Beyond its years: A critical review of “Puella Magi Madoka Magica” (2011)

We screwed up, Tonstant Weader. I got my dates wrong, and I missed the technical 10-year anniversary of cosmic-horror-by-way-of-magical-girl anime “Puella Magi Madoka Magica,” whose original run concluded in April of 2011.

To be fair, this blog has yet to meet a Madoka product it didn’t like. This retrospective review was always going to be at best biased and at worst a foregone conclusion. The original series still stands as one of our favorite anime; the subsequent movie (the one that’s not a recap of the series, not that there’s anything wrong with that) is a worthy successor; and the side-story-sequel series was one of our favorite shows of 2020.

But everything has to start somewhere. What makes “Madoka” worth talking about 10 (plus) years later? To put it simply, “Madoka” is a series that defies expectations about what a magical girl show could be in terms of story, visuals and sound.

Less simply, “Madoka” is the story of the titular Madoka Kaname, a regular 14-year-old student in a regular Japanese city. She and a friend are offered a chance by a cat-bunny-thing to become magical girls – individuals who must tirelessly fight surreal creatures called witches – in exchange for having their dearest wish granted. When the girls express skepticism, they are paired with a senior magical girl to show them the ropes, all while being shadowed by another girl with unknown intentions. The deeper they get into the adjacent reality of magical girls, the more they realize they don’t know anything about reality itself.

“Madoka” is what you get when the writer of your new magical girl show had previously penned a kinda pervy visual novel that is one of the most stealth H. P. Lovecraft stories ever written (seriously people, “Song of Saya” is my favorite video game I’ve never played). Screenwriter Gen Urobuchi covers familiar ground regarding responsibility and “be careful what you wish for,” but he also taps into the fallout of escaping reality through fantasy, living with the trauma of individual decisions, what it truly means to be selfish or selfless, and cosmic acceptance.

The characters are deep in a slow-burning way. The show is called “Madoka,” but Madoka herself is hardly the most interesting character. She’s fine, a pleasant presence and useful entry to the world, but she’s joined by brooding and complex Homura, motherly but guarded Mami, and brash softie Kyoko. I’m a Sayaka Miki man myself: self-embarrassed and self-destructive, a brave face that hides romantic naivety and personal weakness, good intentions that grasp for nobility but often end in tragedy, and the unshakable guilt that follows a subconscious willingness to hurt other people.

Whoa, that got dark. Weren’t we just discussing a cartoon about 14-year-old girls?

Still, as the show itself notes, girls of that age might be the most emotionally appropriate actors – given the ups and downs of adolescence coupled with the particular pressures on young women – to stage a deep psychological drama.

If you are curious but still skeptical, at least watch until episode three. Every Madoka fan will likely agree with that assessment, although it’s nice to know that even after that, there are still moments ahead. Episodes seven and eight had similar gut punches for this viewer, but you might get more out of six or nine or 10. The series is flexible in its darkness and revelations, and more than that, it’s tight as a tourniquet. Also, it’s worth noting that “Madoka” has one of the best in-universe explanations for the “chosen one” archetype this blog ever seen.

After narrative, the most striking thing might be its visuals. Ume Aoki’s character designs are distinct from much of the other anime around at the time, particularly in the ultimate use of color and shading, light and shadow. There is often a dreamlike quality, regardless of whether scenes are taking place in the mundane world or the fantastic.

Special mention must also be given to design team Gekidan Inu Curry for handling the stylized witch sequences. The result looks like the 2D characters are interacting with an acid-drenched multimedia collage. Accordingly, each encounter resembles a cross between a late game boss battle and a Hieronymus Bosch triptych, and this blog is hard-pressed to think of something similar (the 2007 series “Mononoke” perhaps?).

That leaves us with sound. The series composer was Yuki Kajiura, who had previously provided the excellent soundtrack for the introspective fantasy “.hack//SIGN.” “Madoka’s” equally eclectic soundtrack sports intense mashups of rock and orchestral instrumentals, but also medieval flavored pieces to hint at timelessness and mystery, acoustic pieces to suggest self-reflection, and atmospheric percussive movements to keep things plummeting forward.

It doesn’t hurt that the opening and closing themes are fitting as well. The show opens with a pleasant J-pop song by duo ClariS, and then closes with a swirling vocal-heavy metal track by trio Kalafina, suggesting the darkness ahead (compare to “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” which opened with a catchy J-rock track, but closed with offbeat and laid-back covers of “Fly Me to the Moon”). Cleverly, the closing track is something a little more poppy for the first two episodes, right until consequences emerge.

Every time someone says series X was the first to do something, it’s only a matter of time before someone else argues series Y did it first, and someone else argues series Z beat them both. I will not say that “Madoka” was the first dark magical girl series, but I will say that “Madoka” is probably the first magical girl series to tell the story it did, and to do so while looking and sounding just so, with every element reinforcing the tragedy to come.

I love me my first season of “Higurashi,” but “Madoka” might be the best stealth horror series in anime. It is a perfect storm of suggestion and psychological depth, and it does not quite look or sound like anything before or since. That singular mixture is precisely why the series has kept viewers engaged for more than a decade.

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