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Puella Magi Madoka Magica May 2, 2011

Posted by ayasawada in Anime, Rave.
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Quite simply: STUNNING. There (sadly) aren’t many anime that really make you think these days, but this is one, and possibly one of the best.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica turns the cliched magical girl genre on its head and turned heads. With a splash of cinematic vision and a dollop of sci-fi concepts, studio SHAFT – who’ve impressed me before with the two Ef series — have really outdone themselves.

(Warning: Some SPOILERS ahead)

Madoka follows Madoka, a seemingly ordinary schoolgirl in a, frankly, spectacular, futuristic school whose mundane life is turned around by the entrance of mysterious exchange student Homura Akemi, and an encounter with a strange fluffy white animal, Kyubey. So far, so magical girl. But it’s what follows that really changes the game. Why is Homura so aloof? What do magical girls do, why do they do it, and what is their sacrifice? And is Madoka really the ‘most powerful Puella Magi’?

This isn’t the first magical girl anime to take on adult themes; emotional turmoil and the tough choices of growing up are a foundation of the best, including Cardcaptor Sakura and the granddaddy of them all, Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon. But in an age where kid-friendly (or loli-loving otaku-bait) magical girls are a step beyond even anime cliche, SHAFT have put together something really dark, really intriguing, full of tragedy and genuinely moving.

What I loved about it most was the ambiguity of it all. Like Grimm fairy tales, you might mistake it for kids entertainment, yet it retains a sinister tone, even when the heroines were sporting spectacular costumes, gravity-defying hair and astounding levels of power (Mami’s 100 gun attack was particularly awesome). You could sense the tragedy coming, and even then you wondered if it was really as bad as it seemed it would be. And even then you were left with a weird mix of hope — all magical girls have a happy ending don’t they? – and the foreboding feeling that maybe this time it wouldn’t all be alright.

Add to that some classic, and some surprising takes on, sci-fi concepts that are genuinely thought-provoking. From time travel consequences and paradoxes, to the balance of energy in the universe, humanity’s place in it, and whether our emotions make us better, worse or just different to other beings (for a spectacularly good explanation of some of this, I recommend Dark Mirage’s post). And all this on top of the standard magical girl emotional drama of love, friendship, family, grief, wishes, responsibility, consequences and sacrifice.

At the centre of it all we have Kyubey, one of the genuinely disturbing anime characters. He masqueraded as a mascot, but those big red blog eyes and that permanent smile meant I could never really find him cute. He was just too eery and you could never tell if he was on the side of right, pure evil or just rational, like the cold, objective robots or aliens from the best old sci-fi.

Director Akiyuki Shinbo runs a tight ship, wisely focusing the series on just a handful of characters, thereby allowing adequate time for character development in a short run of 12 episodes. The first 6 episodes set the scene well, gradually revealing a little more about the mystery each time with cliffhanger after cliffhanger, until episode 10 really rips your head off with revelation and episodes 11 and 12 blows the rest of you away with explanation. There’s so much packed in here that you have to take some of it with a pinch of salt for it to make sense (the whole ‘angst is energy‘ thing for one), but it does a better job of tying up loose ends than many anime (or any film or TV series for that matter).

Clearly a heck of a lot of thought and work has gone into this package, from the carefully put together plot, to the lovely, haunting soundtrack and the wonderful, innovative animation (much has been said about the Monty Python-esque animation of the Witches world — jarring at first, but refreshingly different). For the viewer, it all pays off and the fact that it’s so short only emphasises how much of a treat it is, and encourages a beneficial repeat viewing :)

Genuinely one of the best anime of recent years. It’s anything but lazy, the very opposite of the cliche its genre seemed to have become.

Other random personal thoughts:

  • I love how Homura’s story pins everything together and the paradox of her mission and existence.
  • How strangely profound that Madoka’s great power is, ultimately, the result of a friendship she never really knew (in a way).
  • Also profound: hope = despair.
  • The final battle reminded me a little of Deathsmiles :P
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