more about them, the more fascinating they become. Kyoko is my personal favorite. She's openly jaded, cynical, and just doesn't care. And she becomes even more interesting and sympathetic when you find out exactly why that is. And the end of her arc is in my opinion one of the most powerful moments in the show. But one doesn't show up until episode 5, and the other doesn't play a major part overall.
The rest of the characters exist as plot points or comic relief and have about as much depth as your typical cardboard box.
I'm not writing this review because Madoka is cool, and I want to bash it. That's part of the reason why this is so long- I really DON'T want to bash it. There's so many good aspects of Madoka that I feel I need to emphasize. But there's too many bad aspects to ignore.
I will repeat what I said in the intro: I loved Madoka. I loved the characters. I loved the plot. I loved the music. I loved the animation. If you still feel like checking this out. Do. Please, do. Love it. Love it as much as I do. But just don't think that objectively it can be called "One of the best anime out there" or probably even "Best Anime of 2011". Because I'm sorry. It's not. It's just... it's not. Have a good day.