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Review: "Puella Magi Madoka Magica" Vol. 2 LE: Die a Hero or Become a Villain

Well, we’re now on volume 2 of fan favorite and deconstructionist magical girl anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica. The so-called Evangelion of magical girl series continues to shock and delight with intense revelations and fantastic character development, yet the question still lingers from volume 1: is this worth $100 a volume for it’s limited editions? Well, lets see where the story went, and work from that point.

The key points are still in play – Homura still seems cryptically knowledgeable, and she still. wants to Madoka to never make a pact with Kyubey. Meanwhile, Kyubey is still running every possible angle to set up a situation where Madoka has to make that pact. However, Madoka’s friend Sayaka did make a pact, and the consequences of that decision drive the episodes on this volume. For starters, it’s gradually revealed that being a magical girl comes with a lot of hidden problems, most of which are massive spoilers. That said, it wouldn’t spoil it too much to compare the wishes made to a monkey’s paw curse: sure, you get your wish, but it always goes hideously wrong. In fact, it seems to go extra wrong when you are being somewhat more selfless. Betrayal from friends, broken families and good, old-fashioned heartbreak come with trying to use the wish nobly. To make matters worse, the physical trade-offs required to fight witches are quite grotesque in the abstract as well. On top of it all, in this volume we get straight up turf wars between magical girls. Sayaka faces off against Kyoko, a rival magical girl who has her own tragic past. Both of them seem to be in conflict with Homura at points. Fighting for the right to fight? Sounds psychotic, but it turns out those tie into the physical trade-offs necessary to stay alive as a magical girl. Put simply, if you don’t fight full blown witches and get their grief seeds, well, read the article’s headline. Worse still, Kyubey not only knows this is the case, but he thrives on it, and stopping him from continuing that cycle appears to be impossible by the end of the volume.

From the technical side, there is nothing to complain about: the visuals continue to be quite a spectacle. The fights are brutal, fast and fluid, and the background design is unreal. To say Madoka has carved out it’s own visual language remains an understatement on this volume. It’s not just how well made the backgrounds are, it’s that the entirety of it’s design is very intentional and unified. The near-futurist tinges still create a certain excitement, even when just panned across in a background, while the Yellow Submarine via Monty Python on PCP visuals of the witches’ world is unabashedly derivative yet fresh in the same stroke. They take their influences and make their own, and this itself adds a visual layer to the story telling. It’s unusually stylish for an anime, let alone a modern magical girl anime. The end result also feels unanchored from time – nothing in the visual setting should date the series any time soon.

Meanwhile, I sometimes wonder whether 13 episode anime get forced into less artful, more blatant storytelling. Maybe it’s hard to watch Madoka again and not see just how coarsely some of the points are made. While Madoka treads fresh philosophical ground for magical girl series, the questions ultimately raised aren’t new, nor are the answers it provides. To make matters worse, any of the double crosses involved in the show are very transparent on a second viewing. Some of them even seemed obvious when I first watched the show. It’s not like Evangelion or Lain or FLCL where you may need to watch it a few times just to get what’s going on. The punches just feel pretty telegraphed by comparison. Maybe that’s one of the elements that most feels like a normal magical girl show: it’s very direct with a lot of it’s big points, or at least has been so far.

However, I’ve only said this because even when I watch Madoka not only knowing what’s coming, but fully aware of what it means, it’s still shocks me quite a bit. Even when you see them coming, the reveals and punches still knock you out cold every time. While the philosophy may not be fresh, the emotional weight of it’s consequences always resonate. It’s an odd paradox actually: when the more obvious parts aren’t making it a little odd to watch, the emotional elements may hit so close to home you wish you could just stop watching. It’s not an emotional rollercoaster; it’s an emotional haunted house. Some of the bigger character revelations leave me speechless every time. Thus, while I still wonder if it’d have a bit more breathing room might have afforded greater subtly, I can’t help but think it’s outstandingly well written anyway.

However, the localization may be a bit of a mixed bag relative to the writing. The dub is great. The acting and mix are fantastic. However, the subs seem to be the same as the dub script, and while I freely admit I don’t know much Japanese at all, it seems awkward. Maybe it’s legit, but I dislike having to raise the question. Particularly, I wonder about the scene in the train where Sayaka over hears some young punks making degrading remarks. The dialogue feels right in english, but seeing the same dialogue in the subs seems off.

The discs themselves are both excellent. I definitely prefer the Blu-Ray, not just because of the fantastic audio and video quality, but also because the menus are a lot classier and cool as well. However, it’s still a very barebones affair. If ever a show would’ve benefited from commentary, it’s Madoka. It’d justify the price point, and really, I think this would gain from real-time, behind-the-scenes information. The lack of that here is thus a double disappointment.

On that note, again, I still don’t feel like it’s made itself worth the $95 MSRP, or even the roughly $75 per volume it usually runs online. Yes, I know it’s a different industry than it was in 2008, and I know the US is babied compared to our Japanese counterparts when it comes to price, but while Madoka is good, I can’t say the release worth buying an entire show or two instead of a single volume of Madoka. Getting a DVD and Blu-Ray is lovely, and I doubt we’d get a domestic release of the soundtracks in any other fashion at this point, but the rest of the included just don’t bring it up to it’s asking price. Tiny posters, tiny stickers, postcards and an admittedly nice informational booklet do not justify a $100 dollar per volume release. Yes, I’ll admit to the errata from the last review – it’s actually only 3 volumes. However, $210-$300 dollars is still a lot of bank when other great anime series only run $50 on Blu-Ray.

However, just like the previous contradiction about Madoka‘s writing, I have to admit, I would buy the limited edition myself. It is a modern classic, and it’s worth getting the best version available, even if the price point doesn’t match the release quality. Sometimes, when a series starts as strongly as Madoka, it loses momentum by the mid-point, but this anime just won’t let up.

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