A while back, I wrote a bit about why you should watch Puella Magi Madoka Magica. At the time, I had only watched four episodes. Now I’ve seen all twelve, and I still agree with that. Here’s why.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica, currently streaming for free on Crunchyroll, is quite frankly one of the best anime I’ve seen in the past three years. (I’m also pretty much in love with Another and Kids on the Slope. But they are the subjects of other posts.) It’s been said elsewhere, but it bears repeating: Madoka does for “magical girl” series what Evangelion did for giant mecha series. It simultaneously takes the genre to the extreme end of excellence while tearing it down to its foundations. What do I mean? Well, to tell you, I’d have to give you some spoilers. So, be forewarned: SPOILERS.
Madoka participates in all the conventions and trappings of the magical girl genre: an eighth-grade girl who isn’t particularly good at anything, her best friends, her pretty costume, her earth-shattering destiny, her cuddly mascot. It does all of those things exceedingly well. Madoka‘s costume and those of the other magical girls are adorable. Their friendships are real. These girls sit around and eat cake and dish to each other like they’re in training for later appearances on Sex and the City. And Madoka’s power is real. Moreover, its magnitude is re-inforced by the love and support of her best friend. And not in a Sailor Moon “everyone push together to get the job done at the last possible second” kind of way. Madoka is the cog in Fortune’s Wheel, and her friends are the spokes.
But the cuddly mascot is where things go really off the rails. Instead of a constant source of support like Luna or Ryo-Ohki or Kereberos, Madoka (and Homura and Sayaka and Mami)’s mascot Kyubey is a misogynistic psychopath whose sole goal is to emotionally abuse and exploit young girls. Kyubey is quite open about this in the later episodes: his species harvests the energy created by the emotions of human beings, and he thinks adolescent girls have the highest-running emotions. Because his species feels no emotion whatsoever — and the outliers who do are considered mentally ill — he finds this all very quaint and charming. He sees no wrongdoing in emotionally manipulating the girls so that he can harness their inevitable heartbreak and despair.
Despair is the other place where the series truly succeeds. Like Evangelion, Madoka is unflinching in its depiction of suicidal depression. If anything, it’s more accurate. In fact, I’d venture to say that it’s one of the most accurate representations of suicidal depression in recent media history. The fact that it’s coated in magical girl tropes has no bearing on its realism or honesty. The self-loathing and personal nihilism each character experience is completely understandable and relateable. It’s part of why Kyubey is such as hateful villain.
But Kyubey isn’t the only villain. The magical girls are out to hunt witches who curse others with despair and draw them into intricate, surreal webs of illusion and drain their energy. In a lesser series this would have been an excuse for the kind of “pure heart crystal of the week” crap that dominated so many Sailor Moon episodes, but Madoka wisely focuses on the complete and utter madness each witch now has the power to generate. The animation is like nothing you’ve seen before, except for perhaps Tatami Galaxy or some obscure short films on iFC or TCM. That serves to kick the viewer out of the traditional arena battle dynamic, so each act of violence is a delicious surprise. It also makes for mercifully less talking. There’s no belaboured exposition of technique. There’s just killing witches, and attempts to kill witches.
We learn that witches are nothing more than fallen magical girls, and that sets up an interesting dynamic: the more you use your power, the more tainted you become, until you can no longer control it. Once upon a time, this would have been a metaphor for female sexuality and the advance of adulthood. But much like Utena, Madoka shows that there’s another way. The series doesn’t have a lot in common with Buffy plot-wise, but it does preach the same gospel about true empowerment and uniting with your fellow women.
Now go watch it.