With All That Said, I’ll Probably Watch it Again on Blu-Ray: Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica

Over the past few years I’ve become a rather big fan of director Shinbou Akiyuki and studio SHAFT. However, my relationship with these two has naturally had some rough patches, especially when it comes to the Shinbou side of the equation: Between keeping up with his current collaborations with SHAFT, and catching up with his older work, it’s become clear that he has a less than stellar track record. This isn’t to say he lacks directorial talent, but it demonstrates a lack of discretion when it comes to what works he takes on. Shinbou is a working man. He’ll do anything, even (or especially) deviant porn. But while his body of work varies in quality in a number of ways, Shinbou’s methods remain more or less consistent. Recently his works with SHAFT have drawn more attention his way, giving him some degree of clout in the industry. So much so that he’s able to approach a producer and say, “Hey, I want to make a magical girl show.”

And that show is Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica.

As some of you may well know, I’ve been pretty vocally negative about Madoka as it’s gone on, and the show’s conclusion didn’t do much to change my opinion of it. But since I don’t have all of my opinions down in once place, and considering every other blogger and his dog is reviewing this show right now, I figured I’d throw in my $0.02. I’m going to assume that everyone in this time plane has already seen the show, but if you’re someone from the future who hasn’t seen it yet, I recommend you do so now, as I’m going to spoil all of it. It’s that kind of show.

Before diving headfirst into my well of issues with the show, let’s start with the positive. There is a lot of good in Madoka, which is part of why it bothers me so much. Most of its good points lie in the visuals, from the imaginative world design to Shinbou’s compelling directorial touches. Even in the relatively tame first episode, Madoka makes a bold statement with its space-age architecture crossed with Shinbou’s love for more antiquated buildings. Shinbou’s design fetishes are strong here, resulting in some ridiculous structures that only exist in the interest of good graphic design. And wouldn’t you know it, the shopping arcade from Cossette even makes an appearance!

But beyond Madoka’s modern art-inspired house and the city’s lavishly patterned walkways, the show’s direction also does a lot visually, which is par for the course for a Shinbou show. Madoka certainly isn’t one of Shinbou’s best works when it comes to utilizing his directorial magic, but it’s quite strong. Shinbou is a master of creating atmosphere, and Madoka is thick with it. Between SHAFT and Shinbou’s characteristic attention to color setting, lighting, shot framing, along with the aforementioned visually arresting world, it’s hard to say that Madoka lacks atmosphere.

This atmosphere wonderfully underscores the show’s few strong moments, brought to life further by Shinbou’s strong directorial style. One could criticize Shinbou for lacking subtlety, and I wouldn’t disagree; but his heavy-handed theatrics do complement Madoka’s dramatic moments very well. That said, the theatrics are actually toned down a touch here, making them a bit more effective when they’re used; unlike something like Vampire Bund, where such techniques are overused in a rather slapdash manner. On a technical level, these moments leave strong impressions. One favorite scene of mine is shot in starkly contrasting grayscale–almost black and white–awash with dark shadows and silhouettes. These visuals are particularly appropriate, considering the scene in question depicts Sayaka’s plunge into darkness.

When talking about Madoka’s visuals, it would be a crime not mention the work that doujin circle Gekidan Inu Curry did for the show’s fight sequences. Inu Curry’s use of antiquated icons and design elements, mixed with their patch-work cutout style make the witches’ worlds into truly nightmarish places beyond the scope of this writer’s imagination. In the past they’ve done a few bits for shows like Bakemonogatari and Zan Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, as well some opening and ending sequences, but seeing their work actively integrated into a show’s story is quite refreshing.

However, despite these strong visuals, I still have a few nitpicks as an OCD Shinbou fan. For a Serious Shinbou Show, the storyboarding isn’t terribly interesting. While I did mention that the show had a lot of nicely framed shots, I wanted it to have the same dynamism as something like The Soultaker. SHAFT’s very straightforward and simplistic framing works in their comedies, but I feel it cheapens their serious shows somewhat, like Vampire Bund. Madoka’s visuals don’t suffer seriously because of this, but they could have been a bit more adventurous. The action scenes in particular suffer from this lack of dynamism, and I’m assuming that’s because they left the framing up to the animators. Homura’s final assault against Walpurgisnacht is quite imaginative and brutal, but is still let down a bit by framing that is entirely too simple. It also doesn’t help that I also have a personal bias against strongly magic-centric battles. If I was writing the show, the girls would fist-fight each witch, and every fight would look like this.

Madoka’s background music both helps and hurts the show. I’m not huge fan of Kajiura Yuki, but I think her stuff works as decent mood-setting background noise. However, since Madoka is 12 episodes long, what starts off as nice mood-setting background noise turns into repetitive and droning background noise. Tsukuyomi’s soundtrack did this same sort of thing with way more dynamism and variety.

Madoka’s weakest visual elements are definitely the character designs. I enjoy Ume’s illustrations by themselves, but something goes wrong in the transition to animation. The characters look entirely too simple, lack anything in the way of solidarity, and have absolutely no 3D definition. They almost feel like paper-thin cutouts that don’t occupy much space in their own world. At worst, they look almost as bad as Key designs, but at least KyoAni fixes those up somewhat. Never mind that Madoka’s face looks like an acorn, and Mami’s hair makes no sense.

The characters’ lack of visual strength is only made worse by their lack of actual strength. I talked about this earlier, but it bears repeating: The characters in Madoka aren’t that interesting. Throughout the show’s 12 episode runtime, the characters never become anything more than just characters. They’re cogs in a giant machine that don’t stand out as individuals. This strikes me as particularly strange, as Madoka’s shtick is emotional porn. While it seems as if most of the show’s fanbase really got into watching these girls’ plights, I was left wondering why I should care.

The show tells us nothing about Mami before her curly head is bitten clean off. While her death is indeed shocking (and only shocking the first time around), it’s emotionally empty since, really, we never get to know anything about her beyond what her stock archetype is. Sayaka and Kyouko get a bit more time to shine before Urobuchi hilariously murders them off, but still never manage to develop much in the way of engaging personalities.

Madoka herself suffers from the dreaded Boring Main Character Syndrome that seems to constantly infect mainstream anime and manga. I realize that’s her role in the show, but once again, I fail to understand the prioritization of making the plot work over writing interesting characters. Characters should come first, and the plot should be written around them. Even in a story like Madoka where the premise is about young girls getting swept up into a cruel game, the emotional porn doesn’t work if we’re not given something to relate to in these people. I’d like Madoka as a character a lot more if she was at least given a hobby, or something. Watching her cry about everything happening around her is like watching a comedian laugh at his own un-funny jokes–it’s just a really cheap attempt at trying to make you care. Perhaps I’m just cold, but it’s unreasonable to expect people to care about characters when they’re simply not interesting. Even Maeda Jun knows this, which is why he gives us a few cute slice of life moments before everything goes to hell. That’s not say that his stories are good, but I’ll admit to at least enjoying Air and Kanon.

During one of my many Twitter debates about Madoka, mt-i–of the Most Dangerous tsurupeta.info–told me that the shorthand present in Madoka is just how moe works. I’m not going to debate moe with him, given he has stronger language skills than I do, and has probably read more on the subject; but what Madoka does strikes me as really low tier. I’m a fan of moe archetypes, but the best examples of moe anime I can think of involve characters that display variety of views and emotions far beyond their stock template. They do this by actually discussing things relevant to real life so you can relate to them on a personal level. Whenever anyone in Madoka speaks, the only words that come out of their mouths are “soul gem” or “grief seed” or something I couldn’t care less about. I understand that being a magical girl may take over your life, but at least give us a few slice of life moments to chew on between all the silly plot nonsense. I suppose there was a subplot around Sayaka and Hitomi’s feelings over Kamijou, but like every other bit of character drama in the show, I just didn’t care. That scene was actually painfully boring to watch.

As it happens, my favorite characters in the show are the ones who have nothing to do with the plot–Madoka’s mom and her teacher. They actually feel like, you know, people. Madoka’s heart-to-hearts with her mom and dad are some of the best moments in the show. And I’m not one of those people morbidly interested in Kyubey, but he is one of the few bits of genre subversion that I think is a little bit neat. He still doesn’t have anything on Kero-chan, though.

But I will give the characters some credit, as there is a degree of slightly interesting development across the cast. Seeing Sayaka turn from your typical pure-hearted genki girl to a person overflowing with hatred and spite is somewhat satisfying, even if just on a sadistic level; and seeing Kyouko open up a bit also demonstrates some level of the breadth in her character. Homura is naturally the most developed character, but considering that all of her development happens in one episode, it’s hard to really care about her during all those other moments in the show where she’s just being vague and boring. I suppose some people would read that as “mysterious,” though. Madoka managed to gain some of my respect with her wish in the final episode, but much like Homura, she spends more than 90% of the show crying, so that one moment hardly saves her.

Despite me writing it off as “silly nonsense,” Madoka’s plot is actually quite good, but it’s one of those things that would be more interesting to me as a Wikipedia entry. It’s structured well, and a lot of it fits together logically. But ultimately, it’s not terribly creative, and doesn’t stand out as something that should be praised by the amount of people praising it. There are some interesting twists, such as the effective range of the Soul Gems, Homura’s backstory, and how magical girls have been important figures throughout history. Even Kyubey’s origin and his pseudo-science lesson are a little interesting, if not a bit silly. But these small moments are bogged down by the aforementioned boring character drama, as well as characters like Homura constantly repeating themselves. Perhaps Madoka would have been better as a 6 episode OVA.

Since Urobuchi is a visual novel writer, the show has a few hilarious hack-job moments. These moments are mostly restricted to Homura’s flashback, such as when Mami goes crazy and kills everyone, and when a timid twin-tailed Homura steals a bunch of guns from some big scary Yakuza guys. These contrasting images Urobuchi tries to draw by having cute girls in frilly outfits murder each other, or shoving cute girls in the dead center of the underworld are once again cheap grabs at emotions that just make me laugh as opposed to feeling anything about these people. That said, Homura’s flashback is probably the most interesting part of the show, even if it’s shallow. The rest of the show is boring and shallow.

Madoka does come together nicely, though. In the end it completely adheres to all of the rules it sets down, and pulls no BS. However, since I just don’t care about anyone involved, it’s emotionally empty. And in some ways, it’s not even surprising. By the time Madoka makes her wish, you more or less know what it’s going to be. The ramifications of her wish did actually manage to surprise me, though.

I understand that some of my criticisms of this show are unfair. These types of stories have their audiences, and I’m fine with that. But the issue is, I’m a big fan of SHAFT and Shinbou. And this kind of story just doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that fits their quirky, off-beat style. It’s far too normal and straight forward to be the sort of thing they should be taking on. While I want to be distracted by all the pretty colors and cutout animation, it’s hard to get sucked into SHAFT’s amazing work when every line that comes out of a character’s mouth is completely boring. All of those moments I mentioned earlier: Mami’s death, Sayaka’s plunge into darkness, Kyouko’s death, and various other pivotal points in the show are all executed well, but it’s hard to get lost in them when you just don’t care. This is the exact reason why this show bothers me so much–it simply feels like a waste of talent on the part of SHAFT.

What grinds my gears even further is that lots of other people like Madoka–even people who don’t even know anything about Shinbou, or have vocally expressed displeasure with him in the past. It’s like when everyone else starts liking your favorite underground band because they finally sold out and went mainstream. But what gets me the most is when supposed “fans” of Shinbou claim this as his masterwork, or when people say that Madoka made them see Shinbou in a better light. Bakemonogatari wasn’t that long ago, and I know they haven’t seen Tsukuyomi. I mean, Tsukuyomi isn’t perfect, but it has way more heart and soul that Madoka could ever hope to have.

Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica is one half My Thing, and one half Completely Not My Thing, and even the half that’s My Thing is held down by bad character designs. But in the end, Madoka is just a horrible disappointment. I wanted SHAFTxSHINBOU’s first original anime to be something I could really get behind, but in the end they delivered exactly the type of otaku-fodder that I can’t stand. But on the positive side, hopefully this will convince producers to throw more money at SHAFT so they can explore their full creative potential.

And the fanart was quite nice.

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