If anime were a religion, magical girls would be one of its Five Pillars, along with shounen battle, love comedy, mecha and sports. Friendship, courage and cuteness are the fundamentals of the classic mahou shoujo. Implied yuri and teenage angst come optional in contemporary interpretations.
It’s a genre that is really easy to understand and that’s why I’ve never really been a huge fan of it. It’s like watching the latest Hollywood adaptation of yet another Marvel superhero — mildly entertaining with few surprises.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica is different. I am not ready to declare it the best show this season after three episodes, but I will say that it definitely stands out.
Madoka Magica has a typical story. Madoka Kaname, a normal and klutzy heroine who is not very confident about herself, finds herself caught in the midst of a supernatural battle between “Puellae Magi” (magical girls) and “Witches”.
Kyubey, the obligatory magical mascot creature, wants to recruit Madoka to fight the Witches and offers to grant her a single wish of her choice in return.
Homura Akemi, a transfer student with an unfriendly demeanour who turns out to be a Puella Magi herself, cryptically warns Madoka not to get involved.
Mami Tomoe, a Puella Magi fighting for Kyubey, gives Madoka some friendly advice and teaches her what being a Puella Magi entails.
Madoka Magica’s art style instantly stands out. The background illustrations, whether indoors or outdoors, are expansive and untamed, very unlike the claustrophobic Japanesque settings usually found in anime. Every scene in the anime feels surreal and somehow magical for reasons I can’t quite put into words.
The fight scenes take place in some kind of alternate dimension created by the Witches. The background animation in this alternate dimension features a cut-out visual style I can only describe as “Monty Python”. There is something mildly disturbing about the little creatures(?) scurrying around this alternate dimension. I would describe these sequences as visual manifestations of nightmares.
The start of the first episode is somewhat reminiscent of Black Rock Shooter.
The score composed by Yuki Kajiura and the ending song by Kalafina are amazing as usual and Kajiura’s style is really a perfect match for the animation. The combination sends chills down my spine.
Okay, I realize I am just writing in random disjointed sentences. This show is really messing up my mind. Let me try to collect my thoughts…
I think the most enjoyable part of Madoka Magica is the way it manages to capture exactly what I think magical girls should feel like.
Beneath the cutesy surface, there is an unspoken air of uncertainty, paranoia and even fear. There is a subtle hint that something dark and horrible lies just out of sight and things are not as simple as they appear to be. Refuge from the unknown is only temporary and peace can at any moment be replaced by chaos. The music and the otherworldly art style bring that message home perfectly.
Imagine, a weird talking creature appears one day to tell you to risk your life fighting unknown monsters. There is nothing magical or happy about that picture. Unlike most titles of the genre, Madoka Magica tells it as it is. I really, really like that.
The fact is that magical girls in anime are never truly in danger. Fear and despair always come across as a transparent performance seeking to accentuate the ultimate triumph of love, hope and all things pure and good. The presentation in these shows never matches the supposed gravity of the situation — little girls fighting for their lives against great evil. The heroine may be torn and tattered, but the audience is never really forced to leave our comfort zone.
Madoka Magica on the other hand makes me feel very uncomfortable. It feels like there are no safe assumptions to be made and everything can and will fall apart at a moment’s notice. I have no idea where the story is going and I am dying to find out. This is a good thing.
For example, Kyubey looks like a stereotypical magical companion, but I find his unchanging expression, adorable as it may be, rather disturbing. When he offers Madoka a wish in return for her becoming a Puella Magi, the first thing that came to my mind was that it sounds like a deal with the devil. The fact that Homura appears to be very bitter about being a Puella Magi and wants to stop Madoka from becoming one further foreshadows the nature of this Faustian bargain.
Kyubey’s eternally frozen :3 expression looks downright unhinging if you pay attention. It cannot be unseen.
Similarly, there is thus far no real explanation for why Puellae Magi are fighting the Witches. Interestingly, Witches drop a “Seed” when they die, which can then be used by a Puella Magi to recharge her magical powers. This frankly sounds like a predator-prey relationship more than a fight for love or justice. It seems to hint at something darker and more sinister about the unexplained relationship between the two.
Of course, it is possible that I am over-thinking this whole thing. Perhaps it will turn out to be nothing more than a completely generic mahou shoujo story with funkier art.
But the fact that the show makes me wonder at all is probably testament to its uniqueness.
Usually I only spend one post on every show I blog about, either a first impression or a full review. I think this may turn out to be one of the few exceptions. We shall see.
I am suddenly reminded of this.