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Do you value your life,
All you have, all you know?
And for what would you trade it,
I wonder?
Could you ever decide
To what lengths you would go?
Would you grieve when you’d paid it,
I wonder?

I would never regret,
Says the fool, feeling smart,
To confirm his conviction
Till later.
But regrets always come
When we think with our heart.
‘Tis our own contradiction
And traitor.

MPAA rating: All not rated (should be PG-13)

Don’t judge a book by its cover, or in this case, a show by its genre. I would think most people even mildly familiar with anime have heard of magical girl shows like Sailor Moon or Cardcaptors, where a group of girls typically gain powers from some adorable talking creature and become cutesy superheroines. Not to dis those shows, but it’s the kind of formula that works well for kids yet becomes insufferable to outsiders and even older former fans, like me. Yet about six years ago, Puella Magi Madoka Magica (that’s Latin, by the way, not Japanese) revolutionized the genre under the mature eye of writer Gen Urobuchi. In American terms, that’s like Christopher Nolan directing a Barbie movie and making it awesome.

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Since I’ve been reviewing only films up to this point, I’ll point out that Puella Magi Madoka Magica (I’ll just call it Madoka Magica to save time) isn’t just a TV show; it had a film follow-up subtitled Rebellion, and before that was released, the 12-episode series was edited and retooled as two theatrical films, the first called Beginnings, the second Eternal. Thus, that makes Madoka Magica eligible for my top movie list and well worth reviewing, since it happens to be my third favorite anime series, after Cowboy Bebop and Steins;Gate.

The odd thing about Madoka Magica is that it was marketed like any number of similar shows, light and innocent, and since it was original and not based on a manga, viewers had no idea what to expect. The opening credits are overly bright and cheery and the first couple episodes are nothing out of the ordinary, with the typical banter and buoyancy of color-coordinated middle-school girls, but don’t let that fool you. This series goes to some very dark and very emotional places, and it confirms the unwritten rule of watching at least three episodes of a given series before you write it off.

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After school one day, Madoka (the one with pink hair) and Sayaka (blue hair) are rescued from a dangerous witch by upperclassman Mami Tomoe (yellow hair), who became a magical girl by making a deal with the talking animal-thing Kyubey: magical powers and the duty of battling witches in exchange for a single wish. At first, they’re awed by the potential of such a pact, but neither can bring themselves to trade away their old lives. Meanwhile, a black-haired new student and magical girl named Homura seems to have a mysterious mission to keep Madoka from accepting Kyubey’s deal at all costs. The story may threaten to lose your interest at first, but then comes a moment in the third episode that changes the entire tone of the show, a scene so sudden and shocking that it has burned itself into my memory, even though I knew about it beforehand. From there, the story spirals into tragedy, heartache, and themes far deeper than one would expect going in.

The characters are still young and naïve, and they buckle under the weight of the hard, regrettable choices placed upon them. They expect frilly costumes and to help people, and while there’s some of that, before long they must deal with disillusionment, death, lies, time travel, and the laws of thermodynamics. (Told you this wasn’t a typical magical girl show.) The catalyst for all this is Kyubey, who seems like a cute sidekick at first but holds much darker intentions with his Faustian contract. Even with his passive demeanor, high-pitched voice, and blank stare that gets creepier with time, he’s such a manipulative, logical little bugger that, by the end, I hated the very sight of him. He’s also essentially unkillable, but it was satisfying whenever anyone tried. Homura’s story in particular overshadows everyone else’s, and while she’s a mystery for most of the series, her backstory is remarkably compelling.

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Like the story, the art style is also distinctive and layered with atmosphere. The animation of the real world is evocative on its own, often setting the mood with stylized angles and amber-tinged sunsets, and the character’s eyes have a unique sketched quality to them. Things get bizarre, though, whenever a witch appears in its labyrinth, not as a pointy-hatted antagonist but as a collage of stop-motion cutouts that go deep into surreal territory. The combination of the traditional animation with this dreamlike setting is often nightmarish and complements the story’s descent into misfortune, while certain scenes in silhouette are both beautiful and disturbing, incorporating artistic details evoking similar themes to Faust and The Little Mermaid. The action scenes are also very well-done, often with spectacular explosions. Boy, this series has everything.

I feel like I’ve been reviewing Madoka Magica the show rather than the movies, but the first two films basically are the series, with the first eight episodes making up Beginnings and the final four forming Eternal.  They actually translate quite well, skipping over some of the awkward moments at the beginning and keeping only what’s necessary to the story, while retaining important character moments, like Madoka’s insightful conversation with her mother. Eternal has one extra battle scene and some revised animation but unfortunately includes some cutesy montages that feel out of place since the story’s tone had already changed drastically from the beginning. However, it does follow the same plot to the same heart-tugging finale. The series is full of tragic events that make me want to tear up just seeing the characters, but despite some overwrought execution of the cosmic twist at the end, the conclusion is sublimely bittersweet.

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And then… they had to ruin it with a third movie. Rebellion may be more cinematic than the first two, but it’s nowhere near as successful. It tries to replicate the bait-and-switch of the series, with a lighthearted beginning that gets darker as it goes, but it does so by presenting an alternate version of events with an explanation far too long in coming. I suppose it’s a little satisfying to see the characters in the carefree life they thought they’d have as magical girls, but it indulges for too long. Sure, the plot eventually makes sense, but it’s not good when even those familiar with the story are utterly confused for over a half hour.

It’s not all bad. Once the plot deepens, it gets more absorbing, and the eventual reveal of the mystery reconfirms Kyubey as the most hateful cat-bunny-thing imaginable. There’s also an epic gun battle between two popular characters that is jaw-droppingly awesome and may be the action high point of the series. If only the rest of the story could live up to it. One side character has little reason for existing; the surreal visuals are the rule rather than the exception now, as if the filmmakers took turns animating their most unsettling drug trips; and the final twist took Homura’s obsession with Madoka in a wholly unsatisfying direction. And then it ends, with a brand new conflict introduced and no resolution. No! There’s talk of a fourth film in development, and while that may improve things if they can end it right, it doesn’t make the disappointment of Rebellion any better right now. Sequel-makers constantly ignore this demand, but don’t continue a series unless you can end it just as well as it already had!

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The final movie aside, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a brilliant and memorable series, well-written, poignant, and impressively visualized. The music is haunting, the animation arresting, and the character motivations powerfully nuanced yet pitiful and open to interpretation. It’s the kind of psychological story that leaves me with a persistent melancholy long after it’s over. I’m including a fan-made music video down at the bottom (set to one of my favorite Florence and the Machine songs) that might give you an idea of its peculiar power. For anyone still reading this who may be hesitant to check out a magical girl series, I can only say one thing: Don’t judge a book by its cover. You’ll be glad you didn’t.

Best line: (Kyubey, the loathsome, logical little scumball) “Why is it that when humans regret a decision they made based on their own misunderstanding, they feel resentment toward the other party?”

Tied with his punch-worthy “If you ever feel like dying for the universe, call me. I’ll be waiting.”

Rank for Beginnings and Eternal: List-Worthy
Rank for Rebellion: Dishonorable Mention

© 2016 S.G. Liput
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