Don't be fooled by this anime. From the art and all the promotional material it looks like your typical Magical Girl anime. That was a purposefull deception. If you aren't familiar with this franchise, then do yourself a favor and stop reading reviews right now. The most important thing is that you avoid spoilers, and if you keep doing what seems like reasonable research before investing your time into a series, you can end up ruining the experience. For goodness sake don't read the Wikipedia article!
I'm like you, and I normally will read up on a series before I buy it, but I lucked into this one without doing any research at all, and I'm so glad that I did. I'm a 42 year old male anime fan, so you might think I'm outside the demographic for this show, and so did I. I've been collecting anime since 1988, yet until very recently I had never even finished a single episode of Sailor Moon. I loved Tenchi Muyo, so I was able to stomach some Magical Girl Pretty Sammy, so I'm not completely unfamiliar with the Mahou Shoujo genre, but it's really not my thing. I only watched this because Christine Cabanos, the English voice actress for the main character was going to be at a local anime convention and I wanted to be familiar with her work before meeting her. I did absolutely no research whatsoever. After watching the first two episodes, it was headed in exactly the direction I expected it to be going, and I wasn't too excited to hit play on episode three, but I'm so glad that I did. The first two episodes aren't all that interesting to watch, but believe me, you will enjoy them a lot more when you re-watch them, and you will. Once you finish episode ten and realize just what has been going on, a re-watch is practically mandatory.
I've already told you how important it is to avoid spoilers, and even revealing the nature of the show is a major spoiler, but you do need to know one thing: Give it at least three episodes. The end of episode three marks a major turning point in the series. To say that the plot gets serious at that point is an understatement. Everything changes; the story loses its frivolous nature, the art, settings and even the music change to suit the new dramatic nature of the plot, and it's at this point that you should make your judgment on whether or not to finish the series. Don't get me wrong, this is a Mahou Shoujo anime to the end, but if you are a fan of extremely well written stories, and I mean on the level of Shakespeare, Goethe, and classical Greek legend, then this is for you, regardless of whether or not you like Magical Girls.
Lets break it down:
ART: 9/10 I've seen better animated shows. Especially close-ups on the character's faces leave something to be desired, but still, this animation is well above average. The use of backgrounds and lighting to set the mood for the scene is done with masterful skill. The use of a completely different art style to set the witch labyrinths apart from the real world is jarring at first, but you can't deny it IS effective. Every image is meaningful. It's directed by Akiyuki Shinbo, so you'll probably have to watch it a second time to pick up on all the symbolism.
STORY: 10/10 This is the real selling point of the anime. Since I started watching anime in 1988 I have never come across a better written show, bar none. Again, I'm not going to give anything away, so I'm just going to ask you to trust me here. I can say that if you have heard that this is a deconstruction of the genre, then you heard right. It asks questions that other shows in the genre don't ask, and plays out the consequences of the character's actions and choices in a fully serious and realistic manner. However, its more than that. It borrows heavily from the classics to give a surprisingly deep and well thought out story. One that stands up to analysis, and if you're a writer yourself, prepare to be inspired.
MUSIC: 10/10 If you have never really paid attention to Japanese composers, this show may change that. The music is absolutely perfect. Where the show wants to be light and uplifting (mostly in the first two episodes) the music does that quite well. Where the music really shines is in the dramatic scenes and the action, where the music can set the tone for a scene equally well, if not more so, than the visuals. This music can lift your spirit or crush your soul, whichever is required for the scene. Previously, my favorite anime composer was Yoko Kanno, but after watching this, Yuki Kajiura is now top of my list.
THE DUB: 8/10 Not bad. Some other reviewers, particularly on Amazon, have given Christine Cabanos a bad rap, but I don't agree. She may be new to the voice acting scene, but she does a good job here as the main character Madoka. The role was demanding, with a LOT of emotion, and I think she delivered that emotion believably. Christina Valenzuela does an outstanding job as Homura. Her character is almost the opposite of Madoka, with little emotion (at least in the first half of the series) and an intensity that doesn't really suit a middle school student, but once you have seen the full series, you will understand that this is exactly what her character called for.
OVERALL: 9+/10 Now, I own the DVD and have seen the Netflix version. I haven't seen the Blu-ray version, but I have heard that the animation was upgraded, with a lot more detail added. If that is true, then I could see giving this a near perfect score. Perhaps I will update this review if I ever do watch the Blu-ray.
RECOMMENDATION: If you are looking for a light, fun piece of entertainment, then this may not be for you. I wouldn't recommend this for younger audiences either. It really is written for a more mature, discerning, intelligent audience, and may even be off-putting, if not inappropriate for young viewers. Hint: Parents, this show ain't for your eight year old daughter. Now, by inappropriate, I don't mean it has a lot of blood, gore, and sex. In fact it has no sex, only the briefest nudity (like during transformation sequences, as is typical for Magical Girl anime), and although it does have violence, it isn't all that bloody and definitely not gory. Still, the story deals with very serious material, and the realities of being a Magical Girl are atypical of the genre to say the least. This is a deconstruction of the Magical Girl genre in a similar sense that Unbreakable was a deconstruction of the Super Hero genre, and Madoka Magica contains no laughs.
If, on the other hand, you grew up with Sailor Moon and would like someone to write a Magical Girl story for your now older and more refined tastes, with a story that will change the way you look at the genre, then get this. If you just like well written stories, that don't pull any punches and make you feel like you've been on an emotional roller coaster by the end, then this is definitely for you.
Sadly, it's Aniplex, so it's expensive. It may be available on Netflix or Hulu or right here on Anime Planet, but titles on those sites come and go. I have a feeling that after experiencing this series, you will want to own it, like I did. And if, by the time you are reading this, it isn't available from those sources anymore, then take my word for it, it's worth the price of admission.