Madoka Magica has the perfect one-two combo to utterly tank with its ending. Firstly, a large part of the shows appeal is the shock value from plot twists and reveals. Not to underrate the overlying themes in the anime, but the twists lose their value significantly in retrospect if the ending they were leading up to fails justify the emotional energy you put into them. Secondly, the characters are forgettable. Their stories are fascinating, but as people they have little personality that I can bring myself to care about.
I can think of two anime that had these two points plus a miserable ending that caused my opinion of the show to tank compared to my enthusiasm I had for it while watching it, those two anime being Ride Back and Mai Hime. While Madoka Magica is a significantly better show than both of these, these points about the reliance on plot twists and forgettable characters remain the same. As of time of writing, Madoka Magica has had 10 out of it’s planned 12 episode run aired and is currently set up beautifully and dangerously for a dreadful ending. This post is both to explain to those of you now why I love this show and a message to future me, should the ending tank, that there was a reason why I was so enthusiastic about Madoka Magica.
Fair warning: There will be spoilers, up to episode 10.
I hesitate to use the word ‘subversion’ when describing Madoka Magica, as it’s a word thrown around by many, not understanding what it is Madoka is subverting in the first place. What I see is a group of girls, who otherwise would spend their time eating cake, being cute and generally being insufferably nice to each other, having great powers given to them and then made to suffer because of it. This power is that of having their wish granted in exchange for being a magical girl, something other magical girl anime, and anime stories in general, paint as being a glorious thing. However in Madoka Magica, this wish and power bring each character nothing but despair. Not only do their lives effectively end because they became magical girls and suffer in the gruelling battles against the witches, their wishes that are meant to be an equivalent trade off bring them nothing but more misfortune as well.
Subversion or not, the main appeal of Madoka Magica is what a perfectly told story it is. There’s a very deliberate and clear path behind each character’s development. While she is far from the fan favourite, I’ve been finding Kaname Madoka’s development the most fascinating, especially in contrast with alternate dimension Madoka in episode 10. Because of her own wimpiness and not becoming a magical girl, she keeps drawing more and more into herself, getting increasingly depressed with everything that happens to the girls around her. Shaft’s animation, often one that is more gimicky than useful, add hugely to the story-telling here. The alternate dimensions of the witches are frightening and bizarre places. The backgrounds have become increasingly dreary as the series goes on, mimicking the change in tone and depression of Madoka. Also special credit has to be given for the way they frame Kyubey.
Kyubey is magnificent. In a show with a cast of rather forgettable characters, if memorable stories, Kyubey stands out as the most fascinating and deadly villain since Johan Liebert of Monster. Again, full credit has to be given to Shaft’s artwork and how they frame Kyubey. How his shadows cast over the girls, standing on their shoulders or their windowsills, pushing Madoka into becoming a magical girl herself. How they frequently draw attention to his unmoving expression, one that doesn’t change no matter what latest catastrophe these girls he personally made magical girls face.
But what really makes him so chilling is how he simply doesn’t understand. What we and the characters see as evil is at a level he cannot comprehend. Kyubey isn’t evil, and never was, which is precisely why he works so well. Possibly the best line in the anime came in his conversation with Madoka and why he made them magical girls, saying “if you feel like sacrificing yourself for the universe, give me a call”. The heat death of the universe is so far beyond anything Madoka herself can comprehend or care about, entropy not having any effect for a bizzlion odd years, but equally Kyubey can’t understand why his actions cause the girls to hate him so much.
There are some problems with Madoka Magica though. Well, one specific problem. The characters are dull. Their stories are fascinating, certainly. I’ve gotten pretty emotionally invested in the wimpyness of Madoka and Homerun-chan the time travelling lesbian, but as people they simply don’t have much personality. Without Kyubey, this would just be yet another anime about a bunch of incredibly dull girls being insufferably nice to each other, except with some occasionally nice visuals. Well, not all nice visuals. I’m rather partial to the square-head design of the characters, but their facial features go rather array when the shot of it is anything other than a close-up.
Overall though, Madoka Magica is pretty fantastic anime. It’s perfectly constructed and very deliberately paced, keeping enough revelations with each episode to keep it riveting while keeping to the themes of the story without descending into shock tactics for the sake of keeping out interest. They have to keep the twists coming, otherwise the story would flounder when stuck with these boring characters, but it hasn’t done that once over the course of the show. Well, perhaps bar the first two episodes, but the speed at which it upped the ante after setting the scene means I’m willing to forgive the show for that.
So that is why I love(d) Madoka Magica. The ending still has the capacity to capitulate, although after episode 10 I have more faith in them producing an ending I’m happy with. If so, then the main point of this post is made redundant. However if I can trade one of my posts being made useless in return for a Cart Driver quality level ending for Madoka, then I’m more than happy to do so.