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Anime Reviews: Puella Magi Madoka Magica
With its clever use of imagery and genuinely surprising twists, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a subversive yet loving take on the magical girl genre of anime.
Title: Puella Magi Madoka Magica a.k.a. Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica a.k.a. Madoka Magica a.k.a. PMMM
Series Length: 12 episodes
Air Dates: 1/6/2011 to 4/21/2011
Age Rating: 13+ (mild violence, dark or disturbing thematic elements)
Summary: Madoka Kaname is a perfectly normal 14-year-old girl living in an upper-middle class home. Her family loves and cherishes her, her friends are few but loyal, and overall, she lives a normal life without any major troubles--that is, until an intimidating transfer student named Homura Akemi warns her to never change who she is, if she values the life she leads. Almost as if on cue, Madoka encounters a cat-like being named Kyubey, who tells her that the world's sorrows are caused by witches spreading their curses, but he can offer Madoka the power to fight them: the power to become a Puella Magi, a magical girl whose strength comes from the strength of her wish--the very same wish required to make this transformation. But what kind of wish is required to risk one's life for, and what could Kyubey possibly gain from offering this power? And most importantly, will Madoka agree to this deal?
The Good: Artsy-fartsy direction makes for spectacular visual imagery; Yuki Kajiura's always-perfect soundtrack; intriguing characters and story twists
The Bad: Character art is an acquired taste
The Ugly: Staring intently at your screen until MOANING LESCUE!!
Gonna say it right now, this kind of thing is not usually my cup of tea. With magical girl anime, it was pretty much Princess Tutu and that's it for me, but I was encouraged to check this series out because of JesuOtaku's review and her shower of praise for it. She states that the series is dark and subversive not just for the sake of being grimdark, but because it's following the tradition of Faustian tragedy. While I was interested at that point, she then went on to say Yuki Kajiura did the music, and that was all I needed to hear. In the end, JesuOtaku gave Madoka Magica the highest rating in her system: a 4 out of 4, marking it as her favorite anime of 2011. Did I enjoy it as much as she did? Let's find out~
Probably the most striking aspect of the series is its direction and visual style. Much like the acclaimed Anno Hideaki, director Akiyuki Shinbo likes to make use of silhouettes and unusual camera angles to set the mood. Both men also know how to stage an intense action sequence, with fluid animation and sharp movements with various tricks to immerse the viewer in the action (motion blur, camera shudder, swift panning, all that good stuff). While Hideaki was wont to have more surreal scenes take place in empty rooms or against black backgrounds, Shinbo takes surreality to its logical extreme, especially inside the Witches' labyrinths. All kinds of art styles come out to play, including collages, Saturday morning cartoons, crayon drawings, and Classical watercolors. Nothing is beyond imagining for our illustrious (and somewhat eccentric) director.
And to perfectly complement the surreal visual style of the series, the talented and lovely Yuki Kajiura graces the series with her limitless glory. "Sis Puella Magica!" is both entrancing and beautiful, serving as the main musical motif of the series. Never fails to send chills up my spine. "Amicae Carae Meae" is another soft, slower tune, guaranteed to tug at your heartstrings, even if only a little bit. When the action picks up, the soundtrack doesn't fall behind at all, with the purposeful "Agmen Clientum" and the unsettling, pulsing "Venari Strigas" setting an intense stage for the action to take place on.
But we can't let Yuki Kajiura have all the soundtrack fun, can we? How well do the opening and ending themes hold up in comparison? Well, okay, bad question. They lose. But that's not to say they're bad songs! The opener, "Connect" by ClariS, is simultaneously sweet and melancholy, and catchy as hell, though it does feel a little off when you get to later episodes. Ending theme "Magia" by Kalafina, with its dark tone and haunting vocals, is a much better fit for the series and is also more satisfying as a whole. Whichever you like better, both are good songs.
But now, we've gotta get into the characters, because I say we have to. Every character starts off as a cliché (Madoka is a shy goody-goody, Sayaka is a fierce go-getter, Homura is the mysterious antagonistic anti-hero, etc.), but it doesn't take long at all for them to break from their molds and become three-dimensional. Without giving too much away, I'll just say that Sayaka is the prime example of a character changing dramatically over time with powerful emotional consequences. And let's not forget the drastic transformation Homura goes (went?) through, with a backstory and motivation that puts so many other anime characters to absolute shame. Though you may not like a character at first, wait a while. You'll find yourself growing attached to that one you abhored just an episode ago.
Of course, much of this character development is brought about by the plot's many twists, which are so numerous, the story could be narrated as, "X happens, but it turns out that X is Y, but then it turns out that Y is Z, but then it turns out that X is Z, but then it turns out..." and on and on. While it could have been so easy for the multitude of twists to become tiresome and ridiculous, they stay grounded within the series' internal logic and never breach your suspension of disbelief. Things go wrong at every turn, right out of nowhere, and it never feels out of place. And you can never look into Kyubey's little red eyes and think he's cute ever again.
But wouldn't you know it, we gotta talk about the series' only downside now. It's the character artwork. It's not technically bad, but there are many things that take a while to get used to, like the characters' vertically-short faces, the strange parallel lines that make up their eyelashes, the opaque beige slab on the far side of their faces--it's just so unusual. While it's not outright outlandish and jarring like the designs in Akagi and Kaiji, it's definitely something that catches you off-guard.
And hey, we're done. I wasn't really expecting to enjoy this series (I was more expecting mindless moe crap like Shuffle!), but I'm honestly surprised by Madoka Magica. And that's even after the fact that I generally trust JesuOtaku and she gave the series a perfect score. While I don't know if this anime is perfect for everyone, but if you're a fan of magical girl anime or if you're looking for something just a little different from the norm, then you've come to the right place. It's only 12 episodes, too, so you'll be done before you know it.
Final Score: 9 out of 10. Unique presentation style and gorgeous music notwithstanding, Puella Magi Madoka Magica has plenty of heart and plenty of surprises to go along with its Faustian themes and engaging characters.