Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
(Yes, yes, I know that's an image for the film and not the series.)
I keep meaning to review something I'd hate. Something I can be comically ranty about. This – this isn't going to be that review. If you've not seen Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and a fairly sizeable proportion of my readers won't have, I suggest you look it up and watch it. It's twelve twenty minute episodes – you can literally marathon it in an afternoon (which is what I did before writing this review, because it's been a while since I first saw it), and it's well worth doing so.
Don't worry, I'll wait.
Okay, so. Madoka Magica is the story of Kaname Madoka, a girl in her early teens living in Mitakihara City. She's a fairly average girl: Her life isn't perfect, but her parents adore her, she has a bouncing baby brother, and while she's not especially good at anything, she has the affection of her two best friends Sayaka and Hitomi. As ever was the case in anime and fiction in general, Madoka's life is turned upside down one day, when cold and aloof transfer student Akemi Homura arrives at the school. In the span of a day, Madoka and Sayaka discover the existence of witches, eldritch abominations that cause catastrophe, and the magical girls – like Homura and senior Mami – who fight them under the guidance of adorable tiny cat-rabbit creature Kyubey.
Then everything goes horribly, horribly wrong, and it keeps going wrong, constantly, and without pause or respite, and every time you think you've hit the bottom of the pit, the floor drops out from beneath you.
|The series, summed up in a single image.|
I don't want to say too much about the plot, because we would be here all day, but it's safe to say that Madoka Magica was where writer Gen Urobuchi, writer of Psycho-Pass (now with a second series and a film lined up), and Kamen Rider Gaim (absolutely beloved by fans, and with good reason, and utilising a lot of similar themes of sacrifice and inevitability), made his name. There's a good reason for that: The plot is stunningly horrifying in the best way, a darkly psychological fare that takes its seemingly perky, happy premise and viciously tears it apart with George R.R. Martin levels of brutality. People die. People have worse things happen to them than die. Urobuchi builds characters up for you to care about and then lets you see them crumble, and nobody really escapes unscathed except, as you might expect, the villain.
(It's also where Urobuchi got much of his reputation for unremittingly dark stories, a reputation that he has noted before he finds extremely irritating, especially as he has also worked on very light, fluffy shows like Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet.)
It's been called a deconstruction of the magical girl genre, and that's partly true, one supposes, but it's also a reconstruction of that same genre that ends on a surprisingly idealistic note, that rips down all the values that particularly genre emphasises and then rebuilds and reaffirms them. Not only that, but it's a love story, an anime take on Faust, a philosophical story about inevitability and sacrifice, and the story of the genesis of a deity.
You can probably neatly split the plot down the middle into two stories: Homura's and Madoka's. Homura, perhaps surprisingly, has the more human story of the two: Her story is a love story in the style of Faust and Gretchen, or Orpheus and Eurydice. Homura's story is one of someone who is truly and deeply in love with someone else – in a way that you could argue isn't romantic but which I won't, but which I will argue is completely pure – and who will sacrifice anything to ensure that someone's happiness.
It's genuinely quite heartwrenching watching Homura run herself ragged and burn herself out attempting to save Madoka from a fate that she simply cannot be saved from. Homura has pitted herself against a force much greater and more ineffable than herself, and it's clear to the audience almost from the moment they know what her mission is that Homura cannot succeed – not now and not ever. It's almost Shakespearian: As in all tragedies, everyone can see what lies at the end of Homura's journey except her.
|Oh, Homura, you fool.|
Madoka's story, meanwhile, is the story of the ordinary ascending to the divine. It's inextricably tied to Homura's story, and Sayaka's, and Kyouko's, and Mami's, but Madoka remains separate from all of them. She is a detached figure around whom everything else revolves but who rarely involves herself in a concrete fashion, which may seem like an odd choice for a protagonist, but it works because Madoka becomes the audience's eyes and ears: It's through her, and her down-to-earth, normal viewpoint, that we perceive the horrors around her, and her role as a constant is integral to the story. When, eventually, she does join the action, it is supremely satisfying and also rather sad, if only because it involves a weighty sacrifice with it.
Moving away from the plot, there's much to be said of the artistic aspects of this series. I'm not really thinking of the character designs here – there's nothing wrong with them, but in fitting with Madoka Magica's rather Trojan Horse-oid nature, they look fairly how you'd expect from any magical girl anime.
I'm thinking of the landscapes.
Much has been made in reviews of the witch's barriers, the labyrinthine pocket dimensions in which the monsters of the series hide, and they are genuinely fascinating from an artistic standpoint: Every barrier is different and every one is striking, with some, like the barrier of Charlotte, being almost like a warped, psychadelic Disney, while others utilise textures and shapes that make them look like three-dimensional collages made of cloth, cardboard, and paint.
The witch's barriers, and the witches themselves, always have a theatrical touch to them. The witches are reminiscent of performers putting on a show, and the barriers are their stage, which is fitting, as the story of Faust, the inspiration for Madoka Magica, is probably best known in the form of Christopher Marlowe's play.
|Pictured, a witch in her natural and horrifying habitat.|
But for all of the witch's barriers' chaotic, disturbing glory, what really struck me was the 'real world' landscapes. They're nearly as surreal and nightmarish as the barriers – sometimes even more so. There's an unnerving and uncanny vastness to them in which the characters often seem tiny and lost. The school that Madoka, Sayaka, Mami and Homura attend is the best example of this. While from within the classroom it looks almost normal, a views from the corridors reveal that every classroom is actually a glass box situated on an endless blue floor. There are no walls, it simply stretches off into eternity, dotted with glass boxes. The Kaname Washroom is another example, being a gigantic room made entirely of overlapping windows and occupied only by three sinks.
|Or Homura's house, which has no walls, but does have the shadow of a scythe.|
It's a detail I really like, as it makes the entire show seem more disturbing and off-kilter, and plays well into the running theme of these characters being a small part of something impossibly vast.
The soundtrack also deserves a special mention. It's the work of Yuki Kajiura, whose compositions are always instantly recognisable, and is incredibly eerie and creepy. Even when it's happy, there's a tinge of the sinister to it, which is true of the show itself.
The series isn't a stand-alone work – there are two films that are retellings of it, and one film that's a sequel, as well as a video game and two spin-off manga – but it is self-contained, and in my opinion can stand very well on its own without any of those things. It's one of those rare gems that combines artistry with a clear creative vision and some very competent handling, and that's something that should be celebrated.
It comes with my unreserved recommendation, which is not something I give out especially often.
I really should review Psycho-Pass. I like that even more, it will just be one long post of rainbows, puppies and joy.