Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — Magical Girl Madoka

Puella Magi Madoka Magica
written by Gen Urobuchi, directed by Akiyuki Shinbo, produced by Atsuhiro Awakami and Studio Shaft, released 2011, available on Crunchyroll

Sailor Moon meets unmitigated sorrow

Much like Mobile Suit Gundam brought real physics to the mecha genre and Neon Genesis Evangelion brought real gravity to the characters in the sentai genre, so does Magical Girl Madoka bring real weight to the thoughts and actions of the magical girl genre.

Let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way right now: this is an unbelievably sad and depressing story.  Nothing about it is uplifting and every instance where you think good is triumphing, more sorrow hits you like an out-of-control truck.  The world is vivid and gorgeous in a ‘soon shall there be nothing’ sort of way.  The characters are all rich and tangible, which makes their inevitable death – as tragic as they are sudden – all the more gut-wrenching.  It’s nothing but an endless bombardment of sorrow, heartache, and depression.  And it’s so, so good.

Story – 5 out of 5
Madoka Kaname makes a deal with a special, talking cat in order to become a magical girl (see: Moon, Sailor).  In doing so, she becomes a chromatically-distinctive superheroine who is tasked with stopping witches, malevolent beings who try to ensnare the souls of humans.  Right off the bat, things are not what they seem.  There’s dissension among the magical girls in the city of Mitakihara.  Distrust runs rampant as more and more is learned about the witches, and their connection to the magical girls.

Very little more can be shared about the plot of Madoka because each surprise builds not just on the previous surprise, but also on the emotional impact of each surprise.  Suffice to say, the building darkness you see in the first few episodes is only the tip of the iceberg of the monstrosity to come.

Art – 4 out of 5
Madoka has gorgeous art, to be sure.  But it also includes really creative and deceptively unnerving art sequences when the magical girls encounter the witches.  The ‘witch sequences’ have all the feeling of fractured reality, with cut-and-paste imagery, stop-motion, claymation, etc, all of which the animated magical girls are operating within.

The witches sequences aside, the series of subtle in its melancholic beauty.  Every single frame can practically be a work of art unto itself.

Animation – 4 out of 5
Just as the art is gorgeous, the animation keeps step.  The witches sequences are definitely innovative and visually masterful, but the ‘ordinary world’ segments are just as beautifully drawn, painting the world of Madoka as haunting and quietly unnerving.

Characters – 3 out of 5
The characters in Madoka Magica are all a little underdeveloped, but that’s primarily because they spend most of their time trying to survive the psychological car wreck their world becomes.  As is becoming common in modern anime, the main character is often the least developed, with the supporting cast getting the more colorful and interesting characteristics.  While the characters aren’t quite as rich as other series, they are still firmly developed and will seem real to any and all viewers.

Acting – 4 out of 5
Having watched the Japanese dub, I cannot speak for the American voice actors.  The Japanese voice actors were all very capable and delivered some truly sterling performances.  Chiwa Saito, the voice actress of Homura Akemi, deserves special mention for delivering a stellar performance of a magical girl being driven mad with grief.

Overall – 4 out of 5
This is so close to perfect, I feel bad not giving it a five.  This is a show that needs to be mentioned in the same breath as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Twin Peaks, and the film Children of Men.  If it weren’t for how unabashedly depressing it was, this would qualify as a true masterpiece.  Few shows come along with this level of psychological impact and this level of brilliance.  This is one of the best anime series to come along in a long, long time.  Do yourself a favor and watch it.
Just, for the love of god, don’t watch it alone.

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