Stories about magical girls are hugely popular in the world of anime, and despite not having much of an interest in this subgenre I have somehow ended up watching quite a few of them. If you’re an anime fan they are hard to avoid and they tend to be quite repetitive: a girl discovers she has magical powers, or is granted them in some way, and they normally manifest themselves with a change of clothing, a popular subgenre of a subgenre known as the “magical garment girl”. If you’re not familiar with this idea and you’re thinking about Clark Kent changing in a phone box, then it’s nothing like that. A magical garment girl changes clothes magically, as part of her transformation, normally giving the animators the excuse to show glimpses of her naked body in between school uniform and magical outfit… which might or might not have something to do with the popularity of the subgenre.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica has all those usual trappings of a magical garment girl anime, but there ends the similarity with most of them, because this is much more serious fare than anything else I’ve seen in this category, almost to a fault at times; it does become a little too angst-ridden, but the overarching storyline is very dramatic. It’s one of those series that are very difficult to write about without spoiling everything, because there are many significant twists and turns along the way, some of which fundamentally change the viewers’ understanding of the nature of the series. The story is intricate, and very well constructed and paced. So I’ll have to keep it to the basics.
At the beginning of the series, the premise, as we initially understand it, is established. Girls are chosen by an alien entity, which appears to be cute and benign (note, I’m going to have to use qualifiers like “appears to be” a lot), and offered the chance to become magical girls in exchange for having a wish granted – any wish. This seems like a win/win situation, but it comes at a price… and I can’t tell you what that price really is, but what it appears to be is the task of fighting witches in a sort of parallel realm. When I say “witches”, if you’re thinking of Maleficent or Hermione then you’re on the wrong track altogether. This is all gloriously surreal, with the witches and their worlds all different and bizarre sorts of dreamscapes, impressively and artistically animated. In fact, the quality of animation in this series in general is superb.
A very strong subplot is a wish granted to one of the girls, Sayaka, that is apparently unselfish, helping a boy in hospital to be able to play the violin again. However, truly unselfish acts are rare, and when another girl wins the heart of the boy who benefited from Sayaka’s wish there are tragic consequences. Her apparent selflessness is thrown into sharp contrast by Kyoko who seems to be all in this for herself, and is a fabulous badass character. The titular character is Madoka, who always seems to be stopped from making a magical contract, and there is also a very mysterious and hugely skilled magical girl named Homura, plus the unfortunately named Mami, whose name is far from ideal for the dub actors, who sound like they are talking about their mother all the time.
That’s about all I can say, because very few of the characters are quite what they first appear to be. Throughout the series we learn the true nature of the witches, what it really means to be a magical girl, what Homura is really up to, the true manipulation of the cute alien, and why Madoka keeps getting referred to as something very special, despite being the only one of the group with no apparent powers. This is a huge amount to pack into 12 episodes, but the story never feels rushed. The writer isn’t afraid to kill off main characters, and by the end of the show there aren’t many of them left, but then again there are always surprises in store…
… and I can’t say anything about that either. So I’ll just have to keep this simple. If you like the magical girl subgenre, this is one of the very best examples you’ll find. If you don’t then you’ll almost certainly still find plenty to enjoy here. So forgive my vague ramblings about this one, and watch it for yourself. It’s a dramatic, surreal, emotional, uplifting masterpiece. RP