Dispatches From Winter 2011: PART 1 (Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica)

In the grand tradition of judging things by their covers, Analog Housou is proud to present PART 1 of our winter 2011 first impressions. This post would have covered more shows, but I ended up writing 1000 words on Madoka, and I doubt I’d be able to beat that many words out of, say… Onii-chan no Koto Nanka Zenzen Suki Janain Dakara Ne!! So here you go, 1000 words of me rambling on about SHAFT’s latest offering.

Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica

I’m not sure if you’ve realized, but I was pretty disappointed by SHAFTXSHINBO’s output throughout 2010. The best show they made was probably Soredemo Machi Wa Mawatteiru, mostly by virtue of being visually inventive and having higher-than-average production values for a SHAFT show. That said, the humor didn’t knock my socks off 100% of the time, like in other works SHAFT tends to adapt. When news of the studio’s first original project in years surfaced, myself and other like-minded folks took notice. Upon hearing it was a magical girl show written by a Kinoko Nasu (Not to be confused with Kinoko Naisu) fanboy with character designs by Ume Aoki, my excitement turned to cautious optimism. I have no real opinion on the magical girl genre, nor do I care much for Ume-sensei’s designs rendered in animation. Three seasons of Hidamari Sketch got them close to perfection, but they still miss some of the charm of her artwork. This idea also runs contrary to my idea of what a SHAFT original should be–which could still be a magical girl show, but would probably have Watanabe Akio on design duty. Lord knows he’s wasted on Kami Nomizo Shiru Sekai.

Either way, the first episode has now aired, and I think my lack of enthusiasm was warranted. The show gets things off to a good start by opening with a series of bizarre collages by way of Gekidan Inu Curry, which transition into some Soultaker-era Shinbo imagery abound with stylishly arranged patterns and shapes, making heavy use of the checkerboard pattern. To close things off, we’re then treated to some dark and beautiful apocalyptic imagery, which wouldn’t look out of place cut into Cossette no Shozo.

However, the rest of the episode is more or less fairly standard. There are instances of characteristic Shinbo-style quick cutting as well as a handful of signature camera angles, but the hands of outside artists are evident. I don’t know whether the guy who storyboarded this first episode is a SHAFT regular (I’m not snobby enough to be a sakuga nerd) but to my untrained eyes, this first episode certainly doesn’t feel as visually dynamic, nor does it flow as nicely, as the first episode of Bakemonogatari. This issue is only compounded by a fairly standard script, and renderings of Ume-sensei’s designs that don’t quite work all of the time. They really nail them in the opening, but the episode proper is a bit dodgy.

That said, there’s a lot positive in this episode aside from just the opening scene. While a good portion of the show feels more or less normal with not much in the way stylistic charm, it’s well executed, and not particularly boring. Like most of SHAFT’s best works, Madoka’s first episode gushes with love and heart–Madoka’s morning routine with her family is particularly warm and thoughtful.

Since there are a lot of outside hands working on the series, the animation is rather active for a SHAFT show, and has a lot of character. One of the most striking visual elements of the show are its backgrounds, which really hearken back to Shinbo’s older work. As Madoka and her mother wash their face to get ready in the morning, their bathroom is covered in mirrors of variable size and placement, while classrooms in Madoka’s school are surrounded by glass walls. The backgrounds in general have this very sleek and unorthodox futuristic look to them, which go a long way towards establishing the show’s character. The attitude with which these backgrounds are done seems not dissimilar to the approach taken in devising the locales in The Soultaker, just way less dark and disturbing. And I’m sure all of you reading probably know by now, but the episode ends with a cacophony of more bizarre imagery, once again courtesy of Gekidan Inu Curry.

I suppose my main issue with Madoka is that while the show is generally “well done”, it’s in a way that feels below what SHAFT can achieve creatively. It’s unwise to give a first episode so much grief, but first impressions are extremely important, and I feel SHAFT’s first episodes generally leave good impressions. Even separated from SHAFT’s visuals, script-wise, adapted works such as Tsukuyomi -MOON PHASE-, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei and Bakemonogatari are far more unique than what Madoka offers in its opener. While I will concede that none of the discrete elements in Tsukuyomi’s first episode are particularly creative, the way they mix together is compelling. Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei has a very dark and negative sense of humor that you don’t see in anime much at all, and Bakemonogatari’s opener presents the viewer with a series of unique dialogues between characters that are unlike anything I’ve seen before. These unique elements are then elevated even higher by SHAFTXSHINBO’s unique approach to film making, resulting in very solid first episodes.

Furthermore, each of these episodes have one striking moment that stirs my emotions, which usually comes right at the beginning: Tsukuyomi opens with a narration by Hazuki matched to dark and mysterious scenery of an old, decrepit castle; Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei opens with a rather grim image of Nozumu hanging himself; and Bakemonogatari opens with a somewhat sublime scene of Senjougahara falling from the sky bathed in sunlight.

Madoka has two striking scenes–at the beginning and at the end–but the former is a dream, and the latter is so bizarre that it’s hard to relate it to anything yet. As such, I feel the greatest scenes in this first episode don’t really transition into the rest of the episode as nicely as in the other shows I mentioned. I understand this is probably to build intrigue, but that game doesn’t really work with me.

I realize that some producer out there is calling the shots, and probably asked SHAFT to balance out any weirdness with a double dose of sanity to keep things safe. But not being restrained to an existing work, I thought SHAFT would be allowed to let loose more. That said, when you have Gekidan Inu Curry on board as a key staff member, it’s hard to call a show “safe.”

Despite all this moaning, this is a rather promising opening episode, even if some of it is very much by-the-numbers. Madoka will probably build up in subsequent episodes, but for now, this first episode feels a bit under par for what I expect from SHAFT, especially for an original work. But putting my unreasonable demands aside, it’s a good first episode, and I understand why people in my inner-circle seemed to like it.


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