Puella Magi Madoka Magica (魔法少女まどか★マギカ or just Madoka for my sanity) is a 12-episode magical girl show from 2011 written by Gen Urobachi (of Fate/Zero and Psycho-Pass fame) and produced by Studio SHAFT and look, this is one of the most popular and well known shows of the last decade.
Minor disclaimer for anyone who’s not seen the series, there are a ton of story beats which could be considered spoilers happening as early as episode 3. While I’ll avoid specifically calling them out, some will be addressed in some fashion or another so if you really are concerned about spoilers watch the series first.
14 year-old Madoka Kaname is a fairly ordinary girl except that shes recently been having strange dreams about watching a stranger fighting a monster during some kind of apocalyptic event. After that stranger, a girl named Homura Akemi, transfers into her school things take an even weirder turn when she meets a strange creature called Kyubey who offers to make her a magical girl to help fight against Witches which curse people in exchange for granting her wish, only for magical girl Homura to intervene and try to stop Kyubey warning Madoka not to make the contract. As Madoka and her friend Sayaka follow another magical girl around for a while to decide if they want to be one themselves, Homura keeps working to try and stop the potential end of the world itself.
Madoka as a series has a few key elements going for it which can be best summarized as its probably the most completely planned series ever. Urobachi wrote every episode and was the major creative force behind it and it shows as everything builds on other points so that every thread, no matter how small, comes together in the end. Watching this show while airing I would discuss it with some friends and we’d frequently come up with ideas that the characters should be doing, only to have later episodes explain that those ideas were already thought of and here’s why they don’t work. Even more impressively is that it does this while deconstructing the cliches of magical girl shows by taking tropes and aspects you expect to go one way and then pushing them into another direction to constantly keep the viewers off base.
In line with this is the overall design. There’s a lot of very subtle aspects the series doesn’t directly call out, such as having the real world be all bright open spaces with hard edged architectural designs (representing order) while the Witches realms are blurry, dark and confusing with characters that look like Terry Gilliam did them (representing chaos). The more things start to hit the fan later in the series the more scenes take place at night and in areas where the very setting becomes more and more confused or confiding as the two opposites merge, and thats the kind of directorial flourish you just don’t get from most shows. This extends to background art even, there’s graffiti which shows up in the Witches realms in the backgrounds and some fans decided to forcibly try to decode it eventually realizing that all of it is actually mostly quotes from operas (including Faust) which would help the characters immensely if only they could read the writing on the walls.
Then there’s the characters themselves who all manage to be pretty interesting with three standouts. Madoka is a very different lead than most magical girl shows since so much of the show is about her deciding to become a magical girl or not; Homura is arguably one of the most badass heroes in any show who’s given herself an impossible task and absolutely refuses to accept not being able to complete it; and Kyubey is a whole discussion on its own about whether they’re really good/evil or can even be judged by human standards.
Foremost the show is a deconstruction of the magical girl tropes, while it will make sense to anyone who hasn’t seen a lot of magical girl shows a lot of its twists do play on expectations so some impact is lost if youre not as intimately familiar with them. This is also a series that should not be binge watched, the plot has so much going on, and so many potential things to happen, its best to consume 1-2 episodes at a time and then take a little time to really consider or talk about those episodes so when the show pulls the rug out from under you later it will land harder.
The other thing to consider is what did this show do to the genre as a whole. Now magical girl shows have been fewer and far between for a while now since the end of the moe boom 15 years ago, and everything since Madoka came out has been trying to ape its tone in some way even though Madoka wasn’t the first “dark” magical girl show (Nanoha precedes it by about a decade and the Sailor Moon manga precedes that by another decade). Its hard to fault Madoka too much for this, except when you see how the entire genre is basically dooming itself in its efforts to be as dark or philosophical as this and well, you gotta knock something and even its own follow-up spin-offs can charitably be described as pale imitations. Also they made a sequel movie, Rebellion, which most fans would probably wish didn’t exist.
Weeb Level: 7/10- Again, this is just because of how much knowing about the tropes its playing off of will change your experience of it.
Fanservice: 1/10- Shockingly for a magical girl show there isn’t ever any transformation sequences.
Quality: 9.5/10- If not for my aversion to perfect scores this would probably make it. Im a sucker for well written stuff and this is too perfect in that regard.