It was called… uh… Something Something Madoka Magica, and it was recommended to me by a dude whose tastes I generally trust. The recommendation came with a foreboding disclaimer: I was to reserve judgment until I’d seen three full episodes. No other information was presented, presumably because my friend didn’t want to ruin the surprise. I inferred that the series was going to start out like any other magical girl anime, and then at some point in the third episode would become… something else. It was an intriguing prospect.
I’m not going to be as kind to you, because if I don’t spoil the twist I can’t write this post. So if you don’t want Madoka Magica spoiled for you, don’t read past this paragraph. This isn’t really a review of the show, per se, but rather a description of what I think it was trying to do, and why I think it failed.
This is still a kinda sorta review, though, and because I believe in providing an adequate spoiler buffer, I will point out the one thing that I liked: the animation during the magical fight sequences displayed more imagination than I honestly thought the modern anime industry was capable of producing. It’s not just the design of the monsters and battlefields; it’s that everything about the drawing style and art direction is totally upended in order to create something absolutely deranged and beautiful. In fact, I liked this aspect of the show so much I’m motivated to go get a screengrab:
Nice. I would play that, if it were a PlayStation game. Hmm… actually, with 100+ hours invested in Persona 3, maybe I already have done. It’s really, really cool-looking, is my point. Okay, end of buffer.
In the way of spoilers, here’s the plot synopsis for the first three episodes of Madoka Magica. Episode one: a typical Japanese teenager and her best friend wander into a sort of magical nether-dimension and are almost killed by witches. They are rescued by a Sailor Moon expy and her adorable furry ghost-cat, and learn that not only are magical girls real, but they can be magical too! Episode two: Sailor Moon lays out the rules of being a magical girl: ghost-cat will grant each of the friends one wish, and in return, they get magic weapons and have to join the fight against witches. Meanwhile, a mysterious transfer student attempts to warn them against this strange and wonderful world of magical superheroes. Episode three: the two friends tag along with Sailor Moon on a few more fantastic adventures, and watch in horror as she is gobbled up by a clown monster.
Ah, okay, so there’s the rub. Madoka isn’t really a magical girl anime, but a deconstruction of the genre. Of course nobody expects magical girls to actually get killed in the line of duty. Hundreds of examples exist of anime and manga where fighting evil with flashy swords and transformation sequences is treated as a big game. This story, then, is going to be an exploration of magical girls involved in a real conflict, in which there is real danger and real stakes. Every aspect of the typical magical girl show is examined and rationalized, often in ways that are refreshingly cruel. The bits that can’t be properly lampshaded are instead subverted. By the time you’re six episodes in, and you’re thoroughly convinced that becoming a magical girl is the worst fate imaginable, our hapless heroine begins to learn why she might have no choice but to accept.
It’s a fresh concept, and a good story. I enjoy stories where circumstances start out bad and then get worse and worse. And then, when things can’t get any worse, the bottom falls out and “worse” starts happening on a whole new axis. And I’ll admit, I was charmed to see someone taking the piss out of what I consider to be one of the lamest and most insipid genres of anime available. The pieces were in place and I should have enjoyed Madoka. It became clear why my friend thought I would enjoy it.
But I didn’t enjoy it. Madoka nailed the concept but botched the execution. For a show that constantly and violently reminded you that it wasn’t your bog-standard magical girl anime, it sure as hell conducted itself like one.
Let’s tick down the list. Uninspired art style, complete with side-mouths, pointy dot-noses, candy hair, and big glassy eyes instead of actual expression? Check. Long, meandering conversations about the Importance of Friendship and Being Good and Doing Your Best, played totally straight? Check. Melodramatic backstory baggage attached to every single character? Double check. Fantasy plot that gets so twisty and convoluted that no resolution is possible except a spray of metaphysical bullshit? Checkmate.
The bit about heaping on the melodrama is is particularly bad, as I’m sure that by indulging in the dark, tragic pasts of our heroines the writers thought they were avoiding some number of peppy, saccharine magical girl tropes. Nope! Replacing one bad trope with another means you’re replacing a problem, not solving it. And having a character wonder, out loud, whether she is moe does not remove the queasiness of watching an anime where the characters are, in fact, moe.
Here’s a deep dark secret of mine: the reason I have an aversion to magical girl anime has nothing to do with a distaste for magical girl stories. I could watch a show about cute high school girls fighting crime with big smiles and lollipop swords if one came along that completely scuttled the melodrama, the pretension, and the pandering. Wouldn’t that be a refreshing addition to the genre? If the girls dealt with more interesting personal issues than which boys are dreamboats this week? If they could be defined in ways outside of their hair color, weapon choice and One Single Personality Trait? If the art direction had some integrity to it, and weren’t just cobbled together from the back of How to Draw Manga?
If you gave Madoka a dollar every time it did something cool or interesting, but took away two for each gratutious behind-the-butt shot and slow motion teardrop, you’d have paid off your school loans by the end of the series. When it comes to magical girl adventures, Madoka changes the contents but keeps the packaging — and it’s the packaging I found objectionable in the first place.
I think there is still life in this concept, in case someone else out there wants to take another swing at it. I’d give something along the lines of Madoka another glance if it actually did something to address the melodrama and the fanservice. Or at least added a really kickass battle system.