In Roger Ebert’s review of Million Dollar Baby in 2005, he states from the very first paragraph that the film is “not a boxing movie. It is a movie about a boxer.” Akiyuki Shinbo’s 2011 series, Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica is one in essentially the same vein. It is not as much a magical girl show than it is a show about magical girls.
This is as far as I’ll go with regards to story specifics, as it is quite clear that the series itself contains a significant amount of series-defining plot twists that would spoil the experience for first-time viewers. great stories remain great regardless of their reliance on twists for dramatic effect, and Madoka is still a finely made show in that regard.
However, the issue remains; a spoiled experience is still a spoiled experience, no matter how good or bad the show is, which is why I’ve decided to keep this review free of any sort of important specific plot details, so that it provides a reasonable basis for undecided viewers to make a choice as to whether or not they want to watch this series.
This anime, like all reasonably well-told stories, is about choices. A hero is given a call, and he makes the choice whether or not to answer it. The hero is challenged by those who share opposing beliefs, and he makes the choice whether or not to heed to their warnings, or face the consequences in confronting them head-on. And for every unexpected change in his plan as a result, the hero is presented with more choices as part of the process of ultimately reaching the goal.
Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica’s greatest strength story-wise, as well its greatest weakness, lies not only within the choices that the characters make, but also within the way these choices are brought up and discussed by opposing viewpoints. Series writer Gen Urobuchi, who created Fate/Zero and the Phantom series, does a very meticulous job in establishing the personalities of the series main cast, and how they feel about the choices presented to them.
Madoka Kaname, the titular character, is an average girl amongst average girls, brought up in a privileged household. She starts off as a blank slate, slowly taking in experiences brought upon her in the world of mahou shoujo. The choices she makes, particularly in the end, feel realistic given her experiences, and her reactions to them along the way. Aoi Yuuki (Shiki, Sora no Woto) does a fantastic job in bringing Madoka to life in such a way that gradually brings her out of her doubtful shell, into a lady who is confident in the choices that she makes.
Homura Akemi is one of the characters who directly confronts Madoka about the choices presented to her at the start of the show. A mysterious transfer student voiced by Chiwa Saito (Tsuyukomi, Last Exile), Homura is enigmatic and highly compelling, quite to the point of overshadowing Madoka as a character towards the end of the show. A dark horse performance by Chiwa, who was arguably made famous for her portrayal of Hitagi Senjogahara in Shinbo’s other excellent Shaft work, Bakemonogatari, outshines the rest of the cast, especially in her spotlight episode.
From Homura’s episode onward, the show shifts a little too much towards Homura’s decisions, rather than the ones made by Madoka. It makes her a very good character, but at the cost of Madoka herself. I found myself more drawn to Homura towards the end, and wondered if the show really should have been around her. In retrospect, I would have very much have preferred to watch Mahou Shoujo Homura Magica instead.
While the show focuses mostly on these two characters, the other magical girls are worth mentioning as well. Sayaka Miki, voiced by Eri Kitamura (Junjou Romantica, Toradora!) is passionate, emotional, and brooding. She is a great friend to Madoka, and their relationship runs deep all the way to the end of the show. Kaori Mizuhashi’s (Hidamari Sketch, Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha) portrayal of blonde bombshell Mami Tomoe is limited in screen time, but her character’s charisma, confidence, and amazing magical powers makes her an instant fan-favourite. Kyouko Sakura is extreme in her beliefs, but they are well-intended. Even though her character arc is a bit too long, she earns the audience’s appreciation and fandom. She is voiced by Ai Nonaka (Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei, Clannad)
For a character-driven show, one cannot discount the most catalytic character in Madoka’s cast, the magical mascot Kyuubey. A cute-looking critter with long ears and peering eyes, Kyuubey is naturally the one who provides the choices to the girls, and discusses the choices and decisions in a seemingly straightforward way, yet the mood that surrounds him is ominous, making his various exchanges with the other characters consistently full of tension, even before and after the turning points in the story. To keep such consistency in mood is credited both to Urobuchi as well as the fantastic voice talents of Emiri Kato (Lucky Star, Candy Boy).
Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica is 12 episodes long, and in its original run, the last 2 episodes were delayed for ambiguous reasons, though Japan’s earthquake in Sendai and its resulting tsunamis were highly suspected as a few of them. Those who endured the wait were rewarded handsomely with an excellent ending that realistically plays out the choices that all of the girls eventually made. Given the short time between the time the final 2 episodes aired and the time this review was written (as well as others that have come up before it), it is easy to overlook the 10 episodes that preceded the show’s finale.
Structurally, the series builds up pretty well, setting itself up for a sound yet unpredictable finish. However, by Homura’s spotlight episode, the show shifts too abruptly towards around her, and the development of the second act feels all for naught. Considering how well the ending eventually turned out to be, it still primarily depended on the concepts introduced in that critical episode and not as much on the ones that preceded it.
Consequently, Shinbo could have made this show a shorter OVA akin to FLCL, revolve the story around Homura, and still keep the ending. Alternatively, the story could have downplayed the importance of that episode and change the ending to better tie-in the story’s development; I would have greatly preferred the former, as the ending was too well-done to have its potential wasted.
Despite my issues with the story’s structure, Madoka is still a fantastic production. Character designer Ume Aoki combines his quirky style from Hidamari Sketch, and combines them with Shinbo’s vision to create a very dramatic effect, especially when contrasted with the wild stylings of the monsters of the week that the girls fight in various episodes. Popular notions that the monster battle animation is akin to sequences from Zetsubo-sensei’s numerous openings are very close to truth.
However, such sequences are few and far in between, due to the nature of the story itself. As said before, this story focuses more on the magical girls themselves, rather than the fantasy associated with the magical powers that they wield. This comes off as a letdown to fans of the genre, but even the most savvy can appreciate the approach that Shinbo takes with this series. The same cannot be said about those who are very wary of Shinbo’s signature style, which is shown in full-force throughout the production. Steer clear if you have a reasonable aversion to head tilts, full face close-ups, and copious amounts of dialogue.
The music, by Yuki Kajiura (.hack, Kara no Kyoukai) is heavy on mood and cognitive dissonance during moments of conflict and tension. ClariS’ (Ore no Imouto) OP performance is urgent, yet full of hope, despite being different from their other doujin works. Kalafina’s ED song is breathtaking and emotional, and isn’t introduced until later on in the series for maximum effect. Expect the OST and singles to sell alarmingly well.
Overall, there were a number of character and plot structure issues in Madoka Magica that ultimately prevent it from being as great as it could be; nonetheless, the show is an experience of itself for those who are intrigued to watch, an experience that I hope was not pre-emptively ruined by reading this review. In a very somewhat dry winter 2011 season with plenty of reasonably passable fare, Madoka along with Wandering Son (my personal pick for best series of that season) consistently lived up to the hype that it built for itself, week in and week out. It is one of the best shows ever done by SHAFT, and is indicative of Shinbo’s evolution and potential as a director.