Puella Magi Madoka Magica Series Review: Make a Wish, Pay the Price

Overview:

I’ve really touched on Madoka before when I wrote a feature regarding theĀ Strange Case of Madoka Magica but I’ve not yet written an actual series review so I figured it was about time.

For those that don’t know, Madoka Magica is about Madoka who is approached one day by Kyubey and offered the power to become a magical girl so she can fight witches and all she has to do is make a wish. If that sounds too good to be true, then you have probably been paying attention. Madoka, unlike so many magical girls before her, takes her time to find out what being a magical girl means and to think about her wish before she decides to seal this contract. In the meantime, the other magical girls continue to fight against the witches and aren’t always coming out on top.

Review:

My feature that I wrote about this show already touched on my thoughts of people calling Madoka a subversive magical girl story. From my view Madoka is simply an origin story extended beyond the first episode for once and giving an outsiders view of what being a magical girl is like rather than subversive (mostly because our protagonist isn’t a magical girl for a large part of the series). So I won’t be rehashing that argument here and will instead just give my thoughts on this series as it stands rather than trying to classify its genre and purpose.

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The first thing that drew me into Madoka Magica was the art style used, particularly for the witches. While I get it isn’t appealing to everyone (and having heard it described as an eye-sore or headache inducing by some critics) I find the visuals of this anime to be fascinating. Not beautiful because that isn’t really the right word for as many times the world depicted here is ugly and unsettling (intentionally so) and even the ‘normal’ world of Madoka is too clean and shiny, too orderly to really be considered beautiful. But it is the jarring contrast between the bathroom where Madoka and her mother prepare for their day and the sterile classroom environment to the realm the witches inhabit with their chaotic, cluttered and disorderly (somewhat nonsensical) appearances that really captured my interest in what was a somewhat mundane opening couple of episodes.

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Sure the music is pulsating during the dream sequence opening and trying to ramp up tension, but you haven’t enough knowledge of the characters to really care about them at this stage and this sequence is more affective toward the end of the series once you know who these characters are and how they came into this situation. Madoka is also playing all the nice girl and unassuming protagonist tropes that she can in these early stages but mostly comes out feeling a little bland. So it is the visuals that really caught me and kept me watching the show.

Which is a good thing. Because by the end of the series, the characters have had time to win you over and even if you don’t agree with individual character choices or actions, you learn to understand what each girl is actually seeking and why they might have made the choice they did. You also fully realise the complete hopelessness of the situation all these characters find themselves in. That feeling of hopelessness is also accompanied by feeling helpless because in my case I couldn’t even bring myself to hate Kyubey for putting the girls into the situation.

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Kyubey gets called evil a lot online and certainly he is the catalyst for all the woes faced by the girls however, his motives are never malicious. We interpret malice because of his emotionless demeanor and matter of fact attitude to the horror, but he actually doesn’t cause any of it. Kyubey has a clear job of collecting energy and the magical girl system is how that is done. He finds girls who have potential (more potential equals more energy so his targets make sense) and he offers them a choice. And that is important. It is always a choice. Perhaps his method is coercive at times particularly when he offers a wish to a girl on the edge of dying or the like, but ultimately the girl chooses and makes the wish she wants. The one thing you might claim malice for is that Kyubey doesn’t explain exactly what the transformation to magical girl entails or what the end result is. Of course, the girls aren’t exactly demanding answers to those questions and you would think at least one of them would ask.

Madoka

Madoka Magica is a series that at the time felt fairly unique. It took all the sweetness and light of a magical girl story and turned it on its head, not just to say ‘hey we can do dark’ but to really explore the characters and how they would react when pushed to their limits and the choices they would make when they found themselves cornered. It ultimately was a deeply satisfying watch though probably one that won’t be as good now as it was when it was released. A lot of what made Madoka truly feel unique has since been cloned a number of times so now it will just be one of many such shows (though arguably the execution is Madoka is pretty solid and that may help it still stand above the crowd).

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I really enjoyed this series and fully recommend at least watching once to most anime fans even if it isn’t your usual kind of genre. The influence of the series is unmistakable and it is a fairly decent narrative in its own right. With interesting visuals, good character relationships and development, and a story that isn’t totally eye-opening but still manages a few surprises, Madoka is well worth the time it takes to watch.

Don’t ask me about the movies, I haven’t seen them.


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Magical Girl Raising Project Episode 2

Review:

The curse of no individual identity continues to plague this show as we go through the motions of setting up a tournament to decide which magical girls get to stay and which will go. The foreshadowing for the end is obvious so there is no surprise twist. More importantly, the character tragedy for the week is set up in such a generic manner it lacks any punch at all. Generic and predictable aren’t the end of the world for a series, but lacking any kind of emotional intensity in the delivery is. Fav is trying so hard to be Kyubey they are just begging us to compare this to Madoka but this doesn’t have any of the magic that filled that series (which would be fine if it was giving us anything else but there’s nothing). This is another show that I think is about to get dropped.

Magical Girl Raising Project is available on Crunchyroll.

Shonen Maid Series Review

It only just recently occurred to me that I hadn’t actually done a series wrap up on this anime after finishing it.

Overview:

Chihiro’s mother dies and he is left alone until Madoka, a relative, shows up to take him in. Not wanting to rely on the kindness of others, Chihiro becomes a live in maid at Madoka’s house and the two of them begin to create a family (of sorts).

Review:

While reviewing this show episode to episode, the word that kept coming up was sweet. And it is a sweet show. Everything from the character designs, to the colour palette, the music, the frilly outfits Madoka makes, and the over use of cute animals (be they puppies or kittens) is super sweet.

And there really isn’t a lot else to say.

Chihiro doesn’t grow much as a character throughout this series. He is stubborn and fixed in his ways and while he grows up a little and learns more about Madoka, his essential character remains unchanged. This could be seen as a good thing because at least it isn’t a show about a damaged human being who is instantly healed by a little bit of kindness. Even after his mother’s death, while he certainly has some issues, he is a perfectly functional person (though his cleaning obsession is really excessive).

Likewise Madoka learns more about Chihiro and also seems to grow up a little (though he’s technically already an adult) but otherwise remains who he was all along. And he is a fairly damaged individual but he’s kind of made his peace with that and has ways around situations that push him out of his depth.

It is the interactions between these two characters and the ways they make allowance for the other, while not compromising their core personality, that make the strength of this show. It is interesting just watching them go about their lives (and that’s probably a good thing given very little else happens).

I was disappointed with the ending and felt there was too much left unresolved with Chihiro and the main family and I really want another season to try and get some closure there.

Otherwise, this was a sweet, charming, pleasant and enjoyable watch without too many drama but not a lot of excitement either. A relaxed watch for an afternoon.

What do you think of Shonen Maid?

Friday’s Feature – On Magical Girls (3/3)

Let’s wrap up this mini-series of posts (though I am definitely going to revisit the subject matter at some point because really nowhere near enough has been said). This week I want to look at exceptions within the magical girl genre and discuss the lack of an equivalent magical boy genre.

While there are a few modern exceptions, I actually want to look at a more classic ‘magical girl’ that kind of does things her own way, and that’s Sakura from Card Captor. And already I hear people saying she defines magical girl, what do you mean she’s an exception?

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True, she becomes a Card Captor after Kero recruits her to recapture the cards she let loose and it was more or less her destiny to release the cards in the first place and she fights an array of silly villains while wearing fairly ridiculous outfits using a magical wand to summon cards to fight for her, so it all seems fairly normal for the magical girl genre. However, there are a few distinctions.

Firstly, while her friends are most definitely dragged into the magical encounters Sakura has after becoming a Card Captor, with the exception of Syaoran Li, most of her friends do not have any power and don’t end up joining her back-up group. In fact, Sakura pretty much fights solo for most of the series, occasionally assisted/hindered by Li and offered moral support by her best friend Tomoyo. Furthermore, Tomoyo doesn’t end up being the victim of the week every other episode, unlike Molly (the magic free friend of Sailor Moon).

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Secondly, Sakura doesn’t transform into a magical girl. She always has her magic powers whether she’s in her school uniform or one of Tomoyo’s creations. Every single ridiculous outfit Sakura ends up in she changes into willingly (or at least because her best friend is trying to help in her own way and Sakura doesn’t want to hurt her feelings). So no magical girl outfit (and this right here could throw Card Captor’s right out of the genre entirely given how important transformation sequences are in other shows).

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Thirdly, Sakura defeats the escaped cards and then uses them to fight and capture other cards. These villains have no grand plan to take over the world. They’re magic cards that have escaped and are running wild. Mostly they aren’t working together or plotting anything. So no gloating villain sneering about how they will beat them next time. Instead, this is a fetch quest that got out of hand but serves as the background for Sakura’s growth as a human (even as her increased stash of cards makes her stronger).

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The last point I want to make is that Syaoran is both a rival and a love interest. He battles with Sakura to be the Card Captor, though eventually is forced to bow out of the fight which is when he takes on a far more traditional role. This is a refreshing role for a male character in a magical girl genre because he has his own strengths and agenda outside of saving the girl so she can save the world.

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I’d love to know your favourite exception in the magical girl genre so please share below.

Onto the lack of an equivalent magical boys genre. While there are definitely anime boys out there with magic (think Fairy Tail etc) these aren’t magical boy anime. Generally they are actions or dramas. They are fast paced and usually full of a large number of characters who the protagonists can fight with and support.

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Of course, if magical boys was a thing you would have to wonder who the audience would be? As Cute High Earth Defence shows, just putting boys in silly outfits and making them go through the motions of a magical girl anime isn’t exactly compelling viewing, and even if they played it straight it would be hard to take it seriously.

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As stated in part 2, a large part of the magical girl genre is about imparting messages about qualities that the audience should admire and work toward. These messages are already presented by male characters in shonen anime and a range of other avenues. One could almost argue that the magical girl genre exists only to fill the void that existed for strong female characters who fight villains. They used magic as a way to overcome the traditional stereotype of weaker female and then gave the protagonists admirable personality traits (even if these only developed throughout the series).

So do magical girl series still have a place for modern audiences when there are now plenty of other shows and media that present stronger females?

Definitely. This is a genre that filled a gap but also carved out its own niche and will continue to develop and grow with the modern audience. The success of shows like Madoka Magica clearly show that there is still a large market for the magical girl, even if she has evolved a bit from the shiny and sparkly days when all she had to do was spin around occasionally and wave a wand.

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That concludes this run of magical girl posts and I know I’ve barely touched the surface. Feel free to leave your comments, thoughts and suggestions below.

Friday’s Feature – On Magical Girls (2/3)

Right so we’re back to magical girls and this week I wanted to look at the characters and the magic powers that crop up in these stories. While this is where many of these stories differentiate themselves, there are still a lot of common factors between shows.

Alas, I am only going to be looking at the main characters from a handful of anime. There is too much content to get into side characters and villains (though I may do a post on those guys at some point – it won’t be in this series).

So who are our main contenders? Serena (Sailor Moon – original anime series), Amu (Shugo Chara), and Madoka (Madoka Magica).

I’m going to start with Serena (the person who springs to everyone’s lips). How do we describe her?

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She’s a klutz.
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Who over eats.
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And she’s not particularly bright.
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And she’s a cry baby.

Wow. It’s a good thing she likes cats and rescued Luna or else she was kind doomed as a character. Even her friends regularly run her down but they all agree on a couple of things. Serena is stubborn (and while that is sometimes a negative a certain amount of stubbornness is needed to not just give up on things) and she’s also happy most of the time and loyal to her friends.

As a magical girl, Serena’s path is a long one.

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Her initial transformation aside, she struggles in the early battles to hold her nerve and to use her powers effectively. She regularly needs a pep talk from one of the scouts of Tuxedo Mask to get her moving again and while the threat doesn’t feel very real at times she’d rather let someone else take care of it. However, as the danger intensifies and as Serena ‘grows up’ she begins to embrace her roles as the Moon Princess. Admittedly, it’s midway through season 2 before you see her settle on this and even then she is plagued by the occasional doubt about whether she’d just like to be ordinary.

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Serena and Darien

Serena’s love story is integral to the overall plot as there’s a whole lovers in former lives issue and Serena and Darien’s love regularly saves the plot from falling apart by generating a much needed power boost or saves one or the other from what should be death. While Darien’s presence is very much a positive for Serena’s development, he himself gets very little development or chance to take the lead. It’s a magical girl show so show up, give your speech and then wait on the sidelines until she requires some moral support. I always felt a bit sorry for Darien.

As to the magic itself, Sailor Moon relies heavily on devices. Transformations can be undone by removing brooches and powers rendered useless by knocking wands out of hands. The girls themselves seemingly cannot activate their power without these device and accessories (which makes you wonder how any of the villains ever lost to them when there was such an easy path to victory). The device aside, Sailor Moon is the champion of shouting out attack names and key phrases for transformation in English. I wonder if shouting it louder made your power more impressive?

On to Amu from Shugo Chara.

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I must not smile.

Amu is straight away a different character from Serena. She is cool and admired for being cool and aloof. However, that’s all her outer character and one she has deliberately established. The audience is let on to her inner monologue and uncertainties and we know she’d love to ooh over the cute things and gush at the prince. And unlike Serena, Amu isn’t inherently a magical girl. Nope. She did not get reborn after dying tragically in a past life. Nor was she chosen by destiny. Apparently being indecisive and wishing for a change in your life is enough because Amu created her own magic, even if she regularly regrets it during the first part of the series.

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What? You can’t see the difference? She now has a heart in her hair and she’s ridiculously over the top and exuberant.

Amu’s indecisiveness is crazy. She doesn’t just manifest one alternate personality in the form of a guardian character but three (later four but you know). This leads to a whole range of different transformations, though Amulet Heart is her main go to.

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Yep, I’d look like that too if someone put me in a cheerleading outfit.

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Keep in mind, this isn’t like Sailor Moon evolving in Super Sailor Moon or then becoming the Princess. These are entirely separate identities with totally different powers (more or less the same results though). And then later, of course, we start combining these powers and then things just get silly.

Where Amu is very similar to Serena is the journey she goes through as a character. She matures and stops worrying about petty things quite so much and stops complaining about things not being fair. She learns to just deal with things as they are and take them as they come. She also eventually gets over her ‘Prince’ crush though Ikuto probably had something to do with that.

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Seriously, who needs a Prince when you have a bad boy whose alternate self is a cat? And unlike Darien, Ikuto actually gets to play a more active role in the story. He stirs up the core group, acts as an antagonist, get’s close to Amu and then disappears leaving her to fret for his safety and try to save him. He (like Darien) also gets brainwashed and has to be saved but then hangs around for the final fight instead of ending up with amnesia in the hospital.

The magic here comes from their guardian spirits (which are like manifestations of their dreams). Problem is, these spirits live in eggs and they can get stolen, sealed shut, or broken. Way to shatter your dreams literally. It’s like someone gave you that thing at school where they make you care for an egg for a week, only in this case if you break your egg you will not only have no super powers but become an empty shell of a human being. Tragic.

Once transformed though, the characters generate weapons and magic appropriate to their character. When she’s the cheerleader, Amu uses a baton or pom-poms. When she’s the artist, she uses a paintbrush. As Su, she uses a whisk (so cute and yet so useless – except for remake, that’s a remarkably useful power for cleaning up supernatural messes). I will point out that I spent a lot of time when I was younger trying to make a heart shape with my fingers like Amu and I am still convinced it is actually impossible to position your hands the way she does and end up with a clear heart. You can put your fingers together but it really doesn’t look particularly heart like.

Finally, we have Madoka. And I know, she isn’t a magical girl until the very end of the series. That’s why she’s included. We have the traditional magical girl (Serena), the slightly more modern and self-aware magical girl (Amu) and now we have the not a magical girl and hesitant to become one because it could cause you to die.

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That’s not the only reason Madoka is interesting. She also has no love interest. She saves the romance angst for her best friends to deal with. All Madoka has to deal with is her rampant insecurity because she feels she has no special… oh wait. She is a modern version of Serena with the self-awareness of Amu. Now the pink pony-tails make sense.

Still, the magical girl transformation is definitely impressive – they do make you wait all season for it. And her power is pretty undeniable (she recreates the entire lore by which magic works). Similar to Amu, her power is based on an inner wish, but in this case manifests by making a contract with the dev… Oh no, just Kyuubey. Close enough. Once a wish is made the magical girls get a soul gem that enables them to transform and then their power is kind of linked to their wish. Though watch out, if you get too far away from your soul gem, well you have no soul. This isn’t a good state to be in as it pretty much leaves you dying in a coma.

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I said their power was kind of linked because it’s a little odd. Madoka though has a bow and arrow, because arrows are cool nowadays, but she has the overly frilly dress of someone who grew up on a rich diet of what a magical girl should look like. It’s almost on par with the parody outfit from Is This A Zombie?

Let’s be honest. None of these girls are going to hold their own in a straight up swordfight. Serena will trip, Amu will be sarcastic and Madoka will wring her hands together in distress as she tries to think of a way to help (though which side she would help is debatable). But what these girls do possess:

  • Loyalty,
  • Honesty, and
  • Perseverance

These characteristics are not bestowed on them by mystic eggs, lockets or creepy bunny things. These are traits they have developed through their lives and are traits that allow them to overcome the trials and hardships they face. And that’s the core of magical girl stories. These characters. For just a little while you can believe that you don’t need to be smart or athletic or particularly talented at anything as long as you keep working hard and growing you will one day triumph.

And yeah I’ve missed a huge amount of points and ideas and haven’t even touched on the other cast members (friends and foes alike) but the post is already long enough so I’m calling it. Please feel free to add your points and argument below.

Shonen Maid Episode 11

Review:

It’s getting hard to review this because just saying it is sweet over and over is a little repetitive. So, it is still sweet, but I’m going to offer some criticism this time. Episode 10 brought a real sense of impending drama with the ‘revelation’ of Chihiro’s grandmother (though it was really doubtful anyone didn’t know that given they weren’t really hiding the fact). And yet this week offers little except a little case of the mopes for both Chihiro and Madoka. While I get that the general theme of this show is up-beat (even the dead mother’s advice to Chihiro was that he’d be fine), occasionally allowing characters to actually experience sadness, anger or depression would be a nice change of pace. Still, hard to argue with flower viewing, friends and good food for cheering yourself up.

Shonen Maid is available on AnimeLab.

Shonen Maid Episode 10

Review:

This was probably one of my favourite episodes so far. Not a lot happens other than a grave visit but it feels like a lot of the plot threads and character developments have come together in this episode. It wasn’t as light or amusing as other episodes but took a more serious tone and it left us with little resolution but that was kind of satisfying in itself. It really feels like this story is coming together as we near the end and I’m invested enough in Chihiro and Madoka to actually care where it goes next.

Shonen Maid is available on AnimeLab.