Sunday, May 10, 2015

Well. Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

Kayla collects figures she feels are pretty or cute, regardless of whether or not she's familiar with the character or the subject matter.  As it so happens, a lot of those characters ended up being from one particular anime - Puella Magi Madoka Magica. 

Ultimate Madoka Nendoroid & Devil Homura Nendoroid.

Just browsing figures, she'd often send me pics of characters who almost invariably ended up being from the show - a show we'd never seen, I should note - but that felt like it should be changed. One thing I've always enjoyed and appreciated, in the finer anime series, is how they confine themselves.  Naruto or One Piece or Dragonball or any of those long-run series will basically tell the same story, over and over, as long as it's profitable - long beyond after it's said whatever it needed to say to the viewer.

Others - the good stuff, in my opinion - limits itself to only as long as it requires to tell its story.  These ones understand that anything beyond that story is chaff, and subtracts from the whole.  This is where you find the important ones.  Stuff like Paranoia Agent and Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo.

Puelle Magi Madoka Magica, it turns out, is one of these. Still, though, it's a Magical Girl show.  I've seen Magical Girl shows.  Well, I saw Sailor Moon when I was a kid - but I get the gist.  A bunch of high school girls have magic powers but the most powerful power of all is that of friendship - plus we get to wear frilly dresses and talk about boys.

When I told Kayla about the series - and its availability on Netflix - she said she wanted to check it out.  For my part, I was pleased to be able to (possibly? maybe?) get Kayla into a type of media she's never had an interest in, and sure - I'd subject myself to a Magical Girl show in order to do it.

What I expected with Madoka was this.

Not so much this.

It begins with a teensy, tiny bit of high school girls with high school problems, as an introduction, and quickly plays its Magical Girl card by introducing Madoka (pink hair) and Sayaka (blue hair) to Mami (yellow hair), a real-life magical girl who does battle with witches in order to keep her city safe!  And isn't she so cool?

It starts in this really... almost-pedestrian, standard, comfortable place - and from that spot, where you feet are planted firmly beneath you, Puella Magi Madoka Magica spins itself into a complete deconstruction of the whole magical girl thing.

It has all the trappings - frilly dresses and friendship and a cute animal mascot... but Madoka takes all the cliches of its genre and asks why.  Turns each on its head.

Why does this little white sort-of-cat thing grant wishes?

In return for granting you your wish, you must become a magical girl - but what does it want?  What is it thinking behind those expressionless eyes?  In Madoka, the answers to those questions are disturbing to begin, and repeatedly bear the most tragic fruit as it goes along.

The twists it repeatedly levels at the viewer, which surprise us along with the heroes, make the whole thing more involving - but it takes more than a few episodes to get to that point.

Let's take Mami for example.  Madoka and Sayaka meet her early.  She is a traditional magical girl - kind, poised, experienced and thoughtful.  She's been fighting alone for so long - just for the sake of helping people - and has been doing just fine... until Madoka promises to join her, and become a magical girl.  The thought of a companion brings Mami so much joy that she actually bursts into tears - but Madoka's universe is not one where good prevails because good is good.  It exists in a universe more like ours.  More amoral.  If good exists, evil must balance it - and if friendship has a power, it also has a cost.

Direct quote from the wiki: "Drunk on the "Power of Friendship", she is careless and reckless in her battle with Charlotte and is killed."

Bam.  Five minutes after she's told she doesn't have to be alone any more, Mami gets her head bit off.  She was warning us, through all the previous episodes, that what she does is incredibly dangerous - but she handles it.  It doesn't feel dangerous until one of the show's three leads gets her head lopped off.

In that way, Madoka is like the Game of Thrones of magical girl anime.  It will kill your favorite characters and give no fucks - and in doing so, it makes "magical girls fighting" actually mean something.

Sailor Moon's action was largely meaningless, because as soon as they turn naked and get wrapped in their supergirl suits, that's all you need to know - the bad guy is about to get their ass handed to them.  In Madoka, these girls are fighting for their lives every time they put on their frilly dress.  They are getting the shit beat out of them, and are savagely clawing up the slope of survival, desperate just to live.

Once Madoka reveals that much of its hand... once it gives you a hint of how seriously it's taking this thing, how much it has yet to show you and how surprising its answers can be to the questions we never asked of a somewhat emotionally-shallow genre, it becomes one of those shows you've got on the mind.

You want to know what happens to Sayaka.  When will Madoka accept the contract?  What is Homura's deal?  Homura's deal turns out to be one of the most touching things a cartoon has subjected me to since Princess Kaguya, and the series finale was...

Okay, I cried at the finale of Puelle Magi Madoka Magica.  I didn't like, sob, but one tear came out of this eye and one tear came out the other one and then rolled down my cheeks.

A magical girl show did this to me.


  1. I'm such a scrub, being so late to comment on your posts within a reasonable time frame! But I mean, I guess this isn't quite as bad as me commenting on your Siren Blood Curse review last year. :P

    I just wanted to say that it's super rad you like PMMM! That was the anime that got me back into the medium as a whole, after swearing it off several years before once I became self-aware of my shit taste. But now I'm an even bigger weeb than I was back then, so whatever I guess!

    I assume by your inclusion of the screenshot that you also saw Rebellion? Since it's so divisive, I'm curious of your opinion on it.

    1. I loved being able to spend more time with the girls, but I feel like it didn't actually do anything for the story. It felt like one more limping step of narrative spun out of how the series ended that didn't do anything meaningfully new with the whole magical girl thing and undermined the power of Madoka's act at the end of the series.

      It was meh. Visually spectacular, but meh. The series is superior.