It sometimes bothers me that people advertise Madoka as a morbid deconstruction of the magical girl genre. First of all, taking a genre full of roses and choosing to emphasize the thorns is not in itself an indication of quality. Furthermore, if that’s what you wanted you’d need to look no further than to the appropriately named Revolutionary Girl Utena from the late 90’s era. In truth, anime fans have peculiar ways of promoting their latest obsession which might have caused quite a few to perceive this show as the typical piece of generic storytelling so commonly adored by the majorities but ultimately unsatisfying. Surprisingly enough, they’d be incorrect.
You’re probably familiar with the synopsis by now but this is a magical girl anime provided with a long row of increasingly dark plot twists. Unlike some shows that wait until the very last episodes to show off their unexpectedly sadistic agendas (School Days, Narutaru); Madoka is a process of gradual revelations that depict the lifestyle of a magical girl as anything but cheerful.
All of the clichés from the genre are piled up but are either altered or provided with emphasized significance; no decision is to be hastily made and the contractors hold little to no regard for any moral responsibilities it might be appropriate to respect when you make adolescent girls fight and die for your cause. Ultimately what the show produces is not only a thought-provoking story structure and almost flawless pacing (no scene here is ever excessive) but also a refreshing lineup of both familiar tropes like transformation sequences and relatively fresh material like the seemingly inevitable and hauntingly dark fate of any magical girl naïve enough to think her decision to join the battle was a good one.
Based on somewhat objective measurements like frame rates and coloring, Madoka is far from average. The character designs may look unappealing at first but are perfectly assimilated into the scenery to look distinctive rather than annoying.
Where the show, really, truly, shines though is when it comes to the battles. Interestingly enough, the antagonists in Madoka are witches capable of ensnaring their victims in nightmarish labyrinths where twisted imagery is combined with downright bizarre creatures and backgrounds for an effective assault on your retinas. Basically, what you get are various magical girls and their trademark weapon of choice battling their way through surreal worlds equipped with everything from industrial objects to sweets. It’s almost as if they took the artistic virtues of Lynch, Burton and Studio 4C in order to create something very comparable but in the end also very original.
All the poor girls are voiced by competent actors and boast impressive performances under their respective archetypes; Madoka is naïve but incredibly kind, Homura is cold (for reasons later revealed) and Kyoko is fierce etc.
As for the background music, this is the first show I’ve seen with a soundtrack made by Yuki Kajiura. That does not, however, mean that I’m unfamiliar with her work. Oh no. That woman is a miracle worker capable of producing jaw-droppingly beautiful music. Here she uses a long row of various instruments to fuel her creativity only to top it all off with a powerful choir. Madoka’s soundtrack ranges from mundane, sad, often mysterious but is always well-made. In combination with strikingly haunting visuals, the music here is absolute gold.
As previously implied, we’re dealing with rather common archetypes here. However, as the show makes progress their typically one-dimensional personalities are expanded rather impressively as they face tough decisions and encounter more and more powerful enemies. Much like Evangelion, a lot of the character development takes place during the witch battles themselves.
At the center of all the commotion is Madoka, a protagonist who receives surprisingly little screen-time and instead spends the first half of the show observing the development of her friends. In most cases it’s a bad thing to place such a minimal focus on a main character but it’s executed just fine. In the end, the personalities here are not particularly deep in and of themselves but when forced to interact with other entities, especially under life-threatening circumstances, they can produce absolute awe.
You’ve probably heard many things by now and I feel like I’m just jumping on the Madoka fanboy-wagon when giving the show such a high rating. I do not hesitate, however to call this the best anime to be released in the past few years along with titles like Kaiba. Its fans do a better job of poisoning its appeal to potential viewers than they do promoting it but that is by no means a reflection of its quality. This is a show that works fine in every single regard despite coming off as stronger in certain areas. Even if you end up feeling that the story and characterization were poorly structured (which I’d disagree with) you’re likely to still have enjoyed it based on its technical merits alone. There’s no real reason not to watch this!