Friday, 02 March 2012 11:10
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One of the most talked-about shows in recent years, and one that - if you believe the hype - has almost redefined magical girl shows, Puella Magi Madoka Magica (hard 'g' in magica, language fans) is certainly an experience. But as good as the hype..?
Magical girls. You can't help but love them, really - well I can't, anyway. Sailor Moon was one of my formative shows when I started getting really into anime. Cardcaptor Sakura still rates way up my list of favourite shows, and despite the silly prices I could get for them these days you'll have to prize my complete DVD set from my cold, dead hands. When 4Kids licensed and then butchered Tokyo Mew Mew, I had a defining moment of fanboy raaaaage and launched a letter-writing campaign to get them to think again. 4Kids were never much into listening to their audience, but the campaign site was still getting respectable traffic when I pulled the plug on it two years ago, 5 years after it was launched. Magical girls and I have A History, and Madoka Magica brings with it a reputation for just maybe being a game-changer in the usually-predictable world of magical girl shows.
Look at the promotional artwork, and you'd be forgiven for thinking so far, so normal. Cute and cuddly mascot character & guardian of the girls' powers? Check. Five normal girls with archetypal personalities & suitably-themed costumes? Check. Identified mission (defeat the witches)? Check. Fight witches in exchange for wishes being granted sounds fair enough, right? If there was a checklist for what you'd expect to see magical girls do, Madoka Magica would be (and is) well down it before you'd notice anything was amiss. But then...
After having a strange dream, young girl Madoka Kaname goes to school the next day to find that the girl from her dream, Homura Akemi, has enrolled in her class at school - and has a rather unusual attitude towards her. Later the same day, while Madoka's out shopping with her friend Sayaka, following an unusual sound brings her to an encounter with Kyubey - which is when Madoka's life starts to be turned upside down. Kyubey has the power to grant a girl any wish, in exchange for them contracting with him to become a magical girl and fight witches. Which is something that Homura really doesn't want to see Madoka do.
But an encounter with magical girl Mami Tomoe, though, sets Madoka and Sayaka on the road of thinking that this "magical girl" lark might not be such a bad thing, and Mami is eager to show them the ropes, and what they'll be facing. Not in a way that minimises the danger that she faces - there's no way that can be avoided - but the granting of a wish, and the power to help the world? Isn't that what every girl wants?
So goes the premise of the show, and if you've seen enough magical girl shows in the past, we all know how this shit works, right? Well, in this case, no. We don't. Although explaining quite how the series works without delving into spoiler territory and consequently ruining the surprises the series has is store is hard. The clues come early in this batch of episodes, when you notice that, despite all those ticks in the magical girl checklist, the atmosphere and tone of the series is dark and rather low-key; that for all his cute appearance, our friendly mascot Kyubey has something about him that's just not quite right; and that the magical girls in this series don't do "teamwork" or the warm fuzzies.
The result is quite an experience to watch, especially first time through (and if you've avoided spoilers - which I'll admit isn't exactly easy). There's a constant sense of foreboding throughout the volume, which eventually results in a payoff at the end of episode three that graphically showcases the series' intention to mess with the audience, and strips away any misconception you may have had that anyone in the show is "safe". If there's a downside, it's that the series is trying almost too hard to be grim and dark - in much the same was as a KEY show, it's using every trick in the book to play for an emotional response. It's just trying to make you frightened or concerned for the characters, instead of making you turn on the waterworks. But it's still emotional manipulation, quite heavy-handed at times, and that never sits all that well with me.
But overall, this is damned good stuff, and an impressive start to the series - and having seen the full series before, I can safely say that it's going to get better. Well worth checking out.