I Watched a Magical Girl Anime

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.

12 comments to I Watched a Magical Girl Anime

  • Shifter

    Kickass battle system commmmmming up!

    This is going in my back pocket for use as a possible story for an rpg I have the battle, level, and equipment systems already worked out for…

    Do you think that this could work if the back drop for the story was more dark humour?

    • Brickroad

      I didn’t mention it in the post, but one of the things that bugged me about the series is that it was totally and utterly devoid of humor.

      I think they did that because magical girl shows are funny and so their not-a-magical-girl-show had to be NOT funny. I think a shift to dark humor would have been better.

  • sdhawk

    And here I was thinking I was the only one who didn’t much care for Madoka. I generally felt that they subverted the genre solely to subvert the genre, and ultimately had no driving thesis for doing so.

  • Pieemperor

    Hmmm, you raise a fair point Brickroad. I am one of the people who really enjoyed the series, but I’m also someone who really enjoys a fair number of anime(not necessarily all of the mainstream ones). You honestly made some really good points about the series that I had failed to recognize in my viewing. They changed the context and added a new plot but essentially left the shell untouched. I do still really like the show, but your analysis kind of just shows it was never really THAT special just a little bit. I’m curious though Brickroad what if any animes you do like and why? I think you may have made a similar post in the past but I’m not sure if you’ve ever admitted to liking any anime. Thanks for the post, keep ’em up.

    • Brickroad

      Cowboy Bebop comes immediately to mind. And of course anything by Studio Ghibli.

      • Pieemperor

        Yeah Cowboy Bebop is the tried and true product of the Japanese style producing something truly original, serious, and artistic. May I ask if you’ve seen Evangelion? And I know you make not take my suggestions to heart but Samurai Champloo is an AMAZING anime much in the same fashion of how cowboy bebop was. Great music too. I really suggest it if you haven’t seen it(it’s short).

  • Merus

    I’m curious to know what Brick’s opinion of Kim Possible is in this context.

    • Brickroad

      Big KP fan. Have a couple of the “movies” on DVD. Not sure how it relates to Madoka at all, since it’s not really a magical girl show, and since there wasn’t exactly a glut of American action girl shows in need of subversion. It was just a fun, solid show with a cool style and a great sense of humor. Oh, and a wonderful rogue’s gallery.

  • q_3

    Interestingly, for someone who’s more familiar with the magical girl genre, Madoka isn’t nearly the subversion it’s made out to be – or rather, it’s subversive in different ways. Mami’s death honestly wouldn’t be too out of place even in Sailor Moon, which was somewhat infamous for killing off its heroines in increasingly brutal ways; and while they usually get better, the protagonists do have to confront their own mortality (and each others’). The magical girl genre is a lot darker than many give it credit for, or at least the classics are. (What’s more subversive about Mami’s death is the fact that she dies so soon – that the possibility of her return isn’t even mentioned – and, perhaps most importantly, that her death is completely pointless. She doesn’t make a heroic sacrifice or even get cool last words, she just screws up one time and it’s over.)

  • aceina

    have you ever watched code geass brickroad?

  • McClain

    I dug Madoka, but I totally get your gripes. It would have been “better” if it had some more intentional humor, but my wife and I ended just about every episode with a good “what the fuck?” and laughter. And I’m kind of a sucker for dark melodrama.

  • SpoonyGundam

    It seems to me like your biggest hangups are less “problems with magical girl shows” and more “problems with magical girl shows made for 16-25 year old males.” When the shows are actually made for 8-year old girls, they tend to not be saddled with tons and tons of melodrama and fanservice. You’d probably be much more receptive towards one of those shows, but they’re a much harder sell since they tend to run a lot longer.

    As a quick illustration for what I mean, here’s the transformation sequence for Smile Precure:

    It aired at 8:30 AM on Saturdays and made little girls want to buy makeup kits. (and possibly set them on fire)

    Here’s the transformation sequence for Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha:

    It aired at like 2 AM on a weekday and made shut-ins want to buy PVC figures and body pillows.

    For bonus points, guess which one shared the same director as Madoka!

    That being said, there was a pretty neat fan-made Madoka beat-em-up a while back:

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