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Full Series Review 2: Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Puella Magi Madoka Magica, usually just called Madoka after the show's main character, starts off with many things you probably expect from a Magical Girl show. There's a mysterious dream, a mysterious transfer student who seems to have some sort of powers, a cute talking animal offering girls magical powers but also claiming they have to save the world. It takes place in a fairly typical middle school, albeit in a universe where everyone's hair seems inexplicably to be the same color as their eyes. But hey, it's an anime, right? But trust me, this is not like any anime you've ever seen.
Basically, it's what's called a deconstruction of the popular Magical Girl genre. Known for their saccharine optimism, Magical Girl shows are about well, an ordinary girl, usually in junior high or high school, acquiring magical powers, usually from some kind of cute fluffy thing, and being required to drop their E.C.'s in favor of fighting monsters every week alongside said fluffy things and a supporting cast of 2 or more friends who also become magical girls. Examples include Pretear, Pretty Cure, Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth, and a whole freaking crapload of other series. Basically, it's a saturated genre with predictable plots and familiar clichés. It's usually aimed at little to teenage girls, so dark and heavy things don't enter into the plot much (although the more mature ones might handle concepts related to young girls growing up such as relationship abuse, in the Very Special Episode style of dealing with heavy topics).
Here are some things usually common in the genre (I'm aware there are probably exceptions):
- The heroine is pure good, especially empathetic and so mushy inside and sometimes such a girly crybaby you wonder why the universe selected her to fight anything more dangerous than a moth.
- There's almost always a cute talking animal. Their origin is mysterious but not probed into deeply usually. Unless they're a villain's lapdog type of animal, their benevolence is usually without question. They usually give the Magical Girl instruction in fighting, exposition about the plot situation and the bad guys, and the source of their power (which kind of makes you wonder why they don't fight the bad guys themselves, the jerks). Usually said source of power is some kind of shiny trinket, like Sailor Moon's brooch for example.
- The heroine is usually The Chosen One, for reasons that aren't exactly always clear, given that little girls in floofy skirts and pointy heels don't typically make the best soldiers. It might have something to do with Shinto shrine maidens (mikos) in Japan, or the idea that young, virgin girls have a sort of mystical power that comes from their innocence. But mainly, it's done to show a heroine who's still growing up, and thus someone with flaws who learns a valuable lesson every episode or so. The worst ones have a protagonist with a personality that's so flawed and annoying that you wonder why she's the hero and not someone more competent or likable, but usually the purity and kindness of the Magical Girl heroine is what makes her the Chosen One, as opposed to other characters, who, while smarter or better at fighting, might not have that sort of moral purity.
- The magical aspect is a plot device that is just sort of taken for granted. It's not like alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist, where great power comes with an equal sacrifice of some sort. It's usually in the form of "say this silly string of English words, change into an adorable outfit that's color matches your personality, and shout another string of silly English words to use an attack against the enemy, save the world, ... profit...".
- Everything is color-coded.This is probably because 1) it's a lazy way of the writers explaining a character's personality in a pinch and 2) these shows are usually marketed to children, so things are usually pretty simple. Good guys wear pastels or bright colors, bad guys are in black, red, or dark colors. Innocent, naïve girls have light-colored hair (pink or blonde), sassy, fiery, or tom-boyishly tough girls have a bold middle-value hair color like orange, red, electric yellow, or bright green, dark purple or black is reserved for serious, elegant, princess-like girls, who usually have very pale skin to compliment their dark hair, and blue, silver, white, or grey hair signifies shyness and nerdiness.
- The morality of the show is simple. The goodness of the good guys and the wickedness of the bad guys is rarely questioned.
Now, everything I just said, except the color-coding and the fact that the protagonist is truly good, is turned on its head in Madoka. All you have to know about this show is that it's like the Evangelion of the Magical Girl genre. It totally takes everything Magical Girl shows take for granted or leave unquestioned, like where the magic comes from and does it have a cost of some kind, and puts those questions on the forefront.
At first, Madoka, a sweet, naïve girl (note the pink hair) seems like she's going to make a contract with Kyubey, a white ferret-like creature who can communicate to magical girls via telepathy, and gain the power to fight witches, evil spirits that cause suffering and destruction. But before making that choice, Homura, a mysterious purple-haired girl, jumps in and attempts to kill Kyubey and stop Madoka from making this decision to enter into a contract with him to become a magical girl. Who is Homura? Why does she care what happens to a girl she doesn't even know? Why does it seem like there is a magical girl who wants Madoka and her friend Sayaka to join her (Mami) and one who seems adamantly opposed to it? Don't all Magical Girls usually work together as a team? Why would someone want to harm Kyubey anyway?
Since there was no real way to discuss much further than that without massive spoilers (there's some sort of shocking reveal or twist almost every episode because with 12 episodes the plot is fairly condensed and rapid-fire). So I'll just say this. I'm giving this show 5 stars. Go see it, all of it, and then come back while I discuss the whole thing in the second part of this post, but if you don't want the spoilers and haven't seen it you should quit reading now (presumably to go watch the show and come back).
DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER THE REST OF THE REVIEW INCLUDES A DISCUSSION OF THE ENTIRE SERIES, INCLUDING THE END. SPOILER ALERT, PROCEED WITH CAUTION.
Here are the big reveals of the show. When a girl makes a contract with Kyubey and becomes a magical girl, her soul is imprisoned in a Soul Gem and if the Soul Gem is destroyed or gets too far away from her body, she will die.
Then it's revealed that witches are not simply evil beings from nowhere, they were all once magical girls themselves. A Soul Gem becomes corrupted once a magical girl uses too much of her magical powers without killing a witch and stealing her Grief Seed to purify it. This is the fate of every magical girl, eventually. They all give in to despair and darkness at some point and become witches.
Also, Kyubey's real name is Incubator. He is an alien species that does this to harvest energy from human emotions, to save the universe from heat death (the emotion energy is a kind of magic because it's able to violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics).
Then, in episode 10, Homura's past is revealed. She was a transfer student who couldn't do anything well at school because she'd been sick for a long time and missed a lot of school. She felt hopeless, but Madoka befriended her and made her believe in herself. Then Madoka became a magical girl. At Walpugisnacht, the end of the world, when a dreaded, ultimately powerful witch called the Walpurgis appears, Madoka fought the Walpurgis and failed. Then, Homura made a wish to become a magical girl that she could go back and save Madoka. She gains the ability to control time, which she uses to go back many times to the past, and in each timeline she tries to find a way to save Madoka.
First she decides to try to help her fight the Walpurgis, but then it eventually becomes clear to her that what she must do to save her is to prevent her from becoming a magical girl in the first place. This is easier said then done, as Kyubey cares nothing for human emotions (he doesn't even have the capacity to understand them). And he will stop at nothing to get Madoka's power, which is being amplified each time Homura makes another timeline focused around Madoka's life. Thus, over time, Homura is getting stronger but paradoxically she's making her fight against Kyubey harder. And Kyubey doesn't exactly die easily, and maybe it can't die. She just has to outsmart it.
Also, who knows if Kyubey was ever really telling the truth about him needing the energy of magical girls to save the universe? It's quite possible that he was trying to trick them. He never seems to outright lie, he just uses ambiguous terms and leaves out critical information to mislead people (for example, a girl asked him if a magical girl had the power to turn a witch back into a human without killing her, and he said he "wouldn't be surprised if that happens." the thing is, Kyubey can't be surprised, or feel anything else for that matter). But when asked by Madoka if he cares about the fate of all the girls he's done this to, he asks "Do you feel sorry for cattle?" Pointing out that humans merely use the energy we need from dead animals all the time and that's sort of just what he's doing, but he sees it as better because instead of "merely treating humans like cattle" he reasons with them and asks them to enter into the contract voluntarily. He also doesn't care about individual humans, possibly because he himself is just one representative (several are shown with identical bodies) of a single alien race that operates as one mind. Thus, he's incapable of understanding why the loss of one of 6.9 + billion humans would make people upset. So of course, when he sees that Homura's meddling with time travel causes Madoka's potential power increase, he just sees her as her as helping him make the most powerful witch ever.
However, when Madoka realizes the truth behind everything, she has other ideas, obviously. At this point in the "current" timeline, she has yet to make a decision to become a magical girl. She decides to wish for a world with no witches, past, present, and future. She goes through space and time as a goddess, destroying each magical girl all the way back in human history before she can become a witch. In the future she creates, there are no longer witches. Magical girls simply fight demons.She has at this point become an omnipotent being without a physical body. In the world she creates, only Homura and her little brother remember who she was. Her own parents say they've never had a daughter. Homura and other magical girls continue to fight evil, this time cooperating with Kyubey instead of working against him.
This series is excellent for many reasons:
- The art style. It's an art student's dream. There's even an homage to Picasso. It's so funky and creative-looking that it totally breaks the magical girl, and even the anime, mold.
- It's very philosophically interesting. It raises questions about the nature of selfishness vs. altruism (saying that in some ways no one's wish is really pure or good, that we're all partially motivated by selfishness even when we're in denial). It also seems to show that evil is an inevitable fact of life that cannot be destroyed completely. It shows that with great hope comes equally great despair. In some ways, you could call it very existentialist. TV Tropes also mentions several times that the plot is heavily based on Goethe's version of the Faust story, which is philosophically interesting, but this is told with more of a Buddhist religious influence, in my opinion, than Faust, which is influenced by Christianity.
- The plot twists are phenomenal. On TV Tropes they wanted to call it a Wham Series, because every episode almost includes a Wham Line and an interesting new development. In terms of entertainment, this show is almost so intriguing as to make one glued to the TV (or computer), unable to blink. It's thrilling, and ultimately, although it has a dark ending, it still has a satisfying conclusion to the plot.
- It's actually a series that uses time travel correctly. In that, I mean, once the Time Travel plot device has been used once, if not used to fix everything bad that happens forever, it's not being used correctly, in my opinion, which is why I dislike it's use in fiction. To use Harry Potter for an example: once they've broken out the Time Turner, every death becomes something the heroes could have prevented if they cared enough. However, showing how hard it was for Homura to go back in time many times trying to re-write the story every time she disliked it's ending, we saw how time travel can solve any problem, but it sure takes a hell of a lot of determination to keep hitting rewind. However, she pulls it off and makes Madoka into a goddess who can transcend the rules Kyubey plays by. That's true friendship. Write about that one, Twilight Sparkle!
- I love it because of the way it deconstructs magical girl tropes, which I've discussed earlier.