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.