Note: it’s pretty much impossible to fully discuss Madoka without getting into some spoilers, so be aware that later events will occasionally be referenced in these writeups!
Considering its placement on my top shows list, it would not be presumptuous to say I’m probably a fan of Madoka Magica. I’ve watched the show several times, and enjoyed it more each time; I’ve written a rambling essay on its film sequel that only touched on the things I loved about the show proper. It seems perhaps slightly unwise to jump from a project as ambitious as Hyouka right into something I’m as attached to as Madoka, but this whole Wrong Every Time experiment has been a series of unwise decisions, so here we are. Let’s get right into it.
Gen Urobuchi wasn’t exactly the household name he’s become when Madoka first arrived. Largely known for ultra-grim visual novels, neither of his prior anime projects had taken off. Akiyuki Shinbo, on the other hand, was one of the established names of Shaft – in fact, his name was so established that it was already nearly useless. The Shinbo name seems more like a Shaft “seal of quality” than an indication of Shinbo’s own presence in anything more than a supervisorial role; and even with Madoka, you can see that Madoka had a separate series director, and that Shinbo wasn’t credited on storyboards or direction for a single episode. But interviews make it clear that Shinbo truly was engaged in this project on some level; so at least this time, at least part of its success can be attributed to him.
Because Madoka certainly was a success. A massive seller and critical darling, you’d expect Madoka to be the kind of series that, like Bakemonogatari, would spawn a truly shameless number of sequels. And yet, all we’ve gotten so far is a couple recap films and one movie sequel.
That restraint actually makes sense once you watch the show, though. In spite of its superficially open ending, Madoka really is a self-contained thing. That’s part of its magic; all the elements of the show reflect on and offer context to each other, and by the end, everything it has to say has already been said. Madoka is the opposite of a show like Evangelion or Utena, which are engaging partially because they have so many passionate loose ends – Madoka is a polished jewel, about as “perfect” as an anime can be.
It’s not surprising, then, that Madoka ends exactly where it begins. The show opens with a bit of self-conscious stage framing, as cut-out curtains rise to announce the beginning of the “Prologue in Heaven.” Shaft productions are nearly always infused with a sense of ostentatious, self-conscious theater, but Madoka really does feel like a grand tragedy, and even beyond that, the interpretive visuals that are an inescapable part of the Shaft brand are here actually appropriate for the world itself. We pass a sequence of visual touchstones that offer that classic studio signature; the spiraling staircase, the running girl, the glaring exit sign. Things that would normally draw us out of the world are here reflective of this particular story; this is the world of the show, and so it all builds tension. And then the running girl opens the door, and we arrive at the end of the world.
The fight between the girl in black and her strange opponent is livened with gorgeous visual effects (the show’s distinctive coloring effects and almost crayon-shaded eyes really help the overt cut-paper sequences feel more natural), but this isn’t that kind of show. The first line of the show is a “how awful!” at this violent spectacle, followed by the corresponding “there’s nothing you can do.” “It’s too much for her to handle alone. But she knew that before coming.” The whole arc of the narrative is spelled out in those lines; the horror and helplessness, our individual weakness and our determination to fight in spite of that. But the strange cat creature assures the first girl that “you have the ability to change fate” – and then she wakes up.
Of course, “and then she wakes up” is a bit of a misdirection here, because Madoka is actually more or less a linear narrative. But the worldbuilding tricks that make Madoka’s narrative conceits into meaningful dramatic reveals won’t become clear until later; first, Madoka has to go get her mom out of bed.
The show’s opening song is basically all archetypal magical girl misdirection, and then we’re back to Shaftville, as Madoka shows off her Monogatari-styled modernist house and impressive bathroom. There’s an immediate contrast set up between Madoka’s mother and father; her dad is the mild, diligent house-husband, while her mom is the wild but sturdy businesswoman. The first conversation between Madoka and her mother sets the tone for their relationship to come, and actually does critical work here.
There’s a real naturalism to Madoka’s conversations with her mother, a tonal trick that makes them both feel real in a very sparse sequence of lines. These believable conversations are reflective of a larger Madoka trend – how the show’s character writing is consistently strong, but in non-traditional ways. Madoka Magica’s characterization tends to come through in the details, either concentrated in small moments like these or illustrated purely through the course of characters’ actions. Madoka doesn’t interrogate its characters directly like a Monogatari or an Evangelion, but it doesn’t need to.
And beyond what this conversation reflects about the overall narrative, it’s also just a very endearing and satisfying exchange between child and parent. Madoka’s mother gives her strength, and it’s clearly defined as a feminine strength, the kind of lessons and assurance a mother would give her daughter. One of the great things about magical girl shows is that they don’t have to define strength in masculine terms, and Madoka wholeheartedly embraces this value. Momdoka does more work with her few scenes than many characters do in an entire show.
That scene ends with another piece of basically unnoticeable foreshadowing, as Momdoka tells her daughter to act with confidence even if she doesn’t feel that way. And then Madoka sets off, leaving home in the traditional fashion. From the light flute music to the shimmering sunshine, we’re clearly setting up a comforting initial tone here, working hard to make this seem like a place where if magic is real, it probably isn’t terrible. Madoka, Sayaka, and Hitomi laugh and dance around, and there’s even one of those “hilarious” spinster teacher jokes (alright, so even Madoka Magica isn’t perfect). It’s all peaceful character and tone-establishing until Madoka reunites with the girl from her dreams.
Homura is characterized as mysterious and ominous to an operatic extreme in these early scenes, as Madoka wonders what this reunion could mean. But like with Madoka and her mother, these scenes are simultaneously doing immediate dramatic work and also laying bricks in Madoka’s unique style of characterization. Madoka Magica moves very well on the level of dramatic momentum and surface hooks; tricks like the action-packed cold open and Homura’s actions here imply narrative questions that demand answers, fostering viewer engagement. But tricks like that are, in truth, not terribly meaningful; a series of cliffhangers and dramatic expressions is a fairly flimsy way of promoting viewer investment, less sturdy than actually making you care about the characters as characters (something the show is fortunately also doing). But as it turns out, Urobuchi is playing with your expectations here; these scenes are offering strong characterization, but that’s only clear in retrospect.
As a first-time viewer parses every sneer and clench of teeth as an ominous “don’t trust her!” sign, a returning viewer sees the truth of these expressions; how much every action of Madoka’s, both familiar and reflective of how far apart they’ve grown, stabs at Homura like a knife. Madoka Magica is a show that loves its melodramatic framing, but here, the expectation of melodrama actually lets the show get away with some very clever character-focused foreshadowing. And the scene ends with Homura at the beginning of an arc we can just barely see, telling Madoka to “just remain herself.” Her lines stand as a threat to the first-time viewer, while letting the returning audience see that she currently can’t trust Madoka, and wishes only to carry all the weight upon herself. The first time you watch Madoka Magica, Madoka herself is the protagonist; upon repeat viewing, you realize you’re watching a very different story.
The leadup into this episode’s finale continues that parallel storytelling, as the jokes of Madoka’s friends poke at the truth while making fun of Madoka’s current self. But then we see Homura chasing that fluffy magical girl familiar creature through an interpretive Shaft wonderland, and Madoka receives the call. The setting shifts gradually from her relatively grounded world to a more dramatic one, and Madoka’s first steps into a different world are appropriately framed as a march up into a theater.
Homura does herself no favors in the next scene, coming across as the obvious villain while Madoka cradles the sad floppy thing. “This has nothing to do with you,” she says, seemingly uninterested in explaining her actions to Madoka. Madoka may not be a hero, but she can’t ignore someone who’s asking for her to save them. And as Homura reflects on the situation, the camera cuts repeatedly back to the intertwined chains, reflecting a fate that cannot be circumvented. One of the primary hallmarks of tragedy is inevitability, after all.
Sayaka helps Madoka escape, and then Homura is waylaid by one of Madoka’s other great strengths, its witch worlds. Madoka Magica’s “villains” create their own distorted homes wherever they go, a departure into fantasy that’s visually represented through Inu Curry’s cut-paper backgrounds and evocative objects. Each of these worlds has their own theme, and their visual design ends up being one more hallmark of Madoka Magica’s unique style of characterization. These worlds echo the lives of their creators; hopes and dreams, circumstances and failures of the characters who made them are all clear in their internal landscape. Like everything else in Madoka Magica, the full truth of what we see is only visible in retrospect.
The first witch world seems like some awful Alice in Wonderland fever dream. Dancing butterflies and mothballs with mustaches, horses and carriages and roses bearing thorns. It’s a mishmash of fairy tale tropes turned to nightmare, a fitting debut for a show like Madoka Magica. The scissors and thorns of the garden move ever closer, but are disrupted by the appearance of a new character. Mami Tomoe appears, and immediately makes for a strong contrast with Homura. She quickly names the creature, and refers to him as a “dear friend” as the background reintroduces the fire extinguishers and traffic cones of the real world, playfully representing a barrier against the demons of the wonderland. And complete with a majestic transformation sequence and dramatic special attack, we meet our first true magical girl.
The witch world fades, and Homura faces off directly with Mami Tomoe. With chains once again prominent in the screen, we see Homura pushed back, her threatening mission halted by Mami’s arrival. Not today, Homura! With evil halted, the girls get formally introduced to their new friends, and given a chance to enter a land of dreams and wonders. What a special day!
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