Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Plus Some

If there is anything that can be said succinctly about Puella Magi Madoka Magica, it is this: don’t buy into the hype.  Maybe that includes a corollary “don’t buy into anything you read about it, either,” which would even include this very review.  That’s up to you.  While I wouldn’t call it a polarizing series in the slightest, it’s certainly something that seems like it would leave an impression on most people.  A lot of director Akiyuki Shinbo’s output with Studio Shaft is like this.  Some love it, some hate it, and others—particularly in the case of Madoka—find it entertaining but not worth the unreasonable amount of praise it seems to garner.

First, let me back up a bit.  Shinbo’s no stranger to this sort of reception.  Although he’s been working as an anime director since the mid nineties, his now-trademark visual style didn’t solidify or distinguish him until the mid-00s, when his work with Studio Shaft began.  Titles such as Pani Poni Dash!, Hidamari Sketch, and the Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (SZS) series marked the foundation of his newer method, which draws heavily from more respected directors such as Kunihiko Ikuhara and, in particular, Hideaki Anno.  His 2009 series Bakemonogatari ended up breaking sales records in Japan and is now considered to be among some of the most financially successful series ever made.

Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei

And by no means are any of these shows bad or unremarkable; his aesthetic, though recognizably similar to those he drew inspiration from, is distinguished and unique and even quite interesting.  His perfect sense of comedic timing among his hyperactive direction is evident in Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei’s second season (Zoku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei), and his penchant for odd—even extreme—humor is best exemplified in all installments of the SZS franchise as well as Pany Poni Dash!.  The use of still textual frames or photographic collages intercut among starkly animated sequences is one of the defining aspects to Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei as a whole, and it serves the comedic “narratives” quite well.

Bakemonogatari

But one of the biggest problems I had with Bakemonogatari was how this signature visual flair jarred with the more dramatic aspects of the series.  Stoic long shots rhythmically interrupted by extreme split-second close-ups and text-framed non-sequiturs did more to unnecessarily hinder dramatic tension of the narrative than emphasize it.  The other problem was that, by 2009, his method had become tiresome and predictable.  Halfway through the series, any veteran of his SZS works would find it easy to predict exactly how entire scenes would unfold, where visual interrogatives would be placed, how dialogues would be timed, and even how visuals would be distributed within shots.  Where such predictability was often subverted in SZS’s ludicrously rambunctious and fourth wall-demolishing narratives, the believability of Bakemonogatari’s narrative was only damaged by such distancing methods.

But in spite of this, Bakemonogatari sold incredibly well.  It also featured a stellar soundtrack and interesting surrealistic visuals, despite the staleness of Shinbo’s method.  And although the writing lagged through the middle arcs, the stories that made up the first and last arcs were well-done and featured some remarkably heartwarming character development.  Bakemonogatari wasn’t remotely the genre-defying, industry-upheaving, artistic masterpiece of the century as many of the more vocal fans might have professed, but it was still a solid and enjoyable effort in spite of its flaws.  The biggest detriment to Bakemonogatari isn’t to be found in Bakemonogatari at all, in fact; it’s the unreasonable praise many fans heap upon it, unfortunately.

And that brings me to the primary reason for this ramble.  Puella Magica Madoka Magica seems to be rapidly turning into another instance of what happened with Bakemonogatari.  A good show with a handful of problems is getting blown out of proportion due to a vocal group of fans.

Puella Magica Madoka Magica, fortunately, features a slight change in Shinbo’s directorial style—or, almost, anyway.  It remains highly Anno-esque in terms of editing and shot compositions, however the abundance of primarily comedic non-sequitur interjections is gone, while the vibrant, surreal backgrounds and settings of Bakemonogatari return with a vengeance. The result is a series whose form is remarkably fresh, especially for Shinbo.   Add to this Ume Aoki’s character designs (Hidamari Sketch) and Yuki Kajiura’s musical compositions (Kara no Kyoukai), and the result is a product that looks and sounds even better.  Aoki’s character models in particular give the work a peculiar tone when contrasted so sharply against dark, modern environments and Kajiura’s eerie, tenuous background music.

And of course, Madoka wouldn’t be what it is without Gen Urobuchi’s involvement.  Acclaimed for the Fate/Zero light novels and both the scenario for the Phantom of Inferno visual novel and the screenplay for its anime series adaptation, Urobuchi’s credentials speak for themselves.  He doesn’t have a terribly long list of achievements, but considering that a most of what he’s done has been pretty well-received, it goes without saying that his name alone is one of the things that makes Madoka worth looking into.

As explored in Fate/Zero (and to a lesser extent, Phantom of Inferno), Urobuchi tends to favor rather tragic characters weaved into plotlines containing very dark subject matter.  Madoka’s writing continues this trend, going great lengths to emphasize the seemingly futile, no-win situation of the magical girl protagonists.  The story concerns a young fourteen year old girl, Madoka Kaname, as she is dragged into a conflict between the magical girls—such as Mami Tomoe, a girl she met at a school—and dark, evil, animalistic witches who seem to spontaneously construct nightmarish labyrinths that only those associated with magical girls can enter.  Aiding the magical girls is a mysterious mascot-like character named Kyuubey, who explains to Madoka that he can grant any wish of hers in exchange for her services as a magical girl.  But despite how this situation looks, a mysterious character—Homura Akemi, a transfer student new to Madoka’s class—also turns out to be a magical girl, and she holds an altogether different perspective than that of Mami regarding the situation.

Homura Akemi

As the series progresses, Madoka loses friends and makes new ones, the relationship between the magical girls and the witches is revealed, and the correlation between the magical girls and their wishes becomes evident.  In what is perhaps the greatest and, to my knowledge, only instance of subversion in Madoka, she doesn’t actually become the “puella magus” until the very end of the series.  I call this subversion, but it isn’t even that much once one becomes acquainted with the type of story Madokaexemplifies; in fact, one of its strengths is the fact that a great deal of the narrative is quite predictable and follows a clear and logical progression, yet it manages to be entertaining and thought-provoking in spite of its predictability.  Urobuchi’s flair for the depraved and the claustrophobically tragic is aided by Shinbo’s grasp over aesthetics very well, to say the least.

Yet Urobuchi’s writing—and Shinbo’s directing—are both far from perfect.  One of the biggest difficulties with portraying dark subject matter is the risk of losing believability.  Melodrama works best within certain contexts, and even then, only when balanced among various techniques.  Relying too much on a single narrative or filmic technique to move and depict drama inevitably becomes tiresome.  While it doesn’t abuse a single technique, Madoka’s dramatic tension does fall victim to this, especially toward the climactic segment of the series.  Characters break down and cry in what seems like every other scene, Shinbo’s editing becomes marked by all-too-familiar rhythms, and the tension that drives the conflict of the whole story is manipulated about as subtly as a wrecking ball.  Using waterworks to drive home the unbearable sorrow these characters are supposed to be feeling isn’t always the best way to convey that kind of despair, especially when woefully ham-fisted dialogue requires otherwise talented voice actors to pitifully overact their parts.

Madoka Kaname

Revolutionary Girl Utena and Princess Tutu are both almost universally hailed as masterpieces of the genre, and for good reason: in both cases, tension is manipulated in a convincing manner.  Madoka failed in depicting such a convincing manipulation; the ambiguity, eerie camera angles, and immersive mise-en-scene that strengthened a great deal of the rest of the series were exchanged for even more teary-eyed confessions and clunky dialogue.  This could have been ignored if the rest of the climactic finale’s content and depiction had been mind-blowing, yet somehow the showdown with the ‘final enemy’ was even less of a climactic action sequence than any other single action sequence from the previous ten episodes—and the ultimate culmination of the series was so boringly written that its predictability only made it more tiresome to sit through.

Madoka’s final episodes weren’t just the fulfillment of the inevitable cliché, but rather the uncreative and terribly overdramatic embrace of it.  Shinbo’s method—though noticeably different from the method he employed in previous works—had already become stale, monotonous, and predictable by the time the last two episodes finally aired.   Between this and the boringly redundant dialogue that dominated the final episode, Madoka’s ending left more than a little to be desired.  It was far from a train wreck, but if nothing else, it also cemented the fact that Madoka isn’t of remotely the same caliber of writing or directing as its more esteemed peers.

But maybe I’m the odd one out, here.  Madoka’s success can be measured by the sheer numbers behind the Blu-Ray preorder sales, and its ending has already been hailed by fans all over the internet despite the mixed responses.  Criticizing the whole show based on the last two episodes is probably a bit unfair too, and in all honesty the rest of the series is pretty entertaining.  The last episodes were entertaining, despite my somewhat minor quibbles, especially since the rest of the show was to some extent weighed down by many of the same problems, only to a far lesser degree.  Madoka succeeded in doing many more things right, in fact; the visuals were quite impressive, and Shinbo’s depiction of lush, abstract settings has never been more incredible than with this title.  The surrealism of Madoka’s “real world” manifests in all kinds of rather bizarre architecture and imagery, but the nightmarishly psychotic worlds of the witches’ dens takes some of the most extreme imagery Shinbo’s ever done previously and cranks up the intensity tenfold.

A witch's den

So the biggest problem I’ve had with Madoka is more with the hype surrounding the title than anything else.  Its directing is solid—if somewhat tiresome at times—and its writing—although not anything groundbreaking or subversive—is mostly enjoyable despite its flaws.  Hailing it as the next Evangelion or Utena?  I don’t think so.  And it’s not long-running enough (yet, perhaps) to even count as the next Sailor Moon or Cardcaptor Sakura.  I’d certainly consider it better than Shinbo’s previous magical girl effort, Magical Lyrical Girl Nanoha and its sequel, but given that those were reasonably strong efforts as well, Madokaremains in good company.

The problem is that Madoka’s design and darkly ambiguous writing give a depth to the characters and setting that isn’t often found in magical girl series—and Urobuchi’s writing is mostly on target for a majority of the show.  Calling it a “deconstruction” of the magical girl genre is utter lunacy when one considers that Madoka actually reinforces all of the tropes and clichés it takes advantage of.  It is a magical girl show that turns out to be exactly what it looks like at face-value, not some complex “deconstruction” or “reconstruction” of its genre.  Yet the impressive, abstract visuals and its dark tone inevitably attract these kinds of labels—probably because “deconstruction” is little more than a buzzword for “grim & gritty pseudo-realism” nowadays.

All that aside, it’s an ambitious effort that was, for the most part, quite successful.  Its ending wasn’t terribly satisfying, but it was good enough.  And the rest of the series was beyond what is typically expected out of Studio Shaft and Akiyuki Shinbo, which could be a sign of promising things to come.

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About Merridian
Merri lives with his wife in the USA. He is a happy human being. He wrote for Forced Perspective while the project was active, and he is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of QNUW. His newest project is YNRI // Transcendence, dedicated to poetry, short fiction, and artwork.

One Response to Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Plus Some

  1. melody says:

    I loved madoka but just don’t like the expectations its raising now future magical girl shows will have to measure up or fans will drop it

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