Madoka Magica: What Happened to the Happy World of Magical Girls?

From Sailor Moon to Cardcaptor Sakura, many young adults have been raised on cutesy magical girl anime. With strong female leads that are attractive and girly, it’s no wonder young girls like it. These shows communicate power, ability, and often times a tiny bit of romance. That’s not all, though. Magical girl shows often have characters that reflect the many types of girls in society, from the girl that likes pink hearts to the girl who likes books to the girl that likes sports. There’s a definite difference between the ‘good’ characters and the ‘bad’ characters, and the main character always wins (even though it might take a lot of time and effort).

A witch's labyrinth in Puella Magi Madoka Magica
A witch’s labyrinth in Puella Magi Madoka Magica

More recently, though, the genre of magical girls has begun to change. There are still the cutesy magical girl shows aimed towards a younger audience, but there is a new spin to this genre. One of the best examples of this is Puella Magi Madoka Magica, or for the purpose of this article simply Madoka Magica. The cover art looks just like any other magical girl genre show and it even begins that way. The main characters meet up as they walk to school, joke and play fondly, and everything looks just perfect. Then the first witch shows up and the audience is sent for a loop. The magical girl anime they were expecting just became horror.

The Change to Horror

As strange as that sounds, it works surprisingly well. The magical girls stay in the normal anime style while everything around them changes. It is no longer clear-lined and bright colored anime. It is jumpy, dark, jagged, and a bit creepy. The witches the girls fight and the labyrinths they fight the witches in are all in this second animation style. The contrast in the labyrinths between the magical girls and basically everything else is stunning and rather artfully done.

The labyrinths themselves seem alive, always moving. In a way, the labyrinths feel real. Everything inside is a creation of the witch and under the witch’s complete control. The girls at times become entangled in vines or chains, odd creatures dance just out of reach, and laughter echoes in the background. The labyrinths are fully immersive and each has its own theme. This theme is derived from the witch’s power and obsession. These aspects gives each episode a unique atmosphere and really progresses the story. It might take an episode or two for the viewer to get used to the contrast, but the story line is worth it.

But enough about how it works. What about why it works?

The Power of Perspective

Kyubey from Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Kyubey from Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Let’s back track for a moment. As a child, a young girl may look at the magical girls and aspire to be like them. Traditional magical girls are forces of good fighting for justice in a world that is usually fantastically portrayed. This can be paired with a child’s view on life, or what the child would like to believe about life, assuming they have grown up in a first world country. Life is good, friends are loyal, the bad guys are defeated, and there’s always a happy ending. These shows also recognize that a character will go through struggles, friends will misunderstand, and things don’t always work out as planned. It’s a rosy-colored version of life.

This new addition of horror to the magical girl genre is nearly the opposite. Instead of being compared to the rosy perspective of a child, it compares with the overwhelmed perspective of a young adult. In Madoka Magica, the very innocent-looking anime girls with fun and cool powers fight evils of the world that appear daunting, creepy, and all around horrible. The story line, too, deals with harsh and utter betrayal, an evil that looks innocent, and the depths of feeling incapable of protecting what’s important. Here’s the kicker: that’s just one scene.

From Fantasy to Real Life

Madoka from Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Madoka from Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Just like the transition from childhood into adulthood, Madoka is forced to step out of her perfect world and into a very harsh and merciless world that would destroy her if given the chance. All the while she struggles against the temptation to let it change her. Most college students or young adults recently out of the house would sympathize with this this point of view as paying bills, working, and being responsible for, well, everything is a whole new level in life and it is so easy to be consumed. It’s not necessarily worse than something a young adult has experienced before, but it is new and different and hard.

There are so many things in life that can cause this weight and feeling of being overwhelmed. Losing a job, starting a job, getting a divorce, miscarrying, watching a loved one die, the list goes on. Worst of all, the longer a person carries something, the worse it gets. This concept is actually amplified in Madoka Magica, though how won’t be mentioned to preserve an amazing plot twist.

One of the best parts about Madoka Magica is that it is not without hope. Many times when life is overwhelming it’s so easy to lose sight of the original goal or get caught up just surviving that fun and family are left in the dust. Friends, too, often get left behind. Madoka Magica, overall, is about friendship. It isn’t about saving the day, it isn’t about winning, it is about five people desperately trying to protect each other in a dark and hard world. Life is the same way. Life isn’t about that next promotion or the good grade. It’s about love and laughter and the joy of a family. Madoka Magica shows that truth.

Now, not all magical girl horror animes are like Madoka Magica. This particular one gives a rather refreshing perspective on how hard life can be. Others will choose to focus on other things. Being a rather new genre, there is currently only one other popular magical girl horror anime, Magical Girl Apocalypse. The animation in Magical Girl Apocalypse is very different from Madoka Magica so don’t watch expecting the same thing. In turn, each anime that focuses on magical girl horror will have it’s own way of expressing itself. It’s important to look at each on it’s own without comparing the style and story to others. Overall, it is an amazing genre and there are sure to be many more magical girl horror animes in the near future.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. nicoletterise

    If I had to describe Magical Girl Apocalypse in one sentence, it would be the result of what you’d get if you mixed High School of the Dead with Attack on Titan, with the ultraviolence of Gantz, and a bit of the aesthetic of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.

  2. courtney hate

    I’m not a fan of horror manga/anime that’s for sure. mostly because of the violence.

    • Agreed I’m twelve and madoka was a big surprise to me the violence is just disturbing. I loved the story of madoka thought

  3. Madoka Magica did amazing stuff for the Magical Girl genre.

  4. Connor

    I like the article, but I think you could’ve expanded a little bit. There is a lot of evidence to support that Madoka Magica was influenced by Goethe’s Faust. This could be a direct relation to the dark tone the story has in comparison to say, Sailor Moon. I would’ve liked to see you go into more detail about the psychology of characters and the art style transitions when inside a witch’s labyrinth since I think both of those are really important to discuss. Overall, this looks like a great introduction to someone who may just be getting into the show.

  5. Ryan Walsh

    I remember this was considered the Evangelion of Magical girls, where its a deconstruction of a target genre, bringing in reality aspects of how fantasy and power comes at a dangerous price to what is known as an engaging escapist reality for young girls .Its funny how that pattern works after Evangelion isn’t it? Heck, even Digimon had that too in same veins of Evangelion and Madoka.

    • mattdoylemedia

      You beat me to teh Evangelion mention. You’re right about Digimon too. I loved the first two seasons, but teh third, Tamers was by far my favourite. That got really dark at times (and it’s not like seasons one and two shyed away from darker themes).

  6. Madoka Magica is one of my favorite animes so it’s exciting to see a perspective written on it. Your points are very interesting and it’s a wonderful analysis of the show’s best points- particularly its use of metaphors for real life events.

  7. mattdoylemedia

    Good article. As a side note, the witch realms that the girls visit in Madoka are actually very remiscent of delirium dreams and hallucinations. I do wonder if they may have been based on that to a degree, especially with the chequered flooring.

    To me, this is evolution of the genre. Traditional Magical Girl anime/manga still has its place in the world, but trying alternate routes with it is a great way to keep it fresh and reach out to new audiences.

  8. YsabelGo

    I think adding horror to this genre adds contrast, as it is always interesting to place innocent girls in dark situations. I don’t know if that’s just being twisted though!

    • Qiao ChengHua

      I don’t think that’s being twisted. Real life is hard, and that’s something Madoka captures in a way a lot of anime don’t.

  9. Eden

    Considering the state of the anime industry today, I find it refreshing that a show aiming to deconstruct a popular genre has managed to be successful, with wide popularity domestically as well as overseas. It simply shows that anime audiences want something other than the usual fanservice or (predictably plotted) shounen series.
    Hopefully this will encourage other studios to try more experimental series.

  10. All these animes have done a great job conveying the subtle creepy tone and atmosphere.

  11. MMagica manga is the most beautiful and heart-wrenching manga I’ve read so far.

  12. Puella Magi Madoka Magica’ is my second favourite anime of all time (the first being ‘Fruits Basket’).

  13. Sadly, MGA follows the common rule of sudden deaths which most horror mangas follow. a thing i hate about horror manga. it’s totally distracting that every moment you expect someone to die. not every minute or chapter: every second! which completely ruins the change of pace in manga. i mean, they’ve fought and now they’re resting and even some romance is happening, yet you, as a reader can’t enjoy it ’cause your mind doesn’t want to be tricked into it. it’s like not trusting the mangaka.

    • Qiao ChengHua

      I can definitely see how that would be distracting. I’m not sure if you’ve seen Madoka Magica, but the viewers are not constantly worried about main characters dying. There are deaths and the deaths can be unexpected, but it doesn’t keep an atmosphere of “everyone is going to die.” If you’ve not seen it, I’d recommend giving it a chance.

  14. Magical Girl Apocalypse and Madoka Magica delivers!

  15. I think that magical girls in anime speak to viewers on many levels, especially as a symbol of female empowerment. Madoka is one of the newest and more powerful iterations of these feminist roles that are not only necessary in media, but further in anime specifically with its litter of sexist and misogynistic depictions of femininity.

  16. Jordan

    I liked your article as it is nice to see the many faces of magical girl anime. Since I’ve heard about Madoka a lot, I’m interested to see how many other magical girl series take this darker approach, although the only one I can think of is Mai HiME. Do you know of any others?

  17. Somehow, this genre manages to be incredibly cute and incredibly evil.

  18. Hud-Chu

    Don’t be fooled by the Magical Girl cuteness, as like Madoka’s concept of a Magical Girl, there is more to the contract than appearances suggest.

  19. sopphie

    Apocalypse is deeply disturbing.

  20. Lottie Barks

    I like the strong sense that nowhere is safe when watching these.

  21. Awesome article on this site as per usual.

  22. BookCat

    I am not generally a fan of magical girl anime or manga. Prepubescent girls in ridiculous clothes with pink sparkly magic wands and magical make up and clothing transformations don’t really interest me.

    • Qiao ChengHua

      There’s nothing wrong with that. The magical girl anime genre is targeted toward a young audience. However, I would not let a child watch Madoka Magica or Magical Girl Apocolypse. As a rough estimate, those are targeted more toward teens (14-18) and young adults (18+). If you haven’t watched Madoka Magica, I would give it a shot. If it’s not for you, it’s not for you.

  23. These horror type animes hits a lot of the right notes.

  24. I love HotD and MGA but I think Magical Girl Apocalypse is better than HotD because it focuses on the story, the gore, the art, and the characters. HotD only focuses more on High School girls with huge breasts than on the characters themselves, the story, and the zombies. It was mostly like eye candy porn only they added zombies. It is awful, that is why I think this graphic novel is better than the HotD.

  25. I agree with you that the genre of the magical girls has shifted to a darker, more of a horror genre. Although you illustrate how this change has affected the style of the genre, I think that the shift to “horror” is more of a reflection on the psychological state of our society. Horror films, whether it is live action or animation, often reflect society’s current fears. Many of the most popular horror films are base on the fears that society had during that time. The late 80’s and the 90’s were by contrast to current times peaceful times. The girl manga represented the young, innocent girl nature but that all change after the climatic events that happened in the beginning of the 21st century; our innocence was shattered and thus we shifted to a darker tone, not only on magical girl manga but on all media.

    • Qiao ChengHua

      It definitely isn’t just magical girl anime. Generation Y does seem quite infatuated with horror, and this is just one of the many affected genres.

  26. ChristopherKay

    I like how in your article you tie Madoka’s dark nature to real life. I think that this is very true: despite being a show about magic and wishes, Madoka actually has a lot to say about real life in the ways that its characters are forced to make decisions about who they want to be and what they want to live for and the intensity to which those decisions are challenged. However, in addition to Madoka’s success in portraying the nature of life’s trials in a far more realistic manner than many other forms of media, it was also a MASSIVE financial success. As is true with any financial success, it will undoubtedly have successors trying to replicate it, and this has already been the case: shows like ‘Yuuki Yuna is a Hero’ and ‘Selector Infected WIXOSS’ have appeared trying to copy the formula to grab a spot in the sun, and these shows have unfortunately demonstrated little of the tact that Madoka has choosing instead to attempt to appeal to viewer’s pathos in any way possible and substituting a more ‘realistic’ take on magical girls for over-the-top suffering made to get a reaction out of the audience simply by playing up the subversion of expectations that is ‘these are cute girls-watch horrible things happen to them’. Do you think that the nature of the anime industry might drag down any chance at establishing a more thoughtful and mature magical girl genre before it can truly be born? I’d love to see another Madoka, but it simply seems unlikely now that Madoka has ironically demonstrated much more surefire ways to make money than being poignant.

    • Qiao ChengHua

      It is rather unfortunate that people find something good and take it to the extreme for their own purposes. I’m sure some of the creators saw Madoka and loved it so much they wanted to do their own spin and struggled to find a way to make it unique. Shows like ‘Yuuki Yuna is a Hero’ and ‘Selector Infected WIXOSS’ became how they are somewhere along the development process, and I’m sure there were many reasons.

      I think the biggest issue isn’t that people try to imitate something good that works, it’s that the viewers expect it. I’m definitely guilty of this as well. I’ll use ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ as an example. I loved that show, and when they announced ‘The Legend of Korra’ I was beyond excited. When it got down to it, though, Korra didn’t have the character development, individual plot, and overarching plot characteristics that Avatar did. I am not saying Korra was bad, it definitely wasn’t, but it *was* it’s own show, with it’s own pace, story, and development, but I didn’t want it to be. I wanted more Avatar.

      This mentality is why producers try to make something similar, yet unique, and often times fail. When something is good it is marketable and marketable is good but often leads to misleading phrases like “The Next Twilight Fan Addiction” or “Harry Potter Fans Will Love This”! At the end of the day, imitation isn’t what sells. I firmly believe that there is nothing new under the sun, so it then becomes the artist’s job to find a different perspective and a different spin for something everyone already knows.

  27. The evolution of Anime, particularly with girls as the lead characters, brings insight to the reality of life. I really enjoy this new take because I am able to empathize more effectively- meaning anime portrayals of life gives me hope that though life has its trials, they can be accomplished.

  28. Tatijana

    This is a pretty interesting sounding genre due to its extreme contrast between light and fluffy and horrifying. I’d be interested in seeing an anime where these elements do battle with each other. Like the cute girls rub off on the atmosphere bringing pretty things to it… or on the other hand if they stay in the land long enough maybe they themselves look less cute and fluffy….

  29. I think the major thesis of this article is flawed because the show was never intended for nor marketed at the traditional magical audience. Madoka Magica was not the ground breaking subversive work that everyone makes it up to be. It was airing at 230 in the morning and written by Gen Urobuchi, (a writer who’s most notable previous work is Say a no Uta, look it up); there was no pretense being made that the show was going to be the cute typical magical girl show.
    While I think you make good points about the nature of horror in Madoka, and how it’s elements are executed, it’s unfair to call the show a subversive work, because it laid out plainly what it’s intentions were before show even started airing.

  30. When I first saw Madoka Magica, since the first episode i knew that it wasnt gonna be like any other magical girl genre anime, I even liked Sakura Card Captor, so I wasnt sure if I would like it but oh boy I was wrong everybody knows the infamous 3rd episode of this master piece, Im one of its victims so when I finish that episode I had to knew what was coming next and in the end of the anime my head exploded I couldnt just process all the things that happened in it, so I watched it a second time, and a third time most likely to be prepare for the The Rebellion Movie, and of course I wasnt prepared, It still makes think a lot when i remember it.

    I’m a big fan of NGE so i thought that I was ready for all that thinking and researching factor but Madoka Magica in my experience took me to the same place as Evangelion did the first time I watched it

    Great Anime 10/10

  31. I think what made Madoka Magica great is that it’s not for the typical target audience. It’s a complete deconstruction of a genre that many millennials held a great nostalgia for. As a young girl I was obsessed with magical girl anime, and after watching Madoka I learned not to take anything for face value. I loved the show because it challenged the genre, and forced me to challenge myself. It’s definitely not an anime for the normal target audience. It’s a harsh drag into the reality of the world.

  32. AutamnDarling

    Madoka Magica made me slightly uncomfortable. Maybe it was because of the gruesome images being portrayed in the cutesy art style, or maybe it was just because my inner conscious was rebelling against the horror/magical girl crossover. But, while it made me uncomfortable, it also made sense. I felt like I was watching something more realistic than the fantasy-like magical girl shows. There were real-life situations, real problems, real incentives, real motivations, and very real consequences that came along with the magical girl power. It was a new look on the magical girl genre, and it gave more of a realistic take – one that correlates more with the real world.

  33. Try the recent Magical Girl Raising Project. It’s like a crossover between Madoka and Danganronpa.

  34. I remember watching Madoka Magica for the very first time and being absolutely absorbed after the first plot twist. I loved the twists and after rewatching multiple times, I picked up on the story and understood more about the time loops and more complex plot points. Lots of other magical girl shows have tried to do the same thing, but none have matched Madoka Magica yet in my opinion. And that ending absolutely killed me.

  35. I remember being a 12 year old girl watching this on ABC3, I was horrified yet intrigued by the horror infused by animation, its now one of my favourite childhood anime’s, the opening was just the best, the main theme in motivating and my love for Kyoko will NEVER die.
    Similarly, this genre is becoming more prominent and evolving. Wonder Egg Priority is so similar that its crazy, defeating antagonising enemies for a simple wish, overcoming mental issues and clashing friendships and dramas .

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