Hope in Despair, Despair from Hope: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

puella-magi-madoka-magica

Dave author picPuella Magi Madoka Magica isn’t what you’d expect. The packaging of the new Australian release of the 12 episode series – with twee artwork of porcelain, prepubescent girls – suggests a cutesy series of magical girls and their heart-warming triumphs. The Blu-ray title screens, the opening credits and hell, the bulk of the first three episodes all seem to reassert this assumption. But while Puella Magi Madoka Magica is indebted to the magical girl tropes popular in Japanese animation, it offers an immeasurably darker take on that material than you could imagine.

More than I could imagine, too. I wasn’t ready for how incredibly grim, how devastating the series was going to be when I picked it up. This might be credited to my lack of familiarity with modern anime; after all, this series is one of the most popular of the recent generation. To review the series with even a skerrick of depth requires unpacking some of its many deceptions, so if this sounds like your kind of show – if, say, you’d like to see a series at the intersection of Sailor Moon, Neon Genesis Evangelion and even Berserk – I’d recommend you tap out right about now.

Still with me?

Okay, here’s the logline then: imagine if Luna from Sailor Moon – the cute little cat who guides Sailor Moon in her path to love and justice – was actually an agent of the Dark Kingdom. That’s Puella Magi Madoka Magica, a series that turns magical girl tropes inside out to reveal a sinister viscera of exploitation and agony.

When we first meet pink-haired Madoka (Aoi Yūki) and her blue-rinse best friend Sayaka (Eri Kitamura/Sarah Williams), they seem like ordinary anime high schoolers, but we’ve seen the opening credits and the like: we know they’re destined to become magical girls. So it doesn’t really come as a surprise when they stumble upon actual magical girls – first the stern, menacing Homura (Chiwa Saitō/Cristina Vee), then the statuesque Mami (Kaori Mizuhashi/Carrie Keranen). When a cutesy sidekick named Kyubey (Emiri Katō/Cassandra Lee) offers to turn them into magical girls in return for granting a wish, it seems like we’re ready for the story to begin proper.

Over the next couple of episodes, it gradually becomes clear that we’re not about to be treated to a modern-day interpretation of Sailor Moon, with charming-if-klutzy protagonists and paper tiger villains. For starters, neither Sayaka or Madoka jump at the chance to accept Kyubey’s bargain. Isn’t this a show about magical girls? Why aren’t they becoming said magical girls? You get a wish granted and magical powers with which to fight witches and look cool doing it! There’s a thoughtfulness here, though, a sense of reflection and recognition that what’s easy isn’t always right. The animation style reinforces the distinctive tone; the character designs are vibrant, but the world they move through seems muted and drained of colour.

As the series progresses, the narrative darkens to suit its palette. It’s not even three episodes in before one of the core cast is killed off, and she’s not the only last. By the back half of the season, we learn that these ‘magical girls’ are in fact incubating witches themselves, their journey from hope to despair powering an ancient alien race’s attempts to fend off the universe’s heat death. The speed of Puella Magi Madoka Magica’s descent into darkness is in fact one of its chief storytelling strengths; rather than spend a handful of episode on idle character development, the show’s writers waste no time launching into the layers of deception enveloping its characters. The character development there is plays as vital rather than incidental, carefully concealing some truly astounding twists in the final episodes. (I’ve hinted at a good chunk of them, but I dare not spoil the reveal found in episode ten.)

For a show about young women exploited – without their knowledge – to serve an unfeeling system, it’d be easy to reduce Puella Magi Madoka Magica to its subtext. But it’s testament to the strength of the show that, despite the efficiency of its storytelling, it primarily resonates as a deeply personal story. Once we come to understand the true protagonist of the story (it’s not Madoka, but beyond that, my lips are sealed), the smallest gestures are magnified tenfold.

The emotional resonance of the series is aided by its innovative, expressive animation style. In particular, when the magical girls face off against the witches – which is less often than you’d expect – the witches’ “labyrinths” are drawn in a vivid, scrapbook style that’s in stark contrast to the sketchy darkness of the outside world. Where so many anime series opt for stock character designs and backgrounds, Puella Magi Madoka Magica vividly draws you into its protagonist’s mind through its unique art design.

I admit to some reservations when it comes to the final pair of episodes; I’ve heard it rumoured that, in the wake of the 2011 earthquake/tsunami, the creators pulled back on the darker themes for a more hopeful conclusion. Perhaps that’s true. But while the last couple of episodes don’t quite have the same punch as the string of reveals preceding them, there’s a beautiful symmetry in how despair ultimately turns to hope. A beautiful, thoughtful series – a must-see.

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