In a lot of ways, we knew exactly what to expect from Puella Magi Madoka Magica before the first episode even aired. The story was a closely guarded secret and the previews were only stills of the characters and a few random lines of dialogue with the opening theme in the background. But several other things stuck out. Shinbo had directed several magical girl anime before, and now he wanted to take a risk doing an anime-original story. It was obvious that he wouldn’t be bothering with this unless he had something interesting in mind, but the music, character designs, and what we could discern of the premise gave the impression of a bog-standard Nanoha rehash. But once it was revealed that Urobuchi Gen was in charge of the script, everything suddenly made sense.
It’s not what a story is about, but rather how it’s about it. Execution is the single most important part of storytelling regardless of the medium. As the premise grows more complex and ambitious, it becomes more difficult to pull off. But with higher risk comes higher payoff. When these sorts of stories are told properly, they can leave an impression on viewers for years or even decades. When done poorly, they typically end up so terrible that they can enrage even the most stoic fans. Into which extreme does Puella Magi Madoka Magica fall?
If you make a contract with me, I can take you past the break!
What I Liked
Foreshadowing: One of the least discussed and most difficult of creative writing techniques, it’s also one of the most effective. The trick is to drop a few clues and then reveal the answer just before the audience figures it out. In some cases it didn’t quite succeed (everyone knew where witches came from by the second episode), but in most it succeeded spectacularly. The best example is arguably the reveal of the nature of the Soul Gem. It’s so obvious in retrospect, but anime has left fans accustomed to meaningless English terminology for magical items. Most viewers will barely even consider it until Madoka tosses Sayaka’s Soul Gem off a bridge.
Characters: One of the common criticisms of Madoka Magica is that the characters are not particularly deep and don’t have much development. While I can understand why people may feel that way, I disagree. The main thing to consider is that, excluding episode ten, the story we’re told takes place over less than two weeks and in a limited set of relevant circumstances. Despite that, every character goes through some important change in their personality and values: Madoka tears down Mami’s emotional walls. Sayaka is pragmatic, cheerful and well-adjusted until she learns the true nature of Puella Magi and loses the boy for whom she made her wish. Kyouko is cold, calculating and completely self-centered until she realizes how similar Sayaka is to how she used to be. Homura’s origin story in episode ten was one of the best single episodes of anime I’ve ever seen. Madoka is initially enthusiastic about finding something to which she can apply herself, but is paralyzed with fear and uncertainty following Mami’s death. Over the course of the series, she grows out of this. She realizes there is something only she can do and applies herself with all the resolve and confidence that initially won Homura over. Most of the characters exhibit hamartia reminiscent of classical drama and even Shakespearean works. The way they interact and affect their own personalities as much as each other’s is very well written and leads deliberately and logically to their respective resolutions. For such a short series with so much other content that needs attention, there’s actually a remarkable amount of character development woven in. I could probably write an entire article on Kyubey. He’s likely the most memorable character in the series, despite never changing his personality any more than his expression. Though the final scene of Homura speaking to him makes it difficult to pin him as a villain, his callous and calculating approach to the lives of humans is terrifyingly alien. But the scariest thing may be that as much as we’d like to demonize him, we find it hard to prove him wrong.
Music: Much like Star Wars, it’s hard to imagine what Madoka Magica would be like without its beautiful score. Kajiura Yuki‘s emotional and melodic style is the perfect compliment to the runaway tragedy of the story and its characters. Her baroque and classical progressions match the European aesthetics of the Puella Magi’s costumes and the witches. Every track is distinct and memorable, which is rare for an anime soundtrack. Kajiura belongs right up there with Yoko Kanno and Nobuo Uematsu as the best in the business.
Ending: The revelation that Incubators have been interacting with humanity since time immemorial has mushrooming implications. While the story of Joan of Arc makes a lot more sense when you add Kyubey, it raises enough questions about other girls for fans to speculate about for years. It wasn’t vital to the conclusion, but it was a logical tangent and it fleshed out the series’ universe in an interesting and compact manner. The final resolution even managed to keep entropy and the balance of hope and despair in focus and applied it to the world Madoka created. Both of these could have been easily forgotten, but it’s a very nice touch that they remained consistently relevant all the way through. Just like so many other things in this show, Madoka’s wish is incredibly obvious in retrospect but nearly impossible to predict. At first it seems to be a deus ex machina flying in from nowhere. But after rewatching the entire series, I noticed that her wish had been foreshadowed all over the place. I also realized that it’s the only satisfying ending possible. No other ending could have addressed the fundamental problems of the Puella Magi system. Rather than the epic resolution Madoka wrought, at best it would have been tragic but unfulfilling. What we got was far from a truly happy ending, but it was certainly much more positive than I would have predicted. Still, I was quite disappointed that Madoka didn’t kiss Homura before dematerializing, but we all know SHAFT hates lesbians.
What I Hated
Pacing: Though the pacing was generally quite good, there were some notable exceptions. Episode four had a few scenes which could have been cut. There were too many shots of Madoka moping around that didn’t further the story or develop her character. It’s not the crying that bothered me, but we don’t need to be shown so much of it without it earning its screentime by accomplishing something else. Objectively, episode 12 also had quite a few pacing problems. However, I was far too caught up in the whirlwind of emotions to care. I’m a sucker for that crap.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica is an impressive and ambitious deconstruction that turns a typical magical girl plot into a Faustian pact. Kyubey will probably ruin magic-bestowing mascots in anime for years in much the same way Watchmen ruined superhero stories. But even though it’s primarily about desperation and the folly of putting others before yourself, it nevertheless builds up to a selfless wish of hope and a cathartic, bittersweet resolution. Yes, at the last moment, SHAFT deconstructed their own deconstruction. For that reason, I could recommend this show equally to people who want something tragic or something uplifting. Now to wait for the inevitable spinoff: Puella Magi Valkyrie Magica.