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?

9 thoughts on “Early Report: Madoka Magika – The Flesh or The Bones?”

  1. This is an excellent review. You bring to light a lot of key points in what makes this anime good and weak. I personally believe it is the latter, because this show keeps me guessing – how can this anime play and twist (and in a sense, pervert) the viewer’s understanding of what makes a Mahou Shoujo story and character. I keep expecting Madoka to use her wish to bring her sempai back to life, only to have that blow up in her face when she finds out that Mami will hate her for it. This is a very thought provoking anime, in my opinion, and your article just reminded me why I look forward to each new episode. Great writing here.

  2. From what I can tell, that shocker moment in episode 3 of Madoka Magica wasn’t rushed writing. It was punctuation. It was an indicator from the creators that this was not going to be a typical magical girl show (which we probably knew from the beginning, but whatever). Combined with the ending animation, it was a statement of thematic intent. Sure, as an experiment the show can be a little cold and sterile, and the characters aren’t as developed as they could have been had they more room to breathe. But I’d argue that the finale of the third episode, rather than cripple the show, proves that its creators know exactly what they are doing. Whether that means the creators value their plan for the show over the characters themselves is another matter.

    Also, Madoka won my respect in the fourth episode when she saved that entire room of hypnotized people from death by asphyxiation, without any magical powers at all. That takes serious fiber, right there! Although it is true, I suppose, that as heroines go she remains pretty generic. That’s almost a casualty of the premise, though, considering that the whole idea behind the show appears to be taking a thoroughly average magical girl scenario and then mutating it until it turns into something terrifying and apocalyptic.

  3. And therein lies where my interest leaves, when the intent comes at the absence of character development. Being pre-occupied with theme, while good, can also create a disconnect to those more interested in how the everyday person relates to what is happening on screen. If not, then it is more interested in types & motifs, rather than character, which tends to work better in short subject filmmaking, not tv series. I guess where I come from is that this, while interesting in its own right, does nothing to help the medium’s current state, and therefore feels more self-indulgent.

  4. I will have a more detailed reply for all of you tomorrow, but in the meantime, great insights Wintermuted. They have a lot of merit and I’ve been rethinking why I love this show so much right now.

  5. Having just watched episode 5, I think I can both see your point as well as solidify why I think the show works well for what it’s trying to do. Without spoilers, I can definitely see the heart of your critique, which is that the characters are drawn a bit more broadly than a nuanced, well-rounded kind of storytelling would normally demand. The new character introduced at the end of episode 4 and given screentime here does feel a bit two-dimensional at the moment.

    A couple of points, though. One is that I guess I don’t mind the dialogue or monologue-driven exposition that Shinbo, as well as other directors like Makoto Shinkai and Kenichi Kasai in Honey and Clover tend to rely on as much. For me if those moments are insightful and feel true either to the character and/or to some insight about life, I find value in it. (Hence my article’s focus on the paradox of kindness leading to evil and tragedy, which seems to be the show’s central theme. One can plausibly argue though at this point it’s a bit too obvious, but I digress.) It’s definitely not the way most screenwriters are taught to handle exposition or emotion, to be sure, but I suppose in a way I have accepted it as a convention of some of the more ambitious anime, and it often gets to me emotionally nonetheless. The smoothness of the direction really helps here. I felt a lump in my throat when I watched a certain restoration scene in episode 5, one that was complicated by knowing all the facts on the ground but still real.

    Second is that, and this is a debatable proposition I know, in a way the atmosphere—the visuals, the music, and mood and tone and diction–actually fill in the emotional nuances and feelings that might be missing in broadly written characters. As you say the visuals are masterful, and I would add the outstanding Yuki Kajiura soundtrack, which hinted from the start that not only would this not feel like a typical mahou shoujo series, but to expect a strong strain of melancholic reflection. I know I’m a sucker for soundtracks, and they have misled me before (the first time I saw the mediocre Escaflowne movie I thought it was great because I was so overwhelmed by the Yoko Kanno-ness). To me however, it feels like a deliberate and integrated part of the whole, which I think is more than just expounding on the theme of “subverting this tired, cliched genre” in an academic fashion. It is definitely trying to make you feel something, to feel the weight of the sacrifice and dread that becoming a “heroine” imposes. I think its succeeds beautifully in doing that, and not just on a theoretical level.

    Finally, there is still time to develop character, though if this is a 13 episode series, we are nearing the halfway point. (Anyone know how many episodes it’s slated for?) It didn’t take the usual way of beginning lightly before going into the heavy stuff, but I still think its “hit them hard from the start” approach works.

  6. Another thing to consider is the fact that although the characters are, for the most part, archetypes–Madoka as the bland heroine, Sakaya as the tomboy, Mami the mysterious mentor–the way that the show uses them implies that they were created as archetypes on purpose. Their evolution (or corruption?) by the narrative from archetypes to real people–Madoka’s reluctance and surprising courage, Sakaya’s unrequited love and Mami’s secret past–forms the emotional arc of the show. So yeah, if they initially don’t seem like real people, I think it’s because they aren’t supposed to, yet. Even the characters who appear to be rather two-dimensional–Kyubey and the magical girl introduced in Episode 5, for example–remain interesting because of what they represent: Kyubey being the mascot animal from Hell, for example, or the new magical girl representing the fact that in the world of Madoka Magica, the most “successful” magical girls are those who are totally amoral.

    Also, I agree with Mike: Shinbo’s direction and Kajiura’s soundtrack adds an enormous amount of character to the production. It’s a little like Bakemonogatari in that sense, where the scenery and the presentation of the material is almost a character in itself!

  7. Nice review. Later episodes certainly bore out your analysis of the deliberate playing with hero roles. Madoka is a plot-driven anime that uses the tropes of character-driven anime.

    Just one thing I would point out: you refer to the reality marble as “completely original.” Yet in Fate: Stay/Night the ultimate attack of many of the characters is a reality marble, a local distortion of space. That same, exact term is used. (Archer’s Ultimate Blade Works is perhaps the most recognizable example of this.)

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