2011 Dark Magical Girl Cartoons That Ended Up Great: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

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.


  1. TO tell you the truth, I really didn’t like the fact that the show ended with Madoka wishing the big problem away. I wanted something that forced the protagonists to work; this just felt anti-climactic.

  2. Excellent review. I felt much the same, especially comparing the ending to Shin Getter Robo. Most of my friends have attempted to compare it to Gurran Lagann, but that really doesn’t work.

  3. I really liked the speculation/guessing aspect of the show. In most other shows, you just sort of watch as the story, or an approximation of it, unfolds, but with Madoka, you feel an almost innate desire to guess what’ll happen next and analyze the universe’s mechanics. Without that, it just becomes another ‘dark’ cartoon.

    @genericpersona: Gurren Lagann’s the new Evangelion. Haven’t you heard? People will compare it to everything now. Star Driver, Amagami, etc.

  4. I’m going to go with Serial Experiments Lain as the closest comparison. Magical girl stuff aside, it works because it’s a really well-paced, well-structured thriller with an extraordinary sense of atmosphere. As you say though, it gets hung up on rules at the expense of characters. This emphasis on rules seems to be a recurring motif in recent (last five years or so) anime; it’s what made it impossible for me to take Death Note seriously, it’s what sent Eden of the East over the edge into absurdity, and it’s what ruined the last hour or so of Summer Wars. I’m sure if someone would care to analyse it properly, it could provoke some interesting observations though.

    But yeah, that gripe aside (and the fact that Madoka seems to exist entirely to look at people in an earnest way, start sentences that hang poignantly unfinished, and then burst into tears), it was an unexpectedly wonderful show.

  5. >Director Akiyuki Shinbo, the most overworked man in Japanese cartoons since Hajime Yatate

    Like many, I too presumed that he can’t possibly work on so many shows, until I read a rather detailed research post.

    It turns out he REALLY did a lot of work himself, such as drawing the storyboard for many episodes in his shows, using several pseudonyms.

    This man is a true workaholic.

  6. I liked it, but this is a far cry from being some unprecedented masterpiece.

    My largest gripes were the shallow characters and more importantly, the utterly contrived drama that sacrificed logic and good writing for overdone shock value, because you’re supposed to develop or flesh out your cast first if you want to invoke any sort of sympathy. Simply placing them tragic in circumstances is the kind of crap I expect from the hacks over at KEY and KyoAni.

    Other than that, it was a decent show with a very satifying ending.

  7. Nice review. Perfectly sums up the series. Now bring on the imitators. I look forward to dark magical girl show #32:My little sister can’t be this dark and magical.

  8. To be fair, the ending does require the characters to work, doesn’t it? Madoka solved the ‘reborn into a life of torment’ problem, but the rest are thrust right back into a straight-up grimdark magical girl show where they regularly die fighting against shadowy magical beasts.

  9. I may give this a try now that it has the CD seal of approval. I admit, I’ve hesitated because I’ve never liked anything SHAFT in general and Shinbo in particular has produced. Mostly because he is all too willing to cater to big creepy pedophiles (if he isn’t one himself), and the premise for Madoka is kind of a giant playground for that kind of person to skulk around in in an oversized trench coat and/or unmarked white van.

    Also because I keep getting frustrated hearing gushing fanboys squeal like there’s never been a really fantastic magical girl subversion show. Utena did pretty much everything I’ve heard this show be praised for in 1997, including the Faust-Mephistopheles angle!

  10. I’m a slightly torn about this ending myself. Emotionally speaking, it absolutely worked and the result was quite touching.

    From a critical perspective…I’d easily give the execution high marks, by all means, but the specific solution they used to wrap everything up still feels sort of whimsical and open to debate as opposed to truly necessary.

    I’d still call the end of Madoka a good ending, mind you, just one that is far from perfect.

    In response to your meta-aside though, I’d play the role of devil’s advocate and say Sunrise ended their most recent two season shows relatively well, at least compared to what actually preceded the final episodes. In fact, in both cases (00 S2 and CG R2) I was expecting a significantly worse resolution. Call it damning them with faint praise, if you will, but their problems had more to do with shoddy overall execution instead.

  11. Rosenritter: the level of otaku magical girl creepiness is something I never got around to in the review, but there really isn’t any. They’re pretty tasteful. I think the really successful shows realize that they can leave the sleaze for the fans to make themselves.

  12. The main bit of otaku creepiness was the way Shinbo begins every single scene featuring the girls with a shot of their legs followed by a pan up their bodies. Other than that, it was pretty restrained.

  13. > The main bit of otaku creepiness was the way Shinbo begins every single scene featuring the girls with a shot of their legs followed by a pan up their bodies. Other than that, it was pretty restrained.

    There’s actually several different pan-up techniques in play; probably the most common, the three-cut one, is a canned SHAFT money-saver more than anything else.

  14. There have been “dark” magical girl shows before Madoka, though.

  15. I mean, obviously I don’t claim to be an expert on the many and various ways Shaft like to display the thighs and skirt hems of teenage girls, but I’d still suggest it’s rather convenient that they managed to come up with a money-saver that also lingers suggestively over the female characters’ legs and lower parts. Even Gainax were happy to settle for a book in front of the mouth or a silhouette.

  16. I dunno, I think it is about as hacky as School Days, except School Days is actually entertaining.

    You explained the appeal of the show better than any of the fanboys, but even so I just don’t get how the stuff you mentioned as positives are in fact positive. GUESS IT’S JUST NOT MY THING, I’LL GO BACK TO WATCHING CARTOONS WHERE PEOPLE TALK AT EACH OTHER FOR 30 MINUTES.

  17. I feel like saying “Yes, I agree” to everything said in the post.

    Rosenritter: Have you watched any shows that SHAFT was the production company, or Shinbo the director?

  18. I’m just finding your blog after hearing your interview on ANNCast. I clicked on your link from this interview and found this review.

    I wouldn’t touch magical girl with a GPS satellite but somehow I got into this show. Thanx for explaining to me why I like it.

    I’m sure after reading a couple of your blogs that many will find you work harsh. Keep up the harshness. I like this blog.

  19. TheBigN: Yes, I have.

    Bakemonogatari – Felt parts of the snail girl arc kind of dubious. Dubiousness SUPER confirmed in the snake girl arc. Ugh.

    Tsukiyomi – Do I really need to say anything here?

    PaniPoniDash – Not as egregious as the above examples, but I do recall some shady posing of the little teacher girl.

    MariaHolic – Not necessarily pedo, but full of creepy misogynistic garbage. Emotionally tormenting a young lesbian is incredibly funny, guys!!!

    Given that these are also the only Shaft/Shinbo shows I’ve seen, that’s… a pretty nasty batting average.

    Please note that I’ve never finished any of these series, nor will I. Please don’t try to pull the argument of “If you watch more, it changes!” I can’t watch more of that kind of stuff. It bothers me too much, makes me too angry. I’ll only say that I have very personal reasons to feel this way and why this kind of awful garbage leaps out at me.

    The fact that a lot of otaku don’t even seem to register that some of this stuff can be really stomach-turning to others really says a lot about the fandom.

  20. Rosenritter: you ever seen Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei? It’s his one show where any one of his weird pedophilic tendencies that appear throughout could be taken as deliberate commentary on utter superfluousness of said tendencies.

    I’d say that Madoka Magica’s probably his best show since then, especially because it’s probably the closest that Shinbo’s style has ever come to reaching actual Utena-style visual meaning rather than superficial (but awesome) quirkiness. Madoka Magica also has a much lower quotient of “fan service” then Bakemonogatari, etc., so there is that.

  21. For a review meant to be positive it felt overwhelmingly negative and particularly jaded to me.

    I’m really not sure why the author watches anime given his critiques here.

    And though I watched the show after everyone else had (and did not get the benefit of having a conversation with anyone as I was watching it) I felt Madoka was significantly less on-the-nose and predictable than the author makes it out to be.

  22. I obviously do not understand this site well enough if someone on it liked Madoka that much, which is a good thing for me. Makes me want to read more just so I can really understand what’s going on in this blog.

    I gotta be honest though I don’t really see how you predicted certain things. Especially for example the entirety of episode 10. I really had no idea how Homura would be involved in THAT way, just that she was important.

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