So, I’ve written about anime made by Shaft/Shinbo Akiyuki, and I’ve written about anime written by Urobuchi Gen. Now, to write about one they both worked on.
Previously, Shaft had only made adaptations of manga and light novels; this is their first original work. For such an occasion, with a fair bit of fanfare they assembled something of a creative dream team. Scripts by Urobuchi Gen, known for Fate/Zero, Phantom and more recently Psycho Pass. Music by Kajiura Yuki, known for Noir, .hack, Fate/Zero. Character designs by Aoki Ume, known for Hidamari Sketch. Directed by Shinbo Akiyuki, known for… a fair whack of what I’ve already reviewed, but also Hidamari Sketch, Arakawa Under the Bridge, Paniponi Dash, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, etc. And what did they all make as Shaft’s historic first original work? A magical girl show.
Magical girl wasn’t exactly unfamiliar territory for Shinbo, having previously done Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, but for the rest – especially Urobutcher – it seemed like an odd choice. But no matter, unlikelier teams have made unlikelier things well.
It all starts out relatively standard. The heroine is 14-year-old Kaname Madoka, an ordinary middle school girl with ordinary friends and a slightly out-of-the-ordinary family (a stay at home dad and a succesful career woman mother). She has a strange dream involving a girl she’s never met and some cutesy little talking critter. The next day, the girl from her dream, Akemi Homura, transfers into her class, and gives her some cryptic advice. Later, she gets a telepathic call for help from the talking critter from her dream… who’s being attacked by Homura. In the midst of this, they get pulled into the pocket dimension of an eldritch monster and then saved by a passing magical girl, Tomoe Mami. The critter, Kyubey, offers Madoka any single wish she wants granted in return for becoming a magical girl and fighting the eldritch monsters, known as witches.
I won’t go into much detail about the events that follow, as anyone who does go on to watch this really should do so without any specific spoilers. What I will say, though, is that from the third episode onwards, things get much worse for everyone involved, and continue to get progressively worse with each episode. Magical Girl Madoka Magica effectively is to magical girl shows what Neon Genesis Evangelion is to giant robot shows.
Episode 10 has some major revelations about what’s going on (more so even than previous episodes, which had some pretty ground-shaking ones), and when you re-watch the show right from the start after having seen it, you see a lot of things in a much different light. Urobuchi Gen did some masterful work in his writing of the whole thing. And characters… what looks at first like a pretty standard set of magical girls (and normal human support cast) turns out to be anything but. They’re a seriously complex bunch.
Urobuchi has outright stated that he wants to write things that are heartwarming, but has for a long time been unable to write anything other than dark tragedy. With Madoka… he almost succeeds. It does warm the heart, but doesn’t quite manage a happy ending; bittersweet is the best we could hope for, all things considered.
Now, I mentioned Evangelion earlier in the review. Ever since it came out, so many shows tried to be the next Evangelion – mostly by doing dark, depressing robot shows and hoping for the best. But that’s the wrong approach; most of the ones that tried that tactic were forgettable at best. But Madoka Magica does it – or at least, comes far closer to it than anything else has to date. It hasn’t changed anime forever like Evangelion did, but in the post-Evangelion world, it’s basically impossible to do so. Madoka does succesfully challenge, deconstruct and reconstruct many of the familiar conventions and tropes of the magical girl genre.
I’ve made mention in other reviews of Shinbo Akiyuki’s interesting – unique, even – use of visuals. That is one of the major reasons I feel no-one else could have successfully made Madoka Magica. The art and animation for the witches and their pocket dimensions is downright deranged, and looks incredibly jarring and alien compared to the usual art and animation of the world and characters. Like with the Rebuild of Evangelion, this works very well for it. Shinbo is most typically known for his really out-there comedies, but he does horror very well too. (Occasionally both in the same show, see Tsukuyomi Moon Phase.) I almost wish he’d stick to comedy; when he does horror it hits you.
So anyway, in conclusion: Magical Girl Madoka Magica is one of the best anime I have ever seen. This is not a claim I make lightly, by the way – I like a tremendous number of titles, but few are actually this good. It won’t suit everyone’s tastes; some won’t like how dark it gets, others just don’t have the interest in magical girls. But for anyone willing to consider those two things put together, it’s brilliant.