Magical girl anime is bright, colorful, and super exuberant! Giving little girls something really fun and happy to enjoy during their middleschool years, magical girl genre is all about excitement, kawaii, and happiness! Think this is another iteration of that? Nope. Think again.
No, this is the twisted sister of the magical girl genre. This is hands down one of the saddest and most discouraging animes you will ever watch. Possessing many heartfelt moments and its own kind of beauty therein, it will drag on your heart and your mind as you feel for all the characters. As the show progresses, things get more and more clear, and more and more discouraging as a result. As a very different kind of take on the famous magical girl genre, this is very well done, and definitely one that everyone, not just little girls, should see.
This anime is not character driven, interestingly enough. If you think about something like a Sailor Moon, it’s all about artwork (quite remarkable, everyone knows it) and characters (I won’t go into all that here!), and story is just kind of there. But more on that later. So that being said, these are still an excellent set of characters, and they are handled extremely well.
The number of characters is pretty low. Between the adults and children, I think there’s only eight, nine if you count Madoka’s baby brother. The only other character is the alien Kyubey. Limited sets of characters means significant development for the MCs, and usually high quality supporting characters. And that’s exactly what we get here.
I mentioned this anime is sad. And while I’ll go into that more later, I should note that every character cries profusely all throughout this anime. It’s to be expected, given they’re all middleschoolers and they’re being subjected to situations that could cause even strong adults could break down over. But I am not overstating it when I say that a significant percentage of each character’s screentime is spent crying. And it’s not the little bubbles at the bottoms of the eyes either. These poor kids could fill a bucket with their tears. If you’ve seen the show you’re probably recalling a lot of that now, and if you haven’t seen it, well, you’ve been warned.
“Who is ‘Madoka’? Do you know her? Is she some kind of anime character or something?” So her mother says to Akemi after Madoka has transcended reality and everyone has forgotten her. An anime character? Ahaha, our friends from Shaft and their notorious poking fun at their own artform. There’s not a ton to our friend Madoka. Possessing all the kawaii characteristics, big twin pigtails of pink hair, ultimately a very stereotypical “magical girl” outfit, and the little girl voice of a middleschooler. Would you be surprised if I told you who this voice actor is? Maybe not. Aoi Yuuki. But you will be surprised when you hear that she has voiced such harsh characters as Tanya von Degurechaff (The Saga of Tanya the Evil), Kohina Hiruko (Black Bullet), Tiamat (Fate/Grand Order), Touka Mayashita/Boogiepop (Boogiepop and Others), and so on. So there’s a loli theme here at times, but not a cutesy little girl loli like Madoka. Still, I love this choice, because ultimately there’s nothing cute about the situation Madoka finds herself in. Madoka, the character, isn’t complicated in design or execution. As the story progresses, she changes a little between the succession of timelines, but not a ton. I initially wondered if she became more prone to lying as things progressed, but I couldn’t make this correlation ultimately. I’ll talk about her a little more in the story section. As mentioned, the characters do not drive this series.
If you’ve read a lot of my work here, you’ll hear me speak very endearingly of Chiwa Saito. And she makes another appearance here in a Shaft production. If this series didn’t feel a lot like Monogatari already, then it really does when she first starts to speak as the voice of Homura Akemi. Saito-san commands the center of attention when she speaks, and from the get-go we are absorbed in Homura’s character and dialogue. She really feels like the middleschool version of Senjougahara (Monogatari), having the same aloof and fierce demeanor and silky smooth voice. But there is a difference. Akemi doesn’t speak nearly as haughtily and viciously as Senjougahara. The difference is slight but noticeable, and speaks well to the performance of both characters. For as Senjougahara’s life experiences give reason for her manner of speech, so does Akemi’s.
Poor Akemi. Initially we see her as the bad guy. Well, if you’re watching this for the first time and you don’t realize what’s really happening in the story, it’s pretty easy to see her that way. She is cold, unfeeling, emotionless, threatening, powerful in voice, appearance, and action. She doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of her, nor, seemingly, what she thinks of people. But as time passes and the series unfold, the truth becomes clear. She not only is a good guy, but has the best interests of everyone burning in her heart. She is desperate and unhappy. And after everything is explained, you understand why she’s exactly the way she is, and your heart breaks for her over and over. Again, more on her when I discuss the story below. The one last thing I’ll note here is that her development as a character is very well handled, far superior to the other characters. One could almost argue that she’s the main character in this show.
The other magical girl characters are decent and certainly heartfelt. Mami (by the way, this is the same VA as Ougi Oshino from Monogatari? how is this possible?) and her tragic end so early on in the story pretty much confirms that this show wasn’t going to be your ordinary magical girl show. Sayako’s devolution is another part of the show that shocks you story-wise, and is quite sad to watch. Kyoko is mean initially, but you realize why she comes across this way as she is developed, also quite sad.
Surprisingly, there’s several adults featured in supporting roles in this show. If Monogatari offers a blueprint for Shaft series, that’s not surprising given the number of adults in that series. The Kaname parents, particularly Madoka’s mom, get a decent amount of screen time. When I noticed Junko has purple eyes, it struck me as unusual. Rarely do parents in anime receive this coveted eye color. Not that there’s anything super about her or her role, it’s just that she’s featured much more than I’m used to seeing from parents. Also we get the weird thing with Madoka’s teacher, obsessing about her love life and parading it in front of her students. If there’s a point to this other than just for comic relief, I haven’t found it. But it does provide brief light moments. When the scene is in the classroom and she starts talking, you pretty much know what’s coming, and sure enough she gets around to her references to her love life. We find out very late in the series that she and Madoka’s mom are drinking buddies, sort of, though that doesn’t really play any role that I can tell either.
Kyubey, the Incubator, is of course at the heart of this tale. A member of some exotic extraterrestrial race, they’ve somehow gotten it into their heads to fight against the work of entropy in our universe. It’s convenient for the story, if a little far-fetched. Kyubey is cast as a good guy, a villain, and then kind of neither by the time the series ends. Initially, we think he’s a simple catalyst for creating the magical girls. Somebody’s gotta play that role in this genre right? But the flashes to closeups on Kyubey’s impassive but mischievous face start to tell a different story pretty quickly. We immediately start to tell that beneath that kawaii exterior there’s something we’re not being told. By the time we learn what Kyubey really is and what his (her? its?) goals really are, we’re all pretty much ready to kill him. As things are explained to us more, his goals, if not his methods necessarily, become a little more understandable and justifiable. Nonetheless, this is only in the light of his race’s impassivity, or lack of emotion, and therefore lack of empathy. They view other races with practical curiosity. At one point Kyubey explains it using the example of how humans view livestock. It’s pretty cold, but he also notes that they do so with more deference to human sentience than how humans treat livestock. A little arrogant seemingly, but to them it’s just the way things are. In that way it’s a little more understandable.
But I should get on to the story section before I go too deeper into characters. Overall, I like these characters, especially Akemi, but they are not the aspect of this series that drives it forward. A little unusual for anime for sure, but they play their roles well and allow the story to do its work.
If I mention Monogatari anymore in this review it might feel like this is really about that series. But I can’t speak about the artwork without mentioning it. While it’s not nearly as abstract as Monogatari overall, it’s very similar in style. We see some pretty unusual presentations of reality. There’s the thing where some of the structures are unusually large and spacious, which is the most similar to Monogatari’s art. But it’s different in notable ways. In Monogatari, you see a ton of objects that are out of place or bizarrely placed. Here you don’t see that so much as just some of the scenery itself is somewhat unusual. And while you could say that about the staircases, for example, in Monogatari, it’s not the same here. I’ll use the classrooms as an example. You observe right away that all the classrooms are arranged in rows and columns with hallways all around them. The reason for this is that all the classrooms are glass-walled, designed to be visible from the outside from every angle. On top of that, they don’t have normal schooldesks. These are some kind of technological thing that folds into the floor for storage or, more notably, to show when a student is absent. While somewhere on this planet there might be classrooms with glass walls that are arranged in this bizarre manner, none of them have desks like this. It kind of puts this show out of time. By that I mean it seems like it could be in the future, but we don’t really have any reason beyond these strange classrooms to even think that, as everything else seems present day.
Something else I really like about this series: the coloring. Don’t mention Monogatari again! So I won’t. Actually, I don’t need to. The colors in this series do their own work, and so stand on their own. Remember, colors are a big deal in magical girl genre shows? Sailor Moon looks like a kid drew it, in a good way I mean, but still. When you see the dull colors of this show, you know you’re in for something different, considering the genre. Right away in episode 1 we get that flashback to one of the timeline instances of Walpurgisnacht (and that super memorable song, I should mention aside here), and you know this isn’t going to be Sailor Moon.
They could have stopped there. But they didn’t. Let’s consider Sailor Moon one more time for purposes of an example. Bright, bright, bright, shiny, beautiful eyes. Too big and shiny in some ways, but that’s how that series helps define this genre. Look at the eyes again in the pictures scattered on this page. What’s with all those black and gray lines? The eyes in this series are nearly the antithesis of life and energy. They are somewhat dull and even the color is not very lively. This might explain the copious amount of tears we see on the girls, as the eyes will naturally lack expression when done this way. But I love this in this series. Yes anime characters are all about eyes. But even so, as “unremarkable” as these eyes are relative to the average anime eyes, it serves its purpose quite well. This is not your normal magical girl anime! And these eyes leave you no uncertainty about that.
He’s nuts, you’re saying to yourself. He said the artwork isn’t nearly as abstract as Monogatari. Wait, now I’m mentioning Monogatari, you’re thinking! How can he ignore the zany abtract labyrinths created by the majo? I’m not, just it’s in the surreal realm, whereas Monogatari takes reality much more into the abstract. These scenes are just crazy bizarre, even a little unsettling. They all kind of have a theme, which is interesting, but overall they’re just so strange there isn’t even much I can add to comment on them. I guess imagine a palace from Persona with the trappings of Mob Psycho 100 in a Monogatari kind of style. It is what it is, interesting if confusing. It has its contribution.
The art serves this series well. While not necessarily what we think of as beautiful in anime, for it to add to the characters and story in the manner it does takes a great deal of artistic ability and care in design. Like in Monogatari, it has a unique interest, and beauty, in that sense.
Rarely are animes powered by their stories. Either interesting but short episodic arcs or long, twisting storylines serve as the base from which characters and art blossom. In Madoka’s case, the story carries from the first scene to the last, and keeps your attention to the last moment that everything is resolved. Even the best of Hollywood movies don’t always do this as well as Madoka does.
It’s about magical girls right? Their adventures as they fight evil witches and make lifelong friends and experience fairytale endings, right? Yes, and no. Yes it’s about magical girls, but really it’s only about two of them. Yes it’s about adventures, but not fun and exciting ones. Indeed, we’re reminded many times by the veteran magical girls that their work is dangerous. Yes it’s about fighting witches, but the witches are not what you expect. Yes it’s about making lifelong friends, only their lives don’t last very long once they become friends. Yes it’s about fairytale endings, but in the most bizarre of fairytales you can imagine.
I’ll take a chance here and say that, while this story makes great use of all those typical magical girl tropes, this story is about the friendship between two girls. For all the clever plays on these tropes I mentioned above, this story is simply a new take on an old genre if you don’t add the element of Madoka and Homura’s friendship. Because when you’re watching the show, and it finally dawns on you what’s happening here, just before Kyubey observes it and the extended flashback explains it, that’s when the greatness of this anime hits you. Because as powerful as twists on this genre are, and as sad as the fates of the various characters are, there is nothing so heartbreaking in this series, and one could make the case in anime generally, as Homura’s timeline jumping and subsequent emotional outpouring to Madoka. Your heart recalls some of its deepest pain when Homura finally breaks down and embraces her dearest friend, her only friend, Madoka. All the deaths she saw her die, all the futile changes in approach, and the useless accumulation of knowledge that transform Homura from a timid girl just out of the hospital to a monster slaying, cold-hearted, mature-before-her-time human being are devastating to the viewer when you finally realize what’s been happening.
And it doesn’t get any better from there. We get down to it. This show is about Madoka right? How she becomes the most powerful magical girl and defeats the ultimate witch, Walpurgisnacht (another strange take on another strange Western legend makes an appearance in a Shaft anime) and makes the world a better place? Well yeah, but also…hell no. We learn several important things about Madoka as the show’s magnificent plot unfolds. First, something quite strange happens in this show: we don’t see Madoka, the main character and the “strongest magical girl,” actually become a magical girl until the last episode or two. Kind of like in Tokyo Ghoul, you’re sitting there watching all these episodes go by and wondering when, or if, she’s ever going to make the transition. This adds a ton of suspense. Second, early on in Homura’s flashbacks, we see Madoka lying dead at the hands of Walpurgisnacht. But Kyubey told us she was strong enough to defeat Walpurgisnacht, strong enough to “change the fabric of the universe.” Seeing her dead sets off all kinds of alarms in our heads. Then we see that, as the flashbacks progress chronologically, Madoka suddenly is able to overcome Walpurgisnacht, at one point with “one shot.”
And then we learn why. As we suspected, Homura’s time jumping has made Madoka so central to everything that she’s become superpowered in her potential. Hmm, sounds really contrived. They call it “the threads of fate” or something cliche like that. But it works really well here. No matter what you call it, it makes just enough sense that if Madoka is the center of everything Homura is trying to achieve, it might have some inexplicable effect on her. And, more importantly, it demonstrates not only her centrality to this story, but also her importance to Homura. She has become everything to Homura. Everything is about her.
And so the sadness and depression reaches a new height. Because for all of Homura’s work, its reward is that, while she can ultimately save her friend, she will be separated from her in a bizarre and indefinite way, not essentially much different than her dying. Madoka can finally see what her best friend has really gone through for her, and all the magical girls are ultimately saved from the fate the Kyubeys of the universe have brought upon them. But Homura is left with only the memory of her. On top of that, she’s the only person who can remember her.
So the fairytale comes to a happy end. The magical girls are all saved from an inescapable fate. But Madoka’s gone, no one remembers her or knows what she did for them, everybody that died before still dies, and Homura is left alone with nothing but a memory.
When I first finished watching this anime, it took me several days to get over this sadness. Partly I think the surreality of Madoka transcending her existence into something else kind of played a part in this, but mostly it was just the devastating unhappiness of this show. Rewatching it thereafter, I see all these little careful twists and intricate yet simple threads that run through the story, and yet above it all I feel the pain of this anime. It’s a magical girl anime right? Everything ends happy, right? Yes, but then again, most certainly, definitely, no. And there’s nothing that can make it better.
That is the power of this series. It’s emotionally devastating almost entirely due to the story. From the first scene to the last, things hold together and don’t transform into something it wasn’t initially, and it all fits together perfectly. It utilizes the convenient and the bizarre and the inexplicable perfectly. And even while it has the interesting twist on the “happy ending,” and therefore has some shred of happiness in it overall, there’s no helping the complete sadness you feel at the end of it. The sadness builds through every stab to the heart we suffer in this show. From Mami’s shocking death, to Sayaka’s depression and devolution, to Homura’s unhappy saga, to Madoka’s transcendence and disappearance, it just gets worse and worse and worse. All the tears the girls do cry don’t seem like enough once it’s over.
Not many series can make this kind of a claim. Attack on Titan is very similar in the sense that no matter what happens, their unhappy situation not only never improves, but it usually gets more depressing with every new turn. The inevitability of Kaori’s death in Your Lie in April weighs heavily on you that whole show, as you see her health struggles and the pain it causes her and everyone around her, and then when she does die there’s not much left for you to feel anymore. There’s just emptiness. If any of you have seen White Album, both seasons, while that’s drama and sad because of the strong emotions the characters experience, and in some ways is even sadder than Madoka, it’s still not tragic sad. Re:Zero is the poster child in anime for having to watch someone you love die over and over, and its sadness is excruciating in that regard, but the whole show itself isn’t devastating because of that. Most of the characters die in Akame ga Kill, but those are more heroes’ deaths, and while crushing, we know that they went into it with that expectation. And they’re not middleschool girls. Nothing I’ve ever seen approaches the level of unhappiness the characters of Madoka experience, express, and transmit to us the viewer.
For all these reasons, the interesting twist on the genre, the clever storyline, the perfect use of the characters and art to aid in the storytelling, and its extraordinary ability to produce such extreme emotions in viewers, this is probably a top 10 anime all time. I know people don’t tend to put such short series up that high on rankings, and I understand that argument, but even at that rate it’s top 20, beyond dispute. This is a magnificent example of anime, and a must-see. From the most masochistic lovers of sadness to the most exuberant enthusiast, all anime lovers should experience the power of this show. You will never regret it, and you will never forget it.