This post is the first of five covering the series ‘Puella Magi Madoka Magica’. It contains spoilers for episodes one through three, with some speculation for episodes beyond that.
This series has been on my watchlist for a long, long while – in fact, right after I finished Fate/Zero a lifetime ago, I thought long and hard about what series to go for next. I ended up picking Neon Genesis Evangelion because I felt that it would be good to go for something a little more classic but there was a strong case to be made for Madoka as well. Maybe it would have been a little too much Urobuchi at a stretch, or maybe I would have been better able to articulate the similar themes that Madoka and Fate/Zero share, but I’m glad I watched Evangelion regardless, if only to understand the history of the genre a little better. By way of introduction, I’ll start by explaining how much (or how little) I know about the series going in. I had heard that the art style and the general ‘cutesy-ness’ of the setting was a put off to many people and I had been told in no uncertain terms that I needed to watch at least the first three episodes before making a decision on whether or not the show was for me. I’m glad I watched the first three episodes; though I think by the end of the second episode I was quite sure the series would be an interesting one. Given my past experience with Gen Urobuchi’s work, I don’t expect any of the characters to end the series unambiguously better off. I expect the characters to suffer – and not always for any particular reason – but I also expect some kind of exploration of the human condition, whether in terms of the search for happiness or purpose, or in terms of trying to understand their role in society. This means I’m going to have to reconcile the optimism of the series’ setting – a normal, peaceful middle school – with the gloomy themes that the series will likely explore. I don’t see this being a particular problem but it’s something that will need a bit of getting used to.
This post is going to cover the first three episodes of the series but rather than combine my talking point from each of them into different topics, I’ll run through the episodes one at a time, since that’s the way I took the notes down as well. If nothing else, that would show what my thoughts were at the time and then at the end, I’ll circle back and talk about the three episodes together.
Episode 1: As If I Met Her In My Dream…
As far as introductions go, I really liked the opening scene of the series. It felt a little old and cliched to me – the post-apocalyptic background could have been interesting but something about Madoka being in that setting rubbed me the wrong way and Kyubey saying things like ‘You must become a magical girl!’ made me cringe a little. For a second, since I hadn’t really committed to the show at that point, I was on the verge of not going through the first episode, but luckily I had promised myself that I would watch at least the first three episodes.
I was a lot happier to see that it was just a dream – even though I normally get very suspicious when shows use dreams for foreshadowing, which was clearly happening in this case. We get a quick introduction to Madoka, who, to be very honest, seems a little bland in this opening episode. She has what I could consider a perfectly normal life – her family is loving and adorable, and in school, she seems well-liked by everyone and has a couple of close friends that she can trust and rely on. I actually really like her family – throughout their introduction, all I could think of was “I hope Urobuchi doesn’t have them kill each other or something as fucked up”. You can never tell with him, but I’m going to take a gamble and say he’ll find a way to make a lot of characters unhappy regardless.
And then things start moving along – we are introduced to the mysteriously cool Akemi Homura, who is somehow instantly popular despite barely acknowledging the existence of anyone around her. She seems to know Madoka or at least, acknowledge something unusual about her – Madoka recognizes her too, from her dream in the opening section. Later on, Homura warns Madoka to stay the way she is – to resist the urge to become a ‘magical girl’. I kind of wish they found a better term than ‘magical girl’. It’s bringing back long suppressed memories of Cardcaptor Sakura, that I only watched because I wanted to get to One Piece (it was shown right after CCS, on Saturday mornings…I swear…). Nevertheless, I have a feeling I’m going to be typing the phrase ‘magical girl’ a lot over the next two weeks. If I’m not already on a list by this point, I will be by the end of this series.
In any case, things start getting heated when Sayaka and Madoka are #HangingAtTheMall and Madoka finds the Kyubey creature in dire straits and being pursued by Homura. The girls escape only to end up being caught up in a Witch attack. Mami comes to the rescue and there is a brief standoff between her and Homura. The question at this point is that since it is clear that Mami and Homura are opposed to each other, which one is ‘good’ and which one is ‘bad’? Of course, I hope that matters develop into something more complex than that but for now, my instinct tends to distrust Mami more than Homura just because of how she seems to be the perfect image of the ‘good’ magical girl archetype; pretty, cheerful and all the rest. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mami was luring the girls into some kind of trap, from which Homura will rescue them.
The episode pretty much ends there with Kyubey offering the girls a pact; and it’s an ominous note to me. With Homura’s prescient warning earlier in the episode and the foreshadowing of the post-apocalyptic dream, I’m wary of any offer that looks too good to be true. Why is Kyubey offering the girls help? In exchange for what, exactly? Why is Homura hunting Kyubey?
Episode 2: That Would Be Truly Wonderful
The terms of the contract are laid out – Kyubey grants the girls a wish, but in exchange, they must fight the Witches. Witches are sort of human ill-will made tangible – why does this sound so very familiar? I feel like I’m not supposed to ask the obvious question – why offer this power exclusively to little girls? I guess offering it to the boys would break the genre a bit too much. Nevertheless, I think it’s very interesting that the Kyubey is offering them powers in exchange for wishes – it’s a little bit like the deal that Faust makes with the Devil, though we don’t know at this point whether Kyubey is necessarily evil per se. It also makes you wonder what wish Homura and Mami made. Is Homura’s anger against Kyubey a result of her wish becoming twisted in some sort of way? We’ve seen Urobuchi play with similar ideas in his works before – Fate/Zero comes to mind, for example.
Mami offers to give them a little tour of what killing a Witch looks like. You get the feeling that Mami is fairly experienced at this; perhaps she became a..ugh..magical girl at Madoka’s age but regardless of the reason, she looks to be falling into something of a mentor role to the younger girls. I don’t really know what this means vis-a-vis Mami vs Homura as the good or bad person but well, by next episode, it won’t matter much.
The rest of the episode is fairly straightforward. I really like the aesthetics of the witches – they look cartoonish, but in the kind of unsettled Alice in Wonderland way. The fight scenes as well are really slickly animated and there’s something hilariously badass about watch this middle school girl unload this mini-armory of guns and use it to blast a monster to hell and back. The Grief Seed adds an interesting element to the story – does that mean that the magical girls powers naturally ‘decay’ over time and they are forced to harvest Grief Seeds for Kyubey? That would mean that they have virtually no choice but to continue to fight and risk their lives endlessly and it could be the downside to the contract that I was talking about before. It seems that Kyubey was basically upgrading the girls to harvest food for itself (himself?).
Episode 3: I’m Not Afraid Of Anything Anymore
We get a little more information on Sayaka – she is romantically interested in a violin player, who I think was actually mentioned in an earlier episode but I didn’t recognize. The violin player, Kamijo, has had an accident and it seems unlikely that he will ever be able to play the violin ever again. They seem relatively close and it’s pretty sweet – I can’t wait to see what horrors the plot will visit on them. The increasing depth to Sayaka indicates that she will come to play a larger role in events to come.
Then again, we get more information about Mami – not much – but we see how that ends in a just a bit. Mami was apparently dying in a traffic accident when she made her wish and I have to say that that seems like a bit of a dick move by the Kyubey. It’s basically preying on her moment of weakness to offer her a deal that she might not have otherwise accepted. At this point, I don’t know if I can say that it’s an outright bad deal – it comes with a ton of danger, as even the more experienced magical girls will soon discover – but at the same time, it’s not an instant death sentence or a nakedly lopsided deal. Still, it seems that Kyubey’s cute appearances are deceptive; if it is the Devil that the girls are making deals with, it’s looking to get the best bargains.
Mami says she doesn’t regret anything and I guess I can understand why – she is alive after all so all things considered, things could have been much much worse. At the same time though, it seems that the decision is one that still weighs heavily on her and she advises Sayaka and Madoka not to rush into it. Perhaps she knows more about her two would-be proteges than she lets on because she implies something that cuts through the saccharine sweet nature of the girls so far – she accuses Sayaka, in a roundabout way – of only wanting to help Kamijou for her own sake, to keep him indebted to her. Not only is this something that the audience has not really gotten a sense of from Sayaka but it is also introducing a moral grey zone into the series that thus far has only had two elements – the good magical girls and the bad witches. It also opens up an age old discussion of whether a good deed done for selfish reasons is any less good because of those selfish reasons. At this point though, I do think Sayaka’s intentions are pure but I’ll only be convinced if her wish comes with an unintended consequence – like Kamijou forgetting about her or losing interest in her.
I continue to be a big fan of Madoka’s family, especially her mother. There is a conversation between Madoka and her father that seems like it could be significant but one that I’m having difficulty decoding. Her father explains that his wife doesn’t really like her work but she enjoys the feeling of overcoming barriers and one of the ways I’m interpreting this is that he is explaining that it’s not just about what you do, but doing it for the right reasons. Phrased differently, sometimes you will have to do something you don’t like because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t think that that’s quite right though; it feels like I’m missing something from the conversation, or maybe I’m just reading too much into it.
Homura and Mami have another confrontation in which Mami makes it clear that she does not want Homura interfering. It seems that Homura is something of an unknown to Mami as well though the latter is still confident of being able to beat Homura if it should come to that. The big reveal here is that Madoka has a huge amount of natural talent (what? an anime protagonist is unusually talented? I have never heard of such a thing!) and that could explain the reason these various characters with different interests (Mami, Kyubey, Homura) are circling around her. It’s a little annoying that Madoka is that powerful because so far she’s just seemed extremely bland – nice, and friendly, and all that, but not at all interesting and without any quirks that set her apart.
The next point of interest is when Madoka and Sayaka find the Grief Seed. On hindsight I really should have seen the death flags when Mami opens up to Madoka, but as I was watching the episode, I didn’t think anything of it. We see that Madoka still hasn’t really found something that she wants and I think that that’s really interesting because on one hand, it’s another result of her character’s blindness but it also makes her a little like Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. Without desire, it is hard for the Devil to get a foothold into Madoka’s psyche and in a way, it might very well be her purity that keeps her from getting sucked into the dangerous world of magical girls and witches (I absolutely hate how easily I am now able to type magical girls un-ironically). It’s weird but something about the way that Mami and Madoka enter the Witch’s lair alone reminded me of the scene from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in which Harry and Dumbledore enter the cave with the Horcrux. Maybe it’s something about mentors dying in front of their proteges. It is interesting that Mami feels alone and sad most of the time – it’s peeling away all the bright optimism and positivity that show douses the magical girls with. It’s also a break from the typical range of emotions ascribed to the genre – far from solving all her problems, becoming a magical girl has become the source of further burdens for Mami.
Before you feel too sorry for Mami though, maybe she should have thought about teaming up with Homura and not just tie her up in her arrogance. I do realize that they don’t really get along but at the same time, pride goes before the fall, as they say. I’m also feeling Homura more than Mami right now, so I’m definitely biased. Unfortunately for everyone, Mami does not choose to bring help and as a result she is eventually butchered by the monster she should have had no problem killing. Wasn’t it just a hatchling or something? Was there some foul play in the way it suddenly fought back? Or did Mami just get cocky and end up paying the ultimate price?
This is pretty much where the shit hits the fan, in any case. The girls are understandably devastated and Homura, whose motives aren’t clear at this moment, gets a bit of bad PR by ‘stealing’ Mami’s Grief Seed. To be clear, I don’t think she actually did anything wrong but the optics of the situation just don’t look very good for her. The whole thing just ends up leaving Madoka and Sayaka confused and helpless and it seems more likely than ever that they will take the deal that Kyubey is offering them.
One of the things that I was worried about when I thought about starting this series was just how much you need to know about a genre in order to appreciate a deconstruction of that genre. I enjoy deconstructions as much as the next guy but I can’t say that I know a lot about the magical girl genre and it’s typical tropes. I don’t think that’s really been a barrier to me enjoying this show so far, though. Also, I apologize for the relative lack of pictures this time around – my computer is on it’s last legs and while that means that I have finally been forced to quit gaming for a while and get back to writing, it also means that I’ve basically lost a lot of my HD stuff and I’m a little reluctant to subject people to shitty potato res pictures. Thanks for reading and till next time!