I’m tackling the first two episodes at once for a reason that Madoka fans will appreciate and newcomers will soon discover. There’s worldbuilding and stage setting and establishing the main cast (with one key exception), sure. But mostly because it’s one of the biggest troll jobs in anime history.
For weeks before the show’s release, Studio Shaft teased Madoka as a typical Magical Girl show. Promotional art, creator interviews and character designs all hinted that this wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary. The deception extended to the seiyuu, who reportedly weren’t told about the series’ nature before recording and ended their sessions in tears.1 Kyubey’s voice actress, Emiri Katou, even took to Twitter to defend her character, acting unsure why viewers were starting to distrust the cute li’l guy.
Amazingly, Shaft even attempted to hide Gen Urobuchi’s involvement – an unlikely task, to say the least, in our internet age. When that ploy unsurprisingly failed, causing fans to nickname it Chidamari Sketch (roughly “Blood Puddle Sketch,” punning on Ume Aoki’s manga), Urobuchi feigned indignation as the first few episodes aired. In a series of Tweets, he commented that Kyubey was so named because of his cuteness2 and bemoaned those who suspected his involvement meant Madoka wasn’t as advertised. “I want to make the audience happy by [this] anime,” he insisted, asking for them to give the show a chance.
Madoka Magica immediately blasts these expectations with an arresting teaser: Madoka runs through a dark, nightmarish room until she reaches Homura fighting a massive witch, as Kalafina’s epic rock ballad “Magia” plays on the soundtrack. Then Kyubey appears to Madoka, insisting that she has the power to change this outcome… Homura is screaming, but is it in pain? Is she asking for help? Is it for Madoka not to listen to the little cat-thing? Why is our happy Magical Girl show starting on such a grim note?
We don’t know yet. Because Madoka wakes up, and suddenly we’re back in the land of shoujo sunshine, cute Ume Aoki characters and catchy OPs. We meet Madoka with her family, walking to school with her friends Sayaka, who comes off as brash, tomboyish and jokes about Madoka being “hers”3 while Hitomi is a polite, if preppy girl who attends cotillion courses. Everything is cheerful: they walk to school through an idyllic copse of trees, to a brightly lit school where the worst thing they encounter is a teacher who constantly complains about her love life. It all seems so…ordinary.
Madoka’s ordinariness is her defining trait. She has a loving family, albeit one with stresses and tensions running beneath the surface (Madoka’s businesswoman mom Junko, in particular, proves a more complex character than we expect). She has friends who unquestioningly love her, although they have plenty of teen angst and emotional baggage weighing them down. And she is a relentlessly cheerful person who charms her classmates and family without effort. She comes off as your standard anime protagonist who is likable but bland, allowing them to be an audience surrogate and a foil to more colorful characters.
Or, so she appears. Because it’s evident even early on that Madoka major issues with self-esteem. In an early conversation with Kyubey, she admits that she views herself as ordinary, untalented, unintelligent and of no particular worth. She’s unable to see her stellar qualities, despite her mother’s encouragement (she gives Madoka a stylish ribbon, encouraging her to act as if she had a secret admirer, after Madoka mentions Hitomi’s popularity with boys) or support from her friends. Becoming a Magical Girl would finally give her a purpose, as her imagine spot in the credits sequence suggests.
Even these early episodes display reflexive genre awareness, pointing out how silly or ridiculous its tropes would be in real life. Sayaka in particular, referring to Homura as “moe” and accusing her of attacking people in cosplay, is well-aware of the genre she inhabits. Madoka is soon caught up in the excitement, doodling her own Magical Girl outfit in a notebook during class. She can only think of a silly, frilly Sakura-inspired costume that moves her friends to laughter. It’s all a little ridiculous, but at this point the “deconstruction” remains lighthearted rather than grim.
Still, it doesn’t take much to shift the mood. Homura’s initial appearance inspires the first trembling of unrest. She speaks in epigrams, warning Madoka not to change her life and flipping her hair with an insouciance that screams Bad Girl. Next time we see her, she’s trying to waste Kyubey for reasons she doesn’t bother to explain. She stresses to Madoka how she should be grateful for her family and friends, and how there are worse things than being ordinary. Indeed, Madoka’s indecisiveness will eventually come to see less a character flaw than simple common sense.
Homura’s point is soon emphasized when Madoka and Sayaka wander into their first labyrinth, where they’re menaced by familiars until rescued by Mami. But if Homura initially embodies the menace of the Magical Girl’s world, Mami seems like a figure from Madoka’s fantasies. She’s blonde (those amazing, physics-defying drill curls!), improbably pretty, dresses in a stylish European outfit4 and blasts baddies with a fusillade of muskets made from ribbons. She performs a stylish transformation with joyous music, dispenses quips (“Let’s wrap this up!”) and calls her attacks (“Tiro finale!”) before ending her fight with a cup of tea. Watching her in action, Madoka and Sayaka are suitably impressed!
Mami joyfully assumes a nurturing role towards her two kouhai. Over tea and cakes, she encourages them to become Magical Girls by tagging along with her. She impresses them with her style, communicates with them telepathically (a power used only intermittently through the series) and directly contrasts herself with Homura. Homura, after all, is a “selfish” Magical Girl whereas Mami fights for the Greater Good, emphasized in the second episode when she rescues a woman entranced by the Witch from committing suicide. Most of all, she’s accompanied everywhere by Kyubey, and who could distrust anyone with such an adorable familiar?
Kyubey is a fascinating creation, all the more because of how harmless he appears in these episodes.5 He’s no different from Cardcaptor Sakura‘s Cerberus or Sailor Moon‘s Luna; he’s cheerful, excitable, adorably scarfs on Mami’s snacks and takes a hot bath in Madoka’s kitchen sink. Still, he seems a little too eager for Madoka to contract with him, and a little too opaque even as he starts explaining what it means to be a Puella Magi. And what’s with his strangely impassive face?
The second episode spends a lot of time worldbuilding, using Kyubey and Mami to provide exposition. Witches are beings of negative energy who cause destruction and chaos, including the deaths of humans. Magical Girls receive their powers from jewels called Soul Gems (well, they’re a bit more than just that, as we’ll soon learn); Witches sprout from black orbs called Grief Seeds, which the Puella Magi are encouraged to collect to refresh their Soul Gems. It all sounds scary, but also exciting. So Madoka and Sayaka accompany Mami for a taste of the “Magical Girl Experience,” with Sayaka bringing along a baseball bat for protection.
From here, the episode plays according to script: Mami quickly wastes the Witch Gertrud and wards off Homura, whom she suspects of merely wanting Grief Seeds for herself. She comforts the Witch’s victim as any hero should, cementing her image as a selfless, nurturing senpai. Madoka goes home wishing that she could be exactly like Mami, the exact opposite of how she views herself. And as the episode concludes with Madoka’s cheerful-sounding image song 6 first-time viewers have no reason to expect otherwise.