Puella Magi Madoka Magica Complete Series (Cert 15)
3 Discs (Distributor: Manga Entertainment) Running time: 296 minutes approx.
You may have heard the rumblings about this title from within the anime universe, growing steadily louder as its UK release becomes increasingly imminent. Some have said it is an instant classic; others have labelled it “the Evangelion of magic girl shows”. That’s quite a weighty onus to put on any show but on a genre that historically hasn’t exactly lent itself to much beyond frivolous fluff, expectations will be set very high. But Puella Magi Madoka Magica purports to offer something different.
And now it’s here. But is it worthy of the immense hype surrounding it? Let’s see:
Fourteen year-old Madoka Kaname has been suffering from nightmares in which she witnesses the final moments of an oddly familiar young girl. The next day this mystery girl enters Madoka’s life for real when she enrols at Madoka’s school. The newcomer, Homura Akemi, takes Madoka aside and warns her not to change or accept an offer to change. These cryptic words of caution serve to only confuse Madoka until she and her best friend Sayaka Miki rescue a strange looking cat-like creature from Akemi’s pursuit before being caught in a bizarre alternate portal where they are attacked by a demonic presence called a witch. They are saved by fellow school mate Mami Tomoe, revealing herself to be a Magical Girl, as is Akemi. Astounded by what they witnessed, things get odder when Mami introduces the cat creature as Kyubey, an alien being with an unusual offer to Madoka and Sayaka: make a contract with him to become a Magical Girl and he’ll grant them their dearest wish.
Supplanting the tried and tested formula of energetically cute girls in skimpy costumes facing off against a weekly evil challenge is a dark and often tragic tale of friendship, consequences, personal priorities and sacrifice that is rife with contemplation, pathos and surreal mystery. In deconstructing the magical girl genre this show entices the viewer in with its colourful and perky character designs and typical high school life antics then slaps them hard in the face with a dose of introspective and heart rendering reality as the burden of responsibility that faces our high school heroines in return for their wish being granted takes a toll greater than they could ever imagine. Their hearts and minds become mere playthings; their objective and rationale become currency; their whole existences expendable; their futures uncertain.
But it’s not all doom and gloom in its subversion of the Magical Girl genre since it needs to incorporate the facets it wants to challenge. Once the girls make their contract with Kyubey, they receive their Soul Gem, a small egg which contains their magical powers and can be replenished by Grief Seeds, the darker equivalent found in the witches they defeat. The elaborate transformation sequence is naturally present as are the bespoke weapons, in this case including guns, bombs and spears. While fighting in the name of justice is a common motive for our super heroines the similarity ends here as the girls in this show are driven by a variety of personal reasons. Madoka is the last of the girls to make her pact with Kyubey, struggling to define her ultimate wish. Sayaka is more altruistic with her wish, making the health of a male classmate her priority, while Mami was the survivor of a car accident which wiped her family out. Meanwhile Kyōko Sakura, a rogue Magical Girl who acts as something of an antagonist of sorts to the girls, is driven by apparent selfishness, behind which is a poignant backstory.
The most pivotal history belongs to Akemi which, for spoiler reasons, is as far as I can go, with the same applying to Kyubey. Indeed this is true for future plot discussion, indicative of the densely structured, twisting story that throws something new and unexpected at the viewer at every turn. But be warned, this show gets very dark, very bleak and very emotional. If there is one cavil with the plot it is that we never learn why Madoka is the nominal “chosen one” of the tale which is quite the oversight but everything else is explained and resolved in a completely satisfying manner.
Supporting a well defined cast of characters possessing such depth and human substance, the animation is surprisingly relaxed and less intense than one might imagine, at least on the character design front. Big eyes, rosy cheeks and coloured hair are the order of the day but the real magic appears during the battle scenes where our heroines are drawn into the surreal world of the barriers created by the witches. How to describe them? Imagine Month Python era Terry Gilliam bringing a Hieronymus Bosch painting to life. Or the greatest imaginative excesses of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Perhaps the silhouette scenes suggest Tim Burton channelling German animator Lotte Reiniger? Take your pick. It’s all mad, its all wonderfully mind bending, its all visually startling and beautifully rendered – definitely one for Blu-ray viewers to enjoy.
In keeping with its maverick approach towards a favourite anime genre, the genesis of this show also bucks a few trends. Instead of starting life as a manga or light novel, Madoka Magica is an original project born out of a collaboration between studio Shaft and distributor Aniplex, its success leading to the manga and novel spin offs, as well as three feature length films, the first two of which have just been released in Japan which hopefully will head our way sooner rather than later.
Whether it is an instant classic or the second coming of Evangelion remains to be seen but Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a show which turns a perennial anime genre inside out within its own conventions, bringing it up to date with a bold, subversive approach and chilling, surreal modern edge. This title is both genre defying AND genre defining. A highly recommended release without question.
English Language 2.0
Japanese Language 2.0
Ratings – **** ½
Man In Black