Thursday, June 21, 2012

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Maho Shoujo Madoka Magica; animated fantasy drama series, Japan, 2011; D: Akiyuki Shinbo, S: Aoi Yuki, Chiwa Saito, Emiri Kato, Ai Nonaka

One night, teenage girls Madoka and Sayaka meet a cat like creature, Kyubey, that wants to recruit them as 'magical girls' in exchange for any wish they want: as a presentation, they follow 'magical girl' Mami who battles witches, evil entities that kiss people and cause them to commit suicide to feed of their despair. However, a mysterious girl, Homura, wants to prevent Madoka from signing a contract with Kyubey at any cost. After Mami gets killed, Sayaka signs a contract in exchange for healing a sick boy, but regrets it since he forgets about her soon afterwards. It turns out that witches are actually 'magical girls' gone hopeless and that Kyubey just collects their energy after they die in order to use it to prevent entropy of the collapsing universe. Homura turns out to be a time-traveling friend from the future, trying to save Madoka from ruining her life when she signs the contract. Still, Madoka accepts becoming a 'magical girl' in exchange to be transformed into a force of nature that will purify negative energy and thus prevent the creation of the witches. The universe changes and only Homura remembers Madoka existed, who is now a divine purifier.

"Madoka Magica" almost seems like some sort of a negative apotheosis of the 'magical girl' genre that decided to turn almost all of its cliches upside down. It starts off as a gentle restructuring of "Sailor Moon" - there's a talking animal that wants to transform the heroine into a 'magical girl' (Kyubey), instead of the mom waking up her sleepy daughter, the daughter wakes up the sleepy mother whereas mom goes to work while dad stays home as a 'housemaid', almost as an ironic jab that "Sailor Moon" was not feminist enough when it applied the standard of mom as a housekeeper. Even the opponents, the so called witches, seem like more realistic depictions of the youmas, phages and droids from "Sailor Moon", i.e. entities creating negative energy in order to feed from it (here, in one example, witches cause a woman to have a sudden urge for suicide and try to jump from a building, but after she is saved, she cannot explain her behavior). However, from episode 3 onwards, "Madoka" turns into a complete opposite, an entirely serious story without any humor where all the bright colors slowly disappear and the drama approaches such a level of dark intensity that not even "Elfen Lied" would be ashamed of (though without the blood and violence). The structure of the story is excellently intervened and the viewers have to watch the whole 12 episodes until the end in order to fully understand the characters' actions, especially the mysterious Homura and the "Faustian" cat-like creature Kyubey that often seems like a shady lawyer who always withholds a part of data from you.

The narrative is so dense, rich and engaging that its addictive, especially since it contains numerous lines of wisdom referring to karma, yin-yang and the futile attempt of trying to make the whole world happy ("Even someone like me can be useful to someone else. I want to live being proud of myself. That's my biggest dream."; "You need to learn to mess up before you grow up."; "Even a whole life doesn't normally buy a miracle."; "Don't confuse gratitude with responsibility."; "Miracles aren't free. When you wish for hope, it creates an equivalent of despair. Happiness evens out and the world stays in balance."). In one of the milestone moments, 'magical girl' Sayaka overhears the talk of an insensitive man in the train who calls his wife a "dog", aproaches him and then asks herself - is this is the world she is fighting for? In another, the heroine does not show up as a 'magical girl' until episode 10! This anime has four plot twists which all contribute to the impression as a whole, untypically ending up as a real "downer", an "innocent" genre de-touring to an existential tragedy Antonioni style, with the virtuoso metaphysical-esoteric finale in which the whole nature of the universe is rewritten (!) almost reaching the mind-expanding philosophical pantheon of "Shin Seiki Evangelion". A few complaints could be directed towards the 'autistic' music, 'Bety Boop' design of the female characters, cold style and a few plot holes (why didn't Homura reveal her true nature from the first episode?), yet with such an intrigue factor they all disappear with time, when the show "grows on you". "Sailor Moon" is still better, though, (S and Stars season) due to its pure charm, humor and joie-de-vivre, and both are dramatic (the legendary finale in SuperS, for instance), with the difference that "Madoka" is depressive and nihilistic, depending on each viewer's preference.



Christopher Sobieniak said...

Well at least you liked it. I can't get much into these shows anymore myself since hardly any appeals to me these days.

Marin Mandir said...

I can understand that. For one thing, almost everything that could have be said, has already been said or written in one way or another (movies, books, poems). Finding an original, new story is difficult today. However, this was a fairly fresh and original take on the magical girl genre, where they twisted almost every cliche.

For another, I am slightly biased. Yes, I admit it, I am biased towards those classic, hand drawn animated feature films or shows, rather than CGI techniques of today. Anime from the 20th century was somehow more appealing to me, it was good old school narration. However, despite flashy effects and a cold style, this show proved me otherweise, that a gripping story can exist in modern versions of anime. It did not appeal to me at first, too, but it slowly revealed that it has something to show. I would suggest to anyone to watch this show until the end, because a lot of plot tangles are resolved then.

Cowboy Dev said...

Gotta say I really enjoyed this one. At first I thought nothing of it but then I kept watching... man oh man I'm glad I did. This show reminds me of why I love Anime. A new favorite.

Marin Mandir said...

Cowboy Dev, I was also skeptical of this at first. The first few episodes were simply weird. But once I watched it until the end, I had to admit that overall - as the complete picture was assembled - this anime displayed a remarkable example of talent and originality. It is a tad too tragic and too serious, but you cannot suit everyone.