Early Report: Madoka Magika – The Flesh or The Bones?

How deep are you willing to go?

After some good word from trusted sources, I went ahead and decided to give another current title a good watch, and while I’m impressed by the visual presentation of Shaft & Shinbo‘s latest television effort, Puella Magi Madoka Magika, already a debate is brewing whether the show has upped the ante, or dropped the subversion ball two yards into the field. Unfortunately, I find myself in the latter camp as we are now at four episodes, and it already feels like the only reason left to watch is morbid curiosity. And after giving the initial four episodes a studied re-watch, I can go so far as saying that despite the ambition displayed in this series, there’s something truly missing at the core of this bold throwback to the “edge” era of 90s anime.

The Story Thus Far (Minor Spoilers)

14 Year old Madoka Kaname awakens from a nightmare in which she sees a devastated world being defended by a mysterious student, only to find out that the girl in the dream is to be her newest classmate Akemi Homura. This bizarre event leads to even greater revelations when Madoka and her friend Sayaka are witness to a magical battle with not only Homura, but another young girl who despite the former’s advice, takes the two under her wing. Swiftly, the two are caught in between the world we share, and a hidden world, where witches plot to corrupt all that is good in the world. And the girls are given a crucial choice, to join up as a Magical Girl by means of making a single wish, or to continue their normal lives as war continues to brew.

The cool stuff so far. (allegory)

As advertised, Madoka Magica intends to be an Evangelion/Utena-esque examination of one of shoujo manga’s most tired premises, the Magical Girl. And while much of what I mention in this post may seem to be on the down side, there are some enchantments in here that do make this far more interesting than most recent output. And considering the name Akiyuki Shinbo, this is a most fascinating test. A test to see if the man responsible for lush, yet often artistically remote, and esoteric output is capable of taking on what is ostensibly a straighter narrative than he is accustomed to working with. Production value, and animation courtesy of good ol’ Shaft and friends is effective, and at times truly beautiful, from the colorful, yet rigid architectures to the more surreal uses of skyline imagery. The presentation cannot be faulted thus far, as the show is lavish in almost every facet.

Also worth noting are the themes at play, despite the familiar “ordinary girl summoned to become a magical girl to help save those she cares for” setup, there is a seething intent that seems out to undermine the history of the subgenre. From Yokoyama’s Mahotsukai Sally, to Cardcaptor Sakura, the idea of a netherworld of wishes and dreams existing alongside our own is a near traditional precedent of anime and manga, and in this series, the goal seems to be to do as mentioned. Just as Utena went out of it’s way to question, and in effect dispel youthful notions of gender roles, Madoka seems primed to do the same within the construct of a child’s wish-fulfillment fantasy trope. And this is where the show’s intial episode introduces the theme with surprisingly cohesive gusto.

In the show’s opening moments, after an eerie dream that may just be premonition, Madoka proclaims to her friends that she wishes for a love letter. Yet, when asked about the choice in hair ribbon, she is countered by mentioning that her mother chose it for her, rendering her incapable of making any big decisions. Her mother, by contrast is a hard working, professional woman with a keen mind for responsibility, to the exclusion of everything else. Mix this, with a dad tending to house duties, including the care of Madoka’s baby brother, the notion is set to “counter” as a new world is brought to light. Also telling of this, is the well-worn cliche of the lonely teacher who brings her dating baggage with her to the dismay of her students. The gag is only made greater when one considers that the voice of Madoka’s mother is Yuko Goto(Um..Mikuru Beam?), and sensei is played by Tomoyo Daidoji/Akane Aikawa herself, Junko Iwao.

Continuing the theme, the show progresses, and the mother becomes less involved with her family, and is mired within her role as the sole home breadwinner. Whether it be grumbling about the incompetence of the professional ranks within her job, or returning home sauced after another night of drinking with the crew, it seems that she is far more involved in winning a more contemporary game of pragmatics than in the innocent world of wishes, and magic. It seems, that in the world of the series, the very idea of questioning self-sacrifice, and the spoils of dreamless labor are at the heart of the series, which also is illustrated in some very interesting visuals & concepts.

As Madoka and best pal, Sayaka are propositioned to become Magical Girls after saving a strange mascot-like familiar called Kyuubei, the world in which they become witness to makes for some of the most impressive and original material the show has in its arsenal.

Among the concepts I found interesting:

The concept of the reality marble.

I like that it’s a completely original, intense, and wildly Shinbo-esque take on classic subspace. This is where the majority of the show’s spectacular battles take place, and each battle seems to carry with them a central theme. (which again brings Utena to mind)

The first being the lolita influence (Nobukov’s Butterflies)
Episode 2 beauty (comes on the heels of the beauty discussion with Madoka’s mother)
Episode 3 dependency/addiction (Speaks for itself throughout the episode)
Episode 4 Factory imagery again.( Post War mixed with Zoetrope. Guilt.)

It is also telling that despair is revealed to be the source of a  Maho Shoujo (Magical Girl)’s power. Which leans right into previous mainstream eras that suggested all a female had to hold on to in society was her looks, a man to depend on, and a wish for a happy future. Perhaps all components of what created the Maho Shoujo archetype so appealing to young girls over the years.

Another striking motif used throughout these early episodes, are the hard line closeups that occur to denote musings of a world of magic & dreams. Nearly every time a character buys into believing in this other world, we see a closeup shot of the character’s face, with hard-edgy lines within their eyes to remind us of the divide that is blurring. Happens multiple times. Interesting choice.

Stumbling Blocks:

It seems pretty clear from this point that Shinbo & Co. are harvesting ideas from classic maho shoujo tropes to create this all-new interpretation of matters, but one wonders if this can happen at the cost of characterization, or world building. This is where the show seems to be flagging, at least to this reviewer. While the tenets are indeed in place (Ordinary Girl Heroine – Check, Idyllic, Beautiful Classmate – Check, Weird Mascot-Familiar Character – Check, Monster Of The Week – Check, Magical Object Of The Week – Check, Transformation & Magic Sequences – Check), it never seems likely that the show will ever let us breathe enough to care about the characters, and their respective plights.

It takes a great deal more than merely types to sell a good subversion over the top, and it seems like the production seems to be more geared at getting the theme across, rather than letting us in on the action. One of the bigger sins is something that Shinbo has rarely been good at, which is to show rather than tell. As much as I applaud his wish to do his own spin on such a beloved standard, I’d also love to feel more involved in the proceedings. And in classic modern anime fashion, we are privy to more talking head exposition than is necessary for a show like this, and not enough human introspection to make it connect in a universal context. And in an era where animation quality is near an all time high, this is truly a missed opportunity.

And matters are only made worse come the finale of the third episode, that while shocking in many respects, feels unearned, and potentially cripples the remainder of the series. Now this may not be an issue of design, in fact, much of what happens after this moment feels much more like material that is meant for later in a series, yet was forced due to one reason or another. The decision to floor the pedal here is evident, and again feels unearned because as much information as we’ve been given regarding Madoka & Sayaka’s reasons for their decision/indecision, we aren’t let in on the why they feel this is all so important. If we are not let into this, all that comes in is speculation, and that equals slipshod, rushed writing.

There is a fundamental need for the show to give more insight into these characters before the big gears start turning, and without those moments, a sort of void appears that cannot be filled by certain viewers, myself included. Again, types are merely a skeleton with which to build upon with more personable writing, and this series, while taking a decent moment or two to help (Madoka’s mother coming home after a drinking party, Sayaka’s unrequited feelings for a sickly young musician, etc) , Madoka Magica rarely to never gives the mileage it needs to actually be more than spectacle. This is the biggest loss of this sudden shift in the story. Being told that our lead is by all Campbellian systems a “tragic” hero is never enough. A great shame considering our title character never truly gets a fair shake, so when the story kicks into high gear later, she can become a much more compelling lead. But as it stands, she never steps out beyond cutesy, bland caricature.

And confounding matters, the show visually seems to tip its hat long before things get real. Again, this may be a cynical point of view, but there is imagery as early as episode 2, which denote a non-trustworthy choice. Even as senpai Maho Shoujo, Mami Tomoe explains the plot to our leads, the shadowy imagery of the scene just oozes danger. Since animation is a much more art-direction geared medium than live action film, it all feels ill-timed, especially since our young heroines have yet to make any informed choices. Had this occurred later, this may have worked, but alas.

More and more, it feels as if Akiyuki Shinbo is trying his best at playing at a straighter story than he often does, and for that he deserves some props. But it just gets bungled by one impatient decision after another. (Feels kind of like the films of Zack Snyder, frankly. Visually striking, but faithless in its audience enough to make an emotional dent.)  Underneath the skeleton of a nihilistic artistic vision lies a longing for a warm human center at this point of the series. And it may be rough going for the show to regain some potency legs in the future. Again, there are many enchantments waiting for those wishing to partake in Madoka Magika’s journey to save us, the question lies in what it is you seek in your entertainment.

But seriously, does this look like a face you can trust?

Kara no Kyoukai Final Chapter AKA epilogue

WARNING: it’s much closer to a commenary and en editorial than a review. But you know me and the hell with it.

Empty, empty, it’s all empty.

Pointless, pointless, it’s all pointless.

And yet, throw it all away and it becomes so simple.

One of my complaints about the Garden of Sinners series of movies is that some details were left out. But you know, that can never be helped. I respect that. However, I honestly wished they animated the final important conversation between “Shiki” and Kuroto. It is a conversation that not so much reveals everything hidden underneath the words, the scenes, or the plots; it also doesn’t really solve everything or explains everything so clearly that everyone can understand. That’s fine; that’s what Kara no Kyoukai is suppose to be. You can understand it using your mood, your feelings and most of all, your instincts. You’d resonate with it if you were not ippanjin. That much I’m sure of. At the end of the day. Nasu, Otaku, and people like me are not ippanjin. However, and this is a personal reading into the novel and the last conversation, we all wished many times that we were.

The road of the Otaku is Shurado, which roughly means an excruciatingly painful road; it’s something akin to a path to hell.

Then again, perhaps I’m mentally broken in some ways and that’s why I feel this way about the novel. Maybe I’m the only person who feels that way.

Anyway, once again, the movie takes some liberty with the final conversation. The “Final Chapter” explains things and make them clear to us. It’s nice that it doesn’t dumb down everything, which I nearly accused the series of, but it certainly bares more than I’d liked. One thing I really love about Kara no Kyoukai, having read the novel 5 times (and still scratches my head sometimes when I read it), is the restraint its characters show. Sometimes, it feels like a lesser academic version of an emotional and philosophical exercise, compared with Ghost in the Shell. But overall, it is intense at times while interweaving the beauty of the “acceptence of it all” into everything. I’m biased because I really relate to some of the aura it eminates, which surrounds me in the form of floating gentle snowflakes. It’s an eternal silence that makes me recall times back in the late 90′s to early 00′s when I were alone at home on New Years Eve, when it snowed. I was there but I wasn’t; I was surrounded with silence and I was inside of it all and yet outside of everything at the exact same time.

Distance, solitude, with perhaps a dash of desolation. No, a lot of it. Beneath it all, there is an intense longing of not wanting to reject/deny/refuse, but after much pondering, the distance is kept. Perhaps Nasu walks even further away than I and possesses a much more mature emotion not to mention reacts in a mature way than I.

Let’s walk a little closer to the 30-minute exposition itself. It follows the silent tone of the quieter parts of the movie series closely. The animation is once again, top-notch. Things jump out at me that made me realize how much work was put in it. At least, the particles (pardon my novice 3D Max speak) for the snow that Shiki scrapes off as well as the float of her clothing in certain scenes must took a hell lot of work to get it right. Also, the vividness of the patterns on her kimono is fresh and lively, in a gentle contrast of the closed snowy world the Final Chapter is set in. And in strong contrast with Kuroto’s black coat and outfit.

The music adds that final touch that draws you in. None of it is meant for the action-lovers so they will probably stay away. All of it is meant to take us into the core of the philosophy of the movie; the real soul inside the empty shell. And the music does a perfect job helping with that.

Alas, I do have one complant.

The “Final Chapter” comes to a conclusion that states that (yes, it feels that clear) living a plain, normal, eventless life is a really fortunate thing. In addition, the accepting of how people are really just empty beings inside after all is treated as the right thing to do. If I trace the logic of what I read about Nasu, it almost feels like that he cannot do a thing about his rejection/refusal of others. Not a simple dislike, as his editor noted in the official Taiwanese translate version (Yes, they got the rights and for that edition, Nasu’s editor shared his thoughts about Nasu and his work), but a decision to reject. Now, I pretty much feels the same way most of the time. But something inside screams “objection” so vehemently that I cannot simply nod and say “yes, I utterly agree”. Not when the movie states it almost as if shouting quietly in broad daylight. The problem about having an exposition made into movie is that there can be too much exposure on top of explaining it all. There is also a danger to cave in to the need to having to have an easy (relatively speaking, of course) conclusion that’s reachable to more people. I think the movies falls victim to that. By the way, feel free to object my opinion.

At the end of the day, it’s probably my intellectuals pride (we’re known to exhibit the smartasshole syndrome at times) that feels strongly irritated, albeit unnecessarily. So let me go back to my normal self a little bit. Yes, I like the movies and yes, I’ve waiting for more bluray DVDs to become available either in Taiwan or the US. That means I really like this series of movies. I also think with what they modified, the movies are not as hard to get into as the novel can be. In fact, even ippanjin can appreciate the beauty and the fluid animation, not to mention the wonderful voice acting of the cast. The bottomline is the movie series is worth checking out and the DVDs/bluerays collection is worthy of a spot on your shelf of art movies, even next to your Miyazaki ones and probably best next to your Ghost in the Shell movies, but not the first one. Kara no Kyoukai movies will eventually come out in the US, I think starting February of this year (there is already a licensed Taiwanese version). Full disclosure: I bought movies one and two in Taiwan and got a poster. But I’m not in college anymore and don’t like posters, so I gave it to a brother from church; his daughter belongs to a college anime club in the poorer Taiwanese South.

Strongly recommended to folks who are patient enough to wait for the magnificent reward.

Freezing 04 rulez and scares the lolicons away

BH:huh huh huh huh huh…Whoa…I saw some…titties!

BV: Where? Where! Where?!

BH: It’s…right there, dude!

BV: Whoa! Yeah yeah yeah…I see them!

BH: This is…possibly…THE BEST SHOW EVER!!!

OK. Now I’m over the B&B reaction frenzy, let’s talk about why I like this show so far (does anyone really need to hear more).

1. Awesome fighting action

Are you kidding me? I thought for sure they’d skimpy…I mean skimp out on everything, but when Satellizer is in a bath and totally naked, I mean you can just see her floatation device. but when these ladies fight, they mean serious business. AND CLOTH BREAKER REALLY HELPS. And it’s so cool that each lady stands her ground I AM FAPPING LIKE A HAPPY OTAKU in order to keep her beliefs. After all, that’s why people fight, riiiiiiiight? Forget clothes, there’s skin!


2. The pacing of the show works for me.

It’s obviously going to be a 13 episode series so everything is introduced pretty quickly. That said, because there is really not much to follow they really follow the manga pretty well and I read the manga (fappingly happy), I can follow everything. They DID skimp out the emotional parts where we get to learn exactly what happened to Marin and Ingrid in the past. Other than that, the show kicks nearly everything up a few notches.

That said, I HATE the Pandora mode here. It’s ugly and it sucks unless the girls are going to fight naked later in Pandora Mode and I wish they just give them the armored look.

3. It’s beautiful grown women fighting, which scares the loli-cons to tears.

What, you can’t face beautiful, well developed women fighting in an anime? You pussies! I feel that it’s great that we get well-developed (heh heh heh) characters fighting seriously in a girl VS girl situation. The tension is unbearable and the seriousness of the issues really gets to me. I mean, you know me. I personally like women with big breasts and nice body duking it out and beating the crap out of each other…

(Oops again)

OK, all right. Look, good fights, decent characters, easy on the eye girls showing you everything that men AND lesbians want. Plus decent plots. There is nothing for me to hate.



Hell yeah highly recommended. You bet your ass Scott highly recommended. 20 (forget 10) pistol salutes recommended.

Wolverine 03 04 continues the action

You know there is a point where there is too much action? Well, this show comes dangerously close to it. But anyhow, here’s how I feel about it so far.

A. it’s American.

Nothing wrong with that. I feel that you could put this on Saturday morning cartoons if you want. The drawing is Japanese-style American. Yukio, the ninja woman played by the awesome Romi Park, looks just like an American comic character. Then again, thanks to one of our readers, I learned that the story arc in this show probably comes from an old story from Wolverine (circa 1979). It’s a good plot, don’t get me wrong.

B. it’s action packed.

Hello, Omega Red! For people like me who didn’t know much about Wolverine and Omega Red, the back story/memory segments weaved into episode four was a welcome addition. For other people who know about Omega Red, it was probably unnecessary. In any event, the show never really stops. Wolverine is constantly fighting. There isn’t a moment for real conversation or character exploration. I don’t know, I feel it probably works for people who already know about Wolverine but for me, it’s starting to overload my senses. The shitty thing about being a veteran anime watcher and a critic is that you lose that sense of freshness. If I were 18 again and watching this, I’d give it all 10′s. But now I wish there’s some character exploration and plot progression. The show screams: “I’m cool.” And it is. It’s just not saying anything else.

C. I want to see Mariko does more/I wish Romi gets better lines.

I really wish she is given more personality. Or does more. Or whatever. So far, she’s not had any opportunity to do anything. That’s kind of disappointing. But what gets to me is that Romi, who is an awesome voice actress, hasn’t had many good lines, if any. I get it, it’s all about Wolverine, that’s where Marvel’s funding is. But I honestly wish there’s a little more. For that matter, Wolverine has been fighting nearly every minute for the four episodes that he hardly has anything to say. I get that, too. That’s Wolverine for ya. But even Wolverine has something to say from time to time. In an anime, I expect him to say more. He’s rough and tough but he’s smart and resourceful. Or I think he’s supposed to be.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great action and great animation. And if you’re not a critic, then forget about what I said and just enjoy the fights. But I’m a hard motherfucker to please and that’s why I’m looking for a little more.

Still recommended.

P.S. I don’t know…is Omega Red ALWAYS CONSTIPATED???

La Corda d’Oro – lots of pretty guys, and classical music.

La Corda d’Oro
Written and Drawn by Yuki Kure.
Published by Viz Media. 184 pages. 2006. $8.99

Just when I believe that there wasn’t going to be another show just like Nodame Cantabile, came to my awareness about this series several years ago as an anime. Then I picked up the manga to read. The basic premises of the story focus on Hino Kahoko, who got picked to play in a school music competition even though she doesn’t even know how to play any instruments herself. She meets a lot of people, and finds potential in maturing with a genuine passion for music.

Originally this series was  inspired by a role playing video game. La Corda d’Oro eventually had two anime seasons, and various compact disc releases. This book series is probably a good read for any reader who enjoys reading about classical music, and of individual determination to adapt to a situation.

This series also has a reverse harem, so it is clearly targeted toward the female audience. Harems have a particular following within manga/anime culture. A main character, and then a group of the opposite gender. Of course nearly everyone in the group falls for the main character or is significantly affected by their presence and relationship. You see it in Tenchi Muyo, Ranma 1/2, Vandread or Love Hina. Those series appeal to the male audience though. Of course with reverse harem, there the girl with a lot of really cute guys. Fushigi Yuugi, Fruits Basket, Ooku, and Ouran High School Host Club fit the bill for this one.

Of course with the harem element, there is a variety of character types, and so an individual can have a favoring or leaning toward as the one true pairing. There are a lot of men in this series, and I can mention with a straight face that I find my preference in the pairing of Kahoko and Kazuki, even though it appears that Kahoko potentially likes Len the best.

At the moment there is 12 volumes in English, and volume 13 will be released in March. This is still an on going manga series in which, the English has successfully been adapted right alongside the Japanese, so there is no worry about playing catch up with this series.

For potential read alike, of course there’s going to be a long list of potential shoujo choices. La Corda D’Oro already has an interesting perspective that is really not as covered by a lot of other manga at the moment out there. For classical music similarities, there is Nodame Cantabile. For reverse harem there’s Ouran High School Host Club since more than one male falls for Haruhi, not as much as for Kahoko though. Lastly for the inclusion of fairies or other worldly guardians, Shugo Chara, or Full Moon wo Sagashite fit the bill for this.

This really is a female targeted title, so I potentially won’t see guys enjoying this title as much. Any different opinions? Of course I am in the crowd that definitely found similarity with shonen manga, once a reader got over the so many shoujo cliche moments. The main character finds strength and determination to succeed in an area, there are conflicts for the main character. There is friendship, although there is the every popular shoujo idea of an ideal match.

Poignent words, and definitely a scene of change/growth.

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