Puella Magi Madoka Magica seems innocent enough upon watching the first couple episodes. Even the opening sequence gives us the bubbly, cutesy appearance that is so common in many “magical girl” type anime, that depict younger girls having fun adventures with newfound magical powers. But after watching episode three of this twelve episode Japanese cartoon, you realize that this show is not of the same ilk as shows like Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, or Pretty Cure. Instead it is much darker, incredibly more disturbing, and above all tells us that being a “magical girl” is not so magical after all.
The premise is like most Japanese cartoons that involve young magical heroines. The story begins when Madoka Kaname and her friend Sayaka Miki come across a strange, telepathic cat-like creature, named Kyubey, who promises to grant them a wish in exchange for gaining magical powers to combat evil entities known as “witches”. They also meet two other magical girls who have made contracts with Kyubey: Mami Tomoe whose life was saved due to her wish, and Homura Akemi who constantly warns Madoka to never make a contract and become a magical girl. For the first couple episodes, this warning seems out of place. Being a magical girl seems awesome! Especially with the kind and gentle Mami there assuring the main girls that it is a noble path to take. You get all these cool powers, you get to help people in need, and you get a wish out of it!
Episodes one and two show our characters being drawn into this seemingly perfect world, as is the viewer. But then the third episode rolls around and we are all thrust into the gross realization that becoming a magical girl is a huge mistake. This turn of events leaves both the viewers and the characters with such an emotional whiplash that we never saw coming, and is so effectively done to bring us into the reality of this world. Being a magical girl really means dealing with death and your own gruesome and inevitable fate. It even throws in one of those “be careful what you wish for” type of scenarios for good and depressing measure. But despite thinking that we’ve realized it all, the show does a wonderful job of continuing to throw us curve balls in plot development as the story goes on. I will not reveal these developments, but know that which each added layer, we get a very unsettling and despair-ridden world that these characters live in.
In the same way that the plot is layered, the characters are as well. We are introduced to our main characters Madoka and Sayaka early on and we think their stories are fairly spelled out to us from the get-go. But then we get some new characters, Mami, Homura, and later Kyoko, all magical girls with their own stories. With all these fascinating characters around, I often wondered why the series was called “Madoka Magica”. In fact, for most of the show, Madoka is not ever a magical girl. From the point we meet Homura, Mami, and Kyoko, they all have already made contracts. The consequences of Mami’s contract is revealed first out of them all. Then Kyoko’s character appears and we hear her backstory. Sayaka’s comes afterwards when she makes a contract and we find out the true consequences of that. Homura, who is ever present throughout the series, is rarely touched on. Even though in each of her scenes she warns Madoka to never make a contract, we don’t really know why. That is until the very end. Madoka’s roll in all this seems most out of place, again until the very end, and we see how all of this wraps together. It is a brilliant idea to introduce perhaps the most important characters early on without revealing things about them, and instead choosing to develop some of the supporting cast first. It is brilliant because it is unexpected, and one of the beautiful parts of the show is its unexpectedness. We don’t know how things will turn out, or why things are happening. It adds to the uneasiness and feeling that things are out of place, in a world that contains stuff the characters and the viewers don’t understand.
Another part of the show that represents this feel of unease is the art. And I’m not just talking about the character designs or the movements, both of which are quite clean and smooth; the fight scenes are especially dynamic. But I am talking about the backgrounds, and especially the scenes involving the “witches”. Many of the backgrounds seem almost fantastical and unrealistic, despite this apparently taking place in a generic Japanese city. The children’s classrooms seem almost futuristic with clear walls, the cityscape often has strange architecture, and even the more mundane scenes are shot at weird angles or with strange lighting. Notice how in the upper left picture of these backgrounds where it shows a top view of our characters walking on a overpass, the cars all drive together at once. It’s barely a second in screen-time, yet it increases that surreal atmosphere.
And speaking of surreal, let’s talk about “witches”. “Witches” in the Madoka Magica world, aren’t necessarily concrete, humanoid beings. You’d think our antagonists would have faces or be characters of their own. In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, however, this is not the case. Witches are more like faceless, unearthly entities whose power creates small pocket dimensions of their own and through their influence can cause despair and harm in humans. In one of our early encounters with a witch, it nearly drives one of Madoka and Sayaka’s friends to commit suicide. Witches, along with their dimensions, also look like some sort of painting that was concocted by Salvador Dali and the guy who does the Monty Python drawings. This style juxtaposed with our more generic anime-styled characters is really unnerving and surreal to look at. Furthermore, the inhuman appearance of the witches increases their nature of fear and the unknown.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica is one of the most unique creations in its genre that I have ever seen. It is also probably one of the most depressing and gruesome. It has the same tropes as most other “magical girl” anime, even going so far as to actually use the term “magical girl” to describe its characters. It has the magical transformation sequences, and the summoning of mystical weapons (even though these weapons are decidedly more badass). It even has the cute animal mascot character of indeterminate species. There are many chances for the show to lampoon these tropes, but in the end decides not to and instead plays them straight, if not with a darker spin. With its darker themes, realistic character arcs, and themes of despair, loss, uncertainty, and inevitability, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a very mature cartoon that takes its audience seriously. The art is stellar and the atmosphere is rich. I highly recommend this cartoon; just be ready for some soul-crushing.