The curtain rises on a strange and twisted wonderland, a young pink-haired girl running through a warped checkerboard landscape. This world is cold and silent, an unsettling mess of colour and pattern offering no solace. The girl finally finds a door, but on the other side is only more chaos: a strange upside-down monster hanging suspended in the stormy air over a destroyed city, locked in battle with another young woman. She is clearly magical, flying, fighting, but is also clearly in trouble. The pink-haired girl can only watch in horror… or can she? Amidst the floating rubble and thundering chaos a small creature appears and offers her a bargain, a chance to help, fixing her all the while with an unmoving catlike smile…
…aaaaaand snap, the pink-haired girl wakes up in a soft and sunny bedroom. Was all of that really just a dream?
And so begins Puella Magi Madoka Magica, 2017’s Big Summer Rewatch Project. Who’s excited to dive back into this world of magic, monsters, and metaphors? I know I am.
Some disclaimers before we begin: I have… a bit of a complicated relationship with this series. As an isolated, self-contained story about hope and tragedy and fighting against a corrupt system? Love it. Think Madoka Magica is quite good. But trouble arises when I look at Madoka in its metatextual context, i.e. as a direct response (some have called it a “deconstruction”) to the magical girl genre. I have more than a few issues with the series’ place as a “dark and edgy” take on an archetype meant to inspire young girls. I have, however, already pretty much said my piece about these issues, both within the show/movie itself and its influence in the anime sphere. So while it’s important to address that this show was created as a response to other works of fiction, I’m not going to focus too much on the “dark magical girl show” aspect of things unless it’s really relevant to the scene/episode in question, to avoid a) repeating myself, and b) getting cranky all the time. I’m going to instead (for the most part) look at Madoka as a contained story, and examine it as the Faustian-action-adventure-coming-of-age-psychological-magic trip that it is, and how the narrative, themes, and character arcs build the story that it’s trying to tell—and it is a story that can exist, I think, without the viewer needing to see it as a “deconstruction” of mahou shoujo. But I can come back to that idea further on in the series.
Second, these episodic reviews will remain (like my other ones) focussed on the single episode that they’re talking about, but given the nature of Madoka (or the nature of Homura, is perhaps more accurate) there are a lot of times where to get a deeper analysis I’m just going to have to reference events that happen later on, or things the audience can only know or pick up on if they’ve watched the series before. So consider this the official warning: these posts will riddled with spoilers for the whole series. If you haven’t watched Madoka Magica yet but want to read along, I would recommend watching the whole thing through first.
I myself haven’t watched this series for maybe three or four years, so while I remember a lot I’m looking forward to seeing it with semi-fresh eyes. Will I think it’s as cool and well-put-together as I did when it first captured my heart? Well, only one way to find out. Without further ado, let’s jump in.
The first thing I will say is that, even if this is a case of “ha, we took this usually fluffy children’s genre and made it EDGY” at least the show is consistent about it, and doesn’t, say, present itself as a regular cutesy piece of girls’ TV and then drop a violent and nasty plot twist on you halfway through. That opening scene (dream sequence, glimpse of a past life, or otherwise) very much sets up that this will be a story about darkness, surrealism, and supernatural violence, so that’s laid out on the table from the get-go. (Right, that’s my nod to the meta Madoka out of the way for this episode.)
It also looks amazing, and hearing that combination of smashing metal and Kalafina (the song that will eventually become the ending theme—they even set that up from the start!) sent shivers down my spine. Though I’m willing to admit that at least a little bit of those chills were nostalgia, it’s still a neat opener, and, needless to say, a total gut-punch if you have the power of hindsight and know what’s going on from the as-for-now-voiceless Homura’s perspective. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Shaking this surreal nightmare from her head, our evident protagonist, the pink-haired Madoka, starts getting ready for school, which includes dragging her high-flying-businesswoman mother out of bed. There will be time aplenty later for talking about how much I love Madoka’s mum, so for now let me just express that I really enjoy how the show took the time this early on to establish Madoka’s family dynamic as healthy and happy and quirky in its own functional way. You don’t often meet the parents of anime protagonists, so it’s nice to have them not only established as characters but given relationships with their children—and cute and supportive ones, too. I also immensely enjoy the gentle gender-expectations-flip of Madoka’s mother going out to work while Madoka’s dad seems to be the stay-at-home parent, and how no one (to my memory) ever thinks this is weird throughout the series. I also enjoy that Madoka’s baby brother is not old enough to fall into the Annoying Little Brother archetype that plagues so many magical girls and makes me want to tear my hair out.
Madoka goes to her very modern and lushly designed school, where she meets up with two friends: the reserved and modest Hitomi and the boisterous and geeky Sayaka, who create two opposite poles of personality that Madoka falls somewhere in the middle of. We also meet a new transfer student named Homura, who walks into the classroom radiating an air of mystery and menace that’s only enhanced by Madoka realising she’s the girl she saw in her dream.
Homura continues to be a cryptic dark cloud for the rest of the school day, crossing over from “kind of unnerving” to “straight up frightening” when she pulls Madoka out of class to take her to the nurse’s office… despite already seeming to know the way. What does she need Madoka for? Well, to stare deep into her soul and drop a bunch of ominous questions and advice, chiefly about “not changing the person you are now” because if she does Madoka will lose everything she holds dear. Madoka, quite rightly, has no idea how to process this, and avoids Homura’s attention for the rest of the day. When she expresses her concerns to her friends, they can’t offer much help except suggesting that Homura showed up in Madoka’s dream because she’d met her somewhere before, maybe? Sayaka, in an attempt at sarcasm, inadvertently spoils the entire series:
Yeah… rewatching this show is an exercise in appreciating foreshadowing. When you’re looking for it, it’s everywhere—obvious-in-retrospect bits of dialogue like that, and Homura’s behaviour, but also woven intricately into the visual language. When Madoka is drawn away from the shiny simplicity of the mall and into a construction zone by a disembodied voice calling for help (scaredy-cat as she is, Madoka is nothing if not compassionate—an important thing to establish in a magical girl hero), she runs into an injured Kyuubey and a menacing-as-all-hell Homura. Their stilted conversation is framed by chains, the camera returning to them multiple times as Madoka clutches the poor little cat-alien-thing to her chest and Homura stares down at her (trying not to scream, I can only assume) knowing that the wheel of fate is turning and Madoka is getting locked into the cycle again.
Sayaka, ever practical, comes to the rescue by spraying Homura in the face with a fire extinguisher. She and Madoka run off, cradling the creature we will soon come to call Kyuubey, but their escape is cut off when the world around them warps into a mixed-media wonderland of shifting colours and strange monsters. We don’t have a name for it yet, but it’s a Witch’s labyrinth, and I had to resist the urge to take five thousand screencaps of it. One of the innovative strengths of this show is when it dives into surreal visual feasts like this without abandon, a dizzying spectacle for the eyes, a source of terror for the characters, and laden with symbolism and foreshadowing for the viewer who chooses to seek it out.
I think back in the day someone worked out how to translate those blobby runes that pop up in all the labyrinths, but let’s stick with what we can immediately see: chiefly, butterflies, which are a nice symbolic element to kick off the series with. They represent metamorphosis, most obviously, making them a crafty nod to the nature of magical girls and Witches. Given that this is a story about time travel and trying to change fate, they could also be a nod to the good ol’ Butterfly Effect—which makes it very fitting that we first see them surrounding Homura in inescapable loops. As for the scissors, barbed wire, and dastardly cotton balls with moustaches… they must have some deep significance for the Witch herself, but as it stands all we need to know is that they’re freaky.
Luckily, another new character swoops elegantly in to rescue the girls—an older student named Mami, lit up all in golden tones where Homura was locked in black shadows, immediately more trustworthy and amicable. She transforms into a frilly steampunk-ish outfit, summons a wall of guns, and blasts the moustachioed nightmare critters away. Once reality has un-warped, Homura appears again, continuing to look menacing, but yellow-lit hero Mami warns her off. Looking like she’s chewing on nails, Homura gives Madoka one last look then vanishes.
And so Madoka and Sayaka are inextricably drawn into the world of magic, and the adventure begins… or at least, this iteration of the adventure begins. It’s a pretty neatly constructed first episode, introducing us to the characters and concepts that will be important to the story, setting the tone and handing us enough information so that we’re intrigued but not bewildered. My interest is piqued all over again, and I have to say I’m very much looking forward to continuing down this road.