Let’s talk about genre for a second.
Now bear with me, I’ll get to the fascinating twists and the dark plot of Madoka Magica soon, but I want to get a little information across first. For film genres, or any art form for that matter, there are a few different stages that a film can go through. Generally, it starts with an Experimental Stage, where the genre is starting out and the rules haven’t been made just yet. As an example, think of westerns before they all typically started having one man for good facing off in a high noon duel against the bad guy.
After they finally establish what works, the Classical Stage begins, which is where all of the tropes and ideas generally come from. Eventually, people get tired of those tropes, though, and start the Parody Stage. For westerns, this was Blazing Saddles. This stage makes fun of the over-used tropes that start to appear within a genre.
Finally, we get to one of my favorite stages: Revisionism.
If you don’t know what revisionism in media is, it’s when somebody wants to go back and completely rethink the genre, challenging the tropes and concepts, but still keeping the general ideas. Some of the greatest movies, such as Dances With Wolves and The Dark Knight, have come out of this stage, revitalizing a love for their respective genres. The Revisionist Stage both takes apart every trope and celebrates what makes these genres so great. This is where Puella Magi Madoka Magica comes in.
Madoka Magica is the perfect example of revisionism. The entire point of this show is to take the idea of a magical girl anime and turn it completely on its head (or for those who already know the show, cut off its head). A SPOILER WARNING for anyone that hasn’t seen the show, as it’s basically impossible to discuss this without giving away major plot points. While I’d like to write each of these discussions with sparse spoilers, this time they’re simply too integral to this show and what it’s attempting to do. As such, there will be MASSIVE spoilers being discussed that for those that haven’t seen the series or care to, will spoil the entirety of the show. I also want to state that I will be ignoring the film The Rebellion Story, a sequel to the series, as that whole movie deserves a discussion on its own, particularly its incredibly controversial ending. With that stated, let’s get started.
I think it’s well known that Japan is one of the stranger cultures out there. Specifically for anime, there is a fascination with magical teen girls that’s become a small obsession within the industry. Early versions of this genre are shows like Sailor Moon, which most people on this side of the pacific know, and even earlier is Sally the Witch, which is considered the first magical girl anime. Hilariously enough, this strange concept for a genre owes a lot to America, as Sally the Witch was directly inspired by the Japanese dub of the show Bewitched that became popular amongst Japanese girls in the 1960s. The major ideas about this genre are the fact that preteen and teen girls obtain magical powers to fight for good and justice against evil, typically with a cute animal sidekick of some sorts, and there’s an indomitable feeling of hope and companionship among the other magical girls. Most shows nowadays also depict transformation scenes where the girls suddenly undress and have their fighting costumes magically adorned onto their bodies.
Since most of these shows are for a younger audience, the girls involved luckily are never shown fully nude during these choreographed segments, though the transformation sequences tend to drag on longer than is comfortable. You can basically consider this the anime equivalent of the changing scenes in the 1950s Superman cartoon show. Just, you know, without the phone booth. And, uh, underage girls instead of The Man of Steel. Like I said, Japan is weird.
The interesting thing about this genre is that it hasn’t really changed terribly much over the years, other than a shift to also target a male audience besides the traditional young female viewers. We would see a parody every now and then, but there wasn’t anything around to revitalize the genre and challenge its tropes. Because of this, magical girl anime stagnated for a while until our beloved Madoka Magica came out in January of 2011. Puella Magi Madoka Magica was created by Shaft and director/writer team Akiyuki Shinbo and Gen Urobuchi, a studio and writer/director team well-known for challenging norms and depicting darker worlds. The show is the brainchild of a simple idea: What would happen if you took a traditionally children-focused show and remade it for a mature adult audience?
Here is where things get interesting. Shaft specifically wanted to make everything not what it seems to be with this series. When advertising the show, the PVs and commercials depicted a happy magical girl anime, showing the life of Madoka and her friends as they accept help from a cute mysterious animal called Kyuubey, who gives them magical powers to fight evil. The series attempts to lull the audience into believing it’s a happy and innocent tromp through the fields of the magical girl genre (also known as mahou shoujo) with the first few episodes depicting just this, cutesy characters and an overall happy feeling. From the start, however, there’s always an underlying ominous vibe to everything that occurs, particularly spurred on by the camera work and background music. Here’s a quick synopsis of the first three episodes to show what I mean.
As the first few episodes unfold, we see Madoka pondering over a dark dream she had and can’t remember well, but still continues to enjoy her time with friends who make her laugh. Then, we meet the new student Homura. Whereas the typical new student is shy, Homura is cold and immediately takes charge of any scenario she is in. Madoka remembers her from her dark dream the night before and attempts to talk to her, but only ends up more confused as Homura tells her to stay the same if she values her life and all that she holds dear. As events move forward, Madoka and her best friend Sayaka rescue Kyuubey, a mysterious but adorable creature, from being killed by Homura. Suddenly, a strange evil power envelops and attacks them, but they’re saved by a girl named Mami. Mami thanks them for saving Kyuubey and tells them about what is going on.
Mami is a magical girl and explains the existence of a hidden war against evil. Random suicides, murders, cults, and many negatives of the world are apparently brought on by witches, evil beings that prey on humans. While the magical girls stand for good, they don’t always work together or see eye-to-eye. Thus, Homura seems to be against Mami and Kyuubey. Madoka and Sayaka are fascinated by the idea of magical girls and decide to help Mami. The now recovered Kyuubey tells them that they can only become magical girls by making a contract with him, but as part of the contract, he will fulfill one wish for them.
However, Sayaka and Madoka are warned to make sure it’s something important as they only have one. While contemplating this, the two go on different witch hunts with Mami, saving people, becoming closer with Mami as time goes on, and warming up to the idea of standing up for good by becoming magical girls. Until one witch hunt during episode three, where Sayaka becomes trapped and Madoka and Mami go to rescue her, finally becoming friends during their struggle. Mami, overjoyed by this, fights her way to the witch and Sayaka, finding power in friendship. As Sayaka and Madoka take cover, Mami battles and shoots the witch. Suddenly, it transforms into a huge monster and devours Mami’s head.
She falls to the ground, dead.
The above final scene from the third episode was so shocking that when it aired in Japan, many viewers were horrified (There was even a new word that spawned online on 2chan and spread outside of Madoka fans called Mamiru, meaning “To be guillotined like Mami” or “A horrible death”). From this point on, the veil is lifted and the show dramatically makes a turn for the dark (The ending song even changes from happy and fun, to a dark, hard rock song).
Over the course of the rest of the series we have a deconstruction of the genre and what it means to be a magical girl. Kyuubey is likened to a demon as we find his contracts trap the girls’ souls into gems in order to give them power. The territorial disputes among the magical girls are spurred on by the fact that the only way to purify a soul gem and continue living is to use grief seeds dropped by fallen witches. We also see that every wish that is granted has a twist to it in a similar way to the mythological evil Djinn, causing pain to those who wish for it. In possibly the largest twist in the series, we also find that Kyuubey’s true name is Incubator and a magical girl is merely a fledgling form.
As Kyuubey puts it:
“On this planet you call females who have yet to become adults, girls. It makes sense then that since you’ll eventually become witches, you should be called Magical Girls.”
And so, the Kyuubey is out of the bag. Every magical girl is killing a matured form of their sisters and every little girl that Kyuubey has blessed with power will be consumed by hate to spread despair to humanity. And for what? What purpose would this whole elaborate scheme be for? For Kyuubey and his race of emotionless creatures, humans are merely food, and the emotions that they express are fuel for their power. And why young girls as the progenitors of this chaos? As they’re developing and going through puberty, they’re the most emotional (his words, not mine) of all humans and output immense amounts of emotional energy for the Kyuubeys, particularly their grief and despair.
These revelations start taking their toll on the main characters, who with the exception of Homura, barely knew the full extent of what they signed up for. And speaking of Homura, her story becomes the story of the entire series, as we see the reasons behind her actions and cold words show an even darker world. Homura’s power is to manipulate time and these girls that she’s distanced herself from were her friends, particularly Madoka. However, she’s watched possibly hundreds of times over all of her friends die, and every time she attempts to fix things, it gets worse, with each girl dying more violently than the last cycle through time. Certain scenes show the girls begging for death rather than to become a witch. She finally cannot take anymore, and decides she has to fix things from the outside looking in, forsaking friendship, but slowly as each death seems more and more unavoidable, her grief and despair start to take over. It’s only when Madoka steps in to attempt to fix things that Homura even considers that there is hope.
In doing all of this, this series answers every trope of the magical girl genre with a dark twist. Where there were cute girls saving the world, there are now children desperately trying to fight a forever stronger evil. Where there was a cute animal sidekick, there is now an emotionless devil in a stuffed animal skin that steals the souls of our main cast. And where there was optimism and an indomitable spirit of hope, we find evil and an inevitable fall into despair for all who become magical girls. Even the reasons for the girls to take up this mantle are seen as truly selfish rather than for a greater good. Mami did so to save her own life, Homura did so to be stronger, Sayaka did so to save the boy she loves so he could love her, and the list goes on.
All of this contesting of tropes is further shown by the art style for the show. In traditional mahou shoujo, the animation is very moe, or cute and endearing. However, Madoka Magica only keeps this for the characters themselves. Every witch labyrinth that the characters find themselves in is unique and borrows several pages from Tim Burton’s favorite playbook, but multiplied tenfold, contrasting with the cutesy style of the characters and the picturesque, but typically dark cityscapes of the real world.
Every idea of the genre is challenged and reflected on, with the show asking why it’s always been this way. It seems Shaft wanted us to reflect on the implications of these tropes, the reasons for these girls wanting to do good, as well as the realistic expectations of sending adolescent girls to fight evil and how they’d come to terms with the death, hate, and warped perspectives they’d face each day.
This series is dark and unapologetic, showing us violence and darker themes. There may rarely be blood and not much that could be considered gore, but the implications of what’s happening (the suicides, decapitations, murders, and the deaths of the main cast) are still there, giving the show a psychological thriller aspect. As an example, this scene shows where the death of one of the members drives Mami to insanity and to start killing a few of the members of the group before they all turn into witches.
However, the show isn’t without its celebration of the genre. It deconstructs many things about magical girl anime, but in doing so, also attempts to pave the way for future entries. Puella Magi Madoka Magica may be an incredibly dark show, but its ending message is hope and love can conquer all, showing this with one final wish that breaks the rules of the game and finally ends the constant loop of death and despair. Not everyone comes out happy (or even alive for that matter), but good does conquer evil, even if it takes an immense amount of suffering to get there. We see twists and turns galore, but with an adherence to the very fundamental elements of the genre. There are still girls battling evil with magical powers, there is still a feeling that friendship conquers all, and there is still an idea that hope is not a useless thing, but is sometimes all you have.
The goal then, seems to be not just to deconstruct, but also rebuild from basic groundwork what a mahou shoujo anime should be, outlining thoroughly what needs to change and what can be left unchallenged. It’s a beautiful show, in its art and animation, as well as its clever writing and amazing story. It’s a popular pick for many, but it’s one of my favorites specifically for everything it did within its genre and for being among the greats that will be thoroughly evaluated and celebrated for years to come.
Research and Inspiration for this Discussion:
Breaking the Mold: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Flips the Magical Girl Genre on its Ear — http://www.popcults.com/puella-magi-madoka-magica-anime-review/
Headless Mami — http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/headless-mami
The Girls Who Walk Away From Kyuubey — http://stormingtheivorytower.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-girls-who-walk-away-from-kyubee.html
TV Tropes: Puella Magi Madoka Magica — http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Anime/PuellaMagiMadokaMagica
Why We Like Fiction That Makes Us Le Miserable — http://theafictionado.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/why-we-like-fiction-that-makes-us-le-miserable/