Sunday 24 July 2011

Anime REVIEW: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

There exist strange creatures who have the power to grant one wish to each chosen girl. However in exchange for that wish, the girl must then become a magical girl - a girl with magical powers to fight against witches, evil creatures born from darkness that are responsible for murders and suicides.

In the city of Mitakihara, a schoolgirl named Madoka Kaname and her friend Sayaka Miki are approached by a one of these creatures, named Kyubey, who offers to grant each of them one wish in return for making each of them a magical girl  Another one, named Homura Akemi tries to prevent Madoka from making such a deal, while Kyubey urges Madoka by telling her she will become the most powerful magical girl  However, contrary to glamorous notions of being a magical girl, they actually find themselves dealing with death, isolation, agony over the value of her wish, and existential crises. Madoka, following her friends, soon sees the darker side of being a magical girl, and now knowing the truth, questions if she should become one as well. This 2011 anime series is 12 episodes long.

Going into Puella Magi Madoka Magica, anyone who's familiar with the magical girl (mahou shoujo) genre of anime will see all the usual conventions straight away - innocent girls, the flashy transformations, the cute animal mentor etc. But as the series progresses it becomes very clear that this isn't your run of the mill magical girl anime. In fact, it doesn't just subvert the genre's conventions, it corrupts them. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is not afraid to kill off its central characters, leaving those that are left to deal with the grief that their deaths have left behind. As a matter of fact, Madoka herself does not even become a magical girl until the final episode of the series, instead bearing witness to the horrors of this lifestyle as her best friend is slowly sucked into it. Kyubey, the seemingly cute mentor creature, is in fact completely detached from the girls - not wholly evil, but at the same time manipulating the magical girl for his own purposes and not telling them the whole truth about their 'greater purpose'. And his cold, emotionless stare is the stuff of nightmares, especially when the camera regularly focuses and zooms in on it.

The five main characters in the series all have different personalities and different reasons for becoming magical girls, which often lead to head-on clashes between the characters. They survive by taking the energy from defeated witches to purify their Soul Gems (an egg shaped crystal that holds both their souls and magical power). If they don't purify their gems, they eventually will become witches themselves - and as you can imagine this often leads to fighting among magical girls in order to stay alive, both physically and in their varying methods of witch hunting. But they all share the same tragedy that is that their wishes often bring more harm than good once they come true, either to themselves or the people around them. This series not only chronicles one magical girl's fall from grace from start to finish, but also shows how, despite the masses of power the girls are given, their efforts to change their fates are ultimately futile.

The characters are each noticeably different from each other to avoid confusion (due to their unique hair colours, which all serve as the basis for their magical girl costumes) as are their costumes and weapons (forget magical batons, this series has everything from swords and bows/arrows to grenades and machine guns). The art style for the witches dimensions differs greatly from the beautiful detailed real world setting, delving into the twisted and surreal animated through paper-cut stop motion. While the witches present a very real threat in the world of Madoka, they aren't the main focus nor have any real development - giving the animators a chance to real go wild with the twisted fairytale-like imagery of it all.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica is not for people expecting a light and fluffy magical girl anime. It's dark, grim and wholly depressing. It completely subverts the usual conventions of the genre, and the result is something unlike any others that have come before it. With a beautiful and wide variety of art styles, well developed characters and a truly engaging narrative, this series is a must see for maturer anime fans.

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