Continuing with the top ten we have one of the most heavily praised shows out there.
[Note: I normally don’t mark spoilers in these posts because a) I think that spoilers tend not to be that big a deal and b) I don’t usually have particularly heavy spoilers. In this case it’s almost impossible to talk about Madoka without spoilers and some of them are very significant to the way the story unfolds. So if you haven’t seen Madoka and really want to read some of this, just read the first, second and last paragraphs and then go watch the show because it’s great. Anyway, on with the post]
It seems funny to think about it now given how well known and beloved it is but a lot of people seemed to overlook Madoka Magica as it was originally starting to air, myself included. It was an anime original project from SHAFT directed by Akiyuki Shinbou which was enough for some people but the only other big draws on the staff were the voice cast, the musical staff and the character designer. Sure, we now know who Urobuchi Gen is but at the time he was little more than a scenario writer who did some stuff for Nitro+. He certainly wasn’t the BUTCH GEN we have now that can attract buzz simply by putting his name next to something. However, once the show got going the hype became impossible to ignore for long and by the time episode four rolled around I was watching and hanging on the new episode each Thursday along with everybody else in the anime world. Following the show weekly with all the other viewers was a great experience for sure, but Madoka is an amazing experience regardless of when or how you first watch it.
The entire show is superb but if there’s one thing that stands out to me throughout Madoka Magica it’s the incredible sense of purpose each element of the show has. Every decision whether in terms of dialog or episode construction or aesthetics serves to further some goal of the work as a whole. There are almost no loose parts in Madoka as every moment throughout its twelve episode run builds to the ultimate climax at the end. The result is one of the most tightly written anime I’ve ever seen. It’s difficult to put together even a single episode without some excess content so to string together twelve episodes with virtually nothing going to waste is almost unheard of.
Another aspect of Madoka Magica that stands out is the way it sets its tone and builds its atmosphere, particularly in the early episodes. The show opens with a calm, almost idyllic feel as it hits all the standard beats of a typical magical girl anime. We have the cute mascot character, the cool senpai and the enemies of unknown origin. At the same time though, the mysterious presence of Homura and the sinister undertones created by the aesthetic choices tell you that there’s more going on here. It’s a brilliant combination of the familiar and the unknown that draws the viewer into the show from the start.
One thing in particular that I really like about the way these early episodes set the tone is the role Mami’s character plays. She is never really fleshed out fully as her own character, but as a device to draw Madoka and the viewer into the magical girl system she’s phenomenal. From the moment Mami first transforms, everything about her works to make being a magical girl feel seductive and alluring. There’s something about how Mami looks so cool when she’s fighting witches that makes you want to be like her. Her obvious skill, the flair she brings to combat and the musical choices for her fight scenes all work to convince you that being a magical girl is the best thing ever. Madoka gets caught up in this to the point that she’s more concerned with what her magical girl costume might look like than her wish or the larger implications of joining the fight. Even though deep down you know the turn is coming, the show gets you to buy in alongside Madoka so when the switch is flipped it has incredible impact. Mami’s downfall is one of the most well-executed tonal shifts I’ve seen and it hits like a ton of bricks even when you know it’s coming. This sets the stage for the “real” Madoka Magica and the outstanding characters that inhabit the show.
Two of these characters are Sakura Kyouko and Miki Sayaka and while they might not be the primary characters in the show, their relationship is one of my favorite parts of Madoka Magica. Like most of the show, it’s beautifully tragic as Kyouko encounters Sayaka and sees a girl that reminds her of her younger and more naïve self. In this sense, Kyouko’s struggle to save Sayaka is a struggle to save herself. She sees somebody on a path to her own tragic fate and attempts to stop her before she reaches the point of no return. This struggle is ultimately futile though as Sayaka’s idealism will not allow her give in to self-interest like Kyouko. She wants to believe in the inherent goodness and fairness in the world and as her selfless acts are not rewarded and her world starts to fall apart around her we see her fall into despair culminating in the hauntingly beautiful black and white witch battle. It’s rare that a scene evokes the emotions of a character in a particular moment the way that scene does with Sayaka. The lack of color and the chaos of the battle show her loss of purpose and growing insanity while Madoka and Kyouko look on helplessly. The relationship eventually comes full circle as Kyouko initially attempted to kill Sayaka before trying to help her and then finally, after Sayaka has given up the last vestiges of her humanity, Kyouko is the one who ultimately ends her suffering.
Homura and Madoka’s relationship takes longer to unfold but is no less beautiful or tragic. Homura starts out as an enigmatic classmate who says very little and the things she does say never quite make sense to Madoka. Her character is perfectly executed to create a feeling of unease in the viewer as the show progresses and the nature of Homura’s existence becomes clearer. This comes to a head in the tenth episode which for my money is one of the best single episodes of anime I’ve ever seen. It’s rare that an episode can create such a stunning reveal that sheds new light on everything that came before it. All the questions the viewer had after the first 9 episodes about who Homura was and how she seemed to know so much were answered in the most elegant fashion imaginable. In addition, the episode was beautiful in the way it showed Homura’s slow transformation from an initially timid and unassuming girl to a broken, hardened warrior with a single goal that consumed her life: protect Madoka. This episode was also a great reflection of the endlessly repeating cycles these characters go through as we see Madoka start out as the calm, cool and coordinated magical girl whose transformation into the timid girl we saw in the first nine episodes mirrors Homura’s own transformation. It was a perfect episode that validated everything that came before and set the stage for the show’s eventual climax.
The finale served as a wonderful articulation of the Madoka Magica’s central theme of hope rising above despair. As Homura is faced with insurmountable odds and starting to believe that she’ll never be able to achieve her goals, Madoka steps in to provide her with hope. At her core, Madoka represents the ideal of unwavering hope in the face of a cruel and uncaring world. To this end she eventually becomes the literal manifestation of hope itself as she breaks down the system that caused her and her friends such heartache. The ending is a magnificently bittersweet thing as Madoka’s sacrifice means she will save every magical girl from becoming the very thing they swore to destroy but at the same time it results in her permanent separation from Homura. However, even after Madoka’s sacrifice, new enemies appear as despair will never be fully eradicated from the world, but thanks to Madoka, hope will always endure even in the face of endless despair.
Standing in opposition to hope throughout is the show’s primary antagonist Kyuubey. Kyuubey is fantastic as an antagonist because he isn’t some moustache-twirling villain that delights in causing others pain but instead is an emotionless representation of the very system the girls are trying to fight against. Rather than knowing that his actions are wrong and reveling in it, Kyuubey is incapable of understanding why humans would have any problem with what he’s doing. There’s no way to work with a being that is fundamentally incapable of comprehending why you consider its actions are immoral. It’s devastating when Kyuubey makes remarks like “why do you care so much about where your soul goes?” and you know that it’s impossible to explain to him why that matters. His lack of obvious outward signs of evilness means that his true role in the story is able to remain hidden until about halfway through the show. His lack of emotion or morals make you uncomfortable about him but it isn’t clear where he truly stands for some time. It’s that inherent foreign otherness of Kyuubey and his detached demeanor that make him so unsettling but also so compelling.
All of this is conveyed with some of the most stunning visual flair I’ve ever seen. The show repeatedly uses incredibly beautiful shots and the major scenes are consistently fascinating aesthetically. From the nightmarish witch labyrinths to the fallen glory of Kyouko’s father’s church to the twisted wreckage following the Walpurgis invasion, each setting is perfectly constructed to enhance the atmosphere of that specific moment. Beyond the major set pieces, the show consistently has shots that further the thematic and narrative goals of each scene throughout. On top of this, Kajiura Yuki’s sound track is a beautiful accompaniment that is constantly heightening the effect of each scene. This perfect fusion of visuals, dialog and music all working towards a common goal is what makes Madoka such a stunning production.
It’s probably not terribly surprising to find Madoka Magica on this list. It’s one of the most widely beloved shows of recent memory and with good reason. The show is a deeply evocative experience that hits on some of the fundamental struggles that we face as humans and the endless cycles of hope and despair that we endure in the face of an uncaring world. This is all wrapped up in one of the most tightly constructed narratives I’ve seen in anime and told through some of the most hauntingly beautiful visuals any show has to offer. In short, Madoka is a triumph in almost every conceivable way and a testament to the potential of anime as a medium.