Madoka Kaname is an unexceptional girl. She has close friends and a loving family, but yearns to be something more than she is. But everything remains normal in her life until a mysterious and beautiful girl, who has an unexplained connection to Madoka, transfers into her class, followed by the entrance of a cute, talking creature who wants to contract Madoka into becoming a magical girl. Thus begins an adventure quite unlike any that’s come before.
Originally airing in Japan about a year ago, Puella Magi Madoka Magica has found its way to North America via Aniplex, who’ll release the critically acclaimed piece on Valentine’s Day. The connection to the love holiday is a suitable one, with the show’s theme of loving others appearing already in this volume (containing episodes one through four) and with its lovely animation. But then again, love probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind when one watches Madoka. Instead, words, like “trippy,” “mind-bending,” “deconstructed,” and “what the heck” might pop up first.
The series begins with our heroine having a weighty, violent dream, before chatting with her mom and going to school. Many of the familiar elements of a magical girl series are present – the protagonist has close girl friends, flashy magical outfits are prominent, and a magical mascot appears in the first episode. But right from the opening dream scene, viewers will be able to tell that the series will buck expectations. Battles are violent, the enemies are almost psychedelic, and the danger is real. I thought of Sakura and Li while watching these episodes and of their fights against relatively cute opponents who, at worst, cause the leads of Card Captor Sakura a few bruises and cuts; in Madoka’s magical world, the fights are much riskier and the rewards and reasons for fighting are more selfish. And of all things, Faustian symbolism is conveyed heavily in these opening episodes (other religious imagery and themes, of particular note to this blog, are more extensively displayed in later episodes).
The most immediate difference from typical magical girl shows may be the animation during the fight sequences. The characters step into a surreal dimension, filled with images more at home in the Metropolitan Museum of Art than in anime. The deranged and mismated art lends to a unsettling tone during these particular scenes, even if the magical girls triumph over their enemies, the witches. Accompanied by a heart-quickening choral score (produced by none other than Yuki Kajiura), a dark emphasis not typically associated with this light-hearted genre permeates the episodes.
The characters are also mesmerizing. Besides Madoka, an every girl whose reactions are maybe more closely aligned to to what we would do than we’d like to admit, three other young ladies take major roles in these opening episodes. Sayaka, one of Madoka’s best friends, has a bubbly exterior that belies inner turmoil; Mami, the girls’ model of what it means to be a magical girl, is confident, caring, and vicious; and Homura, the aforementioned transfer student, has intentions which are not at all clear as the show begins (and indeed, throughout most of its run).
I enjoyed watching these four episodes far more than in my first viewing (though I certainly liked it then, too). Not only was I able to enjoy the amazing animation and wonderful music in DVD quality this time, but it’s an entirely different experience watching it from the point of view of one who knows what’s coming. Each and every scene has a different vibe this time around and dialogue is suddenly more meaningful. While a first viewing of Madoka is largely enjoyable due to surprises (the third episode in this volume presents one of the bigger ones in recent anime), rewatching the series is more fulfilling – it becomes an exercise is noticing what you originally missed (and in a delightful way).
I did not receive the impressive collector’s edition, though I can say this regular version is more than satisfactory. Aniplex did a wonderful job with the release, which is handled with a loving touch. If you’re a fan of double-sided DVD covers like I am (or a fan of Mami Tomoe, again like me), you’ll enjoy the DVD casing. The extras include original Japanese trailers and a music video for the ending theme, “Magia.” The visuals are outstanding on DVD, so I might suggest it would be worth it to buy the Blu Ray version to watch Madoka in all its glory. Aniplex’s dub, which fans have been critical of since the English-language trailer of Madoka was released late last year, is fairly good. Aside from Christina Vee (Homura), the voice actors are rather new to the profession, but their voices fit well, though they don’t seem to convey either the natural qualities or richness of the original seiyuu.
Each year, and in all varieties of entertainment, fans clamor that whatever flavor of the month is among the all-time bests. The same was true of Madoka when it surprised viewers worldwide during its original airing. A year later, with the release of volume one, Puella Magi Madoka Magica speaks of a beginning that is marvelous and creative in almost all ways – and hints of even greater things to come. Still, it may be much too soon to declare this work a classic.
Then again, maybe not.