Search This Blog

May 17, 2013

Review of Puella Hagi Madoka Magica

Written for Witch Awareness Month 

The Complete Series Episodes 1-12
Magica Quartet/Manga Ariplex, Madoka Partners MBS
Original Story: Magica Quartet
Director: Akiyuki Shinbo
Screenplay: Gen Urobuchi (Nitroplus)
Character Concepts: aokiume
Character Design: Takahiro Kishida

DVD Description: Madoka Kaname is an average 14-year-old girl who loves her family and friends. One fateful day, this all changes when she has a very magical encounter with a strange creature called a Kyubey. Kyubey have the power to grant one wish to chosen girls. However, in exchange, those chosen must become magical girls and use their powers to fight against witches, evil creatures born from darkness and catalysts of despair. 

First off, despite the Japanese schoolgirl costumes, Puella Hagi Madoka Magica is Dark. The story centers around a group of five girls – one of whom is Madoka Kaname, some of whom are confronted with the choice of becoming magical girls, and some who are already are.

Sayaka, Homura, Madoka, Kyoko, Mami

 The anime itself is gorgeous, from the quality and sharpness of the animation to the rich colors and effective surrealism of some of the settings that fit well with the excellent soundtrack, music composed by Yuki Kajiura. That alone makes it a pleasure to watch. The DVD I own has the choice of English or Japanese with English subtitles. I think anime is only truly authentic viewed as the latter, at least for me. I did watch a couple of the episodes in English, and it just didn't work for me. English is too tame a language for anime. There isn't any graphic violence (rating of 15), but this may have been edited for North American sensibilities.

As implied by the description, magical girls are the good guys. Witches are the bad guys. They're all female. In fact, the minimal male presence in the series is secondary except for possibly Kyubey, who looks like a white cat with gold-ringed pigtails coming out of his ears. There is a subliminal amount of girl love going on; it's really not more than a hint and done very elegantly (it's an implied rather than explicit form of yuri).


 Before meeting Kyubey, Madoka and her friend Sayaka Miki encounter a new transfer student at their school, Homura Akemi. She's beautiful and mysterious with a strong Japanese-Goth vibe about her. Shortly thereafter, Madoka and Sayaka encounter Kyubey and are drawn into a surreal alternate reality landscape – a witch's labyrinth – where they are in mortal danger until rescued by magical girl Mami Tohoe, who dispatches the witch.

Over cake and coffee, Mami explains the basics of being a magical girl. Witches have to be destroyed. It's a full-time occupation and doesn't leave time for any kind of normal life including boyfriends or careers or even growing up. It's a non-reversible contract made with Kyubey. The contract is sealed by Kyubey granting the girl any wish she chooses. The physical contract manifests as a soul gem which contains the magical girls' power and their soul. Witches are born when their despair manifests as a grief seed. What Mami – and Kyubey – don't tell Madoka or Sanaka at this point is what's hidden in the fine print.

All magical girls are destined to become witches when their good magical energy turns dark. The magical girl can evade this fate for a time as long as she collects enough grief seeds to cleanse her soul gem. And magical girls who are not strong enough can be killed by witches and their familiars as well. Homura pits herself against Mami (and Kyubey) in an effort to prevent Madoka from becoming a magical girl. There's also fierce rivalries and territorialism among the magical girls due to the necessity of obtaining enough grief seeds to keep themselves from turning into witches.

Mami Tohoe battling a witch.

 As the story progresses, magical girls die during the course of battling witches. These battles take place in the witch labyrinths which are really creepy manifestations of the witches' power and are cool enough on their own to make another viewing of the anime worthwhile. It is unclear at first whether Kyubey is a force for good or evil and Homura, even though a magical girl, comes across as not-so-clearly on the side of the forces for good. This conflict would be enough to carry the story forward, but things become inordinately more complicated as the series progresses. I can best describe it without too many spoilers as a cross between Groundhog Day meets Highlander (substituting short schoolgirl skirts for kilts). It is a science fiction-magic mix, but I don't want to reveal too much about that.

Suffice to say that the plot turns interesting and even darker around the eighth episode; up until the final episode, the darkness seems unrelenting – there doesn't seem to be any redemption possible for the magical girls. My main critique is that the middle four episodes are relatively action-poor compared to the first four and the last four with backstory as filler and too few witch battles.

Some reviewers have called PHMM a deconstruction of the magical girl genre, but I found it more of a creative reconstruction, fully self-aware and with sly asides about anime and cosplay from the characters themselves. Taken as a whole, the series is completely satisfying. I viewed all twelve episodes in one go, jet-lagged and armed only with a few glasses of wine and tomato sandwiches, and was not bored in the least.

What surprised me in a good way was the brief but interesting tie-in with global witch history. The final witch battle is even with an ├╝ber witch with the name of Walpurgisnacht. Although I would have enjoyed a bit more background about this witch, it was a nice touch.

Highly recommended.