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For Manga Entertainment, the Starz Media owned company dedicated to distributing Japanese animation to an anime starved UK audience, 2012 has turned out to be a big year. They are on the cusp of releasing the classic Ninja Scroll on Blu-ray whilst also bringing out the phenomena that is Dragonball Z on DVD. Considering the clout of that particular show I find it incredulous that it has taken so long for that particular series to reach these shores. You'd think those two blockbusters would be the focus of Manga's attention, but that is not so. October sees the much-hyped Puella Magi Madoka Magica hit the UK market after heavy promotion on Manga's website and podcasts.
Even if you aren't a Japanese animation connoisseur you are likely to have heard of Dragonball Z, so you may be wondering why it is getting equal billing as a short twelve episode series with a pink haired girl on the DVD cover. The synopsis on the back reveals that Madoka Magica is a magical girl show, which isn't exactly an original premise for a anime (anyone remember Sailor Moon?) Thing is that this isn't your regular magical girl show. That may explain why its been a mega success in Japan, despite being an original property with no roots in an existing comic or novel from which to syphon a fan base from.
Madoka Kaname is a regular teenage girl, brought up by a loving family, who spends her days going to school and hanging out with her best friend Sayaka Miki. One day, after class, the pair decide to visit a local music store and end up getting much more than they bargained for. After exiting the shop they come across Kyubey, a talking feline, who offers to grant them any wish they desire. The offer isn't a generous genie style one-way deal though. In exchange for their heart's desire the wish recipient has to agree to become a magical girl and battle evil entities known as witches, who unknown to the general populace are responsible for spreading suicide inducing despair to unsuspecting victims.
Initially the pair are keen to accept Kyubey's proposal, as it appears to be a win-win deal. Fight for justice and get anything you like in return? Sign me up! Under the tutelage of Mami Tomoe, a veteran magical girl, they see first hand what encounters with a witch entail and despite the risks are willing to go along with it. Doubts begin to surface however when Homura Akemi, a transfer student who reveals herself to be an extremely powerful magical girl, warns them to spurn Kyubey's advances and keep the humdrum lives they presently enjoy.
Further complications arise when Kyoko Sakura, a spear wielding magical girl, arrives in town. Rather than take down witches straight away she is content to let them run rampant so she can harness their powers at a later time, once they fully mature. Kyoko's philosophy puts her at odds with the other girls, which threatens to escalate into a life or death duel between the opposing sides. Madoka ponders if she should become embroiled in this magical girl civil war, but her time to think runs out when a massive witch manifests in her hometown threatening to wreck the entire area. Should she run away or accept her destiny and awaken her latent talent, which could turn her into the most powerful magical girl of all?
It's ironic that even though the show is named after and revolves around Madoka, that she may well be the least interesting of the featured magical girls. She cares deeply for her friends, which is a commendable trait for a heroine, but her timid disposition means that she often gets overshadowed by the supporting cast. Her indecisiveness prevents her from taking the limelight until the culmination of the story when she is forced into making a choice. Up to that point she isn't sure what to do, what to wish for and instead spends her time sheepishly designing the magical girl outfit she would like to wear.
The way the plot is structured results in the story getting broken down into mini arcs focusing on the other girls. Madoka's more impulsive and energetic friend Sayaka is a big player early on in the narrative. She has idealistic aspirations of using magical powers to help people and is even willing to use up her wish to benefit a third party (namely a talented violinist she has a crush on who can no longer play due to his injured hands.) Mami, the beret-wearing mentor who blasts witches with conjured muskets, also makes a strong impression in the opening episodes. She is cool and composed, hiding the fact that she is lonely after leading a solitary life post making a wish to survive a traffic accident. The joy she gets out of teaching her magical girl apprentices is rather sweet.
When Kyoko makes her appearance it seems like she could be the antagonist of the piece given that she butts heads with our heroines from the offset. One cannot help but wonder if her wish was for a speedy metabolism, given that she sports a trim figure despite chomping on junk food in every scene. She also has a taste for grief seeds, an item that drops from defeated witches, that replenishes a magical girl's power. Her desire to amass a stockpile of seeds results in her effectively farming witches, by only attacking them once they have reached maturity. An unethical strategy given the damage young witches can cause, although glimpses into her past make her into a more sympathetic character later in the series.
My favorite character would have to be Homura (I even bought a figurine based on her at the recent London expo) who is blessed with the power to seemingly teleport at will. Initially she appears to be a typical silent badass, who is hard to like, but that perception is changed near the show's conclusion when her backstory is revealed in arguably the best of the twelve episodes. I also cannot forget to mention Kyubey, the mastermind behind everything. At first glance he would seem to be the adorable mascot you always see in magical girl shows, but like the series itself you shouldn't be suckered in by superficial looks. He's the only one who knows exactly what is going on. The question is whether the cute kitty is a helpful guide or a sinister entity manipulating events for some greater scheme?
Neo magazine recently described Madoka Magica as being for magical girls what Neon Genesis Evangelion is for giant robots, which is spot on. Both shows took a, shallow anime genre, were heroes beat a monster of the week with no consequences and used realism to inject depth to proceedings along with mind f**king your brain in the process. Reviewing the series is a tough ask because, despite the short episode count, the concise story is jam packed with twists and turns which I wouldn't want to rob for first time viewers via excessive spoilers. A big factor in my enjoyment of the show was my surprise in the direction it took at the end of episode three.
Visually the anime is a treat. The charming character designs mask the dark tone of the show, which reminds me a little of Elfen Lied (although Madoka Magica doesn't have to resort to gore to shock the audience.) Whenever characters enter a witch's realm the art style changes to a collage of unsettling cut outs, which is the most distinct imagery I have seen in an anime since the funky colour palette of the anime adaptation of the Count of Montecristo.
One concern I had was that once the cat is out of the bag the rewatchability of the anime would suffer. Thankfully I can say that isn't the case. I loved Madoka Magica just as much on a second viewing. If anything, knowing what to expect lets you pick up on subtle nuances you may miss the first time round. I would liken the experience to watching an impending train wreck. You don't want to see the likeable characters suffer in an upcoming disaster, but for some reason you cannot avert your eyes. Anyway, who says you cannot enjoy something once you know the finale? We all knew the ship was going to sink in Titanic and it didn't stop that particular film from smashing box office records.
I hope that Madoka Magica proves to be as big a hit here as it has been in Japan. Hopefully good word of mouth will encourage male audiences to give it a go despite it's girly exterior. Those secure in their manhood will be rewarded with a five star show. The three-disc set is also great value. Other territories have had to collect the twelve episodes by purchasing separate volumes, which works out being more expensive. What's that? The UK market not getting ripped off for once? That's a wish come true... and you don't even have to don a tutu at the behest of a cat to reap the benefits.