Puella Magi Madoka Magica
High school student Madoka Kaname recently had a weird dream of running on a flat surface in a black-and-white world, eventually climbing a staircase. There she sees a door to a dark, decayed city, watching a black-haired girl fight rainbow-colored snake-like enemies. Madoka comments on how terrible it is, with a white-furred creature telling Madoka that she can change that girl's destiny by becoming a magical girl. Before she can answer, Madoka wakes up from her dream. At school, she meets Homura Akemi, the girl she saw in her dream, who tells Madoka not to change how she is. After school, Madoka and her best friend Sayaki Miki go shopping, while Homura tries to kill the furry creature Madoka saw in her dream in a dark corner of the store. He then lures Madoka wit his voice to come and save her, which she does. She also finds an angry Homura with chains, but she's saved by Sayaka using a fire extinguisher on Homura. The two manage to escape her, but are soon stuck in a surreal world. They are quickly saved by a senior high school student / magical girl named Mami Tomoe, who introduces the furry creature as Kyubey. She then saves Madoka and Sayaka using her magical girl assortment of hundreds of guns. After the fight ends, Mami heals Kyubey, who then introduces himself to Madoka and Sayaka. He then asks them to become Puella Magi (magical girls), as does eventually Mami. This is the start of a long journey that will change the lives of all parties involved, now and in the future..
A deceptive series if there ever was one, Puella Magi Madoka Magica takes the magical girl genre and flips it on its very head. The result is a beautiful, well-written, and surprisingly dark series that couldn't be any further from all the Sailor Moons and Pretty Cures out there.
The thing is, you wouldn't know this at first glance. For nearly the first three episodes of the show, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is not unlike a typical magical girl series. Foreboding dream sequences, comedy antics with Madoka's family, and chatting with her friends at school are the typical norm in series like this. Even the opening theme, a standard magical girl opener with a series of scenes of Madoka as a magical girl screwing up magic, gives no hints to the future of the series. The cute character designs by Hidamari Sketch creator Ume Aoki were probably done to further throw people off.
That said, the early episodes do give some vague hints of the series' darker tone. None of the Puella Magi in the series attack with rods or elements of nature or other cutesy stuff - they attack with guns, swords, spears, and other weapons. It's more Soul Calibur than Sailor Moon or Nanoha. Team-ups with various magical girls also rarely happen - it's every girl for herself out there in the city, as Mami points out early on. Soul Gems, which every magical girl has, are used to give them energy, so every battle counts; no monster-of-the-day crap here. Even the expected magical girl transformations are fairly rare.
The main enemies in this series, witches, come in a variety of shapes and sizes, each drawn with imaginative, highly stylized art styles, typically across equally stylized backgrounds. Popcorn-head bugs, flying scissors, chocolate ball-shaped giant heads, and android angel-like beings are just a few of the forms they take. The witches are also said to be born from curses, as opposed to magical girls being born from wishes.
After the end of episode three Mami is dropped from the show, and the series becomes a lot colder and darker. This is where it becomes apparent that the writer of this series is Gen Urobuchi, who's also behind the dark Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom. The real truth behind magical girls and witches is revealed, and a lot of the cast are put into situations where they either die or almost do, typically on a per-episode basis. A new magical girl, Kyoko Sakura, is soon introduced, and she doesn't exactly welcome Madoka and Sayaka with a red carpet. Her main character trait - constantly eating food even during battle - is practically the only comedy in the remainder of the series, though despite this she's still an intimidating figure in her initial appearance. Homura is also given quite a lot of backstory in the last third, wrapping up any loose ends the series had by this point, leading up to her debut in episode 1.
And that's what's really amazing about Puella Magi Madoka Magica; it tells a whole story in 12 episodes. There is barely a whiff of filler - everyone and everything that happens has a point in this series. And although the ending and its outcome could be seen from a couple of episodes away, it's still well-done, if not bittersweet. While the "Big Evil" of the series is defeated, it comes at a price. And unlike similar incidents in, say, Sailor Moon, the price is a permanent one for all parties involved. No sugarcoating here. It also leaves itself open to interpretation, so even after you finish the series you still have something to talk/think about.
And who could forget the visuals? Puella Magi Madoka Magica is Shaft at its...Shaft-est. Not just the surreal, beautiful, trippy backgrounds during the witch fights, but even smaller details like Madoka's hometown. Even her own house is colorful, and the desks in her school kind of pull up from the ground, like they're in the future. It's like the series itself is sometimes set in a dream world, with big, expansive landscapes and beautiful colors. While the animation isn't always great, the budget is used wisely for the most part; when the battle scenes begin, it puts up a great show. The music is also quite good, though it doesn't do as well stand-alone as it does in the context of the series. The opening theme is cute if not hilariously out-of-place with the later episodes, and the ending theme is kind of a dark rock number, a far-cry from the usual in the shoujo genre.
Voice acting is a mixed bag. Aoi Yuuki is fantastic as Madoka, and Chiwa Saito plays a nice dead-pan performance as Homura Akemi. Eri Kitamura, however, puts on a rather standard performance as tomboy Sayaka, as does Kaori Mizuhashi as senior Mami Tomoe and Emiri Katou as Kyubey. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, comes from Ai Nonaka as Kyoko. Unlike in a lot of the anime she's typically cast in, where she plays the happy airhead, Nonaka here actually shows a lot of emotions as the fiery redhead, ranging from annoyance to total meltdown crying, giving at times some of the best performances in the series.
Unfortunately, Puella Magi Madoka Magica's biggest weakness is one that hits it hard; its characters. For a series trying to advertise itself (even subtly) as breaking the standard magical girl mold, its sure do share a lot of the same stereotypes other series of its kind do. We have the typical perky, clumsy, crybaby, peace-loving girl (Madoka), her tomboy best friend (Sayaka), her busty, kind senior (Mami), and the deadpan, mysterious girl (Homura). The only one of the five main girls with any sort of diverging personality is Kyoko, the hot-headed girl who eats while fighting and has the most combat experience of the Puella Magi. Her backstory is not only arguably the most developed after Homura, but explains her personality the best as well.
Far and behind the weakest link is Madoka herself, who experiences little character development until the series' end. She basically spends most of the series being told what to do, force-fed backstory, and crying when bad things happen to her friends. In a series like Sailor Moon, you can clearly the evolution of its lead Usagi Tsukino from a hapless crybaby to a tough, determined magical girl by the end of the first season. In comparison, Madoka barely changes at all. It's not until nearly the end of the series that she finally stands on her own two feet and decides to take matters into her own hands.
Fortunately, the strength of Puella Magi Madoka Magica's story makes up for any character development flaws, and while watching it you'll be too distracted by all the positive aspects of the series to notice the negatives. Is it a classic? No. Are people going to shamelessly copy it over the next several years and completely miss the point? Oh, absolutely. It's not perfect, but it's been a while since an anime stood out this much in this genre quite like Puella Magi Madoka Magica. I highly suggest checking it out when Aniplex USA gets the DVDs rolling in the U.S.
Weak character development drags down what could have arguably been a magical girl epoch. Still a solid anime despite this, though. — Tim Jones
Recommended Audience: NOT FOR KIDS. Despite the cute art style, the series is anything BUT child-friendly. In fact, it's incredibly violent at times, and the series is not afraid to let its cast die when the time arises. There's little to no fanservice, but the sheer violence alone makes this series unsuitable for children or young teens.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital source
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Puella Magi Madoka Magica © 2011 Magica Quartet／Aniplex・Madoka Partners・MBS
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