Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica is the first in a new wave of promising, original TV-anime, and for a lot of fans from various sectors of the otaku fanbase, one of the most exciting. This anime was getting a lot of attention well before it started airing or even before the first promotional video was released, and it was attention well-deserved. You only have to look at the three big creative names involved in this anime to see why. You’ve got the prolific and enduringly popular Akiyuki Shinbou of studio SHAFT as director, the fascinating writer, Gen Urobuchi of Nitro+, who has given us game titles such as Fate/Zero and the gory Saya no Uta, and the venerated Ume Aoiki’s (Hidamari Sketch) doing character designs.
These three creative forces were united by famous producer, Iwakami Atsuhiro (Bakemonogatari, Kara no Kyoukai) with the goal of making an original magical girl anime. Akiyuki’s Shinbou already has one under his belt in this genre (Nanoha), but this is his first original anime with studio SHAFT, and the inclusion of Gen Urobuchi’s story and scripts as well as Ume Aoiki’s designs had everyone wondering just what kind of magical girl anime this would turn out to be. While Akiyuyki Shinbou is involved at the creative level, Yukihiro Miyamoto is doing the groundwork as ‘series director’, who will probably bring a resilient schedule to the table (his work was effective on Arakawa and Maria Holic). Meanwhile, another famous name appears, this time under the composer credit: Yuki Kajiura (.Hack//Sign, Noir, Kara no Kyoukai). Make no mistake, this is an anime of interesting pedigree, and has the potential to be significant.
On a personal note though, I was never particularly excited about this anime. I’m not a SHAFT fan to any degree (in fact I’ve more or less given up watching their anime), and the same goes for Akiyuki Shinbou (although I like a handful of his works). Having Yukihiro Miyamoto as series director, to my mind, is basically a guarantee that it will end up feeling much like a typical SHAFT series, eye close-ups and silly framing included. In fact, I’m not fond of Ume Aoiki either, in terms of his character designing skills anyway. Then there’s Yuki Kajiura, from whom I haven’t really heard an OST I’ve cared for since .Hack! It’s not that I’m overly negative, but Madoka Magica, by pure chance, gathered a set of staff I don’t like but everyone else seems to love! There’s one exception: Gen Urobuchi! I really appreciate his storytelling abilities, and my curiosity to see how he’ll spin a magical girl tale is really the one thing that’s got me tempted by Madoka Magica! But enough about the backstory, Madoka Magica aired last night, so now we can go beyond just speculation!
So, how did it turn out? My overall thoughts on the episode were fairly positive, but I didn’t feel like it was something special. The first episode pulled my interest with a pretty interesting script, which combined cross-dimensional mystery with the obligatory cliches of any good magical girl story. Although it’s hard to say where it will go, Gen Urobochi has proven himself to be fit for the anime industry! The characterisation was pretty appealing all-round. The loud characters include a sexually frustrated homeroom teacher and Madoka’s sexy office-lady mother. Meanwhile, Madoka herself gives off a cute, wholesome aura which is required for a good magical girl. Her friends have had a little dialogue and so far just seem to be typical friends, and the villain of the piece, the bad magical girl, Akemi Homura, has been too quiet to pinpoint just yet. The seiyuu cast for these girls is pretty impressive! Chiwa Saitou (as Homura) has long been one of my favourites, Aoi Yuki has the vibe of a rising star and is utterly adorable as Madoka, and Emiri Katou (previously, Kagami) is always a welcome addition to any cast list!
In terms of production quality – the standard was, unsurprisingly, good. Although I’m not a SHAFT fan, this was a high-profile series and I fully expected them, with the production power of Aniplex, to pull together a strong staff of animators and artists. The animation is well above average, with a few stand-out pieces of actor animation and the general sense that a large number of drawings went into the episode. There hasn’t been much in the way of fight sequences to show off the action animation yet, but there were a few glimpses of good effect animation. Hironori Tanaka, one of my favourite animators, was credited as a key animator this episode, which I was surprised to see because, unlike usual, I couldn’t easily spot his cut(s). Ryouma Ebata (Birdy II ep 8 and Macross F ep4) was the animation director this episode, and he did a good job. Most interesting to me was the storyboard, which was done by Yoshiharu Ashino, the director of the amazing Mahou Shoujo Tai Arusu! The episode director was series director, Yukihiro Miyamoto, who no doubt is to be thanked for some of the SHAFT-isms that appear. The involvement of Gekidan Inu Curry was interesting to see. Their cut-out style animation rendered the alternate world that Madoka and her friend stumbled into with the appropriate strangeness, but I did feel that it looked a little out of place, probably because the rest of the show is so traditional.
But, animation aside, the art direction and visual design kind of turned me off. The colours are bright and washed-out which gives it a rather dull, sterile feel. The background art is uninspired. The characters themselves look good, and I like some of the interesting line-work they’ve used on the cels. This is most obvious on their eyes, where sketch-lines are added to give it more of a texture than just straight colour. It’s a nice look, except perhaps when the faces are too close to the screen and the eyes look a bit lifeless. The music, on the other hand, was great! While I don’t go crazy over Yuki Kajiura’s music, I have to admit that it adds a certain flavour to an anime, especially when the BGM is used well (which is the case here).
In conclusion, Madoka Magica is an interesting and well-produced anime with a lot of unspent potential up its sleeve with the involvement of Gen Urobochi. The first episode didn’t have as much of an impact as it could have thanks to some classic SHAFT direction approaches and a flat visual style. I liked Madoka herself, the premise, the seiyuu cast, the music, and the animation, but it lacks a certain atmosphere to really grab me.
The opening song is done by ClariS who recently did the Ore no Imouto opening. Sadly, it’s not nearly as catchy, but I guess it does the job. The animation that accompanies it is really nice however, with cuts contributed by a handful of skillfull animators such as Kenichi Kutsuna, Takashi Mukouda, Genichirou Abe, and Imamura. It also has a certain sexiness to it, which I enjoy. The pink and warm hues of the OP are really great!