One of the biggest new series this year is definitely Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica. Despite the fact that the show primiered in January, it has already amassed a huge cult following, over 200 fanfics on Fanfiction.net, and been picked up by Aniplex to be released in North America, although whether or not there will be a dub is still uncertain.
With this in mind, I decided that it might be worth checking out. Despite what my Anime Watched library would currently indicate (I am utilizing a rather unusual system for it), I have watched several Magical Girl series, and was incredibly excited to see a dark subversion of the genre. With that in mind, let's dive in, and see why this series managed to have a great deal of promise that it in general just fails to live up to.
The idea of having a complete dark subversion/deconstruction of the Magical Girl genre is a brilliant one. It has always struck me as odd that with so many individuals desiring to defy sensibilities and warp that which we hold dear, the Magical Girl genre has managed to in general, remain a pinaccle of innocence. Sure, you get shows like Princess Tutu and Revolutionary Girl Utena that add mature themes, but there had yet to be a show that just completely twists the innocence of the genre as a whole- exactly what the idea of this show is.
So, in essense, the premise is that there is a being named Kyubey, who makes a deal with adolescent females: that he will grant them a single wish, and if it is within his relatively great power, he will make that wish come true. The limitations on what exactly this wish has to be are slim, and he will not deny any wish you ask for. There is a single catch- in exchange for the wish being granted, you will become a Magical Girl- a human granted with superhuman powers and abilities, whose duty it is to fight Witches. These Witches are mysterious malevolent creatures that wreak havoc in the mortal world, and are invisible to the eye of your average human.
Madoka and her friend Sayaka are unwittingly sucked into this world through a sudden encounter with Magical Girl Mami Tomoe. Mami and her familiar, Kyubey himself, immediately bring them into the fold, giving them the chance to become Magical Girls themselves.
Although the idea seems promising at first, the ominous warnings of a new transfer student (who turns out to be a Magical Girl herself) Homura Akemi turn out to be well-founded, as Madoka discovers that the world of the Magical Girls isn't as innocent as it first seems.
It's a very enchanting concept, that could make for a brilliant story. So... how does it hold up?
... Not that well, sadly.
An early problem with the show is that I'm not sure they were really sure what they wanted to do with the first couple episodes. Did they want to lure the viewer in by making it look like a general Magical Girl show, only to massively subvert their expectations later on, or did they want to note that there was something amiss about the whole thing from the beginning? The writers couldn't seem to decide, and it causes this odd dissonance, where the beginning seems like a typical opening for a Magical Girl show, but the various dark themes cause the viewer to know that the story is going to take a darker turn by the second episode, which does decrease the drama a bit when it happens. Although I will say that the way it happens still does manage to be extremely effective.
One of the key problems in the series, which I will get into further detail on later, is the fact that our main character remains an outsider throughout. Given that we are seeing the story from her perspective, and only occasionally see things from the eyes of the rest of the cast, for me, this caused a bizarre sort of isolation from the events themselves. Sure, every time she enters the world of the witches, she is putting her life on the line, but aside from one or two exceptions, her life is pretty much never in direct danger.
In addition, Homura Akemi quickly becomes a walking deus-ex-machina. For most of the series, when a conflict gets out of control, she'll end up jumping in and resolving it. While this could be effective if utilized once or twice, her continual interference in the conflicts caused me to know that when things began hitting the fan, she would end up saving the day.
While I will give credit to the show for beautifully subverting this at the very end, it simply is too little, too late. What concern for Madoka's safety I still had was almost completely drained by the fact that I know that if she is ever truly at risk, Homura will quickly step in and help solve the problem.
These two factors, and the fact that I just couldn't connect with the majority of the cast (which will be discussed below), caused the tension in the story to decrease dramatically for me.
Sure, one could argue that it subverts the typical Magical Girl formula for the main protagonist to not actually BE a Magical Girl for more or less the entire series, but there is a mantra I live by that I think is important to learn: just because something is subversive, doesn't make it entertaining television.
The show's continuity is kind of all over the place. Characters start developing a certain way, then their characterization suddenly shifts in the next episode. Character motivations are often rather vague, unrealistic, or not explored at all. Plot points are brought up, and then completely dropped. There are also a few plotholes present, that with a little outside-the-box thinking, could have been easily resolved. Now, much of this can be explained by unfortunately inconsistent episode scheduling, but the fact remains that it does detract a good deal from the plotline, sucking a bit of its soul with it in the process.
However, the story does manage to do quite a few things right. The battle scenes are well directed, and are fantastically done. The show channels quite a few shonen elements, blending them with a feminine brand of melodrama rather well, making a story that does feel like it could center around teenage girls, while still providing the audience with a great deal of action. The dialogue is similar- while it contains a good deal of shonen-style bravado and rather over-the-top dialogue, the phrasing and word choice manages to keep the lines from seeming too far out of place, and keep one from questioning the fact that it is supposedly 12 year old girls uttering them.
In addition, while Magical Girl shows having a dark side isn't new, this show definitely takes it farther than I've ever seen. Despite the various problems I've listed, the show still manages to hold your attention between fight scenes, never really letting up on shocking twist after shocking twist, including a rather clever play on the phrase "magical girl" itself.
However, the show's flaws manage to take a fascinating plotline and cripple it. An interesting premise and clever twists just can't save a show that has had much of its tension drained for 90% of the show's running time, and the myriad continuity and plot problems constantly causing a great deal of frustration.
The show definitely does deliver in way of animation. While the character designs are incredibly underwhelming- the facial expressions are incredibly simplistic, and all the characters look identical except for clothing and hair color- the scenery is incredibly well constructed. The initially appealing backgrounds often has a dark undertone lurking underneath it, when one looks closely enough. A simple gust of wind can turn an innocent looking scene into an eerie landscape, which definitely aids the dark tone of the show.
The world inhabited by the Witches is incredibly well done. The animators manage to keep a massive amount of variety to both the design of the Witches and their backgrounds, providing a new landscape each time. The lairs of the Witches remain thoroughly atmospheric throughout, and definitely fit with the dark undertone of the show. Character movements are incredibly smooth throughout, and look thoroughly realistic.
The main flaw in the animation is the overly enthusiastic use of shadows. Apparently somebody had just discovered that shadows= ominous, because the lighting of scenes are so dim that shadows constantly lurk below the feet of the characters. Rather than providing the ominous undertones it is supposed to convey, it just looks thoroughly over-the-top, and makes me feel like somebody was trying far too hard.
Who thought that it would be a good idea to start a show centered around subversion with a stereotypical J-Pop opening? The song itself isn't bad, but it sounds exactly like at least 5 other openings I've heard this year alone. The ending theme is much better, with a fitting combination of guitar strums and female vocals that are pleasing to the ear.
The music in the show itself is continuously effective. Yuki Kaijuira has outdone herself once again, with an incredibly impressive score combining beautiful choral tunes with amazing battle themes during the action sequences. And when things really start to get dark, the music turns outright eerie, almost sounding as if ghosts from above are wailing at the characters.
The voice acting is hit and miss. While most of the seiyuu provide adequate performances, Aoi Yuuki simply sounds annoyingly shrill as Madoka, causing me to grit my teeth in frustration more than once. And although Himura's character is forced to be consistently monotone, it causes Chiwa Saito's performance to become rather annoyingly dull at times. That said, when she gets the opportunity to emote, she does so with gusto.
The two main standouts are Ai Nonaka as Kyoko Sakura, whose performance manages to add a good deal of dimension to a somewhat dull character, and Emiri Katou, who manages a positively eerie delivery as the constantly peppy and cheerful Kyubey, as the series descends into absolute darkness and chaos.
Even with a flawed story, Madoka Magica could definitely have overcome its problems if the characters were particularly 3-dimensional. Sadly, that is simply not the case. The "protagonist" herself, Madoka, distances herself from the action thoroughly, constantly hemming and hawing about whether or not to become a Magical Girl. While her conundrum is certainly understandable, it causes a good deal of irritation in my opinion, since she's the protagonist. It makes me feel like she's rather self-centered, continually throwing herself into situations that could be quite dangerous, solely for the sake of protecting her friends- with little means to do so, I might add- without thinking of how exactly her friends would feel when she died. She is definitely not well developed enough by the end of the show for her actions to the climax to create that much sympathy by the viewer.
In fact, her friend Sayaka Miki, while not a particularly fresh character herself, manages to remain entertaining due to her continually optimistic and downright naive outlook on life, that continually spirals downward as the series progresses, earning the sympathy of the audience, and shock at her fate.
One could argue that if the script was adjusted, Madoka could more or less be written out of the show completely, which is a key flaw in any show.
Most of the side characters are practically non-entities, with the exception of Mami Tomoe, and she doesn't get enough development to be particularly interesting. This is particularly aggrevating when it comes to the character of Hitomi, Madoka and Sayaka's classmate, as she ends up being pivotal in Sayaka's downward mental spiral, making it rather frustrating that she hadn't undergone development earlier in the series.
The other disappointment is Kyoko, a character who appears approximately halfway through the show, and really does little beyond provide reactions to the increasingly disturbing relevations, as well as provide some mid-season conflict. Although the writers attempt to give her character some depth, her development is a bit too inconsistent for this to be particularly effective.
The true star of the show is definitely Homura Akemi. Initially a character lurking in the background, popping up either to save Madoka or to simply remind the audience that she clearly knows more than she's telling, she develops into a thoroughly sympathic character, whose motivations are incredibly heart-warming, and her personality thoroughly three-dimensional and compelling. She continually manages to steal the spotlight in almost any scene she's in.
The other real exception to the rule is Kyubey. While one may be suspicious about him from the start, perhaps due to his overly adorable apperance, or perhaps due to some rather suggestive dialogue informing the viewer that something is not quite right about him, it will still manage to completely stun said viewer the moment they learn exactly what that said something actually is.
Madoka is a show that could have been fantastic. Its premise is outstanding, its writing solid enough to be entertaining, and a plot that manages to pull you in despite its flaws. But as the flaws pile up, and the characters simply refuse to become relatable, frustration inevitably follows.
I've heard some argue that this series will do to the Magical Girl genre what Neon Genesis Evangelion did to the Mecha genre. I for one hope that this is the case, and that some writers attempt to emulate Madoka Magica, because this first attempt at a dark Magical Girl show is sadly underwhelming.