We have a long history of shoujo love amongst the team at Anime Inferno, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica has certainly earned a reputation for taking this iconic genre and toying with convention. The results were absolutely fascinating, and this recent release of the complete set on Blu-Ray was the perfect excuse to catch up on what anime fans have been waxing lyrical about for a number of years now.
Madoka is your quintessential magic girl candidate. Set in the far flung future of 20xx, she spends her time being a well-behaved elder sister to her toddler brother, is a responsible daughter to her hard-working parents and enjoys spending time with her friends while musing on her ordinariness. Blessed with stand-out pink hair and an otherwise sunny disposition means that she is of course a prime candidate to be a magic girl, as suggested by the freaky-looking alien/ferret Kyubey early on in the series. In fact, her best friend Sayaka (who has blue hair) also happens to be magic girl material which is quite handy as they accidentally stumble upon the poor ferret-thingo who is being hunted by the mysterious and seemingly cold-hearted transfer student Homura. It’s then up to the girls to decide their fate as they accompany Kyubey and veteran magic girl Mami (a third year at the same school as the others) as they fight the mysterious witches popping up all over Japan.
Surface-level, Madoka Magica is in pure magic girl territory here – chatty animal mascot, crazy hair colours, impending doom, mysterious enemies and everyone happens to all be in the same school as they work to avert disasters that only magic girls can defeat. The first few episodes in particular revel in the by-the-numbers approach to the series, adding in lashings of other tropes such as some light romance/love triangles, the thrill of designing costumes and frenemies.
But then it starts descending into a weird, dark place. What started out as echoes of Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura (or to be more modern, Pretty Cure possibly based on what little I’ve watched) starts to subversively play with the traditional magic girl mould. There are elements of Utena in some of the visual and architectural designs, especially of the school, but in the same way that the core strength of Utena was a dark and twisted exploration of fatally flawed characters, this starts slowly unfolding in Madoka Magica. The play on superstition and luck as a result of unseen magical battles is very reminiscent of Clamp’s X, another series that places an army of bishi-bishi goodness in the hands of a twisted narrative. Then we hit the end of the first arc, and suddenly the magic girl genre is smashed aside with the kind of raw passion that made Hideaki Anno’s attack on giant robot anime in the 1990s through Gainax’s Neon Genesis Evangelion so revolutionary.
The contractual obligation, something we see in Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, Hime-chan no Ribbon, and its many contemporaries, is masterfully played in its subterfuge in Madoka Magica. Kyubey him(her?)self initially comes off as a combination of Kero-chan and Luna, yet the end result is a creature we discover to very much be a sociopath. The mysterious witches become more and more twisted, with their depiction increasingly reflective of a fractured psyche, the spiral of which we see with one of the main characters as their mental health buckles under a sudden and intense round of depression with scenes reminiscent of many in Evangelion where Shinji and Asuka’s respective psycholigical turmoil is explored through minimalist, confronting methods of aural and visual methods. Enthusiasm and best intentions give way to harsh realities and characters seemingly based on tried and true stereotypes are allocated surprising depth and have their tales explored beautifully. The ending aims for some high level concepts and finishes on a spectacular note, though those who want to park their brains at the door will likely find its interpretative direction frustrating.
The masterful storytelling is underpinned by some amazing production values. The interesting character designs for the characters’ real-world activities eschew long legs, bishi-bishi or buxom character designs in favour of expressive, childlike innocence. Henshin sequences are present but understated, with the transformations failing to fall prey to an exercise in fanservice. True, some of the designs have the beautiful intricacy of some of Sakura’s fashion choices in Cardcaptor Sakura (something even alluded to when Madoka decides to contribute to the effort early on by sketching ideas for their magic girl outfits), but it isn’t fixated on them. Linework on the keys in particular often features sketchy designs rather than solid lines, giving the art direction an interesting style that softens the near-future setting that influences the rest of the elements. CG is tastefully integrated, action sequences are spectacular and the art design in general is really spot-on. Ops and eds are great, with ClariS’ main theme really catchy.
The Blu-Ray presentation happily captures all of this with solid encoding, though the three discs are free of any special features aside from some trailers. Still, it’s a nice package with the discs spread over two Blu-Ray cases encased within a glossy cardboard shell.
I clearly loved Puella Magi Madoka Magica as it ticked many boxes as a fan of shoujo, magic girl and psychologically-motivated anime. The great thing is that you can take this on many levels – it’s a great action anime, the all-female cast are interesting and aren’t bogged down by the pursuit of fan service and there’s surprising depth if you want to deep dive on it. Combined with the A/V goodness this is absolutely compelling viewing. Highly recommended.
A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.