Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a tricky little show to describe. The more I try to convince my friends that it is NOT your typical cutesy magical girl show... they watch the first episode and still say it's just a normal magical girl series. Well I'm here to tell you that you should not be doing that and instead, give things a chance. I learned to not be so harsh and judgmental by watching this series.
Let me get this out of the way almost immediately: I have a love-hate relationship with magical girl series. I love them when they're done well, and hate them any time else. I watched Card-Captor Sakura, Ojamajo Doremi, Sailor Moon, and Tokyo Mew Mew as a younger anime fan. I couldn't get enough of this stuff. Two shows (OD and TMM) were brand new experiences, and like many my age, I know Sailor Moon and Card-Captor Sakura from childhood, even if their English versions were horrendous hack-jobs that sought to shelter kids from the truths of this world. (People die! Not everyone is heteronormative! No kids, don't look at the naked lady, we'll paint a modest swimming costume over that or digitally raise the level of the water in a bath to get rid of cleavage lines, while adding in pointless CGI like the lightning effects in Queen Beryl's crystal ball.) However, I can't really watch any other shows. I've tried a few episodes of various Pretty Cure series, Jewelpet Twinkle, Mermaid Melody, Animal Tantei Kiruminzoo, and Hime-Chen Otogi Lilpri, and just come away with a fairly blank expression on my face because while they were entertaining, they just didn't grab my interest.
The reason why it's so hard to recommend Madoka is that, well, we are all judgmental to some degree. I think the show had run for about 9 or 10 episodes before I gave it a chance. It looked so girly and so pink that I refused to watch it on the basis of having seen so many magical girl series that I'd been burned out on them in the past. The synopsis sounded very generic too (excuse me if I don't remember it correctly):
Madoka Kaname is a 14 year old girl - she wonders aloud one day what she could do if she could grant wishes with magic.
I am very grateful to those who told me to give it a chance, because what a rollercoaster ride it was! I felt for every character, I almost cried at the ending, and was drawn in almost immediately by the beautiful yet surreal art style. This may sound really bad, but I didn't laugh at the guy in Japan who tried applying for relief work at Fukushima Daichi and in all seriousness, put on his CV 'well, even if I die, at least I've seen the ending of Madoka Magica'. Because to be honest, I was almost foaming at the mouth with excitement last Thursday when the last two episodes were released. I woke up at 3 in the morning just to see if it was out.
The plot concerns the aforementioned Madoka Kaname (the pink-haired girl), who has a fairly normal life -- or so she thinks. On the day the mysterious transfer student Akemi Homura (the girl with black hair) arrives, she hears a cute little voice calling out for her, and discovers it's coming from an adorable cat/ferret/rabbit/fox-like mascot creature called Kyubey (seen hanging off Madoka's arm here), who can grant any wish your heart desires if you agree to sign a contract to become a magical girl for him in the fight against witches. Clearly, the devil is in the details. There is a clear-cut difference between 'magical girls' and 'witches', being that magical girls bring hope and witches bring despair. Basically your 'good guys' and 'bad guys' until a certain heartbreaking revelation as the series progresses.
As you can imagine, signing a contract with Kyubey is a very bad thing to do. And that's what I loved about it.
People can critique this series all they like for the main characters being selfish and too stupid to read the small print, but quite all the girls had noble intents with their wishes: Homura and Sayaka (blue hair) had the most heart-rending of all. As a fair comparison, we could look at what Miaka in Fushigi Yugi did with her divine wish: to get into the high school of her choice and be with her best friend. Correct me if I'm wrong, but there is such a thing as hitting the books to get into the same elite high school your friend is going to. There's no need to senselessly waste a divine wish like that. Compare that to, say, wishing that your paralysed violinist crush would be healed, only for him to throw it in your face and start dating your friend. Much nobler. Much sadder. :<
The weird thing about Madoka is how I could relate to the characters. Yes, 14-15 year old girls. I'm 19. Why could I relate to them? Well, because I remembered back when I wanted power/respect and I would have done anything to be seen as anything less than a child. I'm quite a mature person (haha, they said ma-ture... like your mum...) and often preferred talking to adults as a kid, and it's pretty disheartening when you come away from a very intelligent conversation, and in their eyes, you're still just seen as a 'child'. In fact, this is the reason Madoka toys with the idea of getting the contract for all these episodes, which I was very happy about: honestly, I wouldn't have liked the show so much if Madoka had immediately gone into the contract. Nobody would. She comes close throughout the course of the series, but doesn't do anything about it until the... last few minutes/whole of the two final episodes. Ahem.
While the series doesn't really hit its groove until episode 2 or 3 (your mileage may vary, but I was sucked in on episode 2), it is so dark that at times, I wanted nothing more than to just hug the characters and tell them everything was going to be alright. I even caught myself screaming out whenever certain things happened... Kyubey was often the cause of this. Darn Incubator. I'm also going to add that Kyubey (or Q-B as he's also known) has to be one of the creepiest anime villains I've seen in a while. His voice is adorable and the way he prances around like this cute little pet you wish you could have, he is pretty terrifying. Granted, he's an alien and his race don't feel emotion, but his manipulative nature and tendency to skip the details is what makes him so creepy. Curling up to Madoka and Mami, taunting Homura, and following Sayaka around when she's at an absolute low are just a walk in the park to him. His cause, which is to suck energy out of magical girls as it has no entropy, may seem kind of noble, but he's just as villanous as any qi-sucking villain from other anime. (Also, gods, I could write an entire post on how there are so many energy-stealing villains in anime. Because human qi and prana are clearly much better, dare I say greener, than other alternatives... Heck, alien invaders, take as much energy as you can -- we're overpopulated anyway.)
Oh, and the soundtrack for Madoka is absolutely godly. While I'm not the hugest fan of the opening song, the ending theme (by the always awesome Kalafina/Yuki Kajiura) has almost immediately become one of my favourite anime songs. The background music alternates between rich orchestras and gentle Celtic-inspired tunes with plenty of harp and olde-worlde-sounding flutes, and it works very well, giving it an air of mysticism. The other pieces of music work just as well, and it's probably the only time I've ever looked forward to an anime OST coming out. (It's being released some time in May, apparently.)
Of course, the animation has to come into play, and for the most part, it is lovely, utilising a soft pastel colour palette until they suddenly pull the brightness meter down, which works really well in the show. The fight scenes are well animated, and the timing is very, very good. I also love the bizarre artwork that comes into play whenever they go into the Witches' Realm -- a lace doily will be used to open the scene like a stage curtain, strange objects like needles and pipettes will be in the foreground, etcetera. I remember some very simple animation in some scenes, but to be honest, I'm not going to deduct points for that when Berserk has shown me what simple animation really is. (I.e., using the same animation of a cannon firing five times in a row so the entire scene is pretty much 'BOOM' 'ARGH' 'BOOM' 'ARGH' 'BOOM' 'ARGH'.)
I suppose I should take time to comment on the ending, but I won't spoil it. As (fashionably, I hope) late I am to this particular party, I actually agree with what most have been saying about this ending: it was as good an ending as one could expect for the series. And that's about it, because I really don't want to spoil the ending. Spoiling the ending just doesn't work on 'cyber-paper', and you have to see it to believe it.
As much as I love the series, looking at it objectively, it's not slow to start, but it really did deserve better promotion and marketing. It's been rated as the best of Winter 2010-11 due to word of mouth, and deservedly so. However, these problems don't deserve points deducted off them. People who insist that it's a masterpiece... no, I'm not quite sure about that. It's well-written, well-animated, and a very good anime despite its short episode count, but maybe not a masterpiece. All anime fans should give this a go.
For all this, it deserves nothing less and nothing more than 9.5/10