In celebration of Walpurgisnacht, this review was published outside of my usual schedule. There will be no review on Monday, but a tie-in article will still go live on Thursday the 7th.
#1 A tragic magical girl story
It’s difficult to talk at length about what makes the story of Madoka Magica interesting without entering spoiler territory, so forgive me if I am keeping details a little vague.
The story is about various girls who are offered a contract by a strange, cat-like creature. Any one wish will be fulfilled, but in return they will be duty-bound to help this creature, Kyubey, with defeating witches. These witches are monstrous abominations and a counter to the magical girls that Kyubey employs. While magical girls are born from wishes, witches are entities born from curses.
Madoka Kaname and Sayaka Miki are two young girls who are one day dragged into a battle with one such witch, only to be saved by magical girl Tomoe Mami. As Kyubey explains that both girls have talent for becoming magical girls too, they begin hanging out with Mami and training under her. Meanwhile, a mysterious transfer student called Homura Akemi turns out to be a magical girl too, but she desperately and violently attempts to prevent Kyubey from recruiting more girls, even though the magical girls help protect the peace of the city.
As the show goes on, Homura’s reasons begin to make more sense. While you get to wear cute dresses and receive magical powers, it turns out that being a magical girl is a miserable line of work. Constant battles with surreal horrors are both physically and mentally taxing, and it soon turns out Kyubey may have neglected to mention some of the finer details of what becoming a magical girl truly means.
Characters die or are driven to despair as their ideals are corrupted, their wishes backfire, or their lives begin to crumble around them. And these are characters I actually really liked, which is a Gen Urobuchi first for me. Sayaka, Madoka, Mami, even latecomers like Sakura are all very endearing and well-rounded characters, which makes it heartwrenching to see the story put them through so much hurt.
#2 Absurd architecture
I have no explanation for this besides the artists at Shaft being a little mad, but one of the first qualities of Madoka Magica that stands out is its curious set-dressing. Almost every major locale of the anime is so bizarrely over-designed, it’s almost difficult to perceive when things are meant to get surreal.
Just looking through my screenshots of the show reveals sci-fi schools with church exteriors, a bathroom the size of a house plastered in overlapping mirrors, random mega-complexes and buildings that appear to seamlessly transition into other buildings. There’s really no greater point to it, but it makes the setting of Madoka Magica feel strange. It’s familiar, yet out-of-place and slightly alien. It’s a world that closely resembles ours, but differs in ways that pique my interests.
#3 Yuki Kajiura soundtrack
And not just any Yuki Kajiura soundtrack either. Of all the anime I have seen, Madoka Magica has by far the best music this legendary composer has ever produced.
The OST is perfectly attuned to the anime. Big battles are accompanied by exciting themes while the emotional and tragic moments are underlined by amazing tracks like Sis Puella Magica, Flame of Despair, and Conturbatio. The movie doubles down on this with fantastic music like We’re Here for You. It even brings in some bizarre music like the cake song and Hail The Nutcracker Queen.
Even if you have no interest in the anime itself, I’d recommend looking up the soundtrack or seeing if there are remixes/medleys in your music genres of choice available.
Being made by Studio Shaft, there is no shortage of artsy visuals to be found in Madoka Magica. It feels like a marriage between the character design of Hidamari Sketch and the surreal nature of the Monogatari series.
This intensifies even further during battles with the witches, all of which take place in alternate realms themed after the witch that inhabits it. Some of the witch battles are bright & colorful, some of them use cut-outs and realistic imagery, and others try their hand at various artstyles. The battle picture above is a personal favorite that I look forward to on every rewatch.
The art of Madoka Magica is really something else and manages to tell stories of its own without needing to be addressed in dialogue. It’s fun to discuss what the artstyles and decor of the witch labyrinths imply about their origin and the internet is filled with debates that dissect every little background detail to unearth its potential meaning.
Let’s be real here for a moment: The Madoka movie saga parts I & II are terrible. It’s just the TV anime with some scenes touched up and pointless filler thrown in. With their combined 4-hour runtime, there is seriously no reason not to just watch the original anime in Blu-Ray quality for a similar experience and better overall direction.
Then Part III came out, Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Rebellion, and it is astounding. This movie takes everything that was good in the original anime and amps it up. It’s a proper sequel to the series and one it absolutely needed after the otherwise “meh” ending it originally got. The story is amazing, the surreal visuals are more creative than ever before, and it answers a lot of lingering questions about the characters.
It does fill me with some concern, as the Madoka Magica license has since expanded with numerous spin-off manga and has recently received a side-story anime that is itself getting a sequel. I have concerns that the series is being milked for all its worth and the few manga I read were very mediocre. I much enjoyed Rebellion, but I hope its success isn’t going to be justification for over-extending the series with more movies, tie-in, and side-stories until we’re all sick of Madoka Magica.