Friday, September 21, 2012

Anime Reflections: Madoka Magica

Holy shit Madoka Magica.

I'm going to talk for a little bit about Madoka Magica, AKA Puella Magi Madoka Magica (full English title), AKA Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica (Japanese title).

First of all, let me say this: if you are into anime, you should watch Madoka Magica.  If you are only sort of into anime, you should watch Madoka Magica.  If you watched Sailor Moon or Card Captors when you were younger, you should watch Madoka Magica.  There's always chance that you might not like it, but it's definitely a story worth checking out.  If you have not seen it, you should, and you shouldn't read this full article until you have (I'll explain why in a bit).

I was looking for some anime to watch, and this was one of the recommendations I got.  I saw that, hey, it was available on Hulu and was only a 12-episode anime, so I decided to give it a shot.  In other words, I went into it knowing pretty much nothing about it, and I'm so very very glad for that.

The first night, I watched the first two episodes.  Basically, the story follows Madoka, a young girl (canon says she's 14) in Japan.  After waking up from an unusual dream, Madoka goes to school where the class gains a Mysterious Transfer Student (TM) named Homura.  This girl happens to be the same one that Madoka saw in her dream last night!  Wow!

Later on, she and her friend Sayaka end up meeting this Cute Mascot Animal (TM) thing called Kyubey that looks like a cross between a cat and a ferret.

/人 ‿‿ 人\
Homura is trying to kill Kyubey, and the two other girls save the catferret with help from Mami, a magical girl who shares the same Japanese voice actress as Navi.  You know, the blue fairy from Ocarina of Time who's constantly telling you to "Listen!"  Kyubey tells Madoka and Sayaka that if they make a contract with it to become magical girls, it will grant them one wish for anything they want, no matter how impossible.
A quick aside to those of you not familiar with anime genres: the "magical girl" genre is a genre where young girls transform into girls with magical powers.  Sailor Moon and Card Captors are examples of the magical girl genre.  If you don't know much about Sailor Moon or Card Captors...well, think of Power Rangers.  Everyone's familiar with Power Rangers.  The magical girl genre is kind of like Power Rangers, only instead of transforming into spandex-clad ninjas, they transform into Disney princesses.

Anyway, at the end of episode 2, the girls had been off hunting witches with Mami, which is the duty of a magical girl.  They still hadn't made their wishes and there was some obvious tension between Mami and Homura that made you wonder which one of them was "right" and which was "wrong."  Between that and the somber and mysterious tone the show set with the art and music, I found myself wondering what was going to happen all of the next day.  I wasn't anywhere near hooked, but it was the first show in a long time that had me dying to know what was happening next.  It wasn't until episode 3 that I was well and truly hooked.

It's impossible to talk about the show past that without massive spoilers, so just a quick rundown before I do: Madoka has amazing music (do not under any circumstances read the comments to that video if you're avoiding spoilers), a lot of wonderful experimental art shifts, and an amazingly paced story.  Like I said, it's almost impossible to go into any sort of detail about the show without spoiling it, and that's because the story is paced so tightly.  There are twelve episodes, and just about every single one of them has some massive plot development.  There is literally no filler of any sort.  It's basically a series of plot twists (though I'm hesitant to call them "twists" since that implies that they come out of nowhere) that lead into each other.  It raises mysteries, and then answers them in a timely fashion.  You can't talk about one event without talking about the events that lead up to it, and you can't talk about that first major one without completely ruining one of the most impactful moments of the series for anyone who hasn't seen it.

Overall, the wonderful pacing of Madoka Magica's story, the new look at the magical girl genre that it provides, the beautiful music, and the gorgeous art shifts make it quite possibly the closest thing to a flawless show I've ever seen.  It starts out knowing its story, and it doesn't waste any time in telling it.  Now, when I say that it's "flawless," I don't mean that it's the best thing I've ever seen.  There are plenty of things out there that have multiple flaws but are just flat-out more entertaining.  Still, it's very much worth watching, even if you've never much delved into anime and/or know next to nothing about the magical girl genre.

Anyway, now onto the part of my reflections that contain spoilers.

Warning: Massive Spoilers Follow

Madoka Magica really tips its hand on episode 3, when Mami, a young girl in midst of her elation that Madoka and Sayaka will join her as magical girls so that she doesn't have to be alone anymore, gets her head bitten off.  After that, Kyoko is introduced to show that no, not all magical girls are as pure and selfless as Mami.  And after that, it's just a series of despairs after despairs for our protagonists.

Sayaka becomes a magical girl to heal the boy she loves.  A battle breaks out between Kyoko and Sayaka over whether what's "just" or what's "smart" should be the ideal worth fighting for as a magical girl.  Sayaka chooses justice, but after she's hurt by her friend competing to win the heart of the boy she loves and seeing some of the darker sides of humanity, she becomes self-destructive, pushing herself further and further into despair.  As it turns out, Kyubey (or rather, "Incubator") planned for this, as magical girls exist to become witches.  He reveals that the energy produced in that transformation is what keeps the universe from destruction.  Kyoko sacrifices herself to stop Sayaka's witch form.

The mysterious and confident Homura is revealed to have been a shy girl from another timeline.  After Madoka (a magical girl in that timeline) protected her and showed her kindness before ultimately dying at the hands of a powerful witch, she became a magical girl and wished for a chance to do everything over with their positions reversed.  However, doing so only serves to make things worse as it places an incredible amount of destiny on Madoka and making her the most powerful potential magic girl--and consequently most potential powerful wish.  Homura's desperate attempts to keep her from becoming a magical girl over multiple timelines only end up making things worse and worse.
With Mami, Sayaka, and Kyoko all dead and Homura attempting to keep Madoka from becoming a magical girl, Homura is left to face the witch that originally killed Madoka alone.  Homura herself is almost pushed into despair, knowing that she'll have to repeat the cycle yet again, and will only make things worse once more.
Then, the show does one of the most powerful things ever: out of despair, it creates hope.  Madoka shows up and wishes to be able to destroy all witches, past, present, and future, as soon as they are created.  This means that she'll take all the despair of those magical girls upon her, but it also means that she ends up destroying her own witch in a sort of paradox only possible through her wish.  This ends up relegating her existence to nothing more than a concept, but it makes things better for most all magical girls.  When magical girls fall into despair, they no longer become witches, but vanish to join together with Madoka, who is basically exists everywhere.  I guess what I'm trying to say is that because of Madoka's wish, God exists and she's a fourteen-year-old Japanese schoolgirl.  In the end, Homura is the only one who remembers Madoka, but for her, that seems to be enough to keep fighting.

This despair-out-of-hope ending is something I absolutely love in fiction.  It's part of why The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is my favorite game of all time.  The despair only serves to amplify the hope, saying that yes, things may look bad, but they can always get better.  Madoka Magica was, as a result, an amazing series, and one that's, in my opinion, worth all the hype.

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