The magical girl genre is one of the cornerstones of anime. For as long as conflicted boys have been stumbling into secret army mecha, girls have likewise been on adventures of self discovery by becoming costumed defenders who fight with the powers of hope and magic.
In the same way, the concept has been explored in various ways across the decades to the point there are series like the popular Pretty Cure franchise, which aims for the target audience whilst offering meta humour for the older fans, or Symphogear which is directed almost squarely at older fans. However, neither of those offer such an exploration as can be found in Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
Madoka Kaname is a middle school student with a pretty peachy life. Although not the most popular or prodigious student, she’s well thought of and has close friends. Her family consists of a loving stay at home father, a younger brother and an ambitious office worker mother who nonetheless always makes time for her daughter and tries to bolster her natural maturity when needed. Really, Madoka wants for nothing.
So it’s a strange circumstance when a new female transfer student named Homura privately tells Madoka that should someone ever offer her a single wish for anything at all she desires, she must under no circumstances take it. Later that day Madoka and her friend Sayaka encounter Homura violently hunting a small furry white creature named Kyubey. For saving him, Kyubey offers them each a single wish and the chance to become magical girls to fight against supernatural entities known as Witches.
If you’ve read anything or asked anyone about Madoka, you’ve probably heard that the less you know going in the better. So I feel a bit awkward that in writing this review I have to say the same thing. I knew as much going in as I’ve presented here, and trust me it really is for the best. It’s a story that you really need to let take hold of you and present things as intended. I watched the 12 episodes over a successive three days and by the end and went away feeling genuinely awed. I’ve had the privilege to review various great shows but this really was something else entirely.
The general vantage point the series takes is a look at the seriousness of the usually light hearted idea of becoming a magical girl. It reminded me slightly of the earlier successive series of Power Rangers in which one of the key themes was adolescents who have effectively enlisted as soldiers in a war against evil.
This also means that the characters are written a bit more realistically than in other shows. They’re still clearly an ‘anime’ cast with the expected quirkiness that entails but the drive of the plot means their reactions and responses are more in line with how a real person would react to these circumstances. This is quite important for Madoka herself as in a less grounded series she could come off as inactive but instead seems balanced and rational without being a Mary Sue. It really is an ensemble show.
Admittedly as well written as the story is and as incredibly delivered and perfectly placed as the plot twists are, some of them are easy to guess. This is quite easy to forgive, however, as the series is never smug in its attitude of deconstruction. It firmly puts its attention to telling a story rather than patting itself on the back. The result, as should ideally be the standard for all works of fiction, is that the clearly well handled bulk allows you to excuse these minor concerns.
The complete series is being released on both DVD and Blu-ray and we were fortunate to receive the latter. There are some animated shows in which Blu-ray is effectively polishing a turd, but Madoka looks fabulously crisp and clear. A particular treat are the pocket dimensions created by each of the Witches, a surreal mish mash of the animations of Terry Gilliam and Little Big Planet. The creative collage style really sells them as nightmarish layers and they come out particularly well on the Blu-ray transfer.
The standard animation is also quite endearing, being well drawn with an intentional ‘sketchy’ aesthetic that fits the genre without shifting into the lacklustre moe craze, and subconsciously reminding the viewer that even in the darker moments this is still a work of fiction, so take Puck’s famous advice and don’t let it get you too down.
The language options consist of English and subtitled Japanese. I watched the full run in Japanese and found each of the respective characters perfectly cast and performed.
Extras sadly don’t do as well in the format, with each of the three discs containing the same textless opening and trailers for other releases. I wish we could get something of more substance, but then the UK is fortunate to be getting these sensibly priced Complete sets over the ludicrously priced volumes of the American release. Some shows need a catalogue of extras to counteract the lacklustre main feature, but with Madoka the show is such a triumph that extras really are just gravy.
Puella Magic Madoka Magica is a title I cannot offer enough praise for. I apologise if that attitude and the lack of details makes me sound like a hipster, but I feel this is one of those rare times when hype is correct. It stands up both in visuals and narrative, presenting memorable characters in a deeply absorbing story that takes a creative approach to one of anime’s most famous genres. Even though it goes to dark places it manages to do so in a way that works effectively, neither feeling like melodrama or pointless angst to deliver a gut punch to the audience.
Don’t miss this chance to view one of the most genuinely enjoyable anime releases in a long while. I for one am hoping it does well enough here to secure the movies too.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica Complete Series Blu-ray (UK Edition) is available from Amazon.co.uk.