The magical girl anime genre is often categorized by cute school girls who are students by day and are some sort of crime fighters or keepers of the peace by night. The girl or girls are usually accompanied by a guardian who is either a talking cat or some kind of cutesy creature. Among my favorite magical girl animes have always been Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. When friends recommended I watch Puella Magi Madoka Magica and they warned me that my perception of this genre will be forever shattered and changed, I didn’t realize how serious they were until I actually watched it.
Madoka Magica focuses on middle school students Madoka Kaname and her best friend Sayaka Miki. Their lives are relatively normal until they encounter a white bunny/cat creature known as Kyubey. The girls are told by Kyubey that it is capable of granting any one wish they desired the most. In exchange, they must agree to a contract to become a magical girl and fight witches.
While Madoka and Sayaka take time contemplating over whether they should or shouldn’t agree to Kyubey’s terms, they encounter Mami Tomoe, a talented magical girl who shows them what it’s like to be a magical girl fighting against witches, and the mysterious Homura Akemi, another fellow magical girl who is determined to keep Madoka from making the contract with Kyubey at all costs. What could possibly be so wrong about becoming a magical girl and fighting witches in exchange for having your wish granted? Everything.
Without getting too deep into spoilers, Madoka Magica is the kind of anime that shows a much darker side to what it is to be a magical girl in this world and the hefty price one must pay to really get your heart’s desire granted. Blood, death, suffering, and sacrifice are the general themes and images you’ll see throughout much of the anime. You really don’t get a sense of Madoka Magica being a vastly different anime from the usual magical girl animes until you witness the one-two punch of a rather gruesome death of a particular character about three episodes in. Once the death happens, it sets the tone for the remaining episodes of the series.
Madoka Magica is a short series, capping out at just twelve episodes in total. My friends informed me there are also OVAs which wraps up the entire anime. At the moment, I don’t have access to the movies, so this review will be confined to the twelve episodes of the series.
My impression of the first few episodes was mixed. The anime started relatively normal, having a cutesy style animation with happy and upbeat characters to make you think this anime will give you the warm and fuzzies. Then when Madoka and Sayaka meet Mami and join her on a witch hunting mission, my next reaction was how strange this anime suddenly got. The witches the girls encounter aren’t so much physical humans, but more like a surrealist painting in motion. The witches they fight are more environmental and atmospheric than having an actual face to kill. It was quite the adjustment for me to get behind the magical girls fighting a faceless and shapeless enemy. By the third episode and beyond, I found myself more engaged in the story rather than feeling a little detached and lukewarm about a series I knew absolutely nothing about. The darker and gloomier tone of the anime starts to emerge and it’s almost impossible to give up on this series without knowing what the hell is going on and how it all ends. The entire look of the anime is purposely deceptive, as it masks the cruelty and sinister fates and circumstances awaiting these magical girls or soon-to-be magical girls.
If you’re expecting a happy, light, and fluffy affair, you’re really not going to find it in this series. Each episode after the third one gets progressively darker and more depressing. It also feels discomforting to watch these girls get easily duped into a contract they don’t fully understand until it’s too late to take it back. The innocence and sweetness of Madoka and Sayaka in particular are quickly snuffed out as they learn the price a magical girl really has to pay. Kyubey is a master manipulator of sorts and the lack of empathy it feels towards the girls’ fates is expressed in cold, hard logic. The revelation later revealed about the actual details of the magical girl contract are so disturbing and horrific that the very definition of a magical girl has now been viewed under the glare of a harsh lens. Maybe Kyubey doesn’t believe what it’s doing is evil, but it doesn’t excuse its own part in leaving out pertinent details about the contract. It’s as if Kyubey waits for them to accept the contract and then later says, “By the way, about the contract you just got into with me…” Kyubey is the definition of a wolf disguised in sheep’s clothing.
As heavy as Madoka Magica is, the series itself does end on a bittersweet note. Having watched the entire series with a sense of despair and sadness at the girls’ situation, I started thinking if there was going to be a light at the end of the tunnel. I didn’t expect the conventional happy ending, but I needed a glimmer of hope. A belief that not all is lost. Luckily, the end of the series did deliver. I have been warned that the movies may actually bring me back to that feeling of doom and gloom when I actually do get a chance to watch it, but for now, I did enjoy how the series alone concluded.
I wouldn’t exactly put this anime on my top favorites list, but I did think the series was worth watching. It did exactly what my friends said it would, which it’d take every notion and convention I knew about the magical girl genre, stick it into a blender, and then shred it to pieces. If I ever thought all magical girl animes are cute, happy, and will give you the fuzzies then all I have to do is refer back to Madoka Magica and say, “Yeah, you might need a strong drink after watching this one.” If you’re looking for a much more unconventional take on the magical girl genre, then look no further than Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Just be prepared to queue a happier or funnier anime after watching this one. You’re going to need it. Reviewer Rating: 8/10