Project Haruhi

First Impressions – Madoka Magica

My exposure to the work of Shinbo Akiyuki has been admittedly limited. I'm familiar with his comical work like Pani Poni Dash! and Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, but have mostly glossed over his more serious stuff. Of his recent shows, I've only seen Dance In the Vampire Bund, which I have extremely mixed feelings about. Although I like Shinbo's unique directorial style, I felt he went overboard in Bund, to the point that his surrealist camerawork and constant dramatic eye zooms actually disrupted the narrative. Because of that, I was a bit apprehensive going into Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Fortunately, it seems like Shinbo has learned his lesson, and is playing to his strengths while eschewing his vices. Thanks to awesomely avant-garde visuals, solid directing and a compelling story that establishes its characters flawlessly, Madoka may be the best new show of the winter season.

Pink-haired schoolgirl Madoka Kaname has been having strange dreams lately, featuring a mysterious magical girl fighting in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. She doesn't let this dampen her spirits though, and lives a comfortable life with her stay-at-home dad, successful businesswoman mom and baby brother. However, her life is turned upside-down when the girl from her dreams, Homura Akemi, transfers into her school and gives her a cryptic warning to stay out of magical affairs. Upon hearing a psychic cry for help from the familiar Kyube, Madoka is drawn into a new world of witches and mysterious powers.

More after the break.

What I Liked

Keep It Simple, Stupid! As one of the most prolific anime directors working today, Shinbo knows how to construct a good narrative. Everything in Madoka is tightly paced, with characters and concepts being introduced in a seamless fashion. There is nary an awkward exposition dump or poorly-conceived character archetype in sight. Despite the surreal visuals, everything feels surprisingly realistic and down-to-earth, especially the likable and well-rounded protagonist Madoka. The camerawork is similarly effective, opting for simple static shots and quick cuts in lieu of more fancy, distracting techniques. It's nice to see a director that realizes the simple approach is usually the best one.

And Now For Something Completely Different: Surreal visuals have always been Shinbo's strong suit, and this episode certainly lets the avant-garde fly freely. However, unlike the previously-mentioned Bund, this anime keeps its hypnagogic elements in the background. Madoka's glass-walled school building, for example, creates a bright and friendly atmosphere without overwhelming the narrative. Similarly, the nightmarish collage of the magical world not only provides a visceral contrast to the brightly-lit real world, but also establishes a real sense of unease and danger. These unique visuals really drive Madoka's story, and make it a joy to watch.

A Perfectly-Sized Slice: One problem with anime that try to juggle slice-of-life with more serious story is that, often times, one element can drown out the other. For example, in Sora no Woto, the compelling backstory played second-fiddle to the pointless butterfly-catching and nature-frolicking scenes, which irreparably damaged the show's narrative and pacing. Madoka, on the other hand, keeps its "cute giggly girl" moments limited, using them primarily for character development. This is how moe SHOULD be handled... use it to endear your protagonists to the audience, but don't let it overwhelm the story.

Music To My Ears: Madoka's soundtrack deserves special mention. To augment the dreamlike atmosphere, it features beautiful and vaguely middle-eastern vocal pieces by .hack//SIGN composer Yuki Kajiura that will haunt you've finished watching the show. The sound design is similarly impressive, especially the distinct "twang" sound that Homura's magical blasts make.

What I Hated

Square-Face: My only real complaint with Madoka are the slightly off-putting character designs. Specifically, the faces have a very odd square-ish aesthetic that had me scratching my head. Similary, I found their outfits (even the magical girl ones) to be wholly unremarkable. Sailor Moon's outfit is so simple and memorable it's become an icon, but Madoka's feels like it was churned out of some moeblob machine. Still, I've put up with weirder character designs from Osamu Tezuka's work, so I didn't find this too damaging of a flaw.

Overall Impressions

I have nothing but praise for this show. Shinbo's experiments can vary wildly in quality, but he certainly knows how to construct a tight narrative. Everything about Madoka is executed perfectly, and the flaws are minor enough to be entirely inconsequential. Only the most vehemently anti-magical-girl faction will find this show unpalatable. Of course, whether it stays that way is entirely up to Shaft. Here's hoping they can continue to show restraint and focus on story, not flashy animation. But, for the time being, this show is well worth your time.


About Jon

Jon is a Japanese culture enthusiast, professional pervert and roleplaying fanatic who appreciates flexible gender identities. He enjoys science fiction, Gunpla, classical music and Red Stripe.
  • I KNEW IT! I knew I loved the music in this show for a reason, but I couldn’t figure out where I got the nostalgic feeling from. I love .hack//SIGN’s OST’s to the point where I used to play the DVD’s special music only soundtrack when re-watching the show. Granted I often fell asleep during those re-watchings due to the pace of the show and the often soothing nature of the soundtrack, but I loved it nonetheless.

    I have limited, but varied experience with Shinbou’s work so I kinda know how you feel. Sometimes he likes to use his style and talent to its utmost level, but often I enjoy his work when it’s more subtle and he doesn’t exert his techniques to a level of 10 out of 10. This show feels dynamic without feeling “showy”. It’s beautiful without screaming it. It has been an easy to digest, easy to love joy so far.

    The character designs were also a small peeve of mine as well. They just stand out and look awkward at times. It’s almost as if they had to cut the character design budget (if there is such a thing) back so they could afford all the beautiful scenery. That said, this show is deserving of all the hype so far. This makes things difficult, I was gonna almost ignore this season, but shows of this caliber are pulling me back in.

  • I am surprised to see someone praising this anime. The first impression to me was not good.
    First of all, the first scene, which foreshadows Madoka’s fate, was needlessly long and confusing. Basically what this scene tells us is that Madoka can change the fate of her friends and if you want to save them become the chosen one. Other than that it’s a mystery. It’s such a simple message and I don’t see the necessity of showing us this long mediocre battle scene and slide of weird scenery. The scene also leaves behind the viewer because they have no idea what is going on.
    Also the transition between the scenes was inconsistent and distracting. I know the director tried to express mysterious and intense atmosphere and it does deliver this kind of mood. However, because of his attempt, the anime has lost its consistency of scene transition and it confuses an audience too much. For instance, when Madoka chases after the source the voice in shopping mall, the scenery suddenly changes to this Gothic mansion. There is no explanation or a sign of her entering to this dimension.
    Characters and story doesn’t have any kinds of twists to be memorable. Take for example the girl with her black long hair. She is a typical mysterious transferred student with no emotion. I didn’t take a second to guess who is going to attack Madoka.
    And this is just nitpicking, but what kind of school is this? The whole classroom is surrounded by these glass windows and everyone can see through the entire room from every angle. Isn’t this distracting for students? Is this school even in Japan? Why would someone design a building like this? It needs more clarity. There is another thing. There are too much references and parodies of other anime series such as CC Sakura and Lamunes series.
    There are some plusses. For instance, the music is something I don’t usually hear from an anime. It reminds me of music from Ar tonelico. The art style of background animations was also cool and unique and it certainly contributes to visual entertainment of the anime.
    Despite the fact that this episode needs more visual or audio explanations to give us more idea about the situation, I am still looking forward for this series. Despite its flaws, the story has its potential to evolve into something interesting.

    • I didn’t have trouble following the visuals at all. Shinbo has a jumpy and obtuse style, which he is very good at using to inject interesting flavors into his works. His distinct style is actually pretty subdued here, but if you don’t like it, you don’t like it.
      The opening scene was crucial to setting up the episode and the rest of the series, since without that I don’t think I’d be doubting the good intentions of Kyubei and Mami or even be interested in Homura’s character. It also gives us a mystery to see how the rest of the story will go about (preventing) leading us there.
      The transition to the magical realm was very well done, in my opinion. It begins with showing us that something is a little off, and gets weirder until there are cotton balls with mustaches dancing around and magical laser beams flying at us. It was pretty obvious we weren’t in Kansas anymore even before things progressed that far, and a neon sign pointing out the fact would have been superfluous.

      • Why would you not be interested into those characters without the opening sequence except for Kyubei? Mami doesn’t even appear in the dream. The scene is still long with the stair cases and needless boring fighting scene. They could just let Kyubei tell the plot.
        When the transition started I thought she was teleported into a different building so I got confused. Although I think this is a matter of taste.
        And what’s up with Mami’s infinite gun summoning. That’s totally a rip-off of Gilgamesh from Fate Stay Night.

      • What are you trying to say when you said “It was pretty obvious we weren’t in Kansas anymore even before things progressed that far, and a neon sign pointing out the fact would have been superfluous”?

  • Blacksun88

    looking for more review from you ^^ i just know it is the same director from bakemonogatari thus im willing to give this anime a try too