Madoka Magica

I won’t lie, this review is definitely coming from a place of personal bias, at least in part. Madoka Magica is a show that I have criticized pretty ruthlessly ever since I first watched it many years ago—at the time, I came away from it after marathoning the entire thing with my anime club (which needless to say I am not a part of anymore because I grew up) feeling pretty underwhelmed and annoyed with the constant melodrama. Since watching it all that time ago I had pretty much forgotten the vast majority of what actually happens in the show and was getting to the point where I felt I didn’t really have a leg to stand on when criticizing it (which I expressed during my review of Mahou Shoujo Site), so now in the wake of that I recently decided to sit down and give it another go, trying to remain as impartial as I could and be as fair to the show as possible—sure I have my biases, but I like to think my criticisms have some basis and I’m making an effort not to attack Madoka Magica for no good reason. With all that said, what even is Madoka Magica? For the few of you who haven’t already heard of it, Madoka Magica is a very popular and well-known twist on the Magical Girl subgenre that tries to turn the traditional magical girl formula on its head, a dark show about girls being tricked and manipulated by alien entities into eventually despairing and becoming malevolent entities called Witches for the sake of combating entropy and trying to prevent the heat death of the universe. It sounds really fucking cool in theory, but how’s the execution? Disclaimer before we begin: Like I said in my review of Tokyo Ghoul (which is significantly worse than this in all fairness), this is my totally honest opinion and I am seriously not trying to shit-talk Madoka Magica just to stand out here, I sincerely wish I enjoyed it more than I do considering how much I liked Mahou Shoujo Site (which I recommend you to go and watch if the concept of Madoka Magica sounds at all interesting to you, it does it better. Also, this review is gonna be filled with spoilers, my apologies). The first thing you’ll notice when watching Madoka Magica is that for its time, it had very high production values; the artwork is unique and heavily stylized, the animation is excellent, the music is mostly good (I’ll touch more on the music later though) and you can easily tell the animation studio behind it put a serious amount of effort into making the whole thing visually appealing. But despite Madoka Magica (with the full name of “Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica” or “Puella Magi Madoka Magica”) being very flashy and visually impressive, the writing severely damages the experience and makes it feel hollow and emotionally weightless. Firstly, I want to talk about the concept of the show and how it has been described by others as being “subversive”. I flatly disagree with this and I think that if they genuinely were trying to make Madoka Magica subversive, they failed to do so in a big way. A good chunk of what’s going to inevitably happen in Madoka Magica feels extremely obvious and easy to see coming—yes, this was my second time watching the show but even I managed to correctly predict several things I had completely forgotten about. So many of the show’s dark, “hidden” elements are so obviously foreshadowed that the show doesn’t feel subversive at all, I would go as far as to argue anybody who is genuinely shocked by Mami’s death in the third episode or surprised that the show is a dark twisted take on the magical girl subgenre as opposed to an actual magical girl show is either an idiot, or simply isn’t paying attention at all (which, to be fair, I can understand). It very clearly tries to blindside you but just doesn’t do it well, Mami’s death in particular is a weak moment despite the fact that it’s supposed to be a huge twist and set the tone for the rest of the show. In general, I felt very emotionally detached from everything happening onscreen and found the characters here to be almost entirely unlikeable and annoying to the point where I actually found myself sympathizing with Kyubey for a significant portion of the show (though not all of it); yes, ladies and gentlemen, this time around I actually agree with my significantly younger self that Madoka Magica is melodramatic as hell. Before we talk about that, though, one major thing I forgot about this show before rewatching it is that it’s actually very action-oriented, so much so that I felt like I was watching an over-the-top shonen battle as opposed to the psychological thriller/horror anime that Madoka Magica is supposed to be. Honestly there are almost no horror elements whatsoever and I found that in particular extremely disappointing, especially with how many parallels there are to be drawn between this show and Re:Zero or even Steins;Gate (both of which are far better shows by the way and put this one to shame). Honestly, “over-the-top” is a good way to describe the whole show. Ultimately, I think the focus on trying to incorporate flashy action sequences, super visually impressive but busy backdrops and setpieces (to the point where they decide it’s a good idea to fucking flashbang you in the first few episodes, fuck you whoever put that in by the way), keep things moving at a fast pace where it feels like everything is just a convenient excuse for the aforementioned action scenes and generally just over-dramatize everything is the primary thing that brings the show to its knees here. Aside from the actual quality of the writing, over-dramatization is the key as to why this show and its characters don’t work in the way they’re meant to. Too much effort has been put into trying to make the major characters “cool” or “mysterious” as opposed to sympathetic or written with actual depth and personality, which is a big part of the reason why Mami’s eventual death feels… well, it doesn’t really make you feel anything, actually. It has zero impact and doesn’t serve the purpose it’s supposed to of being the turning point the show spends its first three boring yet somehow-still-fast-paced episodes building towards, essentially an entire hour of runtime all converging on this single disappointing moment very obviously punctuated by the fact the ending song changes permanently to be more overtly dark immediately after it happens. Now, you could argue when talking about the characters and their individual arcs that yes, Madoka Magica is supposed to be a show about the emotional vulnerability of young girls and how it’s abused by a villain incapable of understanding human emotion for the sake of trying to combat entropy, and yes, there’s a point to be made there about how the characters are intentionally written as being flawed for the sake of fitting into that theme. But that is simply not an excuse for the characters to be as unlikeable and poorly written as they are here! Sayaka, one of the central characters in the story, is absolutely unbearably annoying and her entire character arc is executed so badly that you simply can’t empathize with or pity her at all—she ends up being the one solely responsible for all of the suffering she experiences, trapped in a constant fucking pity party where she flagellates herself unnecessarily with zero consideration for how anybody else feels or whether or not they care about her life or death, makes a complete ass out of herself and ultimately ends up causing the death of by far the only likeable major character in the entire show, Kyouko. Madoka, the protagonist, is an annoying stereotypical Mary Sue with no depth who basically does nothing for the show’s whole runtime until the very end where she becomes a god as a final culmination of numerous different extremely convenient plot devices; essentially, because Homura continues to turn back time over and over trying to save Madoka from becoming a magical girl and ultimately dying or destroying the world, they try to explain that Madoka becomes more powerful each time because multiple different timelines all converge on Madoka and connect her to more threads of fate. Yeah, if you couldn’t already guess, this is complete bullshit, makes zero sense and is just an elaborate, nonsensical excuse as to why Madoka gets the Mary Sue power to become a god and ostensibly fix everything at the end of the show despite being useless and annoying leading up to that point, an absolute anime protagonist stereotype that spends every waking moment being wide-eyed and dumbfounded by everything, perpetually paralyzed by indecision—if the protagonist of Tokyo Ghoul eventually becomes ghoul Jesus, Madoka becomes witch Jesus. Speaking of Homura by the way, she’s supposed to be the second most central character in the story with her time-traveling shenanigans acting as one of the final major plot twists, but my God the execution of her character arc is terrible. Firstly, there is absolutely nothing stopping Homura from just being honest and telling Madoka exactly what’s going on and what the stakes are without leaving any illusions as to the reality of their situation, yet she decides instead to be intentionally vague and mysterious because I don’t know, fuck you, that’s why! They try and explain this away a couple of times by having her complain about how nobody ever believes what she says, but this is absolutely stupid—there’s a reason why in Re:Zero Subaru is unable to tell anybody what’s actually going on between different timelines because that would ruin it. In this case, nothing is preventing Homura from doing this and trying to imply that nobody believes her when she tries this is fucking ridiculous, why wouldn’t they believe her?! They’re already aware of the existence of the supernatural, so there’s absolutely no reason why they should consider Homura’s situation as being outside the realm of possibility, especially in Madoka’s case! But of course they can’t have Homura act based upon any sort-of intelligent thought because you know, plot has to plot no matter how fucking convenient it is. Like I said earlier, Homura’s entire character is essentially assassinated because the writers decided it would be better to make her into this over-the-top edgy kuudere instead of actually trying to make her seem sympathetic and human until right at the end where they decide now is an appropriate time to reveal that she’s actually a time traveller and has emotions despite the fact she’s been portrayed as being emotionally detached for the entire show up to this point! In general, I think that there was actually a lot of potential here for the writers to tell a good story and we can see based on Kyouko’s character arc that they actually are capable of writing something relatively compelling; Kyouko is down-to-earth, reasonable, genuinely compassionate despite putting on the appearance of being cold and harsh which gives her far more depth than the rest of the cast, actually sympathetic, and ultimately sacrifices herself for the sake of Sayaka in one of the few scenes throughout the entire show where I actually had even the smallest emotional connection to what I was watching. At the end of the day though, while Kyouko’s character arc is well written she is the least important of all the major characters in the story and her plotline is inevitably wrapped up in Sayaka’s plot line, resulting in her premature and genuinely tragic death; somebody get #JusticeForKyouko trending on Twitter this instant, I swear. All you can think about after Kyouko sacrifices herself and gets killed tragically alongside Sayaka is that Sayaka caused her death and doesn’t deserve pity, much less Kyouko’s selfless sacrifice and genuinely tragic unrequited affection. Getting back to the point though, this is a clear indication that the writers actually can write, but it feels like they chose to focus on subject matter that they didn’t understand how to actually make into a compelling story. Many of the dark themes in Madoka Magica feel like they’re being approached with a surprising lack of maturity. I mean for god’s sake, we’re told early on in the third episode that magical girls hunt down witches by targeting areas where attempted suicides are more frequent so they can find people cursed by witches and track them to wherever that particular witch is hiding, followed by a girl trying to jump off a building and kill herself. Despite the extremely dark nature of that subject matter, the whole thing doesn’t feel as though it’s being taken seriously at all and is instead portrayed as being a heroic, feel-good moment where the magical girls show up and save the day, though I suppose you could argue that’s an accidental fault of the show’s poor direction. Honestly, I was surprised how poor a job the show actually does of trying to be overtly dark and really drive home its dark elements after the twist of Mami’s death—you could argue that the fact they try not to make things too grimdark and aim for suspense instead of shock is a good thing, and to an extent I would agree with that, but I think anybody going into a show billed as being a dark and brutal twist on its original subgenre classified as being a psychological thriller is probably hoping for things to be at least a bit more gruesome and real. Instead, it feels like the show tries to be clean and more magical-girl-esque; they’re definitely trying to contrast the subject matter of their narrative against the clean visuals and opt instead of making things violent to aim for the visual contrast between the real world and the labyrinths, but I just don’t think they do a particularly good job of it, at least in the former case—the labyrinths are actually mostly cool, especially earlier on, even if they can be too visually busy and difficult to digest at times with eye-straining filters and effects used to try and excessively stylize them. I mentioned a little earlier that I wasn’t a fan of Madoka Magica’s direction, and my god it is annoying. This show is another I can add to my ever-expanding list of those which commit the cardinal sin of the music never shutting the fuck up. Now, I don’t think the music itself is bad—it’s actually pretty solid and acceptable if a bit pretentious—but they make the horrible decision to play all of the wrong tracks at all of the wrong times constantly, never letting up on the gas pedal and trying real hard to annoy you as much as humanly possible (granted I don’t think they suffer from this issue nearly as much as Tokyo Ghoul did, this was a little more tame by comparison). Aside from just the music being annoying, I wasn’t a fan of the way they actually constructed many of their scenes either—random asides are taken to focus on things like reflective raindrops or teardrops and try to make things more pretentious for whatever reason, sometimes the camera flips out and switches between like 5 or 6 different camera angles over the course of 2 seconds, and often we get dramatic close-ups on characters punctuated by sting sound effects where they say some over-dramatic edgy line or make an anime grunt (not to mention the sheer amount of times where the camera zooms in on Madoka’s face and her eyes widen in shock, it is embarrassing the number of times they do this and it really highlights the issues with her character, somebody start a counter for god’s sake). While the action scenes are excellently animated and mostly done well, I think the choreography is okay at best and kind-of undercuts the clear skill shown by the animation team here, though this is minor and for the most part I thought the action scenes were cool and would be far more entertaining if they actually had gripping narrative context. Speaking of the narrative, it goes beyond just being over-the-top and melodramatic, it’s also incredibly convenient and very poorly thought out. At the show’s halfway point, they reveal that magical girls have their souls transformed into these things called “Soul Gems”, essentially removing their soul from their bodies and giving it a physical form which allows the magical girl to fight without feeling extreme pain, heal their bodies more easily and use Grief Seeds obtained from witches in order to replenish their magical power and prevent their own eventual transformation into a witch. Honestly though, you can safely ignore everything I just said aside from the fact that the soul is being stored independently of the external body, which for some reason is a huge moral quandary that the main cast all whine about, lamenting that they’ve been turned into zombies or puppets without their knowledge. Why?! Why does this matter at all? It’s pure fucking semantics! Who cares about where your soul is physically if the human experience you’re having is exactly the same?! And as I mentioned earlier, eventually magical girls turn into witches when those Soul Gems become too polluted by negative emotions. That plot point is introduced later along with the whole concept of aliens using magical girls in order to combat entropy by purposefully targeting the emotionally unstable so that they eventually turn into witches and release a bunch of emotional energy, which is also a super shocking revelation that’s actually understandable; why not wait until the main cast know that for them to feel betrayed and turn on Kyubey as opposed to trying to force a divide earlier because, what, the soul of a magical girl is a physical object? Wow, real fuckin’ scary! Kyubey himself, while definitely not a good guy, is far from being the machiavellian evil schemer the show tries to paint him as, especially when he explains himself that his people don’t even really understand the human concepts of manipulation or deception and that in general, the Incubators have done their best to be accommodating towards humanity and treat them as a fellow sentient species while also harboring great respect towards the value their emotions have for the many other intelligent lifeforms throughout the universe as a way to combat its eventual heat death. But no, he’s depicted as being a heartless, emotionless villain who’s been pulling strings and trying to do villain things the whole time, despite the fact he’s actually the one technically responsible for granting Madoka’s wish and ostensibly fixing everything about the dynamic between magical girls and witches come the end of the show. Lemme explain what I mean by ostensibly fixing everything since I said that same thing earlier; when Madoka gets her wish granted by Kyubey and becomes a god, she uses her power in order to traverse through the past, present and future of every timeline and draw the soul pollution of every magical girl into herself before their Soul Gems are totally corrupted, then destroy the Soul Gem, killing the magical girl and forever preventing any of them from undergoing that transformation. As a result of this, Madoka’s newfound realization of the universe becomes an alternate reality where magical girls still exist, bound by the so-called “Way of the Cycle” where when a magical girl’s Soul Gem runs out of energy or is corrupted by too many negative emotions, Madoka sucks the negative energy into her own body (or rather she already has because she’s omnipresent and has already traversed through all of time) and the Soul Gem is destroyed, killing the magical girl and sparing her from the fate of becoming a witch. Instead of witches, in this new version of the universe there are things called “Wraiths”, and while it’s not directly explained these are essentially just witches that are split off from Madoka’s body and periodically unleashed upon the world; essentially, because she can’t erase all of the negative energy that she’s absorbing as the result of her wish, she instead quite literally becomes every single witch that has ever existed and that ever will exist across all of time and is trapped in a constant, never-ending cycle of torment, being forced to experience the collective negative emotions of millions or even billions of magical girls across fucking spacetime, torturing them herself by unleashing those negative emotions upon the world eternally so that magical girls can continue to collect them in order to combat entropy and the previously existing timeline of Madoka’s original universe can be preserved. So, let’s review; Madoka becomes a “concept of hope”, an omnipresent and omniscient martyr god who exists in order to prevent witches from being born by suffering eternally and unleashing manifestations of negative energy upon the world that magical girls still have to fight for the sake of preventing the universe’s heat death, meaning that all of the suffering they endure still happens the exact same way it did before with the only difference being that now they don’t become witches anymore; instead, all of the “wraiths” (aka just witches with a different name all originating from the same source) are now born directly from Madoka in an endless, repeating cycle which Homura goes so far as to call “A cycle of sadness and hatred that, even so, Madoka wanted to protect.” This ending is far from being fulfilling, especially when it’s very clearly shown that the deaths of magical girls do not result in their erasure from existence—at first I thought this was probably the case based on the fact that their souls are given physical form and then literally either destroyed or transformed into Grief Seeds in which case their energy is used by other magical girls, but no, their souls still remain after their deaths in a state where they’re recognizable as the same people they were prior to death, shown by the fact that Madoka interacts with them postmortem after her ascension to godhood (I probably shouldn’t try to make too much sense out of all this anyways considering that aliens are using the emotions of teenage girls in order to combat the heat death of the universe, but hey, that’s anime for you). Back to the point though—because their souls aren’t actually erased after their Soul Gems are destroyed or even after they’re killed as witches in Sayaka’s case, honestly the fact they aren’t turned into witches doesn’t even change much other than a slight reduction in the torment the magical girls have to experience and just ends up giving way to a slightly different endless cycle of death and rebirth—in short, none of this shit matters! What was the point of watching the show in the first place if the only takeaway they’re going to give me is ham-fisted into the end credits sequence where they flash text onscreen that boils down to “somebody’s always fighting for you therefore you’re never alone”, sure that’s a fine takeaway and it connects to the plot, but there is so much more potential here that hasn’t been tapped into at all, especially in regards to human emotions being used to combat entropy by aliens who are preying upon magical girls and tormenting them without even the capability to understand that there’s an ethical dilemma in what they’re doing. If they wanted to take that concept and use it to tell a story about humanity and the human experience (which they clearly do considering the writer makes a point about how the Incubators don’t understand “human values” and basically tries to paint himself as being an authority on what exactly that constitutes), take some cues from other stories like Re:Zero, or Mahou Shoujo Site, or even Mistborn for god’s sake which is an especially apt comparison when considering that story centers around the very same themes of hope and the human will that Madoka Magica does! There are so many ridiculous plot contrivances here, so many melodramatic scenes, so many hollow action sequences, stupid plot points and terrible lines of dialogue that it absolutely fucking kills me, I could go on and on for hours about everything this show gets wrong. The focus on the vulnerability of the magical girls within it is not an excuse for them and pretty much the entire show to be poorly written, and overall I had absolutely no interest in any of what happens in the show and felt that it was a wasted opportunity for them to make something genuinely great, what an absolute fucking shame. The pacing is also all over the place—sometimes it feels way too fast and it combined with the onscreen visuals was enough to give me sensory overload, and other times it’s slow and boring; when it goes too quickly, you don’t have any time to actually warm up to any of the characters, and when it slows down the writing isn’t good enough to make you care, so much so that I kept wondering when the next action scene would be because then at least I could stop taking constant notes, I took notes counting all the way up to almost 8,000 words constantly throughout like every episode because I just couldn’t stop myself from picking the entire show apart, motivated by frustration and boredom which extended my total time spent on this 12-episode snooze fest to like 9 or 10 hours, more than double its actual length—I should be watching Bocchi the Rock right now god damn it! Also I’m annoyed because LibreOffice crashed on me partway through this review and I had to re-write a few sections from memory which sucks, I really hate anytime my natural review process gets disrupted so I’m a little salty. Anyways, while Madoka Magica isn’t offensively bad or anything, I personally wasn’t a fan of it and I would have a hard time genuinely recommending it to anyone despite its high production values unless maybe you don’t care about story and just wanna watch magical girls hit things for a few hours—honestly though, if you want cool action sequences just go watch One Punch Man or Promare, those make Madoka Magica’s action scenes look like child’s play. Anyways I’m done, this has gotten to be longer than any of my other reviews and it’s gonna continue for even longer if I don’t stop now, also it’s like 11 in the morning and I have to drive to work at like 3 so I need to go the fuck to sleep now as per usual. Before I forget by the way, for some reason this show is a sci-fi set in the future where Madoka has, like, a holographic projection of a keyboard, her school has technologically advanced desks and Homura’s room is like, a blank white background upon which holograms of various images are being projected… what? Why? If you couldn’t already tell, this is completely irrelevant to the story and pulls you out immediately when you notice it—why didn’t they just set it in modern day to keep things grounded in reality? Whatever, man, I’m done. Pretty much the only reason I would recommend you try out Madoka Magica is the sheer staying power and popularity that it has, it’s a show big enough that I’d say it might be worth watching just for the experience assuming you actually care about that which I really don’t think anyone should, if I’m being honest—and before you say anything, it is totally fine if you like this show and I bear no ill will against anybody who does, I mean for god’s sake I said the same thing about Tokyo Ghoul even though I hated that show far more than this one which is actually at least somewhat decent in parts. Also, I am aware that there are movies for this series and more recent seasons of a spin-off called “Magia Record: Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica Gaiden”, but I have no interest in watching them and I’ve already spent too much time on this single 12-episode season as is. Justice for Kyouko, ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to bed.

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