I didn’t know quite what to expect from Madoka. I’ll admit I was cynical, and for irrational reasons: given where people were making the most noise about it, I assumed it would be the latest in a line of juvenile, schlocky, plotless and brainless anime that were beloved of many and then all but discarded when they finished, starting with Higurashi, through Angel Beats and to High School of the Dead. But that was a snap judgement, and after all, this was a Shaft anime. I love Shaft.
On the other hand, the immediate impact Madoka makes is that its legacy is part of the one Shaft production I really haven’t enjoyed watching: the character designer here was the mangaka for Hidamari Sketch, Aoki Ume, so the look of the piece reminded me instantly of that, making me wonder if this was going to be at all serious. All I had heard about Madoka was that it wasn’t your typical Mahou Shoujo series, and the opening animation made me fear that it was going to be a Moetan-ish send-up. Not so, though. It took a long time to assert itself as truly subverting the genre, even when it got dark, but ultimately it did so, and extremely well – and that opening became cleverly ironic, images of defeat rather than ideals.
The director, Shinbou Akiyuki, also helmed the original Nanoha – and thus he had credentials for directing Magical Girl anime. And not the sort that is actually aimed at young girls – such as Ojamajo Doremi – but aimed at the seinen crowd. However, since Nanoha he has gone on to direct most of Shaft’s best, including the productions steeped in irony and surreal humour like Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei and Pani Poni Dasshu, though at the very least Hidamari Sketch proved he didn’t have to go all-out with the chalkboard gags and utter bizarreness. I expected more depth and irony as a result, but it also struck me that Shinbou hadn’t really done anything requiring a strong narrative and neat ending since…well, probably Nanoha. Not even Negima?! really qualifies for that. Any doubts I had, though, were unfounded.
It took a while to convince me. The first episode was as expected, setting up the archetype to later subvert. Familiar stuff: an innocent girl has a dream about becoming a magical girl, then meets the real thing after getting caught up in an attack by a witch. The only really remarkable part was the way the witches’ reality was represented by techniques that were an extension of the collages used in Hidamari Sketch and played with in Zetsubou-Sensei: essentially, paper cutout animation of the Gilliam school, only with computer graphics making for a whole plethora of kaleidoscopic backgrounds. Striking stuff.
Things take a turn for the dark by the end of the third episode, and though it was signposted a mile away, I certainly didn’t expect it so soon. In a 12-episode series, though, it was well-timed. It was like reaching the darker parts of Nanoha in just a handful of episodes. After that the focus shifted to Madoka’s friend Sayaka, and it becomes increasingly apparent that the subversion comes from the fact that the dilemma is whether or not it’s really good in any way to become a magical girl at all. There are echoes of Bokurano in the motives of Kyubey (or should that be ‘Cubay’?), but instead of any malice or duplicity, he is pleasantly detached from everything and objectively may well be in the right – a nice touch.
Still, for a while I felt quite indifferent to Madoka, feeling it to think itself a bit cleverer than it was, not particularly liking the art and finding it all quite predictable despite the heavy themes. Mai-HiME had done much of this better. But then the tenth episode centred on a background character came along, and I begun to love the series. That episode gives her full backstory, at much greater length than I expected – indeed, long enough that you realise that the entire show is not really Madoka’s story at all, but that of this other character, who I don’t name in case it ruins a surprise. The remaining two episodes don’t seem enough to pack in any more surprises, but the final ending is cleverly bittersweet, arguably not the best solution at all, but certainly great for an aftermath and a satisfying conclusion.
There are a few things I would have liked in greater detail. It’s implied that the power of the wishes corresponds to potential, but it’s still quite vague and I would have liked to have seen more wishes than the final one be actually about the system the girls are entering into, or to give them personal power. Everything was set up carefully so that Homura never actually explains to Madoka the potential final consequence of her action, to the point it gets quite awkward at the end, and it would have been interesting to see the additional conflict if Madoka knew the final effect on the world she would cause.
Madoka set out to be different from other Magical Girl stories, but starting out just like them, continuing like only a few, and concluding in its very own style. The overall story is admirable, but the shift in focus made me love it.