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WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the ENTIRETY of Madoka Magica. I highly recommend watching this series before watching this video.
Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica has been one of the most successful and critically acclaimed anime series of the current decade, and helped to turn the names of its major staff members into famous ones among anime fans. Along with Bakemonogatari, it helped to pull studio SHAFT and director Akiyuki Shinbo out of relative obscurity, and contributed to production company Aniplex’s rise into the hit factory that they’ve become in the last five years. It also launched writer Urobuchi Gen into being more or less the first anime writer that people actually know the name of.
Madoka is most famous for its dark and horrific take on the magical girl genre which is typically aimed at young girls, its interesting marketing tactics, and its trippy, high-quality production. In this post I’ll both review and analyze the series, as well as provide context for how it was originally presented, and how this affected its popularity.
I think the best way to understand what Madoka is, and how it came to be that way, is to look at the people behind it. In fact, from this perspective, Madoka isn’t the least bit surprising, and fits right in line with what the creators are known for.
Madoka Magica was the second time director Akiyuki Shinbo worked on a darker, adult-oriented take on the magical girl genre. He’d previously directed Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha, which, while a lot more conventional in terms of story structure and not having characters die, also gave its characters dark and violent backstories, and was very clearly marketed towards an adult, otaku audience, considering it was a spin-off from an erotic game called Triangle Heart in the first place. Besides Nanoha, Shinbo has worked on no shortage of gothic, horror-themed anime, such as Twilight of the Dark Master, The SoulTaker, Le Portrait de Petite Cossette, and Dance in the Vampire Bund, and he’s been known for incorporating stylistic elements of horror even into comedy shows like Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei and Tsukuyomi. Considering all of this, it’s not surprising that Shinbo was the one who came up with the idea of doing a dark and disturbing magical girl series in the first place, nor that he specifically asked Urobuchi Gen to fill the story with death and violence.
Of course, Butch Gen, AKA Gen the Butcher, happily obliged, having been pretty much exclusively as a horror writer, known for his dark and violent stories such as Saya no Uta, Blassreiter, Fate/Zero, and Phantom. Butch Gen was given almost total creative freedom in crafting the story of Madoka Magica, and drew inspiration from a lot of Akiyuki Shinbo’s past work. He even requested that Kajiura Yuki do the soundtrack because he’d been listening to her soundtrack to Shinbo’s Petite Cossette to draw inspiration. Ume Aoki’s character designs were also a source of inspiration, as well as Hidamari Sketch, which was Akiyuki Shinbo’s adaptation of Aoki’s heartwarming slice-of-life manga.
From this perspective, it seems obvious that Madoka Magica was going to be exactly what it was–but there are good reasons that it wasn’t perceived this way by most. For one, despite their illustrious backgrounds, Shinbo and Butch Gen weren’t exactly widely-known names except among hardcore otaku, so most viewers had no idea about their backgrounds. Madoka was promoted a lot more than is normal for a SHAFT and Shinbo show, which likely has to do with the overwhelming success of Bakemonogatari a year and a half prior. Studio SHAFT had been sitting on the script for Madoka for over three years because of scheduling conflicts, and I’d bet that if the series had been produced back when it was first written, it wouldn’t have had anywhere near the amount of money and manpower behind it, nor anywhere near the advertising budget, had it not been riding on the heels of the best-selling anime series ever.
But more than anything, the biggest trick of all was how Shinbo and Butch Gen deliberately lied in all of the show’s promotion. Madoka’s character designs, opening theme, and logo were all designed to look like a legitimate cutesy magical girl show. Tomoe Mami, the character who (and remember, there are spoilers in this post, so turn back if you haven’t seen the show) dies in episode three, was included on all of the promotional material, and had one of the most popular voice actresses in the show. Butch Gen had even said on twitter that the show was “totally innocuous” and not like any of his other work, and only admitted the truth after episode three had aired. All of this had been Shinbo’s plan to deliberately misdirect the viewer, and even though the first two episodes had shown some darker and more sinister themes and visuals than what one would expect from the genre, episode three still took most people by surprise, and is still taking people by surprise who haven’t been spoiled to the show’s true intentions even today. Needless to say, this face-heel-turn also got people talking about the show like crazy, which went that much farther in promoting it. When Madoka blu-rays went on sale, it was clear that lightning had somehow struck twice, and the series nearly matched the unbelievable record-setting sales of Bakemonogatari.
But that’s enough for the history lesson. If the gimmick of disguising a dark and violent show as something innocent was the series’ only draw, it wouldn’t have received the critical acclaim and lasting impact that it’s had–so now it’s time to look at what this show actually did and figure out what makes it tick.
Right from the first episode, Madoka Magica has a distinct feel, not only from other works in the genre, but from just about anything else in the medium. The works of Shinbo and SHAFT have always been pretty out-there visually, but I’m not sure the studio ever got to throw as much money or creative freedom at a show as they did Madoka. There are lots of angles and moments of animation that you just wouldn’t expect to see in anime, and uncommon fixations, such as really detailed hand gestures from the characters and, of course, the crazy cutout look of the reality marbles.
Everything in the show looks very crisp and distinct, and even though the colors are fairly subdued in order to give the show a creepy vibe, the color design is nonetheless striking. I’ve always characterized Shinbo’s directing style as “wallpaper fuel,” because so many of his shots make for ideal desktop backgrounds, and Madoka is certainly no exception. The combination of excessively detailed movement and crisp, memorable backgrounds gives the entire production a sense of weight and quality that elevates it above other anime series. It’s not so much that Madoka could contend with the animation quality of something like a Production IG show, but because it’s designed in such a clean and attractive way, it feels even more gripping than if it had been a normal-looking show with high quality animation.
Depending on whether you’re watching the episode for the first or second time, it takes on a pretty different meaning. On the first go-round, it mostly serves to build Homura as a mysterious character whose fate is inexplicably tied to Madoka’s, as well as to introduce us to the daily life of Madoka and her friends. However, if you’ve seen the show already and know what Homura’s really trying to do, then her scenes take on a different meaning, and we can appreciate how painful it is for her to hear Madoka calling her by her last name, or to see her protecting Kyuubei in the end.
Episode two is where we get more of the proper “magical girl setup” stuff, and this order of events suggests indirectly that the magical girl stuff isn’t the real point of the show. The first episode already presented us with the real story, which is that of Homura trying to stop Kyuubei to protect the fate of Madoka, so while episode two appears to be the meat of the story setup, it’s actually more of a misdirect made to give the impression that this really might be a proper magical girl show. Everything established about how witches and magical girls work is typical of the genre, and one could be forgiven for assuming after this that the show was just weirdly trippy, but ultimately a normal magical girl show.
Interestingly, the show is kind of careful not to outright lie to the viewer. The only reason we’re misinformed is that we’re following from Madoka’s perspective, and she gets all of her information from the utterly misinformed upperclassman Mami. Moreover, we have no reason to doubt Mami, who comes across as cool, reliable, and a good role model for Madoka. There are hints though of what a real role model should be like in the form of Madoka’s mom. When asked about what she’d wish for if she could do so, Madoka’s mom answers that she’d basically clear the way for her to climb the corporate ladder, but when Madoka suggests that she does so anyways, her mom ambitiously begins to consider doing just that. At this point, Madoka’s mom symbolizes chasing after your wishes by your own hands without relying on things like magic.
If there’s one way that the show could be called a liar, it’s with the use of the ending theme. Madoka’s opening theme is interesting in that it wouldn’t really sound out of place in a magical girl show, but also doesn’t feel out of place here. It’s a pop song, but there’s a distinct sense of sadness in the lyrics and performance, and even in the video. The show’s proper ending theme, Magia, is used as background music during fights in these first two episodes, whereas the ending song is a cheery pop song sung by Madoka’s voice actress. This false ending theme really does betray the true nature of the series, but given that Madoka still has no idea what she’s really in for, it is at least true to her feelings for this part of the show.
Episode three is where the series finally reveals its true intentions as a dark and violent magical girl series, but it’s here that I’d like to try and debunk the idea that Madoka is necessarily subversive or deconstructive of the genre. For starters, let’s clarify that this genre is actually pretty diverse. The type of magical girl show best known to older fans and those in the west is the sub-genre of battle shows, which includes the likes of Pretty Cure, Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Shugo Chara, and Madoka falls in with this genre–but there are plenty of other types of Magical Girl shows, such as the ever-growing idol genre, which Madoka has little in common with.
Within the realm of battle series, Madoka doesn’t necessarily bring anything that the genre hasn’t seen before, except for MAYBE the evil mascot character. In fact, while it wasn’t thought of as a magical girl series at the time of its release because the genre title didn’t exist yet, Go Nagai’s Cutie Honey is often considered among the earliest magical girl series in retrospect, and was not only aimed at boys, but contained lots of violence, nudity, and action.
Even in series aimed at girls, there’s always been plenty of playing with tropes. The original Sailor Moon manga featured character deaths, and both that series and Ojamajo Doremi are known for dealing with surprisingly dark themes. Pretty Cure began to draw the attention of otaku audiences with its well-animated fight scenes, which may have influenced the purely otaku-oriented Nanoha franchise which, as I mentioned earlier, was often pretty dark and violent. Madoka is somewhat unique in that the main character doesn’t transform for the majority of the series, but it could be compared to Cardcaptor Sakura, in which Sakura never actually transformed, but really was just putting on different outfits while using magic; or, how in Revolutionary Girl Utena, while Utena does ostensibly have a sort-of transformation, the series is more about her long-term character arc and how she transforms as a person in the end. The idea of a completely tragic magical girl show has even been explored in the likes of Princess Tutu, and both that series and Utena do way more to subvert and deconstruct the magical girl genre than Madoka does.
After all, in the end, Madoka really does have thematic similarities to other shows in the genre. The ending could be taken as somewhat melancholy, but is ultimately uplifting. I think it’s a bit presumptuous to label Madoka as an outright subversion of the genre, and that it’s more accurate to call it a dark and violent take on the genre. It’s not that Madoka doesn’t represent its genre idealistically, it just goes about its portrayal of themes in an atypical fashion. This distinction might be pedantic in the end, but I feel that in labelling Madoka as contrary to the magical girl genre, rather than a member of it, would be to pointlessly limit the idea of what a magical girl show can be; whereas considering Madoka to be a dark example of a magical girl show actually expands what the genre can be considered capable of.
Anyways, in this episode, we see the beginnings of the kind of person Madoka will become, and how this contrasts with who Mami is, in spite of Madoka’s perception of her. Madoka is inspired by her mom’s attitude of drawing satisfaction from the general feeling of accomplishment in her life to try and become a magical girl so that she can have the feelings of doing something for the betterment of others. Meanwhile, we learn that Mami never really wanted to be a magical girl, and that her confidence and swagger are just a front she puts up so that she can deal with her work.
Unfortunately, Mami seems to have bought into her own facade and arrogantly doubts Homura’s intentions. I love the moment where Mami says that Homura’s desire to prevent competition comes from an immature mindset, and Homura just death glares at her as if to say, “yeah, exactly. You’re immature for believing that that is my intention.” Mami fails precisely because she isn’t the real deal. She gets excited at the idea that someone is going to help take her pain away, but is practically admitting in the process her own lack of strength. When reality strikes, it strikes with a vicious and unfair fury. Mami did not deserve to die for her failure, but as Homura puts it, such is the nature of being a magical girl.
With the fourth episode, the story begins to open up, as Sayaka makes her contract, Kyouko is introduced, and the motivations and intentions of the characters start coming to light. As such, I’ll be switching from talking about the show episodically to something more broad.
Miki Sayaka’s arc, which takes up the bulk of the series, is a sort of downward spiral caused by the slow realization that she, like most people, is not as strong as she thinks she is. Sayaka’s crucial flaw is that her intentions are good, but she doesn’t really understand who she is as a person. She thinks that by wanting to do good things and sacrificing herself for others, she’ll be able to find happiness; but upon the realization that she can never be with Kyousuke, she comes face to face with her true nature. It’s not so much that Sayaka is lying to herself the whole time, although there are certainly elements of that–it’s that she doesn’t understand her own limitations, and upon learning them, can’t handle the realization.
The reason Madoka has so much potential is because she actually has the mindset and personality to potentially do what Sayaka can only pretend to be capable of. In her heart of hearts, Sayaka’s desires were always selfish, and she realizes it all too late. She draws inspiration from her perception of Tomoe Mami, but as we’ve discussed already, Mami was never really that strong to begin with, which is how she got killed. Sayaka sees Kyouko and Homura as selfish and unjust, and by comparing herself against them she strengthens the idea that she’s in the right, which only obscures the truth of her nature even further. At the point when Sayaka can no longer reconcile her ideal self against her actual self is when her mind unravels, and she finally goes over the edge.
Meanwhile, Sakura Kyouko is Sayaka’s opposite. Kyouko fights out of a sense of duty, but acts as though she’s doing it all for herself. She’s willing to throw other people under the bus and make sacrifices, but all of it is ultimately so that she can keep fighting, and keep others from needing to fight.
Kyouko’s arc kind of happens too fast in the show, so part of my interpretation of her character involves filling in the blanks that the show left, but I think the best way to rationalize her actions in the end is to recognize that she was perhaps the one most interested in self-sacrifice to begin with. That said, because she’d already used her wish short-sightedly as a child, she no longer has the means to become truly powerful as Madoka can, and ends up dying in a last-ditch effort to do the impossible in saving Sayaka’s life. In a way, Kyouko was always living in the shadow of her past mistakes, and couldn’t emerge from that with enough hope for the future to power her onwards.
Whereas Mami, Sayaka, and Kyouko all failed to understand either themselves or their powers at critical moments, Homura is the only one lucky enough to get a full grasp of both. Because of her time travel ability, she can keep repeating the same cycle until she learns how to do everything right, not unlike a Groundhog’s Day loop. Homura’s ambition is to reach a timeline wherein Madoka can be happy, and while she might not get her wish in exactly the way she wants it, she will eventually get it in some form as a matter of course, since her power dictates that she gets to repeat the cycle until she gets it right. Homura may have the knowledge which the others lacked, but not unlike Kyouko, has already used her wish–and so, even if she is successful, the conclusion which she is capable of reaching is already set in stone. However, it is because of Homura’s cycle that Madoka’s latent capability keeps growing, as she in turn has new chances to do everything right every time Homura starts the cycle over again.
In the end, all the time, power, and knowledge bought by Homura’s cycle allows Madoka the clarity of thought and understanding to make a wish that can change everyone’s fates and save the magical girls once and for all. Whereas everyone else’s wishes had been too narrow in scope, Madoka realizes that the only way to truly change the nature of the cycle is to change the nature of the universe in the process, which she accomplishes by becoming a God. She takes out the entire concept that all hope must come with an equivalent exchange of despair, by becoming a self-perpetuating machine of gaining hope through the fact that she is taking on despair, i.e. permanently balancing out the hope and despair within her. And, well, the rest is adorable yuri history.
If I had to determine the key to Madoka’s success, I would say that it’s actually an incredibly straightforward and simple story, presented in just such a way that it causes the viewer to digest it differently than they would another story. Ultimately, it’s about the battle of hope versus despair, and about the main character saving the universe, which is as typical as an anime story can get; but because it plays this game with clashing tropes and defiance of expectation, it causes the viewer to engage it differently.
The producer of Madoka Magica has stated that he felt the show was actually pretty kid-friendly, in that it doesn’t feature any explicit sexuality or gore, and ultimately presents a pretty normal story–and in that I have to agree. I would compare the success of Madoka to the success of Death Note. Like Madoka, Death Note was a show whose premise seemed twisted and dark, but was actually really easy to follow and understand even for young people–which is appropriate considering it ran in Shounen Jump. Both of these series used dramatic twists, engaging stylistic trappings, and big, memorable moments to sell a straightforward plot as something ostensibly fresh and new.
I must admit that while I did enjoy Madoka overall and find it fun to watch, upon seeing it again I was unimpressed in terms of how it compares to other media on the whole. In spite of the unique presentation, there aren’t really any unique ideas in the show, and it kind of reads like a teen-friendly version of a more detailed Urobuchi Gen story like you might get from Psycho-Pass. Madoka feels very short, even for a twelve-episode series, as it seems only interested in hitting all of its plot points without doing much to flesh out the world or characters. Butch Gen has admitted that he considered the characters secondary to the storyline, and even had most of their fates decided before he’d even given them names. This isn’t necessarily a bad way to craft a story, since it means that the themes of the narrative take prominence, but I don’t think that Madoka explored its themes in an impressive amount of depth. Nonetheless, that’s not to say that the series has done anything wrong–it’s more to say that in the grand scheme of things, it might not hold up as well in comparison to other works, even within the libraries of its own creative team.
Of course, with Madoka being the ridiculous success that it was, it quickly spawned an entire franchise surrounding it. Two manga adaptations and no less than six spinoffs have been produced at the time of this writing, which I won’t be discussing in this video–nor will I cover the light novels, nor any of the five currently available video games. The biggest additions to the franchise were the trio of films, two of which are recaps of the series with some additional footage and redone voice-over, and the third of which is a totally new story that serves as a sequel to the original. I am about to spoil the movie as well, so if you don’t want it spoiled, now would be the time to stop this video, as I’m done talking about the show.
Opinions of Madoka Rebellion are pretty divided, which isn’t surprising as the film is a total clusterfuck. The first act plays out like one of those alternate-universe fun time OVAs that other shows get, or like the first part of a Higurashi arc, where all the characters are hanging out having fun. It’s basically a bunch of fanservice–a chance for us to see all the main girls hanging out and enjoying themselves as a group, both in casual life and in battles, which we never really got to see in the show. This is fine in itself, though the interactions end up feeling forced as it’s painfully obvious that these scenes exist just for the sake of themselves. Which isn’t to say that none of them are entertaining, as the scene with the characters singing in the midst of killing a nightmare certainly is, but it’s also so bizarre and out of left field that it’s hard to take seriously as a canon part of the series.
The film’s second act is way needlessly stretched out, with even more fanservice in the form of things like an extended battle between Homura and Mami (most of which operates on an Advent Children level of excess), and the creation of Bibi-chan. To clarify, Bibi is the witch that killed Mami in episode three, but in this universe she’s Mami’s best friend, and also turns out to be a loli. Or actually, she was part of Madoka’s god-mode existence, along with Sayaka. Why was Bibi a part of Madoka? Fuck if I know!
Once the plot finally starts rolling, with Kyuubei admitting to Homura that the world they’re trapped in was fabricated by herself after the incubators separated her soul gem from the Madoka system, the film’s art becomes totally incomprehensible. I don’t know how else to explain it–the visual design gets so out of hand that I literally could not tell what the fuck was happening on the screen in front of me. All of it was vaguely cool-looking in the sense that if I got really baked and put on a Pink Floyd album it’d probably be one hell of an afternoon, but in terms of conveying anything of significance I was totally lost. Even during the final battle, I could vaguely tell what was happening, but not really what the characters were DOING on a moment-to-moment basis.
The whole idea, in the end, is that Homura eventually becomes the Devil to Madoka’s God, destroying the balance that Madoka created in her sacrifice in order to bring Madoka back to life. I think. I could kind of comprehend that Homura would do something like this to take the pain away from Madoka, even though at the end of the TV show, Madoka made it explicitly clear that she wasn’t feeling any pain, and was happy being a part of everyone’s lives, and it seemed like Homura trusted her. Even if I can see Homura doing it, I don’t really grasp why she was capable of becoming the devil. I’m not necessarily saying the movie didn’t explain it, but if it did, then it went over my head while I was trying to wrap it around what the fuck was actually happening in the film’s third act.
I honestly can’t enthusiastically attempt to analyze this movie in a meaningful way, because I just outright disliked it. The early part of the film, which should’ve been effective fanservice, mostly served to remind me of how these characters aren’t really that interesting, and so watching them do fun stuff together doesn’t really fill me with the kind of feelings that I’d have gotten watching one of the similar Higurashi OVAs. The visuals and fight scenes were so far over the top that I was numb by the end of the Mami and Homura fight, and completely out of patience for the rest of the film. I feel like I understand what the ending was going for, but it doesn’t handle it with anywhere near the grace that, say, the final chapter of Devilman, or the Revolutionary Girl Utena movie does. It just feels like one big ridiculous clusterfuck that I couldn’t bring myself to care about.
Anyways, that’s kind of a downer way to end this video, and I’m sure a lot of you will disagree with me who found this movie interesting, or who enjoyed the TV show more than I did. Nonetheless, I do hope you enjoyed this video, and that you’ll check out more videos on this channel and, if you really enjoy my content, that you’ll support me via patreon or paypal so I can keep this channel going. Thanks a ton!