Despite an engaging plot and a nice spin to the magical girl genre, Madoka struggles to establish an emotional connection between the viewer and its characters. Instead, it becomes reliant on elements of shock to create a memorable work.
Shock tactics have been employed numerous times throughout history by armies in order to gain an upper hand against their opponents. Generally, these tactics consisted of full-forced charges or volleys from countless firearms. The point of such a manoeuvre wasn’t so much to guarantee a victory, but to place the enemy under constant psychological pressure. Aside from combat, shock tactics have also become a staple in entertainment and film. Although the goal no longer revolves around destroying your opponent (unless you’re Nanoha, of course), the objective remains the same. Through a combination of music, camera effects and characters, masters of cinema such as Alfred Hitchcock have employed similar shock tactics to place the audience under a state of psychological distress. However in more recent years, the focus of these shock tactics has shifted from using it to enhance the story or characters to simply being a cheap trick to keep the viewer’s attention. So now how does all of this fit into a show about a bunch of cute middle-school girls and their loveable, magical mascot?
The problem with the bulk of magical girl titles out there is that they are far too stagnant in terms of their plot-formula and characters. Average middle-school girl gets magical powers from a cute mascot character and fights monsters each week? Repeat anywhere from twenty to fifty episodes before any plot development takes place? Likely if you’ve seen one title that follows this formula you’ll know what to expect from another and so on and so forth, leading to the genre not being able to offer much variety. However, Shaft’s newest entry into the magical girl genre is here to change things up.
Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica is an original series written by Gen Urobuchi and animated by the head-tilt loving studio, Shaft. The basic premise revolves around a young girl named Kaname Madoka and her sudden encounter with the magical creature, Kyuubey. Kyuubey is able to grant Madoka and her friends a wish at the cost of her becoming a magical girl and having to fight against evil beings called witches. Though the premise seems almost identical to most magical girl titles at first glance, it is actually anything but. Instead of eating cake and being surrounded by feelings of love and happiness, Madoka finds herself surrounded by death, despair and isolation. While being a magical girl may seem like fun and games at first, the girls soon discover that it’s actually a one-way ticket to a never-ending hell. Within a few episodes, the show quickly shifts gears from a sugary magical girl title to something more along the lines of a tragedy.
Now on paper the plot structure of Madoka seems very well thought-out. Unlike the bulk of magical girl titles, Madoka abandons themes of friendship and happiness in favour of sadness and despair. If anything, it twists them round and round until you could’ve sworn you were watching something along the lines of Evangelion. In a similar vein, the entire product of Madoka feels like a deconstruction of all the genre’s clichés and tropes, much like Evangelion was with the mech genre back in the 90’s. And while it breathes a nice breath of fresh air into a rather stagnant genre, it does present a number of problems with the format of the show. Oddly enough, the largest problem with the show all stems from the fact that it has a single goal in mind from the very beginning. And that goal is to simply cause as much emotional damage as possible to the central character within twelve episodes. The more hardships that Madoka encounters, the deeper she falls into an absolute state of despair. To make matters worse, Madoka has the ability to save everyone around her by becoming a magical girl, but in order to do so she must place her life on the line. As you can see, this conundrum would cause a great deal of emotional stress to a girl who has barely experienced half of life’s hardships, let alone even hit puberty. And just like a certain plot device in the show, emotional stress quickly becomes the driving force behind the events. Now while this may seem like a plus at first, it quickly becomes evident as to why this goal is harmful to the series in the long run.
For one, the plot-heavy structure of the show already makes it so that events become the driving force behind Madoka’s emotional development rather than the characters. Since a lot of the series focuses more on outright plot twists and important secrets being revealed, the characters tend to take a back seat at times. As a result, this leaves very little time for proper interaction between Madoka and the other characters. Sure, Madoka and the other girls do chat, but there’s very little in the way of an actual realistic conversation between any of the characters. Now while the lack of character conversations may seem beneficial to the tight pacing of the series, it is actually crucial as character deaths are highly abundant. Considering that human bonds and relationships are part of the foundation for a healthy emotional state, it would make sense that if more time was given towards Madoka’s connection with the other characters that their deaths would have held more water. Unfortunately, Urobuchi and Shaft felt the need to simply go for a quick emotional appeal by trying to shock the viewer through numerous character deaths. And despite these scenarios being a bit of a shock the first time round, they quickly lose their impact as the story progresses. Towards the end of the series, characters start dropping like flies, and you’ll begin to wonder just how much emotional damage one girl can possibly take before she cracks.
However, the direction of the series does have its merits as a number of the plot twists are quite well thought out. And while some of them can be predicted with careful attention, others will completely take you by surprise. The general unpredictability of Madoka’s plot coupled with the tight pacing of the series makes for a highly entertaining experience. It’s easy to get swept up in the whole dark atmosphere of the show and want to watch it in one go. So from an entertainment standpoint, Madoka is highly successful in that regard. Unfortunately, the more shocking twists in the story only serve the same purpose as the numerous character deaths. Rather than be used to further enhance the characters, these twists exist to briefly wow the viewer or attempt to further differentiate Madoka from more standard magical girl titles. The fact that a number of these twists are simply clichés or devices borrowed from popular sci-fi titles makes their integration into the plot feel rather forced or even shallow.
It’s a bit of a running gag in the fan community that Gen Urobuchi is a heartless bastard who derives great pleasure in killing off characters within his works. Anyone that has read Fate/Zero or the adult visual novel, Saya no Uta, will likely be familiar with the way in which Urobuchi utilizes character deaths to play with the reader’s emotions. However, unlike his previous works, the characters in Madoka are simply killed off without very much character development. It isn’t easy watching a beloved character being killed off right before our very eyes. However, in order for a character death to carry any emotional impact, there needs to be some prior development to establish said character’s core personality and relationship with others in the story. Would we feel anything for a character that appeared once, spoke a few lines and then died? Or would we rather see how a character’s death has affected everyone around them? In a sense, each character in Madoka is like a puppet on stage; after their role in the story has ended, they’re given the axe.
Considering she’s the character that the entire ordeal revolves around, one would think Kaname Madoka would at least be a fairly interesting character. Unfortunately, Madoka herself has very little in the way of an actual personality. Through her few personable interactions with the other characters, we find out that she’s a sweet girl with very little self-confidence. Most of her development comes from all the events around her rather than the strength or will of her own character. It is not until the very end of the huge slaughter fest that Madoka starts to show any reasonable development and change. In short, she’s almost like the female version of Shinji Ikari, just without all the psychological development. One could even make the argument that you could place anybody in Madoka’s shoes and the story would still progress in the same way.
Besides the title character, the other magical girls all have their personalities centered on a specific trait. You have the well-mannered senior, energetic best-friend, female badass and mysterious transfer student. With a few exceptions, each of the other magical girls goes through a small transition in a similar vein to Madoka’s where she faces despair before reaching an untimely end. Though each of the girls are likeable in their own right, they aren’t given nearly enough development to be remembered after they’ve become sacrificial lambs. A final mention goes to the series mascot, Kyuubey. Though he seems to be nothing more than the complementary mascot character at first, he does provide the series with another layer of depth to set it apart from the bulk of magical girl titles. Despite remaining fairly stagnant over the course of the series, Kyuubey’s role in the story at least keeps it engaging.
As a title produced by the animation studio Shaft and directed by Akiyuki Shinbo, one can full well expect a lot of the studio’s signature style. Anyone who has seen popular Shaft titles such as Bakemonogatari or Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei will be quite familiar with the quality of animation in Madoka. The artistic direction of Madoka is one of the series’ strong points, consisting of many instances of dynamic lighting, obscure camera angles and the studio’s signature head-tilts. In particular, the witches’ designs and labyrinths are the visual highlights of the show, combining surreal imagery with modern-day photography. Unfortunately these scenes are few in number throughout the series, which is a shame considering they contrast nicely with the cute character designs.
Sound and voice acting are also of very high quality overall. Renowned anime and video game composer, Yuki Kajiura, lends her talents here with the soundtrack of Madoka. Kajiura is known for blending many different musical genres together such as synth, classical and even opera to create a dark and mysterious feel. As such it’s no surprise that the tracks fit very nicely into each of their respective scenes in Madoka. Often times, certain scenes are enhanced by the soundtrack, giving them a much stronger feel than conveyed by the series’ writing or character dialogue. Voice acting is also very strong overall as the all-star cast of seiyuu selected are able to successfully breathe life into their respective characters. In a similar vein to the utilization of Kajiura’s score, the voice acting is actually part of what greatly enhances the mood of certain scenes.
Despite deviating from the norm of magical girl titles, Madoka struggles to establish a strong emotional connection with the viewer and its characters. In an attempt to remedy this fault, the series engages the viewer through multiple instances of shock rather than the characters and their interactions. And while it is entertaining to see characters drop like flies, there’s very little to actually differentiate Madoka from the bulk of grim-dark titles out there. But for people who enjoy darker titles or a twist to their magical girl titles, there’s plenty to recommend about Madoka. However, for those who feel that the magical girl genre can still be creative without resorting to shock value, I’d encourage you to check out titles such as Princess Tutu or Revolutionary Girl Utena. While both aren’t traditional magical girl titles, they do possess elements from the genre, with their own unique spin and characters. And of course both titles were produced long before Madoka came into existence from the depths of Urobuchi’s sinister mind.
As an old saying goes: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.