Genres: Dark Fantasy, Horror, Magical Girl
Creators: Shinbo Akiyuki and Urobuchi Gen
Length: 12 episodes and 1 film
Highlights: The Powerpuff Girls meets H.P. Lovecraft
The magical girl subgenre intersects with numerous other anime genres; most series are classified as a subset of more general fantasy, but others fall into the range of sitcoms, dramas, and occasionally even sci-fi. Magical girl series can range widely in content; many follow a similar plot as Bewitched, with its characters trying to live normal lives despite their powers. Other series, especially since the popular Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha was released in 2003, have drifted in a more action-orientated direction, forming the “Magical Girl Warrior” style. Generally speaking though, magical girl series fall into the shoujo demographic (ie, aimed towards younger girls). As such, most of them tend to have characters who are dressed in frilly pink costumes, have some sort of cute animal sidekick, and fight using the powers of friendship and love; the kind of thing that most parents would be okay with having their little girls watching.
As I discussed in a previous article, I don’t really watch any shoujo anime because generally speaking characters dressed in frilly pink dresses and fighting with the powers of friendship and love don’t appeal to me very much. However, magical girl series frequently do have large periphery demographics of viewers who are not little girls. This is part of the reason why more action-orientated magical girl series have become popular in recent years. However, it wasn’t until 2011, with the release by Studio Shaft of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, that the genre was turned on its head so badly that it may never recover.
Kaname Madoka is an ordinary high school girl living in the futuristic metropolis of Mitakihara. She has a loving family and a best friend named Miki Sayaka. Her mundane life changes the day an unusual transfer student named Akemi Homura transfers into Madoka’s class; Homura acts as if she has met Madoka before, and the mystery is compounded by the fact the Madoka dreamed of Homura before meeting her. Later that day at the mall, Madoka and Sayaka run into Homura again, who is attacking a strange, furry creature. They rescue the bizarre (but cute) animal from Homura’s aggression, but are soon attacked themselves by horrifying monsters. In the nick of time they are rescued by an upperclassmen from their school, a girl named Tomoe Mami. She reveals herself and Homura to be Magical Girls, who use their powers to battle monsters named Witches which feed on and spread negative emotions. The creature they rescued, Kyubey, offers to make Madoka and Sayaka Magical Girls as well. Kyubey says that Madoka has more magical potential than any other girl he has ever met, and in exchange for fighting the witches he will grant her any wish she desires.
This sounds like a fairly ordinary premise for a fantasy series, and the show is fairly ordinary at first. This, combined with the show’s opening animation featuring Madoka’s silly hijinks as a Magical Girl with happy music playing in the background, might be enough to trick you into thinking this is a standard Magical Girl series. However, what on the surface appears to be a cute show for little girls about magic and the importance of friendship quickly reveals itself to be something very different. In reality, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a dark, twisted tale of darkness, madness, and despair.
Much like Neon Genesis Evangelion did for mecha anime, Madoka Magica brutally deconstructs the magical girl genre, showing the logical consequences of all the tropes present in the genre. Yes, all of the teenage girls have wondrous magical powers. But in exchange for that power, they are forsworn to a life of conflict and violence, fighting monstrous entities which are quite literally incarnations of madness and despair capable of driving their friends and family to commit murder or suicide (the Witches themselves look like they were animated by Terry Gilliam while he was on a really bad acid trip). Yes, the girls get a wish granted in exchange for this, but there's nothing that says they have to wish for something positive. Even if they do wish for something positive, that wish may very well come back to bite them in ways they never intended. Yes, there is a cute, furry creature which grants them this power. But most of them never stop to ask why they are being granted this power, or if the cute creature has any ulterior motives. And when I say they have to fight witches, I mean that quite literally, with all the violence and blood and potential death that entails. Many of the characters die, often in gruesome and horrible ways.
It should be ominous to say that Puella Magi Madoka Magica was primarily inspired by the German epic Faust, about a man who tries to make a deal with the Devil in exchange for magical power (hint: it doesn’t end well for him in most versions of the tale). It should also be ominous to say that this series was written by Urobuchi Gen, the writer of Fate/Zero who has gained the nickname “Urobutcher” for his habit of brutally killing off his casts, and believe me, he earned his nickname for Madoka Magica. What makes this so twisted is how Urobuchi shows how, in reality, a happy magical girl series which runs on the power of friendship and magic would degenerate into a cosmic horror story which would have H.P. Lovecraft shaking in his boots.
For example, one of the main themes in Madoka Magica is how being a selfless heroine is not only impractical, it’s actually impossible. All of the characters are initially empowered by what seem like selfless, idealistic wishes. However, as time goes on, the series exposes how most of these wishes aren’t actually selfless at all, and how the cognitive dissonance between their perceived purity and actual selfishness only leads to greater despair. Even the wishes that are genuinely selfless only lead to greater pain in the end, as they backfire in ways that were never expected, leaving the girls bitter and broken. Other major themes include the high cost of hope and the inevitability of despair.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica was a massive commercial and critical success; never before had someone deconstructed the very concept of the magical girl series so completely. The show gained a huge following because of its combination of utter darkness, adorable girls with magical powers and cute outfits, and pervasive despair. The combination is bizarre and wonderfully perverse, creating a show which is depressing, cute, and downright horrifying all at the same time. If you can accept all of that, then maybe you are fit to be a magical girl.