When I'm in the middle of projects, particularly in the more stressful periods of the process, I like to take time out to watch some anime that doesn't require too much attention and brain power on my part. This is usually when I fall back on my anime-roots of magical girls such as Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. Both are fantastic shows which you don't need to think about too much to know what's going on and I find them really fun for relaxing when stressed.
During one my stressful projects I decided to take a break and see what Puella Magi Madoka Magica was all about. I'd seen a lot of imagery about the show the last few months and I finally looked it up to see it was only 12 episodes long. Perfect! Or so I thought.
Magical girl anime shows are fantastic in my opinion. They're a bit of cute fun with charming animal sidekicks, brightly coloured costumes you never get to see in real life, transformation sequences with catchy music and often ridiculously optimistic personalities which are refreshing to see every now and then, especially when stressed with everyday life.
So when this is the primary promotional image for the anime, you would think this would be similar? Bright costumes, animal sidekick, mostly smiling faces...?
This series has taught me to never judge an anime by its promo image.
The series starts off innocent enough. You meet the protagonist, Madoka, a 14 year old girl with pink hair and the most innocent voice you can imagine to the point of minor irritation. The first episode can be a bit annoying but once you're used to her she's a likeable character. She doesn't know what she wants to do with herself since she's not particularly good at anything but she cares about her family and friends which a lot of people watching the show can relate to.
You meet her happy blue-haired friend Sayaka and together they run into a "Messenger of Magic" called Kyubey, a cat-like creature. Kyubey tells them he can grant them one wish but in exchange they must become Magical Girls and fight against witches, creatures born from curses which unleash sadness and cause unexplained murders and suicides. Kyubey introduces them to a Magical Girl, the blonde-haired Mami, and offers both Madoka and Sayaka the chance to become Magical Girls. However a second Magical Girl, the mysterious dark-haired Homura tries to stop Madoka from making the deal.
It's a good plot and one I found very interesting. In most anime in this genre the girl would take the deal without thinking for a second, this is the first time I've seen someone question the fact that they're risking their life at age 14. It's great to see a new approach to the genre and have a character genuinely trying to stop the protagonist from doing this.
I'll return to the plot, and how the promotional image is a giant lie, in a moment. I need to say that the animation in this show is fantastic and when combined with the stunning music used in the show it is truly a breathtaking experience.
DO NOT WATCH BEYOND 1.20 IF YOU WANT TO AVOID MAJOR SPOILERS
Another thing I found particularly interesting with the animation is the way that when the characters enter the witches lair, the backgrounds change to a strange 2D style, almost like stop-motion animation. It makes it very abstract and adds a creepy atmosphere incredibly well. You can see the insanity of the witches through the animation of the world around them.
|Madoka and Mami instead a witch's lair|
From this point on there will be a lot of spoilers, I won't go into the major one that was in the video above but I will need to say a few in order to voice my opinions on the series.
The story takes an incredibly dark turn from about the third episode. Initially you can deal with Homura attempting to kill Kyubey in order to stop the Magical Girl deal. It's overlooked in a way that it's acknowledged, but no one really mentions it again. Madoka is still too busy trying to figure out why Homura is trying to stop this than actually thinking "Hm, this girl tried to kill some alien-cat creature to stop me risking my life before it's even really started." Instead she keeps trying to be friends with her and it's a bit irritating at first.
But the real dark twist comes from Mami's death. Yes, the happy blonde gets a brutal death in front of Madoka and Sayaka who are too terrified to help her, which are realistic reactions to be fair to them. This event makes Madoka and Sayaka rethink about whether they truly want to make the deal with Kyubey. So far they hadn't completed the deal because they couldn't think of a wish, but now they've seen the reality of fighting the witches and the deaths they might suffer themselves, they start to rethink things.
However Sayaka eventually takes the deal an episode later in order to wish her friend Kyousuke back to health. This is one of the reasons Sayaka is possibly my favourite character in the show. She's fun and energetic but she makes her wish selflessly and knowing she can't ever tell him what she did for him. The other Magical Girls all make selfless wishes (with the possible exception of Mami, but her reasons were pretty valid too), but I find Sayaka to be the most realistic character. This is possibly because her story is so sad through the rest of the series.
|Mami face-to-face with a witch|
Sayaka doesn't get the chance to tell Kyousuke how she feels due to her new commitments as a Magical Girl and she loses him to another girl. This breaks her heart and eventually leads to a series of plot twists. The first being Kyubey's true method of making them into Magical Girls. When they transform they are given a Soul Gem which is thought to contain their magical powers, turns out it actually contains their souls (as the name would suggest) and if they are separated from the Soul Gem for too long, they die.
|Sayaka with her Soul Gem|
Sayaka nearly perishes from this and Kyubey's true nature is revealed. Turns out those creepy unblinking eyes are as evil as my brain told me they are. Kyubey is just so neutral to everything, it's terrifying. This realisation along with others leads to Sayaka giving into the sadness in her heart and losing herself. She then turns into a witch.
With the help of a new Magical Girl, Kyoko, Madoka attempts to get the witch-Sayaka to remember who she is and change back. Unfortunately it's too late and so Kyoko sacrifices herself in order to kill the witch-Sayaka while Homura saves Madoka. Things get very real now which I honestly didn't see coming. After Sayaka and Kyoko's deaths, they have to deal with the bodies. These 14 year old girls have to move the bodies of their dead friends so nothing is suspicious. Once the bodies are found there's a funeral with friends and family unaware of what happened. Just Madoka and Homura know how they died and they can't say anything to anybody; it's heartbreaking to watch!
|Madoka attempts to reason with witch-Sayaka|
Out of the five Magical Girls (I include Madoka in this count even though she's yet to make the deal) three of them die horrible deaths. Madoka is 14 and in the last month has watched three of her friends die in front of her. This is not what I signed up for when I started watching this series! The animal sidekick isn't loveable at all, I hate him more than the witches. While the costumes are still bright and fun, the music gets steadily more depressing which suits the series but simply is not what I expected!
The series wraps up nicely over the last few episodes with Homura revealing herself to be a time-traveller (definitely didn't see that one coming) but this humanizes her amazingly well. All this time she's thought to be a heartless character who is protecting Madoka for no reason. We learn that Homura was saved by Madoka, this time as a Magical Girl, and went back in time to save Madoka from becoming a witch. She did this nearly 100 times, repeating one month to stop Madoka becoming a Magical Girl and save her from the strongest witch who triggers Madoka's transformation into a witch.
|Homura and Madoka are happy. Just give it 2 minutes and we'll be back to crying.|
But through watching what Homura goes through we see her gain strength but also lose her bright personality. She becomes cold from determination to save Madoka and having to watch her friends die so many times. This is one of the most heartbreaking moments of the series after Sayaka's death. Very similar to Snape in Harry Potter, she is simply trying to protect Madoka. Once Madoka finds out about this, she makes the deal with Kyubey and makes a wish that changes everything. It's an incredible ending and one I recommend you watch.
Madoka Magica is heartbreaking. It rips your feelings from inside you and forces you to swallow them back down then repeats the process. And it's an amazing series. It takes apart the Magical Girl genre and rewrites it in a new way more suited for adults, do not let very young children watch this. The promotional image is the biggest lie I've ever seen. This is not a happy series! But it is innovative of the genre and I admire it for taking the risks that it did and succeeding completely.
Though in future I'll read a few reviews before thinking a show is happy and stress-free before diving into a 12 episode series of sadness.