The Madoka Legacy: A Brief Review of Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Over the years we have spectacular series that are strong contesters for the title of best anime series since the critically and notoriously acclaimed Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995): The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006) makes Kyoto Animation a household name among anime fans; Code Geass (2006) takes many people’s breaths away with its intensity; Bakemonogatari (2009) has fantastic motion graphics and an awkwardly wonderful confession scene; and Shinsekai Yori (2012) is a piece of underrated gem that explores human psyche and social class system. Still, while all these series and many others are excellent, none of them can quite compare to the hype and success of Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011), the show that became an instant classic and a social phenomenon since its release.
What? You don’t believe me? How about the fact that following the broadcast of the infamous episode 3, the popular forum 2ch achieved a record-breaking number of posts discussing the anime? Or that after a brief broadcast suspension due to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, the production company advertised the broadcast of the last two episodes on Yomiuri Shimbun, a national newspaper in Japan? Or that even politicians dressed up as characters from the show before an election? (Even a petition on change.org is on its way to rename a nebula after Madoka.) The first Blu-ray Disc volume sold more than 50,000 copies in the first week of sales, breaking the original record held by Bakemonogatari, and only to be surpassed a month later – by its own second volume. It even has its own bi-monthly magazine. A movie adaptation is on its way, with two movies retelling the anime series, and a new, original story to be released on 26th October, 2013.
Embracing and defying expectations
When Madoka first came out, I thought it was just another magical girl series: teenage girls becoming magical girls and fighting against evil powers that wanted to take over the world. The production cast looked appealing enough, with Akiyuki Shinbo (Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei, Bakemonogatari) as director, Gen Urobuchi (Fate/Zero, PsychoPass) as writer, Yuki Kajiura (Tsubasa Chronicle, Sword Art Online; producer of Kalafina’s albums) as composer, and Ume Aoki as character designer. They are all famous figures in the anime industry, and one was left to wonder how these four could make a dated genre interesting to watch.
They certainly did not disappoint. The graphics and storyboards were great. The character design looked a bit strange, but acceptable. The mouth-less Kyubey looked cute enough and seemingly served as a guiding figure to the magical girls, like Cerberus did in Cardcaptor Sakura (1998). Homura Akemi looked like the antagonist here, when she’s doing all she could to stop Madoka Kaname from becoming a magical girl. The first couple episodes showed us the glamorous side of being a magical girl: with Mami Tomoe as an example, a magical girl looked strong, beautiful, and reliable. If you could have any wish fulfilled, in exchange of being a magical girl to save others, that didn’t sound like a bad deal, did it?
Three episodes onward, it completely deconstructed the magical girl genre as we know it, just like Evangelion changed what mecha-robot fight meant. We realized that this was not a show about happy girls fighting evils. This was about what it meant to be a magical girl from a realistic point of view. It discussed the pain of distancing yourself from others, reflected in how empty Mami’s room was. It also showed it’s not a fun business; it literally was a matter of life and death.
People die when they become magical girls
Typically, main characters don’t die. If they do, they face death heroically. The first surprise that we encounter in Madoka is that death can be simply sudden and without warning. The ending of episode three was the moment when all expectations of this anime were thrown out of the window. Magical girls were no longer the oh-so-perfect teenage girls who could do anything in the face of an evil monster. Instead, they were just as vulnerable as normal teenagers. Mami’s sudden death served as a big wake-up call to all of us that this was not Cardcaptor Sakura. This was when Faust met the Revolutionary Girl Utena in a Sailor Moon setting.
And then there’s the second twist of the series, when we realize the ‘life’ of a magical girl relied solely on the Soul Gem that Kyubey granted. To put it simply, you lose that soul gem, and you lose your life quite literally. In episode six, Madoka threw away Sayaka Miki’s Soul Gem, only to discover that by becoming a magical girl, you’re no longer quite ‘human’. Kyubey explained that by giving them the Soul Gem, the girls were given ability to defeat the witches by transferring their souls into the soul gem. Hence they were not quite ‘human’ afterwards, and that given the power they received they should not complain about it. It’s a painful lesson of opportunity cost for the young girls, as they, like us viewers, did not expect that. All of a sudden, the image of brave, powerful magical girl did not seem appealing at all. Is it worth the fight if that means you’re no longer human?
When you wish upon a Kyubey
We all have wishes, and if you happen to run into Kyubey, he’ll grant you one, in exchange of giving up your body/soul to become a magical girl that will ultimately become a witch. It sounds like a simple concept, that the world consists of a yin/yang balance. However, what shocked the characters was that they didn’t know it when they made a contract with Kyubey – the emotionless creature did not think answering important questions that were not raised was essential.
From his point of view, Kyubey did not have to tell them about it. What creatures like Kyubey were after was the energy generated by the souls of humans. They wanted to use it to counter the entropy that could cause the collapse of the universe. In this respect, Kyubey was a true utilitarian. He did not lie either – he lacked the emotion to do so, and he indeed could grant any wish the girls asked for. Thus, Kyubey also broke the image of what a ‘supporting cheerleader’ should be like. We all thought he was just a cute, little creature, but he turned out to be one of the most hated figures in anime history with his passiveness and annoyingly irrefutable logic.
There was also the conflict of what the wish should be. When Kyoko Sakura was introduced, she mocked Sayaka for making a wish that did not really involve her own self, but of the boy she loved. She had a point, though. It is only human to be selfish in such situations, and while Sayaka should be praised for her selflessness, it led to her destruction later on, when the boy accepted the confession of her friend instead. It is great to have a big heart, but the premise is you need to be able to handle the outcome, however it turns out to be.
Puella Magi Homura Magica
The series title is ‘Puella Magi Madoka Magica’, but the true gem of the series came in episode ten, when we realized the main protagonist of the whole series was not Madoka, but Homura.
We were given a detailed explanation of why Homura wanted to prevent Madoka from making a contract with Kyubey. Once we knew her power was to control time, everything that happened so far seemed to make perfect sense. Unlike Yuki Nagato’s endless summer in The Melancholy of Haruhi Sumuziya, Homura could remember and feel the pain of each time loop she went through. Imagine seeing your best friend die in front of your eyes repeatedly, and your attempt to save her always fails. That was how Homura felt.
The first shot of episode ten gave viewers a shock as it presented a very shy, uneasy, soft-spoken Homura, quite contrary to how she had been acting in the past nine episodes. In fact, the original Homura resembled the Madoka we saw: indecisive, timid, with a low self-esteem. The other characters also paralleled themselves in each time loop, only with different outcomes (often shocking, such as Mami losing her mind and killing Kyoko after learning the truth behind magical girls). The constant was that Madoka died every time, and with each time loop her death became more painful and tragic, and finally turned into the most powerful witch of all time after forming a contract with Kyubey in the previous timeline. This, we also became aware, was the first scene of episode one, when Madoka dreamed about meeting Homura. Often anime leaves us clues as to what happened before the main plot took place, but the whole plot twist of Madoka’s was incredibly logical and complete that it was extremely enjoyable, despite challenging your emotions with each twist. What made Homura’s experience worse was when Kyubey suggested the reason behind Madoka’s great potential power: since she was the reason behind each time loop, Madoka had accumulated more energy/misfortune with her death in each reset. Homura’s wish to save Madoka, ultimately, became the reason why Madoka could be the greatest magical girl (and subsequently, the strongest witch) of all time. When the OP was played at the end of this episode, the uplifting melody did not excite viewers anymore. The lyrics turned out to be about Homura’s promise to Madoka during one of the time loops. The joyful beat and soft voices of ClariS turn the whole song into a depressing journey of Homura’s psychological struggle on failing to save Madoka over and over again.
Hope and despair
The ending of the anime thus pales a bit in comparison to this episode, which was selected as one of the ‘God-like episodes’ by Anime Contents Expo. Madoka finally made a wish to Kyubey, a move seen as salvation to Homura’s endless time loop and the world’s despair. With that, however, Madoka achieved a God-like existence, and memory of her existence was wiped from every one’s mind, save Homura. Was this the world that Homura had hoped for? Definitely not. All Homura wanted was for Madoka to live a magical girl-free life, and now, in a way, she made Madoka kill herself. Yet, Madoka’s reasoning was that she was giving Homura the hope that she had lost. When Homura almost turned herself into a witch in the final battle, it was Madoka who saved her, and made her realize she was not alone in this. In fact, she would always be with her, even if it meant Madoka was no longer human, hence the title of this episode, ‘My Very Best Friend’. In the end, Madoka’s hope was triumphant over Homura’s despair.
Speculations has it that the ending was changed, as after episode 10 was broadcasted Japan experienced the 3-11 Tohoku earthquake, one of the greatest tragedies to the country. No one could verify this, but the ending was also the most appropriate way to end a magical girl series that had been thoroughly torn apart, then reconstructed to become a classic anime of our time. The main theme of Madoka –the struggle between hope and despair – is what producers will explore more in the third Madoka movie: Rebellion, to be aired in late October this year. Without a doubt, it is the most anticipated anime film for all anime lovers.
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