I’ve just binge-watched Mahou Shoujo Madoka★Magica, or Madoka Magica for short, which tells the story of female middle school students on their journey to becoming magical girls.
Magical girl is a subgenre of Japanese media entertainment featuring girls who obtain and use magical powers. You have certainly heard of a few magical girl shows such as Sailor Moon or Cardcaptor Sakura. Not that I’ve watched any of them, mind you.
Therefore, you must be itching to ask, why did I even bother to try one of those apparently mind-numbing and overly sweet bites of weird folklore whose recipe is known to Japanese anime studios only? That’s because Madoka Magica isn’t your run-of-the-mill magical girl show. As a matter of fact, it even caused the genre’s declining popularity to soar again in the 2010s as it was widely acclaimed among anime viewers, even from outside the target audience.
Indeed, despite the first few episodes checking all the cases of a typical shoujo anime—middle school girls discovering how they can earn magical powers to fight evil and protect their loved ones—, the show takes a sharp turn into dark psychological territory at the end of the third episode when Mami, the senpai who shows them why she was proud of fighting as a magical girl, has her head eaten whole by a witch. From here on, the fluffy anime you seemingly could watch with your young children tackles heavy subjects such as depression and suicide head-on, and is therefore better suited for a mature audience. However, in case you’re wondering whether you can watch it, I’ll be frank: yes, it is dark; no, it is not depressing; yes, you are ready for it. I would go as far as to say that I was almost saddened that it didn’t delve deeper into the sinister atmosphere, since the reviews I read tended to emphasize on that aspect quite strongly. For the readers interested in some really crazy psycho material, allow me to recommend Shinsekai yori, it never disappoints.
One of Madoka Magica’s strengths is its absolutely gorgeous art when the girls step into the witches' realm. While the character design is clean but somewhat bland, the witches and their related environment are displayed in a gorgeous style full of saturated colors, as if they were ripped off from magazine posters. It is difficult to describe: you should see it for yourself, it certainly is worth one episode or two. I’ll also have to acknowledge the work put in the fight animations which are fluid and very eye-catching.
The soundtracks do a wonderful job at setting the tone of the scenes, whether it be dramatic, melancholic, distressing or cheerful (yes, it does happen sometimes, if that can reassure you). A few vocal songs sound absurdly good, especially Sis Puella Magica! and Magia, the ending, and most of the music is pleasant to the ears.
Finally, the story has a few twists which made it more interesting than I’d have thought, although I had seen them coming. Those who played Bravely Default will certainly be able to predict the biggest of them.
I was stupid. So stupid! - Sayaka
I found the character of Sayaka to be the most well-written of the cast, perhaps because she is the most relatable. She holds an unrequited love for a violin prodigy who lost his hand due to a disease, and becomes a magical girl to make him recover. However, her love remains one-sided, and she eventually drowns in her despair and loses herself. I found her story heartbreaking, all the more so as it is heavily implied that her tragedy repeats multiple times (if you don’t get this sentence’s meaning, watch the show).
If you don’t like the things you saw just now, I’m afraid you’re missing the big picture. - Kyubey
I also enjoyed listening to Kyubey since his point of view on most of the events occuring in the plot offers a disturbingly amusing counterpoint to the other character’s feelings. I also have to admit I wasn’t emotionally invested enough in the characters not to understand (and occasionally side with) his opinions. As someone who values logical over emotional reasoning highly, I was already quite open to his line of thinking anyway. And yet, it didn’t prevent me from thinking that he was indeed an insensitive and obnoxious douchebag at times. If you agree with a character but it is beyond yourself to acknowledge it, it is reasonable to say the writers did something right.
To conclude, Madoka Magica is a somewhat refreshing anime diverging from a few overused tropes for the sake of our entertainment. Most of the viewers stumble upon this show expecting nothing and are positively surprised; on the contrary, as its reputation preceded it, I ended up expecting too much and was therefore slightly disappointed. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant ride and I do not regret it one bit. To paraphrase Madoka herself:
If someone ever tells me it’s a mistake to watch Madoka Magica, well, then, I’ll just tell them they’re wrong. And I’ll keep telling them ‘til they believe! No matter how many times it takes!