It’s the morning after the climactic and earth-shattering Walpurgis Night, which has been redefined as the fateful eve on which the final two episodes of Madoka Magica aired. The smoke is starting to clear and the rampant anticipation has turned to chatter and reflection on one of the most memorable anime of the last couple of years. The amazon preorders for the BD releases are burgeoning, and the internet is overrun with Madoka talk. The anime has many fans, and plenty of haters, but no one can deny that it has attracted a lot of attention. But it’s nothing special for an anime to attract attention. The thing that makes Madoka Magica such an impressive success is that, as an original anime with no guaranteed audience, it pulled people in not with moe characters or fanservice, but with the strength of its creative storytelling. Sure, you could argue that it has cute girls in it, but after the tragedy and intense drama that came with the second half of the show, it’d be hard to argue that it’s a moe anime, or that anyone is buying it because of the cute characters. Just trying to argue that would make you look like an ANN-level idiot. This is a vastly successful original TV-anime which made its mark from straying outside the boundaries of genre and taking risks by presenting dark and shocking twists and turns. Because of that, this is an important achievement. It shows that, contrary to the ignorant ramblings of ANN editors and their cohort, the anime industry has a lot of life left in it!
To underscore the significance of Madoka Magica, let me repost my original musings on it:
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.
I’m not too sure how that resilient schedule turned out, but the rest of my hopes for this anime came true and actually far exceeded my expectations. This is mostly a victory for Gen Urobochi, who is quickly becoming one of the most well known anime writers around. Madoka is his break-through. He’s already working on his next anime project! It was his inspired story ideas and dramatic characterisation that made Madoka Magica something special. The plot of Madoka Magica toyed with the fabric of reality and the rules of the universe, presenting a character-driven tale involving time-travel, alien morality, and entropy, all woven into the deceptive theme of being a “Magical Girl” anime. Many of the staple Mahou Shoujou themes were turned on their head, QB is just one example: going from classical mahou shoujou mascot to iconic villain. Gen Urobochi engages viewers, shocks them and toys with their expectations. That was true for his earlier work, and it’s true here. Even though I expected some unusual twists, I didn’t expect Madoka Magica to turn out nearly as interesting as it did.
As for the production.. well, I can’t really discredit Shaft when they’ve made Madoka into such a huge hit, but they certainly could have and should have handled this better. It was clear from certain comments and tweets from staff that the schedule was frantic, and the animation quality was often not up to very high standards. Some of the best parts of the anime in terms of animation were thanks to outsourcing (e.g to GoHands in episode 10). The involvement of Gekidan Inu Curry was something I hadn’t originally thought much of, but their imprint on Madoka Magica was pretty big. They are responsible for the textural, cut-out fantastical which worlds that appeared every episode. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t a fan of their work here, at least most of the time. At times, the mixture of this cut-out animation and the standard drawings was used to great effect, but other times things just looked kinda silly. The music by Yuki Kajiura did bring a lot to the table, but I don’t think it was enough. At least, it wasn’t a return to the standards of her early days. As I’m not a fan of his, Ume Aoiki’s designs didn’t do much for me either. However, regardless of how they looked, the performances of the cast turned them into excellent characters, particularly in the case of Homura and Kyouko. Chiwa Saitou’s performance as Homura was worthy of a standing ovation, especially in these last few episodes.
Ultimately, Madoka Magica is not a technical triumph, but a triumph of storytelling, which united most of the anime fandom and hooked its viewers. One thing I noticed is that Madoka’s fandom is highly energized and creative. Every day on 2channel there are images of figures that people have created, or impressive pieces of fanart. Even flash games were cropping up left, right and centre! There’s also a lot of humour in the Madoka fandom, parodying the more shocking moments of the show such as Mami losing her head, or the amoral ways of QB. In a way, this feels more like the older kinda of otaku, who lived off imagination, creativity and escapism. This is in contradistinction to the feeling I generally get from the Keion fandom, which is heavily based around consumerism and character moe. While this isn’t nearly as significant for anime as something like Evangelion, I still feel like it’s leading the charge in a rivitalisation of this kind of daring and original anime. Or at least, I hope that’s the case.
Madoka may not be my favourite anime of the year, but it has been quite a ride, and I appreciate its success. Can we have more original anime again now, and tedius slice-of-life adaptations? I think we will.
On the last two episodes:
The time delay really didn’t matter in the end did it? I didn’t rewatch past episodes or anything, but as soon as episode 11 started I was right back in the game. I found the final episode to be somewhat disappointing, but I’m having trouble of thinking why that is. I actually found that episode 11 impacted me much more strongly. Maybe the end was just a little too meta and abstract and didn’t have the climactic feel I was hoping. In any case, Chiwa Saitou almost bought tears to my eyes with her performance, and the last two episodes delivered some great stuff. I still thing episode 10 was my favourite of the show.