A note: I did not write this review. Or rather, I did not write the foundation for this review. In fact, I stole the template from one of Roger Ebert’s reviews, played a merry game of mad-libs, added a few sentences, took out a few sentences, and ended up with this. Anyone who can guess the movie in which I derived this review gets brownie points. So, I guess I wrote this to make a point. Read on after the jump to see whether I actually made any points or whether I wasted my time:
“Madoka” isn’t your father’s version of a magical girl anime anymore. Akiyuki Shinbo’s “Puella Magi Madoka Magica” is a haunted anime that leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy. It creates characters we come to care about. That’s because of the performances, because of the direction, because of the writing, and because of the superlative technical quality of the entire production. This anime, and to a lesser degree “Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha” (also a Shinbo-directed work), redefine the possibilities of the “magical girl anime.”
“Madoka” is not a simplistic tale of good girls who choose to gain magical powers to fight evil. The girls are good, yes, the witches are evil, yes. But “Madoka” poses a more complex puzzle than usual: The witches’ ability to bring death and despair to the citizens of Madoka’s hometown requires someone to step up to eradicate the threat. But is it worth sacrificing your mortal soul for all this? Enter Kyuubei, the cute mascot-like character who is more than a villain. He’s a Mephistopheles whose lack of empathy and amoral outlook pose dilemmas for all would-be magical girls, especially when many aren’t told of the risks and are too innocent to ask for the fine print.
The key performance in the anime is by Emiri Katou, as Kyuubei. Her rendition draws power from her matter-of-fact delivery. Though Kyuubei lacks the malice of “Bokurano’s” Koemushi, it is precisely the way Kyuubei’s lines are spoken that make the character more despicable. At least Koemushi was being purposefully cruel and even if we cannot condone such behavior, it’s not outside of our experience. Kyuubei’s actions fall outside the scope of what we’re used to as he takes a Machiavellian stance towards what must be done for the good of the universe. In short, he’s a sociopath’s sociopath. Throughout the anime, he continually nudges the girls to enter in the contract without a care for their fates, enticing them with the fulfillment of a wish as a reward. This Faustian bargain effectively threatens the whole moral foundation of the magical girl genre.
Because these characters and the situations they find themselves in are so powerful, and because the anime does not allow its spectacular visual effects to upstage the narrative, we’re surprised how deeply the drama affects us. Eri Kitamura does an especially good job as Sayaka Miki, whose character is transformed by a simple wish into a bitter monster. The same can be said for Yuko Goto’s performance as Madoka’s mother, who dispenses with sage advice when called for, but who begins fretting for her daughter towards the end of the series. And let us not forget Kyoko’s final prayer. It is customary in an anime to maintain a certain knowing distance from the action, to view everything through a sophisticated screen. “Madoka” slips around those defenses and engages us.
Yes, the visual effects are extraordinary. They focus on the expected explosions and catastrophes, and have some superb, elaborate depictions of a descent into madness. The setting in which “Madoka” takes place is a wilderness of skyscrapers and unfinished construction sites that carry a hint of danger in their unbuilt state. Especially noteworthy are the alternate witch dimensions that seem like they were taken from Salvador Dali’s surrealist landscapes and Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” It is through these worlds that the characters fight in and, ultimately, die in.
The plot involves nothing more or less than a girl’s attempt to save her friend from a horrible fate. Kyuubei’s deceit, combined with a tragic series of events, is what sets this all in motion to begin with. The twists and turns that come along are complex, with all credit going to Gen Urobuchi’s screenplay, which has more depth and poetry than we might have expected.
Shinbo also directed the previous, and excellent, “Le Portrait de Petite Cossette,” which explored the darkest corridors of the human psyche. Now, Shinbo has taken his experience from “Cossette” and materialized them into “Madoka’s” cruel twists. There are a series of flashbacks and time-jumps that make us realize that this conflict is borne by children who have fallen victim to cruelty — they compensate by trying to do good and fulfill their wishes, but when the final revelations come forth, all that’s left is despair. If they didn’t understand it then, they sure as hell do now.
Something fundamental seems to be happening with magical girl anime as a whole. “Cardcaptor Sakura” may have defined the classical high point of the traditional magical girl anime. A show like “Nanoha” allows its director to combine the excellent battle scenes typical of shounen series with the magical girl genre to bring to the attention of a male audience. But now, “Madoka” moves the genre into deeper waters. They realize, as some anime viewers instinctively do, that these stories touch on deep fears, traumas, fantasies and hopes. And this reinvention of the magical girl genre is the most fruitful one for exploration.
In “Puella Magi Madoka Magica,” Akiyuki Shinbo has freed the magical girl character to be a canvas for a broader scope of human emotion. For all the magical girls in “Madoka” face deeply troubling decisions, let there be no doubt, and if ever the despair begins piling on, it would not surprise me the extent of the harm these characters are capable of inflicting upon one another.