In lieu of finishing part 2 of my “SHAFT’s Edge” post (which I’ll get around to) I will instead quickly comment on something more recent: Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica.
I don’t read a ton of anime blogs, but between the ones I do read, twitter buzz, and Pixiv fanart, it’s safe to say that this show is generally well liked. I like it too, but not nearly as much as others. In fact, given SHAFT’s body of work, I don’t understand why people like this show so much when the studio has way better titles to offer. But I’m not going get into the whole well of complicated feelings I have for the show right now. It would be far more prudent to wait until it finishes, see where it goes, then write about it. But right now I want to talk briefly about what I think holds the show down the most: The characters.
In short, the characters just plain suck. I suppose by some metric they’re better than the characters in a show like To Aru Majutsu no Index, but at least in that show there’s some effort put into making those characters kind of eccentric and interesting. So, why do I think Madoka’s characters suck? Because we never really get to know them before that big wave of plot washes over their cute multicolored heads. Allow me to pose a counter example, and another SHAFT show: Sore Demo Machi Wa Mawatteiru. I was recently re-watching the last episode of SoreMachi, and it was one of the most moving episodes of anime I’ve seen in a while. I wasn’t completely sold on SoreMachi for its entire running time, but it’s a pretty good show, and I came to really like the characters.
The last episode focuses on one character’s quick and humorous trip to the underworld (which is apparently like going through immigration) matched against the pained cries of their friends back on Earth. The episode managed to be quite funny, quirky, but managed to genuinely inspire tears at the same time. And the reason why the cries of this character’s friends hit so hard was because you got to know this character very well through the show yourself, so you understand how they feel. For one episode alone to bring up such a well of emotions is a sign that your show is Pretty Good.
In Madoka, a character gets killed about three episodes in, and as a result there’s a strong emotional reaction on the part of the rest of the cast. But outside of the initial shock, it’s hard to really care about this character’s death since you never really get to know them outside of their stock archetype. And you especially can’t care about the rest of the cast’s mourning. As the show progresses, there’s a few more shocking twists, but it’s hard to really care about what’s happening to the characters since they’re nothing more than archetypes. The show makes no effort at all to really develop the characters in any big way before the big revelations come, and I think it’s unfair to expect us to care about what’s happening to them when we don’t know them as people.
Here’s a better example: Bakemonogatari. I’m sure someone’s going to get mad at me for comparing light novel writing to anime writing, but Urobuchi mostly does visual novels, so I don’t think it’s unfair to compare the two. Bakemonogatari is a series of short stories that are over in the blink of an eye, but during the course of these stories we get to really know the characters involved. This is partly because in three of Bakemonogatari’s five tales, the characters are a pivotal part of the story: Senjougahara meets the crab in order to rid herself of the emotional weight on her shoulders, Kanbaru makes a deal with the Rainy Devil in order to get closer to Senjougahara, and Black Hanekawa comes about as a result of Hanekawa’s unrequited love for Araragi. And even in the cases of Hachikuji and Nadeko, their stories are closely related to personal factors in their life: Family life and school life respectively.
But as each tale in Bakemonogatari moves forward, the characters exchange a lot of dialogue that doesn’t have anything to do with the story. Instead, popculture references are dropped liberally, character quirks are explored thoroughly, and there’s a generally off-beat banter that’s very interesting. One could claim that Nisioisin is simply writing characters that are just like him, but I think that’s better than writing archetypes you can’t really relate to. As you know, I like it better when creators stick to what they know, and let their personalities shine through.
Characters in Madoka, on the other hand, only really ruminate over issues of the plot. The one clue to what kind of people they are can be found in their obvious-from-the-outset character archetypes… which are pretty boring. Madoka is the boring main character who doesn’t do anything (and cries), Sayaka is the genki girl with a good heart, Mami is the nice motherly figure, Homura is the mysterious girl, and Kyouko is the psychotic one. I mean, who cares? Well, I guess people do, but I sure as hell don’t.
So we have two issues: We’re not given enough time to really get to know these characters as human beings, and they just don’t stand out. I think the first issue would be solved by making the first half of the show an off-beat comedy, with issues of plot lurking in the background. The show would then launch into overdrive at episode six, speeding toward the finale at breakneck speed. You could do the same with 24 episodes, but you’d have a higher chance of more crappy episodes, unless you can really write episodes as good as Evangelion’s Magma Diver. I know Aaron Clark hates those early episodes of Eva, but I would not have cared as much about Shinji and crew if I was denied the pleasure of seeing them grapple against JetAlone.
The second issue would just be solved by getting a good writer on board. Well… good in my eyes, and we know that’s somewhat questionable. My friend Kransom asserts that my preference for characters in SHAFT’s back catalog of adaptations is due to the fact that manga writers are taught to make their characters stand out. Based on my experience with visual novel adaptations, I take it those writers aren’t taught similarly. Bakemonogatari isn’t a manga, but maybe light novel editors dish out the same advice as manga editors.
Even though I said something to the effect of “I don’t understand why people are so taken with this show” opening up, I actually kind of understand why people are so taken with this show, but after a chance run-in with Sub (I’m in New York!), he spelled it out for me: People are into the show because they’re fascinated by the world and the mysteries around it. I don’t play that game. I turn to anime for good characters first and foremost. Your world can be as mysterious as it needs to be, but if your characters just mope around and act like Archetype #374 all day, I find it hard to really care. Unless I like the archetype, that is.
It’s still a p. good show, though. I guess.