Well, it is here at long last. A review that I have long awaited for since I began just over 2 years ago, starting with that long-forgotten OVA. I view this blog as a historical catalogue of sorts, highlighting both the good, bad and in-between that I have covered, spanning from a few from the 80s right up to the present time, or at least close enough. Now, from time to time I have taken a look at some of my personal favorite anime series (my version of a Top 10 List). But here, I am talking about a show that in many ways is a magnum opus of not just the magical girl genre, but anime as a whole. That show is Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
Note: some rather subtle spoilers but nothing too revealing, except to those who have seen the series
The lens of the magnum opus
Magnum opus equals great work roughly from the Latin. Another applicable word would be masterpiece, where all components of a work/piece function so well as a whole. For the purpose of this review I shall examine three aspects of the production: the animation studio, series director and main writer.
One phrase can best describe Madoka Magica: Visual wonder. There is use of nearly every production trick in the book similar to what Gainax less then a year previously with Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt, though digital cel animation is the mainstay. Each episode has gorgeous backgrounds, giving the production a rather seasoned creative flair. In addition, the use of gags and references are utilized with a greater purpose then just 'oh let's do random crap' like what Shaft did with early Shinbou directed works (Moon Phase and Pani Poni Dash for instance). Finally, the character design is similar to Hidamari Sketch and works in spite of itself: very moe, but works as a neat contrast to often dark and surreal nature of the show sometimes.
Director: Akiyuki Shinbou
This is Shinbou at the apogee in terms of his directing career in my opinion, especially considering he has been with Studio Shaft since 2004 as their chief director. I have covered quite a number of other shows he did back in the 90s (Detatoko Princess, Starship Girl Yamamoto Yohko, Tenamonya Voyagers) and it is interesting to see how much difference there is between those past works and this. Besides, this is not the first time Shinbou has done work on a magical girl series: Galaxy Fraulein Yuna OVA (1995-6: done storyboard work on the first OVA and directing the second OVA) and Magical Lyrical Nanoha (2004, but Season 1 only) so he certainly knows what he is doing. Madoka Magica is replete with his tricks including but not limited to: Head tilts, wide range/palate of color and light, cinematic look and feel in battle scenes, atmospheric (dark and surreal at times), surreal imagery (the witch realms).
Writer: Gen Urobuchi
Otherwise as The Urobutcher (heh), I quite like his writing for the series, of which he did all of it, something that happens on occasion in most anime series. Strong writing exists both in the story, characters and setting. The story has a rather organic progression; nothing seems too incidential or un-needed. In fact, the handling multiple threaded story line within the span of 12 episodes is an incredible feat that frankly not too many shows quite get nowadays. The story can be broken down to the following structure-Main narrative : Episodes 1-9; Backstory: Episode 10; Finale: Episodes 11-12.
The backstory is particularly interesting in itself, if only to make Homura's story arc that more compelling. In fact, the story is equally about Homura as it is about Madoka; though that fact doesn't diminish the portions concerning the other magical girls (Kyoko, Sayaka and Mami). The story is akin to walking in a tunnel that gets darker and darker the farther you get along until finally a brightly shining light illuminates you upon exiting, in fact that's a very apt metaphor for this series. There are so much revelations and twists timed just right and make sense within the context of the plot, again something that a lot of modern anime don't really do or they fail at it in some way. Full of wham and surprise moments, the story isn't really so much dark, its mature (it treats the viewer as a mature and active participant of the story and it treats its audience like adults). It deals with issues of grief, loss, suffering but also balances it out with hope, love and power of friendship overcoming all obstacles. Pieces of dialogue that can take on multiple meaning upon rewatching (especially episode 1, which is more interesting to watch again than watch at first).
Only real questionable is the whole entropy stuff thrown in as some form of justification for Kyubey's actions, but it only plays a minor part for the ending only, so it can just be construed as manipulation on Kyubey's part. There does exist a hinting at a larger story: Kyubey's race and their effect on the history and destiny of mankind; Madoka as the embodiment of the eternal struggle of good against evil as examples to be sure. Though, essentially, the central message amounts to this: Hope and Unconditional Love can conquer all suffering and despair. Granted, there are other messages like self-sacrifice should not be in vain, miracles can and do happen, etc but the central message is lent more credibility in the story overall.
Characters: Some of the strongest I have seen in anime, let alone the mahou shoujo genre with the main cast going through the most emotional rollcoaster in recent times for anime. If you have seen the show, you know what I mean. But more than that, these are really deep characters, where their greatest strengths are often their undoings: Be it Mami's devotion, Sayaka's selflessness, Kyoko's righteousness or even Homura's unconditional and unwavering love. The shades of grey morality is in work fully in this piece; though are clear characters that are good and evil but most of them straddle along the grey line of morality. They struggle and suffer through a lot over the course of the show. Finally, Kyubey is a great example of taking a standard trope of the genre (pet mascot) and twisting it into something new and interesting though by the end you will hate its guts a lot trust me.
Setting: This show has a clearly established universe where the rules of magic it has set up are followed to the letter. It also has the right approach to world building: set up enough that the viewer can follow along yet leave in just enough speculation for the viewer to ponder about. In addition, there is some nice use of motifs and cues (wishes, the Soul Gem, Madoka's ribbons) that at first seem innocuous but at some point become vital to the story and take on different shades of meaning.
Overall, a very complete package of a series.
The term, used mainly in historical studies, means roughly "The writing of history". This is the part where I go into my personal history with the Madoka Magica series. I first came across this show while at university, where I was a member of the anime club. It was the spring semester of 2011, and I was in the process of finishing up there. Now, the first meeting for the anime club for every semester was a vote tape, and this little show called Madoka Magica ended up on the vote tape, in part due to it being a Studio Shaft production, and most of the club were fans of that studio at the time.
Now, prior to watching Madoka, I hadn't really watched much magical girl shows, aside from the stray episodes of Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. This show blew me away right from the get-go. I was amazed at how fresh and new this series was, in comparison to the stuff I was watching at the time. Each episode had me on the edge of my seat, especially after episode 3.
But, after I watched episode 10, the Tohoku Earthquake hit Japan. The anime club did set aside some money to send over there but the question remain: Will Madoka be finished before end of term? Word soon that studio Shaft had been running late on production for the final two episodes, so maybe there was hope.
Luckily, the episodes came out and we watched them on the final meeting for that semester. Thank god for that extra time as the last two episodes are quite the best series finale in anime I have ever seen. I was literally in tears by end of the finale, it is that excellent.
So, when news came that Aniplex was bringing the show to the States in 2012, I was pumped. Then I heard that it was a staggered release with 3 separate volumes, 4 episodes each, Bummer. Oh, and each volume would cost an arm each, Double Bummer. So I decided to wait and see if the price went down or if somebody would send it to me as a gift.
Finally this summer, I broke down and bought all three volumes via RightStuf (good discount there too). This was in part due to watching SF Debris's reviews on the entire show, episode by episode. I recommend everyone who has seen the show watch this guy's reviews, as they are the best in covering this masterpiece.
Now, some other comments:
I like how the original Japanese voice cast is very archetypal, ie playing to type most of the time and it is probably one of the better casts for Japanese in an anime. Which leads me to contrast with the English Dub, which is rather 'rote'. Alex von David is perhaps the most pedestrian director for English dubs ever, both here and in SAO. Granted, some of the English V.A.s do very well with the material, the fact is that its unambitious in terms of the voice direction in parts. This is essentially a great show that has a decent dub. Didn't help that Aniplex, the company that brought the series last year, put up what has to be the most reverse hype trailer ever: Madoka Magica US Trailer. I mean, seriously, what the flying fudge?! Anyway, both language tracks get a recommendation from me for sure.
The music is also fantastic. Yuki Kajiura is the composer for Madoka, as well as some other fine anime like Noir, .hack//Sign, and Sora no Woto (well the opening only). Her music is very good at being there to underpin the drama of the piece very aptly. I would love to get the OST for this anime.
And so, I end the review with this: A Thought, for the epilogue. What if Madoka Magica serves as an 'origin story' for the entire magical girl genre? Ponder that, dear readers....
See you next time
The Eclectic Dude