This review contains vague statements which could be construed as spoilers for Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
Let’s try something a little different for Colony Drop. Today we are going to take a look at the anime that hardcore otaku are falling all over themselves about… except this time, the show’s actually going to be good. The show could have fallen at any moment, but Puella Magi Madoka Magica somehow stayed strong throughout. Be warned, however, that it’s less a magical girl cartoon and more a very easy puzzle about the rules of magical girls, told very cleverly and with fantastic atmosphere.
My first contact with Madoka was in the earliest publicity. It was being presented as a humble magical girl anime, something entirely different from what it ultimately turned out to be, but the main staffers were turning some heads already. Director Akiyuki Shinbo, the most overworked man in Japanese cartoons since Hajime Yatate, was coming off the massive sales success of Bakemonogatari, and by all indications this was SHAFT’s Next Big Thing. But “Shinbo’s making anime” could mean anything. So could “Yuki Kajiura’s doing the music,” for that matter.
The wild card here was the writer, the porn game mogul Gen “Butch” Urobuchi. My eyebrows raised at this, and the red lights were going off in my head. Urobuchi and his company Nitroplus are known for extreme shock-value material (link absolutely not safe for work). Juxtaposed with Ume “Wideface” Aoki’s adorable character designs, Madoka was already starting to look a little devious. For better or worse, and expecting a complete disaster, I put the show on my to-watch list.
The early episodes certainly confirmed any suspicion one might have had upon seeing Urobuchi’s name. Two middle-school friends (one of whom is the title character) are approached by an older girl and an animal mascot, who attempt to recruit them into fighting witches as Puella Magi (magical girls; we’re told the Latin is wrong). That part’s innocuous, but the execution is not.
The incredibly creepy mascot, Kyubey, has one dead-eyed facial expression, the voice of a little boy and the persistence of a door-to-door salesman (or a child molester). He is shot like the Devil. Even the older girl Mami, playing the role of big sister, smirks ominously and watches our heroines from clock towers for no stated reason. Shinbo screams at you through his angles and shadows and framing that hey, guys, this is not as it seems! The “witches” are abstract terrors who live in an alternate universe that you’ve seen in the opening animations of a thousand Shinbo shows and which can only be described as “Shinbo Land”. Nobody is telling you that anything is wrong until a few episodes in, but everything you see and hear (Kajiura’s score included) is as ominous as it could possibly be.
As Madoka progresses, it becomes a story about the increasingly vicious rules of a cruel ecosystem consisting of magical girls, the witches they kill, and the average folks the witches feed upon. Fans voraciously theorized and debated every week between episodes, and a lot of people got it very right very early (I was about 80% on my personal Madoka “What’s Really Good?” scorecard). In every episode, a few of the rules are heavily implied by circumstantial evidence. The cliffhanger endings usually reveal something that the viewer strongly suspected by spelling it out directly, either using Kyubey or the mysterious transfer student (and, for much of the show, exposition device) Akemi Homura.
Even the most oblivious viewer is not allowed to miss Madoka‘s twists, and it’s likely that you’ll see them episodes in advance. These revelation scenes are often a bit of an “oh, you” chuckle, particularly one where Kyubey actually turns to the viewer and confirms something which the show had spent weeks making painfully obvious. Quite a bit of the appeal of the show was that you did know, and the dread that crept up over you as these girls tiptoed into cosmic slavery.
In the first few weeks people were calling it a deconstruction of the magical girl tropes: after all, if an unknown life form approached little girls and offered them superpowers in exchange for killing monsters, wouldn’t that be a little scary? Isn’t the whole enterprise suspect? But Madoka doesn’t linger with these questions any longer than it needs to: it pulls down its core elements almost immediately. It is in the wake of this that it builds up a new system. And make no mistake, the show is about the system.
As is the fashion, these rules pile up on the girls and crush them a tiny bit more every week. A major criticism against the show has been that these characters are little tragedy boxes who the show drags through mud without even the courtesy of letting us get to know them. I’ll agree with this to a point: the show is certainly more about the rules than the girls themselves. Often the girls seem to exist merely to function as cogs, who only begin to feel human in their final moments. As the series progresses, however, these characters actually go somewhere: a place other than tea and cake, slow Jun Maeda deaths or hackish, School Days-style shock value trash. What’s more, Madoka bucks anime’s trends even further by, shock of shocks, ending well.
If you’ll allow me a brief meta-aside: anime endings tend to suck. If you’ve been watching anime for any length of time, you know how this can get. You put six or 13 hours (or, god forbid, a hundred if you watch Shonen Jump stuff) into watching some cartoon and it stubbornly refuses to offer any kind of payoff on any of its great ideas. There’s some bullshit deus ex machina or a “to be continued in a videogame/manga/manga videogame/action figure series”. Or maybe you’re watching a two-season Sunrise show, in which the whole thing was sabotaged behind the scenes at the first ratings dip in order to sell more model kits, gashapon toys, or Pizza Hut.
Because Madoka is an unraveling puzzle, it’s particularly important for the show to have a decent ending. If the writer cops out at tying together all the strings that have been laid out, then the whole show was a cop-out and we’ve all retroactively lost six hours of our lives (plus all the Internet discussion!). This is a common situation when you’re watching TV anime, and usually you can count those hours as lost ahead of time.
Well, I’d like to congratulate Butch for not copping out one bit on Madoka. The last three episodes blow the system open and our heroine — who has spent the entire show thinking quietly, long and hard, about what she is going to do about this crazy business — actually solves it. I’ll leave the details to you when you watch it, but the ending of Madoka is sastisfying beyond any expectations I held for the show, well worth the wait, and kind of reminiscent of Shin Getter Robo.
(About “the wait”: because they were originally scheduled to run right around the earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, and because of images that were even more uncomfortably close to the disaster with each successive episode, the final episodes were delayed a month. During this period, fans agonized even harder over the ending. Sadly, the most worthless of the fanbase shamelessly whined that a major disaster was keeping them from their cartoons.)
There’s a lot of noise to the effect that Madoka is an epoch-making show, and the most common comparison is Evangelion. I don’t know about all that just yet — it’s huge in otaku land but it certainly doesn’t appear to have become any kind of mainstream cultural phenomenon, unlike Eva — but I’ll tell you one thing: the biggest parallel between these shows is that hacks will be trying to make “dark” magical girl shows for the rest of the decade, all of which will miss the point.
Is Madoka a great show? Without a doubt. Is it a masterpiece? I feel like the speech about entropy and Kyouko’s origin story were so ridiculous by themselves as to disqualify it from that title… but let’s give it a couple of years. There’s some silly stuff in that Gundam show too.