The Madoka Project: Introduction to Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Anime fans need no introduction to Puella Magi Madoka Magica. One of the most popular and acclaimed anime series of the 2010s, it proved an instant hit, reviving the largely moribund Magical Girl genre and showing how dark, female-driven stories could be fitted into familiar formats. A decade after its initial release, Madoka Magica remains immensely popular in Japan, which recently saw a tenth anniversary exhibit celebrating the series; a ream of spinoffs, from manga to a long-running magazine to videogames and a sequel series continue to this day. 

Synopsis: Puella Magi Madoka Magica follows Madoka Kaname,1 an ordinary adolescent who’s unwittingly swept into the world of Magical Girls – young women adorned with magical powers to fight reality-warping “Witches.” Madoka Magica recasts the Magical Girl’s transformation as a Faustian pact with Kyubey,2 an emotionless cat-like alien with ulterior motives for offering humans unlimited power. Madoka is restrained from making her pact by the mysterious Homura Akemi,3 though her impulsive friend Sayaka Miki4 (wishing to save the boy she loves from a devastating injury) takes the plunge with tragic results. The narrative also introduces Mami Tomoe,5 the magical mentor who shows Madoka and Sayaka how to get ahead, and bad girl Kyoko Sakura,6 constantly munching junk food and issuing cynical advice between battles. The series transforms from Sailor Moon-style adventures to heavy explorations of survivor’s guilt, the nature of selfishness (and selflessness), a person’s individual worth and the nature of hope in a bleak and despairing world.

Puella Magi. From left to right: Mami, Sayaka, Madoka, Kyoko and Homura

Produced by Studio Shaft, Madoka Magica brought together a unique intersection of talent, dubbed the “Magica Quartet.” Ume Aoki, creator of the endearing shoujo manga Hidamari Sketch, was tasked with designing the characters. Writing duties went to Gen Urobuchi, the intense scenarist behind violent, philosophically dense stories like Fate/Zero and Psycho-Pass. Producer Atsuhiro Iwakami was a frequent collaborator with Urobuchi, while director Akiyuki Shinbou made a variety of works for Shaft, including the anime version of Hidamari Sketch and his own Magical Girl series, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha

It’s intriguing to consider how these talents bounced off each other. The most amusing accounts are Aoki’s, who notes how Urobuchi’s dark sense of humor undercut her expectations for the series. But by all accounts the Quartet worked harmoniously; Urobuchi and Shinbou closely collaborated on the story and screenplay, inviting Aoki for suggestions on character development and script revisions. Urobuchi would compare creating Madoka‘s creation to “a three-legged race but you suddenly find that you don’t need to tie your leg with another person’s.” But the show is most often identified with Urobuchi, echoing the bleakness and cosmic horror present in his other work.  

Urobuchi once made a notorious thesis statement, defining himself as a singularly grim, depressed artist whom fans have nicknamed “Urobutcher.” “Gen Urobuchi wants to write stories that can warm people’s hearts,” he wrote in Fate/Zero. “But ever since I can’t recall when, I can no longer write works like this. I have nothing but contempt for the deceitful thing men call happiness, and have had to push the characters I poured my heart out to create into the abyss of tragedy.”7 Attaching such a writer to a Magical Girl show sent a statement in and of itself, one Studio Shaft initially tried to hide. 

Gen Urobuchi

Urobuchi nonetheless considers Madoka a positive story: although its heroines are put through the paces of suffering and madness, they also find a way out; a possibility of hope gleaned through the darkness. The show’s an intricately structured, ironic tragedy, defying expectations of where the story might go from beginning or end, with characters whose awareness of the genre they’re enacting does little to prepare them for what lies ahead. It’s also a detailed character study, defining its protagonists through their flaws, fears and failures – and how they summon their inner strength to combat them. 

Madoka is equally impressive on a technical level. Shinbou and the animation team Gekidan Inu Curry create an engrossing world, mixing Aoki’s classical designs with postmodern urban sprawl and expressive light and shadow. The show’s most striking aspect, of course, are the elaborately designed witch’s labyrinths, a mind-boggling collage of hand-drawn art, computer animations and stop motion/rotoscope creations that resemble, as Kevin Cooley observes, “a tie-dyed Lotte Reininger film on acid.” One would be remiss without mentioning Yuki Kajiura’s masterful score, which ably shifts gears between whimsy, excitement and dread-inducing dissonance.8 

Woman in the Runes

The show is dense in its literary allusions, as one might expect from Urobuchi.9 The show’s most direct inspiration is Goethe’s Faust, the classic tale of a Devil’s bargain and situational morality. Goethe is frequently referenced, both in framing the girls’ contract with Kyubey as a Devil’s bargain and in specific homages. One episode features witches’ runes containing German text from the play; the main witch, Walpurgisnacht, shares the name of a German festival featured prominently in Goethe; and Madoka herself has been compared to Goethe’s Gretchen, for reasons laden with spoilers.10 The end credits even feature an homage to Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, a Nazi-era take on the Faust story.

Critics, and the creators themselves, have drawn connections to Hans Christian Andersen, Albert Camus, Dostoyevsky,11 H.P. Lovecraft, Japanese mythology, Russian folklore, American film noir, Buddhist philosophy and even Star Wars prequels. The show feels intertextual to a degree that Quentin Tarantino might envy. But of course, Madoka is most concerned with a specific subgenre of anime. 

Holy Quintet: feminine fantasy

The Magical Girl (Mahou Shoujo) genre dates back at least to the 1950s, and remains one of manga and anime’s enduring formats. Americans know the genre through the perennially popular Sailor Moon, along with franchises like Cutie Honey, Pretty Cure and Cardcaptor Sakura featuring adolescent girls who fight monsters and transform into heroes, usually at the behest of a cute mascot and often with a team of fellow Magical Girls.12 Madoka includes nods to all of these properties, along with Shinbou’s Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha and obscure to Westerners works like Magical Princess Minky Momo.13 And there are several homages to that masterpiece of surreal deconstruction, Revolutionary Girl Utena.14  

Madoka is certainly not the first “dark Magical Girl story,” nor the first deconstruction of its tropes. Compared to Utena’s queer feminist fever dream, it’s relatively straightforward and not as flagrantly subversive.15 Even so, it’s perhaps the most thorough in demolishing the genre, showing how a seemingly empowering format can both limit and objectify women, denying them agency and self-interest in service of a “greater good.” And unlike Sailor Moon‘s heroines, Madoka’s cast struggle to form meaningful friendships in a system that encourages inter-group conflict.  

Friendship is magic?

I’ve seen the show interpreted both as a feminist tale of empowerment, showing the heroines transcending a patriarchal system, and misogynist misery porn that destroys the Magical Girl’s power fantasy in favor of making women suffer. Much of the latter stems from an interview with Urobuchi which received a mangled translation into English, supposedly deeming the protagonists “terrorists” who are “punished for their hubris.” In context, Urobuchi explains how even well-intentioned actions can have negative consequences due to variation in peoples’ wants and moral systems. But I don’t fault anyone with a less charitable read on what’s, at best, an inelegant analogy.16

I would argue that while Madoka isn’t completely free of sexism, Mahou Shoujo in general offers conflicting messages of empowerment and conformity, strength and objectification. In her assessment of the genre, critic Kumiko Saito concludes that these “opposing messages [serve] as a functional gear” that “generates and reconfirms conventional gender norms and heterosexuality.” Which doesn’t account for girls and women, in Japan or abroad, who’ve embraced such heroines for combining strength and femininity while sacrificing neither, or who relish their female friendships. Like most media, Magical Girl anime is as much what viewers take away from it as what the creators intend.

I’ll address this further in my reviews. For now, I would argue that Madoka Magica is a flawed, but ultimately feminist work. It explores the toxic side of many Mahou Shoujo tropes and clichés, while largely avoiding others like forced heterosexual romance and the genre’s troubling degree of fanservice.17 It grants its overwhelmingly female cast flaws, strengths and agency, making them compelling, multidimensional characters, while attacking a world that’s rigged against them by the male-coded villain. In this sense, it reconstructs the genre as a format where the characters triumph through their compassion and ingenuity.18

Magic makes enemies

Regardless of these critiques, Madoka Magica remains a brilliant series. It’s not merely a clever deconstruction, nor is it “misery porn” even if Urobuchi sometimes enjoys framing it that way. It’s a tragic, but ultimately uplifting story of young women trapped by, fighting and overcoming a soul-destroying world. Miracles and magic are real, but they come with a price. Hope has its place, but should be tempered with reality. Selfishness and sacrifice aren’t always easily distinguished. Connections are worth pursuing, even if they’re fleeting. And for all the darkness inherent in the world, there is enough to live for that you shouldn’t ever give up.19 

These articles will cover the 12 episodes of the original series and the three movies (though only the third movie, Rebellion, in detail as the first two are compilations of the series with redone animation).20 I will try to keep the reviews spoiler light21 and newbie friendly, though watching the show first is strongly recommended. I will consider examining at least some of the spinoff material, but we’ll see how this goes first.

Kyubey: The Cutest Mephistopheles

For those who’d like to watch along with the reviews, Madoka is easily available through most streaming platforms. As of this writing, HBO Max, Hulu and Netflix all offer the series, along with Funimation and Crunchyroll, in both subtitled and dubbed formats.22 The movies are available on DVD and Blu-Ray, or for rental or purchase through Amazon, Apple, Google Play and most other video sites.  

There’s a boatload of Madoka Magica analysis available, much of it valuable and interesting. For these reviews, I’m using the exhaustive fan Wiki, Puella Magi, which includes translated interviews and commentary from the show’s creative team; Jen A. Blue’s essays on the show, collected in the book The Very Soil: An Unauthorized Critical Study of Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2015); Rachael Verret’s “Psychopathy, Feminism and Narrative Agency in Madoka Magica: Kyubey’s Story” (The Mary Sue, June 2015); Roberto De La Noval, “The Suffering of Innocents in Puella Magi Madoka Magica(Black Lion Academy, August 2020); and Audrey Dubois, “Kyubey’s Multi-Level Marketing Scheme: The Capitalist Metaphor of Madoka Magica” (Anime Feminist, June 2021). Special thanks to Kevin Cooley for providing his essay, “A Cycle, Not a Phase: Love Between Magical Girls Amidst the Trauma of Puella Magi Madoka Magica” (Mechademia, Fall 2020) and my friends on this site and Tumblr who helped me flesh out ideas for these articles.

Friends until the end of time

Thanks for reading this far, and I hope you’ll join me next week for the next installment of The Madoka Project