I'd heard this was the darkest take on the magical girl anime genre ever attempted, courtesy of head writer Gen Urobuchi, who's known for some really dark stuff and has even publicly admitted he's temperamentally unsuited for upbeat stories such as, naturally enough, the usual magical girl stuff. But unlike Neon Genesis Evangelion, Madoka Magica turns out not to be an allegory of the showrunner's mental breakdown disguised as a genre deconstruction. In fact, episode 12 contains the happiest ending of any Urobuchi story ever. But then I discovered exactly why it's supposed to be so awesome.
Madoka Magica isn't merely dark. In fact, it's utterly epic.
The deconstruction and grim darkness come from a strategy of taking certain magical girl tropes to such an extreme that they cancel out. The magical girls' motivation for destroying the monsters of the week (here called "witches"), for example, cancels out the standard "power of friendship" theme. In Episode 2, Mami explains to Madoka and Sayaka that magical girls' power comes from "soul gems", which grow darker as they use their power. They can only be replenished by killing witches for their "grief seeds", which are like soul gems only black and dangerous. But there's a limited supply of these grief seeds, forcing the magical girls to compete for them. Episode 5 shows they're perfectly willing to kill each other over them.
And then there's the "Faustian bargain" theme involving that sinister variation on the standard cute mascot, Kyubey — short for "Incubator". Certain witches' names (written in an alphabet of runes specially designed for the show) are references to Goethe's Faust.
The witches appear only in pocket dimensions which manifest only when they need to feed on humans or do battle with magical girls. Both the monstrous inhuman witches and their realms are depicted in flat, jerky, surreal animation right out of the 20th-century avant-garde. This was only the second thing that impressed me. The first was the conventional animation, surprisingly good for a TV show; parts of it are quite beautiful.
Madoka Magica is well known for its Wham Episodes that rival anything from J. Michael Straczynski himself (random Babylon 5 example: sorry, Commander Ivanova, but that presidential candidate you voted for? She's evil!). I won't reveal exactly what happens — that would blunt the shock — but I'll give a few clues:
- Episode 3: Something horrible happens that establishes the true dark tone of the story. This is followed by the first appearance of the true end credits, one of the darkest and most abstract manifestations of the Urobuchi style, to a J-metal soundtrack.
- Episode 6: we find out exactly what a magical girl is. It ain't pretty.
- Episode 8: we find out the exact connection between magical girls and the witches they battle. Uh-oh.
- Episode 10: the flashback episode was the one that struck me with the true brilliance of the show. We find out who the real hero of this story is (clue: her name isn't Madoka), the nature of her power, and just what kind of hell she had to go through to get to this point. And then it ends with the opening credits, to signal that the story begins where this episode ends.
- Episode 12: Madoka makes her wish. What she wishes for shocks even Kyubey. And then the show goes cosmic. Did I mention how epic it is?