I always get worried when I hear that a series 'redefines the genre'. Usually these kinds of epithets are kind of hollow, the 'redefinition' is often just a variation on a theme, but occasionally the tag is deserved. Neon Genesis Evangelion is an example of a series that deserves the plaudits, but does Puella Magi Madoka Magica - a series which has been likened to Evangelion for its impact on a stale genre - really belong in the same bracket?
Madoka Magica starts, as many anime do, with a dream.
The titular schoolgirl Madoka Kaname dreams of an epic battle between a
dark-haired girl and a monstrous foe, a battle the girl is losing. In the
dream a mysterious cat-like creature tells the horrified Madoka that she could
save her if she becomes a Magical Girl, but she awakens to her normal life
before seeing how the dream ends. In reality Madoka is just an ordinary
schoolgirl with ordinary friends, living with her parents and infant brother.
However, her life turns upside down when the girl from her dream arrives in her
class as a transfer student, and she later finds this same girl - Homura Akemi -
trying to kill the cat creature from her dream. The creature is called
Kyubey and after surviving the attack it gives Madoka and her friend Sayaka Miki
the chance to have a wish - any wish - granted, on the proviso that they become
Magical Girls in return. Magical Girls have special powers and abilities,
but are tasked with patrolling the city and fighting against Witches,
manifestations of pure despair and anger which can cause humans to commit
terrible crimes or even suicide. However, whilst protecting humanity may
be a noble goal, being a Magical Girl is not without risks. Witches are
extremely dangerous and are often protected by hordes of familiars and twisted
labyrinths that can snare the unwary. A fight with a witch is a fight to
the death, and to give them a fair impression of the danger an older Magical
Girl called Mami Tomoe allows them to accompany her on some missions. Mami
wants them to know exactly what they would be signing up for, but the mysterious
Homura seems determined to stop Madoka becoming a Magical Girl at any cost.
For both Madoka and Sayaka the choice isn't an easy one. They have seen
first hand what the witches and their familiars are capable of and want to help
Mami stop them, but do either of them have a wish so important they'd risk their
lives for it? And why is Homura so desperate to stop Madoka in particular
from becoming a Magical Girl?
The Magical Girl genre isn't as ubiquitous in the UK as it is in Japan, but you kind of know what to expect from the genre. Usually an average young girl meets a magical mascot animal and is granted the power to become a superhero, complete with a frilly, cute outfit and magical accessories which she uses to combat some secret dark power threatening society. It's wish-fulfilment for young girls, and on paper Madoka Magica seems to follow this formula. Madoka is a normal teen who is nice and friendly but low on confidence and without any
strong sporting or academic skills, yet she is told she can be the most powerful of all Magical Girls and help protect her friends and family. Like most magical girl shows it features cute characters, bright and colourful artwork, special transformation sequences and perilous situations, but the tone of the series is certainly not what you may expect.
Madoka Magica may look bright and cheerful, but its
tone is dark. Very dark. Like Evangelion the series takes a
clichéd, wish-fulfilment premise and poses the question 'what would this
really be like?'. Madoka and her friends are children, as are the
other Magical Girls, and they are faced with a world of life or death battles
against frankly terrifying enemies. How they react to the reality of this
situation, and the effect it has on their lives and those of their friends,
forms the core of the series and makes it all the more engrossing. The
storyline is excellent, it's packed with drama and action and goes in a
direction I certainly didn't expect, whilst the characterisation and acting is
top-notch too. A special mention must be given to the visuals, there is a
kind of hand-drawn look to the characters which is particularly noticeable in
close-up shots, and the witches' labyrinths are stunning to behold. They
are depicted as a collage, mashups of images and textures, animated photos and
strange misshapen creatures dancing around a psychedelic field of printed matter
and shadowy colours. It's strikingly done and looks awesome on Blu-Ray in
particular, lending a surreally artistic style to the magical girl battles that
really sets the series apart. The main characters are interesting and
varied, each driven by their own choices and moral codes and developed by their
pasts and experiences. Their stories are brilliantly told vignettes of
tragedy, hope and despair which squeeze more characterisation into just 12
episodes as most series manage in 24 or more. The overarching plot is
intriguing and engrossing, taking the idea in a direction that could easily have
failed miserably and making it work with stunning success. At the centre
of it all sits the constantly smiling Kyubey, friendly but emotionless, a being
with the power to grant any wish yet relying on pre-teen girls to fight
terrifying foes. Why is Kyubey giving them the chance to become Magical
Girls? Where did it come from? The series throws up many questions,
but unusually it answers them too.
However, whilst I was impressed by almost every aspect of the series, I did find the unrelenting darkness of it all somewhat draining overall. Evangelion was dark, and it put its characters through the wringer, but there were often moments of comedy or normality to break things up, quiet periods where the characters would train or just hang out with friends. Not so much here. Once Kyubey gives Madoka and Sayaka their chance the series completely revolves around it, everything afterwards is influenced by it in
some way and the characters fret and worry as their lives gravitate towards the choice. It's because of this that I can't imagine that this series is one that I will watch again and again, although the ending is brilliant and puts the entire story into context it is, for the most part, surprisingly heavy stuff. It's a remarkable contrast with the lightness of the Magical Girl genre as a whole, but whilst the series is superb I'm not sure that it is genre defining. The series feels like it is aimed at a slightly older audience than most magical girl anime, people who grew up with the genre but are now in their teens. The darker aspects and pretty deep storyline make it an excellent series, but how much will seep back into a genre typically aimed at a primary school audience is debatable.
Nonetheless Puella Magi Madoka Magica is probably the best series I've seen this year. It's dark and intriguing with superb visuals and a fantastic storyline which gets increasingly engrossing as it progresses. The characterisation is excellent, avoiding the easy archetypes that typify most anime series and making each character a complex individual with their own hopes and fears. Even side characters - such as Madoka's driven mum Junko - are given a little more substance, and in the case of Homura and Kyubey their characters are revealed at a perfect pace to keep them enigmatic until exactly the right point. Yes, it's dark and in places disturbing, and yes, it may not have the far reaching impact on the magical girl genre that Evangelion did on the giant robot one, but that doesn't stop Madoka Magica being an excellent series and one of the best of recent years. Grab the Blu-Ray set as soon as you can, licensing issues could mean that the Blu-Ray set - which is significantly cheaper than the versions released in Japan and America - could only be available for a short period, and this is one that every self respecting anime fan should own.
Only textless opening and closing sequences and trailers, which is a bit of a shame. America and Japan got a limited edition release containing soundtrack CDs and artcards along with other bits and bobs, but they had to buy each volume separately and pay nearly four times as much as we do, so I'm not complaining too much!