Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica Review

Studio: Shaft
Year: 2011
# of Episodes: 12
Synopsis: [Anime News Network: Mahō Shōjo Madoka Magica]
"After experiencing a bizarre dream, Madoka Kaname, a kind 14-year-old girl, encounters a magical creature named Kyube. Madoka and her friend Sayaka Miki are offered the opportunity of gaining magical powers if they agree to make a contract with the strange little being. He will also grant them one wish, but in exchange they shall risk their lives by accepting the responsibility of fighting witches. Invisible to human eyes, witches are catalysts of despair in the areas they inhabit. An ally of Kyube, a magical girl named Mami Tomoe, befriends and encourages the two girls to accept the contract. For an unknown reason, another magical girl named Homura Akemi is determined to prevent Madoka from accepting the deal."

Yes, I finally got around to watch this show. I'll say this off the bat – I enjoyed the series, but I don't love it as much as the majority did. Though rather than a flaw of the series, I just have a problem with Gen Urobuchi's writing in general. You can draw a lot of parallels between this show and Fate/Zero, another one of Urobuchi's works. The message here is clear – there are no convenient miracles in this world. The heroes who stubbornly try to shoulder the world will destroy more than they can protect at the end of their struggle. I don't disagree with this belief, but Urubuchi's tendency to magnify the negative affects doesn't sit well with me at times. 

Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica is not your average mahou shoujo anime. By forming a contract with a magical creature named Kyubey, the girls are granted a wish and magical powers to fight the cursed witches, but little do they know about the consequences of a miracle. Beneath the glamour lies something more sinister than they can ever imagine. This is not the first anime that experiments with the theme of "equivalent exchange", but it's one that executes it well through lots of twists and turns that will keep you on the edge episode after episode. At every turn of event, a character falls victim to the twisted fate orchestrated by a being much more powerful than humans, and we get another glimpse into the terrible truth of mahou shojos. 

Urobuchi is a writer that knows how to tell a horror story even through a genre as fluffy as this one. He seems to enjoy putting his characters through harsh trials and watch them suffer. Given the dreary situation, the psychological struggles of the characters are believable but also incredible depressing to watch. How much can the human mind take before it breaks? What's interesting to me is that the show explores how each character reacts to the same truth differently. Those who normally approach life with an optimistic attitude are not necessarily the ones who can defend their sanity in the face of pain and pressure. On the contrary, often having a cynical take on life can help to buffer the negative affects. I'm not suggesting optimism is the seed of destruction, but there needs to be a balance, in that you harbour enough pessimism to keep you grounded in reality, but also enough optimism to push you forward. The idealists who don't see the other side of the story will drive themselves blindly into the abyss and idealists happen to take center stage in this show. This is where I have issues with Urobuchi's writing, it really drags your mood down and down is the only way it can go. Nietzsche once said "when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you", I think the line sums up my feeling pretty well. There is not enough balance between the light and dark to offer a dynamic watch experience. At the end of the day, I feel depressed but not sad because the emotional connection that would make me care about what's happening to the characters is not established. I just don't feel it at the receiving end. 

Sometimes, I get a sense that the writer is deliberately introducing twists to add another shade darkness to a story already saturated with conflicts and despair. Take the love triangle for instance, Hitomi confessed to Sayaka that she's also in love with Kyosuke, the boy whose dream was saved with Sayaka's wish when she contracted with Kyubey. As the last straw on the camel's back, it crushed any hopes Sayaka had and the negative emotions she struggled to keep at bay devoured her whole. Her insecurities, regrets and as well as guilt for having those regrets drove her over the edge. I didn't like how this part of the story has handled, it just felt too deliberate and forced, especially when Hitomi had shown no sign of caring for Kyosuke prior to her confession. She was just a convenient plot device introduced when needed, but otherwise poorly developed. On the other hand, Madoka is quite flat as the main character, but I don't think that's the a big issue here if you take the show for what it is. Everything evolved around her, yet she wasn't a monumental force until the final episode. In comparison to the complex struggles of Sayaka and Homura, Madoka's role is supposed to be a simple one. She bears witness to the tragedies that occur and symbolizes the last morsel of hope uncontaminated by the ugliness of the world. The most brilliant twist in this entire series is without a doubt Homura's identity. Her lack of emotions and extreme composure throughout much of the series made her seem detached and almost calculating, but as her ties to Madoka were gradually revealed, all her previous actions were well justified and I came to empathize with her motives. If there is a character I did genuinely feel for, it's Homura. Now, I watched Steins;Gate before this show, so the brilliant twist didn't impact me as much as it should have. I will not elaborate further to avoid spoilers, but for those who have seen both shows, you would understand what I'm referring to. 

As with all anime of the mahou shoujo genre, the air of pretentiousness is a trademark. There is no such thing as subtlety in show, everything is set up to produce a dramatic effect.This may be another reason why I don't click with Urobuchi's writing, he plays with dramatic plot ideas rooted in twisted fate, in the sense that the situation is the focus of attention, but not the world at large. There is limited breadth in characterization as the struggles are always somewhat linear and the message straight forward. I may not be a huge fan of his writing, but I can't deny that he's good at what he does. There is a quality to both Fate/Zero and Madoka that's rather captivating. 

As for the art, I must say I'm not crazy about the character design, but it's got a unique vibe that works for the show. Like most of series produced by SHAFT, there is plenty of style in Madoka. The crazy and collage-like images used to construct the witch's territory was certainly an interesting artistic choice.  It really brings out a sense of madness and paranoia that is very much at the core of the series. 

All in all, this is another one of those shows I appreciate more than I like. It subserves the established genre of mahou shoujo with its dark tone and daring plot twists. I fully understand why it's hailed as a masterpiece by many but there are often times that I don't feel quite connect with it emotionally. 

Story: 9/10
Directing+Style: 8/10
Music: 9/10
Animation: 8/10
Overall Enjoyment: 8/10

EDIT: Nov.2nd.2012
I just finished the fourth episode of Psycho-Pass, and I can't believe one of the characters quoted Nietzsche, "when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." How creepy is that when I just concluded my thought with that quote in this review, especially considering Psycho-Pass is also penned by Urobuchi? Now I truly believe that was the feeling every Urobuchi show intends to inspire. Should I be concerned about Psycho-Pass going totally depressing on me? 

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