This is again one of those cases where something urged me to watch this; in this case, I have a close friend to thank, whose endless insistence that Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica (and henceforth italicized Madoka) was both worth watching and incredible drove me to eventually watch this anime. This catches me up to approximately two years ago or so, so eventually I'll probably be around current anime while everyone else is on to the next new thing. This ensures that I will not only have forgotten all spoilers I hear, but that the hype surrounding it will have died and I can once more hold what is considered an 'interesting' opinion once again.
I kid. But in all honesty, stepping outside of my safe zone for this came as a result of some striking similarities to a variety of anime I'd enjoyed in the past. Did I regret it? In a bittersweet way-- Madoka boasts some ridiculously poignant imagery and theming which can be very disturbing in the right mindsets, leaving with that sort of sour pit in one's stomach. It didn't hit me quite like Bokurano did but as an anime much in the same vein, albeit a different genre, I couldn't help but be sucked in pretty quickly.
Let's touch base on this here-- if you're reading this, you're likely looking for an opinion, and I'll be more than happy to offer mine.
Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica does one of those fanciful things where it shows us a character's demise right off: in the twisted dreamscape of Madoka Kaname's-- that's the titular character, don't you know-- nightmare, a young girl fights a thing and doesn't generally do so hot. After Madoka is assured she can fix everything, reminding us quite boldly that she is indeed the main character, the story progresses as normal as can be expected with a dazed Madoka waking and moving forward to her day.
Madoka's school sees a transfer student in Homura Akemi, and it is none other than that very ill-fated girl who becomes something of a mysterious element of Madoka's life. Warning her that changing from what she is now will lead to bad things, the quickly shows some color as a girl with an inkling of what's happening.
Cutting some fluff, Madoka and friend Sayaka Miki meet up with odd circumstances when the world around them begins to distort and get awfully colorful. Reality takes a nose-dive and the surreal becomes real. Before peril can take hold, Mami Tomoe appears as a magical girl and saves them. Another student from their school, to boot.
They should probably look into innoculations.
This warped reality was caused by a witch, and Mami Tomoe turned into a magical girl to fight it and acquire a grief seed. This was the contract set forth by one Kyubey, an adorable little thing akin to a stuffed animal. Of course, Sayaka and Madoka can have this power (and fantastic outfits) too, if they'll but offer themselves up for a contract! It comes with a wish granted, and while Sayaka has little issue thinking one up, Madoka is haunted by Homura's words. Thus does our story begin in earnest.
And really, that's just touching on the base of where the story in Madoka goes. There's a lot of bad stuff going on underneath, and if you hadn't guessed by my horribly abbreviated version of what kicks off the conflicts, things aren't perhaps always so simple as they seem. While the plot seems to place sides very early on and make things cut-and-dry, they're truly anything but. As a 12-episode anime, Madoka packs a lot into its latter third or so. And this is fine, because the pacing is mostly handled very well. While some bits feel a bit tacked on to keep continuity between the whole thing, the story is easily worth a 9, 9.5 if you want to get into semantics. There was very little holding this thing back and really, I'm only so critical because there was one point in the story I had to rub my head. But that ties more in with characters, and we'll get there when we get there.
I'll start by saying I really don't like the art style. Scenes and all that look fine, but the characters-- their giant, obtuse heads, that 'vacant, beyond-the-horizon' stare they all have. I'll go full crass and say it, but a lot of the time, the characters look a bit like they're a few fries short of a Happy Meal. Fortunately, the transformations are all very neat-looking, and moreso fortunately, the characters aren't even slightly the big point of the animation.
No, that one would go to the (much-acclaimed) Witch scenes. Rife with a bombardment of imagery and styles in a chaotic clash to overwhelm your mind with as much surrealism as they can pack into 5 minutes, these are probably some of the most attractive stuff I've seen in anime, and enough to make me want to write up five stars on this section alone. With styles ranging from odd crayon-like scribbles to CGI, with bizarre, incongruent shapes that make the Witches' forms, these really zero in quite perfectly on their purpose. While they are few enough that you can savor them, each one is quite a potent delivery of what I really cannot describe as anything but chaos. And a meticulous chaos, at that, all hectic and incongruent yet somehow managing to be a very flowing scene delivery. I can't do them justice with words alone. I honestly can't.
But all that said, the rest of the anime-- and it is indeed the vast majority of it-- is saved only by the non-Witch fight scenes which are smooth and colorful with the Magical Girls' various implements being used to creative effect. The character designs are boring and there's nothing particularly outstanding about them, and they all have this very similar look with that vacant stare and those huge heads. It's just not attractive. Bokurano gunned for and achieved a plain look and still managed to have a very appealing aesthetic. I feel like Madoka wanted to hit the 'cute' look to endear us that way, but ended up with this. I shave off a point from 10 only because of this. Rest well assured that the Witch scenes are the main appeal here, though, and rest well assured that they are more than worth putting up with the otherwise-dull appearances.
Yuki Kajiura is probably my favorite composer by now and she once more knocks it out of the park. While the animation might be a half-and-half deal, Kajiura kicks it into overdrive with memorable character themes, all equally haunting and somber, with her own cacophonic additions to the Witch scenes. The instruments are a clash of symphonics and choirals and it's just the perfect accent to the insanity of the Witch's worlds.
I know that, given the detail I went into with the animation, I should have more to say here but I just don't. If it's got Kajiura's composition, it's pretty much guaranteed to have a stellar and memorable soundtrack with more than one piece sticking out very memorably. It's perfect and I've got no complaints and no more to say. 10/10, 5 stars. Golden. Platinum.
Here was the part that scared me about Madoka: while I was already somewhat seasoned to mecha when I watched Bokurano, I had no idea what I was getting into with Madoka. Perhaps some cutesy girls; the hot-headed one, the motherly one, the ditsy one. On one hand, Madoka delivers a motley crew of archetypes with fairly handy expertise. On the other hand, the delivery feels like it's going up and down and up and down. Part fo me agrees there is some consistency here and it does relate to the anime. Another part of me has to ask what gives.
Right off the bat, Madoka herself-- despite being our main-- gives me shadows of Akiha from Sora wo Kakeru Shoujo. Pink-haired protagonist can't find her niche and doesn't know how to best help people in front of her. Fortunately, this is sort of the hook to Madoka, as we have a well-established motive for this indecision and helplessness (reading above, Homura's warning) despite the tools and the want being openly present. So, while the archetype isn't my favourite, it both makes sense and works well here with its application.
And then her best friend, Sayaka. She's the ditsy but enthusiastic one, always wanting to please everyone like punch, but having a hard time doing it when she's tripping on her face, so to speak. Of all characters, despite having a generous helping of screentime, I feel Sayaka has the weakest presence of all of them; more often than once she feels like she's sort of tagging along, a tacked-on bit. She ties a lot of the story together, ironically, but her characterization feels a bit too directed and one-sided. Later on in the story some things go on with her that don't quite make sense to me, and they tie in to another character.
As for Mami Tomoe, well, she's the motherly type. The first real exposure to Magical Girl-hood and the leading cheerleader for it, she's quite happy to ensure that having this fantastic outfit is more than worth the whole contract bit and there's a sense right off the bat that she's either ignorant or playing for another team. Of course, we won't go into too much detail on Mami, and suffice it to say there's no real need to.
Homura is your resident mysterious girl who Knows What's Up and all that, but will surely never tell anyone as that would just be ludicrous. Who even cares about the cause for all these warnings?! Stalking Madoka's steps doggedly and making sure she understands full well that Kyubey is pretty much the worst thing in the world and then some, Homura definitely feels detached from the rest of the cast and an oddity in her own right. Fortunately, this too is what is the aim with her character and it works well.
There is another character who shows up fairly early on, Kyouko Sakura; the ill-tempered, ill-mannered hot-head, she storms onto the scene with aggressive threats and a very childish attitude. This causes for an odd contrast with her actual and eventual role in the story, which is again one of those points where I was scratching my head and pointing out the inconsistencies. Fortunately, it's pretty quickly forgotten; she has a strong character despite this and it's very hard not to quickly like her, even if initial impressions were sour (and mine were particularly bad, so there's that).
That leaves us with Kyubey, and if I had to describe Kyubey to a fan of Bokurano, what if I told you Kyubey is Koemushi with a cute voice and a very, very convincing front that the girls' best interests are at heart? Manipulating things and ultimately the cause of the conflicts taking place (the whole contract thing, how that's probably a bad idea for Madoka, etc.), Kyubey is the most adorable engine of conflict likely ever featured and not once does he do that stupid character flip where suddenly he's like a really poorly-written yandere or something. You know, the whole monstrous grin with the cutesy voice. Instead, he remains a convincing ally to the girls with this certain sense of looming danger about, thanks to Homura's directed hatred of him. You really can't get enough of this thing; there's something eerily effective about the double entendre of his cute nature.
And for all intents and purposes, these 6 are pretty much the only real important characters in the show. The rest could not exist and things would pretty much take place as they do with them present. Hence the detail spent on description, here. Gives an idea, a frame of reference, since...
...there's two points missing. Ultimately, Sayaka and Kyouko have a pretty strong conflict in the middle of the anime and its resolution is... spotty, to say the least. I won't spoil anything, but it lacks a lot of sense and seems like the writing for one or both of the characters changed hands halfway through the building of this conflict. It wasn't horribly distracting from the events, but it left this really sour taste in my mouth and I just couldn't take it as seriously as I ought to have. And so we arrive, at length, at the 8 I present to the characters. An otherwise solid and varied deilvery is heavily damaged by some wishy-washy choices halfway through.
Depressing, depressing, depressing. Most people who tell of Madoka tell of how stark and sad it is, and they're not far off the mark. It's downright disturbing at times with how candid it can be about little girls being thrashed about and played for apparent fools, and at the same time it's so bloody effective in keeping people enraptured. Between Kajiura's soundtrack and the stellar animation on the Witches, there's a lot going for this anime that keeps it well afloat of its competition. The misfortune strikes when we cut to the characters and the stories around them, when we start taking a little scrutiny. The anime asks, to me, a little too much of suspension of disbelief or offers too little explanation and implies too much. I can't decide which way it is, up or down or what. Certain elements just seem forced to progress things; by virtue of the progress being very satisfying and the rest of the anime being heavily distracting, they're hardly gamebreaking flaws, but they're very apparent to me and I just couldn't bring myself to look past them.
Short, sweet steps shy of the levels of poignancy that Bokurano achieved, Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica is one of those things that I will still, despite its at-times flawed delivery, recommend to anybody with vague interest and a like for its hallmark themes. I don't think I was convinced to look into the genre any further (though I could argue that Sora wo Kakeru Shoujo was, in fact, mecha/magical girl spliced), I sure will revisit Madoka someday. Not with the same fondness I revisit my mecha, and certainly not with that eagerness I revisit Mazinkaiser SKL on a bi-monthly basis, but definitely with enjoyment and a sense of satisfaction at the end of it all. And really, if it leaves us satisfied, maybe we're better off not complaining-- lest we get Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica: The Second Raid or something.
(end very obvious insult to reference material)