Review: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Alright, alright, let’s not pretend this is something that it isn’t. You know why I’m here, I know why I’m here.

Madoka Magica received resounding popularity and praise, and completely upended the idea of what it meant to be a magical girl back in 2011. The ripples it made through the anime subculture is palpable, and it overcame the rolling tide that is seasonal anime to become a lasting major success.

If you’ve spent more than a few months in the anime world, I’m sure you’re more than aware as to what Puella Magi Madoka Magica is, and what its big twist is. If not… well, why don’t we get started?

(Seriously, if you don’t know what Madoka Magica is about, you’ll be seeing some spoilers down below! … Up to episode 4.)

An Introduction

Madoka Kaname had a weird dream last night.

There was this mysterious girl, she was jumping around and fighting against something big, and there was also this white cat-thing… Well, dreams are just that way, I suppose. But when Madoka arrived at school that morning, a new transfer student came in: Homura Akemi. Wait, Homura looks just like that girl in that dream last night! She seems to know who Madoka is too, and she gives Madoka a cryptic message: if you cherish the ones you love, don’t do anything to change yourself. Stay as you are.

This only left Madoka confused, and her confusion grew even more when she heard a voice calling out to her: the source was that same white cat-thing (which called itself Kyubey) as it was being chased down and shot at by Homura. After stumbling into Kyubey, she also wound up face-to-face with Mami, and the world of magical girls was opened up to her.

It’s a bit overwhelming and sounds pretty dangerous, but Kyubey makes a pretty nice offer: if you become a magical girl, he will grant you one wish – no matter what that wish is.

Suddenly, Madoka finds her life has been turned upside down. She and her best friend Sayaka experience first-hand how dangerous being a magical girl can be, by watching Mami die in front of them. In the void of Mami’s absence, Madoka finds herself needing to answer a number of questions: Does she want to become a magical girl, even after learning the price you pay as one, as well as the ultimate fate all magical girls face? What does she even want to wish for? And will she lose all her friends in the process?

The Plot and Characters

Writing a cohesive, well-paced, all-ends-tied-up, satisfying story for a 12-episode series is really hard. That honestly isn’t a lot of time. Given that the first 2 or 3 episodes are usually dedicated to introducing the characters and the world, and the final 3 are the main climax and the buildup to it, you’re already left with about 6 episodes – half the total amount – to add suspense, worldbuilding, and depth. If you do one adventure or one topic per episode, that’s already a tough time. (On top of that, movies have even less time to tell a story, so it’s even more of a feat when a film is able to pull off a wholly satisfying plot.)

So when it comes to 12-episode (1-cour) shows, Madoka Magica often stands out in my mind as the ideal example as to how to write a plot for this short period of time.

Usually, when trying to create a whole story in a single cour, something ends up suffering. Sometimes it’s a character’s backstory or motivation, other times it’s just failing to fully realize the story’s premise or idea (like Yuri on Ice), or you’ll see the pacing falter (as in Brynhildr in the Darkness), and in some cases (such as Beyond the Boundary) it’s the worldbuilding that ends up lacking. In the case of Madoka Magica, however, it’s hard to find anything that really felt underdeveloped. Everything they do, they do in the perfect amount, and (almost) all of it ties back into the main storyline somehow. Devilman Crybaby, which I recently reviewed, also does exceptionally well at crafting a story in so few episodes, and Madoka Magica is even leaner than that show.

In essence, the point of Madoka Magica is to present a different take on how being a magical girl works. It takes the elements of the genre – the transformations, the magical powers, the never-ending onslaught of enemies to fight – and bases them in reality in a different way. The big baddie of the day here are “witches”, mysterious creatures that bring despair and sadness to their victims through this weird zombie-like mind-control state. Witches must be confronted in their labyrinths: reality-bending dungeons where minions can come out and attack you. And as the show does a deeper dive into all of this stuff and more, it reveals a surprisingly dark underbelly as the tone grows more and more grim. This also becomes the focus of the worldbuilding, a task they could do as beyond this whole magical girl thing, the world is just like our own – just maybe a few years in the future.

Madoka Magica, rather than throwing all of its secrets and info at you right out of the gate, though, withholds these revelations and plot twists, like cards in a hand, only to be shown at precisely the right time.

And it’s this withholding of information, both through the “mascot” character Kyubey in-universe and through what the camera and writing direction allows us (the viewers) to see, that makes Madoka Magica so effective. We’re brought into this show expecting it to be some visually-impressive but otherwise standard-fare entry into the magical girl genre, and Madoka Magica plays with this expectation we have, allowing it to misdirect us and bring us on this path that slowly takes apart everything we expect and replaces it with something completely different.

But on top of that, the show never directly lies to you either. Mami and Homura in the beginning tell Madoka and her friend Sayaka, in no uncertain terms, how dangerous being a magical girl is, and that it’s not as pretty as it seems; Kyubey – the all-knowing reference guide on “how to magical girl” – is consistent in his explanations and tone, the biggest fault he has is that the info he provides comes down to the questions you ask him. Once you watch the whole show the first time through and everything is revealed to you, you can go back and watch it all a second time and see the true meaning behind everything that gets said, every action that is taken. But even if you only watch it once, you still learn exactly everything the show wants to tell you – you really don’t need multiple viewings to truly “get” Madoka Magica the same way you have to with other shows, which is great.

The first two episodes maintain a slightly lighter tone in comparison to how dark the rest of the series can get. The writers had intended to blindside their viewers back in 2012 with a tone shift, but at this point now, given the popularity of the series, it’s hard to really take the lighter tone seriously as most anime fans know the show by reputation alone. To be fair, the show isn’t exactly coy about its darker inclinations in these first episodes either, so it’s hard to really call it an unforeseeable tone shift in any case. And I will note, despite how much I (and other reviewers) talk about how dark this show is/can get, it’s definitely not the darkest thing you’ve seen out there, nor is it the darkest anime ever made – even among magical girl shows. There’s definitely parts and revelations that can make you gasp, but the show stops short of presenting anything truly deplorable on screen – even with characters dying, I don’t think we see that much blood. This is still being made for TV, after all.

From an overall cast of about 14, six of them can be pretty much considered the main lead roles. One of these six is the mascot character, Kyubey; Kyubey and Madoka both end up being the catalysts to this entire plot, with Kyubey more visibly so.

The other five are the five magical girls (or non-magical humans) that we use to explore this show’s world: Madoka, Sayaka, Mami, Homura, and Kyoko. Homura, Kyoko, and Mami start off the series already turned into magical girls, and they enter into Madoka and Sayaka’s lives for each their own reason. Since each of the five has a different personality and outlook on life, and a majority have varying levels of inexperience as a magical girl, the show expertly utilizes this to explore this world from different angles and through different lenses. Mami, despite her attention in the fandom (and promotional artwork) and her importance to the others in the main group, is not present for the majority of the series. She’s the one that introduces Madoka and Sayaka to the world of magical girls, and the two look up to her as their mentor and friend – which makes for a fitting change in tone when she’s suddenly killed at the end of episode 3.

Rather than escaping the underground world of magical girls after Mami’s death, though, Madoka and Sayaka stay roped in as Sayaka decides to turn into a magical girl herself. The absence of Mami’s guiding hand turns the whole experience into a frightening one for them, though, as they stumble through it all themselves, only given help when they know what to ask Kyubey. And the further they dive in, the more they see and the more emotional baggage and trauma they accumulate. On top of that, they’re pitted up against Kyoko (a bona fide veteran) and Homura (who’s been antagonistic from the start), who both have their own reasons for intervening. They’re antagonistic, but it’s justifiable as we delve more into their characters in turn: they both already have a tremendous amount of baggage – due in part to being magical girls and also due to their respective backstories.

The rest of the cast are supporting roles, quite literally, as their actions and existence are there to support the personalities and motivations of the main cast. They’re present in the story for a purpose, and once they fulfill their purpose, they fade into the background so the show can focus in on our five leads. As a result, there’s not a lot of extraneous characters here. The only ones I could consider pretty much unnecessary are Madoka’s dad and her homeroom teacher: two characters that would leave more questions if they were absent.

Madoka Magica’s pacing is another thing to marvel. It’s fast, so that they’re able to get through everything that there is to explore, but it’s extremely consistent, and it’s not too fast so as to leave you overwhelmed. With this pacing, along with how they drop-feed you information, the show does a good job at making sure you’re not left behind when it reveals its next card.

If I were to level any complaints at this show, I’d only have two:

First, I have a bit of a love-and-hate relationship with Madoka. She’s definitely the main character of the show (her name is in the title), but she lacks a goal until well into the second half of the series. The only thing she seems to want is for everyone to be happy – an admirable goal, sure, but it doesn’t really answer what she actually wants to do with her own life. Everything else, she just kind of hems and haws about. While she jumps in and helps out when others around her jump to action, she doesn’t really take any initiative herself until the end. But at the same time, that’s kind of the goal of her personal arc. We don’t know what she wants to do with her life because she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life; it’s something that’s focused on and returned to throughout the series, so there’s character growth and all that stuff. Given how high-stakes some of the situations are and how much pressure she’s under, it’s no surprise that she has a hard time immediately making a decision. A lot of this is still new to her, and she’s still young and has a lot to figure out. But I have a hard time getting behind indecisive characters, and even though the show does ultimately sell her story to me, I feel this is a character arc they could’ve spent a bit more time on in the first half.

My second complaint is in regards to Homura, but I don’t want to give out any more spoilers than I already have, so I’ll try to keep it vague: I love a lot of what they did with her and her character, but there’s a few points where I wonder if the things she does are realistically the actions Homura would take. To an extent, the show kind has a counterargument against my complaint, but I feel some of her actions (or inactions) were simply done so that the writers could keep the mystery and intrigue.

Honestly though, I don’t even think about these complaints while I’m in the middle of watching this show. Even though I’ve seen it a handful of times already, I still get sucked in and fall in love all over again every time I put it back on. It’s definitely hyperbolic to call this is one of the best anime shows ever made, as others have done, but it is certainly up there on my personal list.

The Atmosphere

Puella Magi Madoka Magica’s visuals are striking, but beyond the grandiose architecture used in backgrounds and the avant-garde witch labyrinth sections, as well as the intentional disconnect between the less-assuming character designs and the darker tone, there honestly isn’t that much that I can consider truly amazing. The animation and art quality is well-done and fluid throughout the entire series, including the nicely-choreographed action scenes, but Madoka Magica could be considered just a solid production if it weren’t for those 3 elements I listed above.

But indeed, it’s those elements that help elevate this show’s visuals into something more memorable. Shaft, the main animation studio behind Madoka Magica, are often guilty of extraordinary architectural works in their shows, such as the Koyomi bathroom in the Monogatari series, and this is no exception; Madoka’s middle school is a combination of futuristically stark and traditionally ornate and seems as large as a college campus. The witch labyrinths are where Shaft’s visual effects muscle can flex (alongside some outside help, as well), producing some truly memorable artwork. The labyrinths tend to incorporate some real-life craft materials and other photorealistic objects, in some middle step between Terry Gilliam’s sections in Monty Python and the fully-realized craft aesthetic in Yoshi’s Crafted World. It would’ve been costly and difficult for the animators to use this aesthetic for the entirety of the show – as much as I would’ve loved to see it – but I’m glad they went all out in these sections.

Lastly, we come to the character designs, created by Ume Aoki. Aoki is the creator of Hidamari Sketch, a lighthearted slice-of-life manga that has essentially no tonal connection to Madoka Magica – and thus her designs are likewise lighter, cuter, and extremely moe. These descriptions also match her designs for the characters in this show as well, which helped with the producers’ intentions to blindside viewers with the darker tone. Even when the darker moments began, though, the designs (somewhat surprisingly) didn’t seem too out of place though; part of it was that they were adapted to be more flatter and fit in more by Takahiro Kishida.

Each character has their own distinct color and overall look, which really helps keep each one distinct; even if you’re terrible like names (like I am), you can instantly tell apart who is who in any given scene. Wild hair colors is super common in anime, and those same colors also extend to the characters’ clothes and eyes as well. Whether it’s the more casual/school-outfit look or the magical girl forms, I think the designs for all the human characters here are good. I also do have to praise the designs for Kyubey and the witches as well, they are truly awesome – although I wish they did more with Kyubey’s face than a simply pair of 2 circular pink eyes; it sometimes does seem a bit odd in the more serious moments of the show.

One amusing aspect of Madoka Magica’s visuals, though, is how the human characters are drawn when they’re in the distance or out of focus (and sometimes Kyubey as well). So much detail was omitted or changed at times that the results can look pretty comical – these drawings became the basis of the in-fandom meme Meduca Meguca.

It is, of course, impossible to talk about Madoka and its visuals without mentioning the disparity between the broadcast and Blu-Ray versions of the show. It isn’t uncommon for studios to return to earlier episodes and try to clean them up and improve them between the broadcast and the eventual Blu-Ray release, but what’s more noteworthy for Madoka is how much of a difference there can be.

Entire backgrounds were re-constructed for episode 2’s Blu-Ray release, for example, including adding and rearranging furniture to Mami’s room and changing her coffee table to glass. That one is a more well-known example, but you can go online and find a number of comparison images between the TV (broadcast) and Blu-Ray versions of a lot of the examples. It was no secret that Shaft was running right up until airtime to complete some of the episodes. The tragedy that was the 2011 Tohoku earthquake/tsunami and the nationwide mourning that followed gave the staff enough time to finish up the last 2 episodes without needing to delay further – I do wonder how the show would’ve turned out if that disaster hadn’t happened.

Madoka Magica has a distinct soundtrack, but I wonder how much of me saying that is simply because I’ve listened to it on its own? It is a great soundtrack, and – with the consistency with the instrumentation – feels like an integral part of the show; I doubt any other sound could really fit in quite as well. But beyond maybe a handful of tracks, I feel a lot of it isn’t really memorable outside of the show. That handful, though, really are great and stand out very well – such as the rocking guitar-heavy jam that is Magia, the uplifting track used for transformations called Credens Justitiam, and the mysterious but bouncy track played while Kyubey explains a facet of magical girl-ness called Sis Puella Magica! Yuki Kajiura does a great job, but she’s known for the quality of her work, so that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

Once the darker tone of the show comes more into the forefront in episode 3, the show also begins using Magia for the ending theme. I do wonder if, perhaps, the song is a tad over-used by the time the series is done, but at the same time, with a killer tune like that, they’d want to get as much out of it as they can. Two other songs are used for ending themes – Mata Ashita for episodes 1 and 2, and And I’m Home for episode 9 – although it’s possible these may’ve actually been added in during the Blu-ray release. Magia, as I’ve said, is pretty awesome (and the other two songs are nice and fitting for their episodes, even if they’re a bit generic), but all the ending animations tend to be pretty lackluster: either an image slowly scrolling or a silhouette of Madoka walking as she passes by other characters’ silhouettes.

The opening song is Connect, sung by Claris, and it’s pretty fun and upbeat, amusingly so given the direction of the later episodes at times. Unlike what others say though, I don’t think it feels as out of place in the latter episodes myself – it may be that I’ve simply accepted this song as a part of the Madoka experience. I enjoy the opening animation a lot though, and with every new rewatching of the show, I find something else in the animation I like.

While I don’t necessarily think the transition from dubs or subs to the other in this show is as smooth as it may be in others, I have seen and appreciate both. I think you’ll have a good time no matter which language you choose; there isn’t necessarily anything the English nor Japanese cast do that blows the other’s performance out of the water, so I can recommend either. I do want to praise Madoka and Kyubey’s voice actors on the Japanese side (Aoi Yuki and Emiri Kato, respectively) and Madoka and Sayaka’s voice actors on the English side (Christine Marie Cabanos and Sarah Anne Williams, respectively) – the English voice actor for Kyubey, Cassandra Lee, does an overall good job too.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

Honestly, at this point, there’s not really anything that can be said about Madoka Magica that others haven’t already said. That’s why this review ended up turning into the longest piece I’ve written yet; I’m not aiming this at people who are unfamiliar at the show – instead, I’m aiming this towards existing fans that want to see another person’s thoughts on the experience. At this point, I’m assuming pretty much everybody knows about this show.

Madoka Magica truly is great, though. There’s so much this show does right, it can be hard to come up with any criticisms at times. It’s an emotional, high-stakes, no-punches-held story, combined unexpectedly with middle school girls and the magical girl genre. If you haven’t seen it yet (somehow), I highly suggest you go and do so. And if you decide to jump off, make sure you do after episode 3 or 4, just so you’re not jumping off before Madoka Magica finally bears its teeth.

Rating: Near Perfect
Recommendation: Put This On Immediately
+++ great story told in 12 episodes, fascinating world and mechanics, Magia (ending theme)
— Madoka is indecisive and unsure (although she’s written that way), Homura’s characterization, ending animations

P.S. If you’re curious about hearing the thoughts of some people who are just now watching the series for the first time, I humbly suggest you check out the podcast Madoka Magicast to get their episode-by-episode reactions.

 

2 thoughts on “Review: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

    1. Honestly, it’s been years since I’ve first watched this show, but when I did, I was astonished and impressed with it. My experience was just honestly amazing. I’ve also had the joy of seeing a number of other people watch through the show for their first time. 🙂

      “Near Perfect” is the highest rating I can give a show; I don’t want to call things “Perfect” because nothing is ever perfect. But this show gets about as close as can be reasonably attained!

      Liked by 1 person

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