Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably at least know of the Madoka Magica TV series, even if you haven’t seen it. SHAFT recently finished two Madoka Magica movies that are a precursor to an all new movie to be released in 2013 — they’ve been showing at a few sites around the U.S. Last night I caught one of the showings in Los Angeles.
I like to keep my expectations reasonable and leave it up to a work of fiction to show me what it has. These movies are no exception, even though I am a fan of the TV series. I knew going in that the two movies would basically be a souped-up version of the same story, with some changes here and there; a remaster of the original, as Mike Huang of Anime Diet put it. (It’s probably worth noting here that the original run of the TV series is the only time I’ve watched it. I didn’t watch the BD release, and it has been a while since I watched the TV anime, so I can’t precisely note every single change made.) My basic expectations were as follows: 1) the art would be prettier and the animation better (met), 2) wait, I had only one basic expectation. Yeah, I dug the art style enough to shell out the money on the big screen and was not disappointed on that front.
That said, there were some other interesting things to note that also made the movies worth watching, even if they involved some mixed feelings. (SPOILER NOTE: I will spoil some things, but only events that the TV anime and movies share. If you watched the TV series but haven’t seen the movies, you should be fine reading this. There are some new things in the movies, and I won’t be writing about those.)
Before I get to other stuff, though, let me gush a bit more about the art. Man. If there’s one thing I love about melodrama, it’s when creators fully commit to it visually, especially in animation. The bizarre, otherworldly realms the witches create for themselves awed me with each new space the magical girls invaded. Frankly, if both Madoka movies involved nonstop fights in increasingly wild barriers, they would be perfect to me. They’re so beautifully alien. The scenes for most of the major events are beautifully rendered, too, in particular Sayaka’s breakdown near the end of the first movie. The stark silhouettes, the colors, the movements, the faces, the eyes . . . so thoroughly, utterly melodramatic, but also visually harrowing. Little things like the shift of the color tint over Homura’s base just work — the viewer understands immediately the difference between the frames of mind of the Homura of the “past” and the Homura of the “present.” The framing of each scene’s setting is so good at establishing even our world as a horrifying otherspace for the magical girls. This is all stuff that the TV series did well, but it’s just starker and more beautiful in the movie. Madoka is the type of series, I think, that wouldn’t be nearly as easy to buy if its visual scheme did not work so well.
I got everything I wanted and more there. However, the second most consistent comment I read was about the pacing of both movies and how it didn’t quite work. I wondered how the movies would handle the pacing, since the usual strategy is to totally rework the story to fit the restraints of a movie — sometimes to great success (Do You Remember Love?), sometimes to good success (Revolutionary Girl Utena: Adolescence Apocalypse) and sometimes to failure (RahXephon: Pluralitas Concentio). But these movies literally take the TV series from start to finish and put it into movie form, with some changes here and there. This might be the most interesting aspect of the movies to me.
It seems clear that SHAFT knows the most likely audience is one that has already viewed Madoka Magica; obviously, there’s the hope that new fans will see it, enjoy it and perhaps wish to experience the original series. However, the movies strip most of the story to its barest essentials — there’s maybe a bit more focus on Sayaka, and a bit more focus on Homura later on, but for the most part, this is the TV series distilled to its purest point. There’s just enough explanation that a newcomer could maybe follow what’s going on, but the movies are built in a way that the audience brings a lot of the emotional context. It’s not that the movies don’t try and succeed at times; again, they do right by Sayaka. It’s just that there’s very little breathing room.
Part of the success of the TV series comes from its deliberate, methodical pace, the reasons for which come to light as Homura’s story is revealed. It’s a pace that is specifically tailored to the TV schedule. The movies keep most of the plot but don’t have that methodical pacing, because they simply don’t have the time. Watching these movies is like getting a beat-by-beat look at the script for the TV series . . . and, honestly, I think that’s a bit interesting. As someone who knew the whole story, it was fun to break down the structure and build of the plot as I saw it unfold onscreen. And because the movie distills the plot to its basic elements so much, it brings into stark relief what worked well in Madoka and what didn’t work so well.
Melodramatic as it is, I like Sayaka’s story and the part she plays in the series. The basic beats of her development make sense in the context of the show and the movies. On the other hand, I didn’t much care for Kyouko or her role in the series. You can argue, of course, that every girl in the series is a plot device to some extent. Kyouko, however, always seemed the most plot devicey of the girls. She exists to drive forward Sayaka’s story, her backstory is perhaps the most heavy-handed grab at emotion, and while the way she goes out makes for a cool scene, I ultimately couldn’t care much about her. This doesn’t change in the movie; in fact, her part is the only place I think the first movie drags. So it goes for most everything the movies portray — there’s a meticulously built, inexorable feel to the plot that fits the themes of the story and the quickened march through the plot makes it all the more apparent.
There are a couple of instances where the movies take something that worked and make it work not as well. The first is Mami’s death scene. Obviously there’s no real way to recreate the impact for the seasoned viewer; however, I think the movie moves through it too quickly. The suddenness of the event works, but after a bit of mourning, the scene is over and done with. It could be argued that the swiftness with which Sayaka and Madoka are forced to get over this traumatic event is indicative of the cruel nature of a magical girl’s life, but still, the pacing of that scene doesn’t sit quite right with me. The other is Homura’s backstory — and, honestly, I can’t blame SHAFT here. If there’s one part of the plot that is built specifically for TV, it’s the episode that reveals everything about Homura. There’s simply no way I can think of to insert that into the movie without it feeling awkward. It’s a no-win situation: obviously it can’t be left out, because it’s arguably the most important part of the plot, but the way it’s constructed just does not fit the movie. It’s a shame.
One final point about Homura, though, that interested me and that I didn’t think about while watching the TV anime: I couldn’t help but think about how utterly silly it is for her to use conventional weapons. It’s ridiculous to see her running around with guns, grenades, missiles and bombs when the other girls are using more regal, cartoony weapons, yes? But then it struck me that it totally fits because she is the outsider magical girl. There’s a scene in the movie (can’t remember whether it’s in the TV series) where Madoka draws a prototype of what eventually becomes her magical girl outfit. The scene suggests that the form the girls take (and probably the weapons they use) reflects what’s inside them. Certainly this is apparent upon looking at Sayaka’s knightly outfit and her choice of weapon — a sword with which she can protect the innocent and powerless.
Homura’s only wish, though, is to protect Madoka, and the only way to do that is to go back to a time where Madoka exists. Thus, her only magic is the ability to control time. It’s not so much a weapon that can be used to protect Madoka (though it grows to be) as it is an opportunity granted to Homura. Because of the nature of Homura’s power, however, she has to improvise and play at being a magical girl like the others. Her weapons don’t fit the image of the magical girl because she herself doesn’t totally fit the image; Homura sees herself as largely worthless and lacking the inner strength and conviction necessary to produce a good weapon. It’s only through repeated failure that Homura develops the resolve and guile that we see throughout the series/movies. Just something I finally thought about; I bet others noticed the same things long before me.
This is probably long enough, so the long and short of it is that the movies are worth seeing for fans of the series, especially if you have an appreciation for the visuals. I wouldn’t go in expecting greatness, but they are good reminders of what made the show worth following in the first place.