Anime in the USA has never been that popular with the general public. Ironically, it often transcends writing that is often seen in many American cartoons. The Japanese aren't afraid to utilize themes such as religion, death, emotion, and other things which make many shows being aired on Cartoon Network look just sad. But, an article comparing American vs. Japanese animation is for another day. The anime in question for today is known as Puella Magi Madoka, which follows 14-year-old Madokda Kaname. She's given the option to make a contract with a creature, which afterward she would be given power to become a Magical Girl in order to battle witches! If the show had gone that route with simply Madoka fighting off evil entities with her friends and in the final episode fight the biggest one, it would have still been a cool show. But that's not what this anime is about.
"Madoka" deals with themes such as friendship, sacrifice, the greater good, selling your soul, and ultimately hope. It captures viewers with compelling dialogue and makes the viewer really think abut life, the world, and what it means to love others. On the outside the show appears to be much like Sailor Moon where these middle school girls in costume fight evil monsters. This show takes that concept and turns it upside down. The intro scene to anything is what grabs a viewer; to see the city in ruins and a lone girl trying to fight is enough to pique interest here. After that scene the show takes some unique routes to the finisher.
The main character is of course Madoka. The theme song constantly teases her in her getup as a Magical Girl so the viewer is wondering, "Well, when is this going to happen?" since episodes go on with her still just in a normal form. Then the show turns this thought process around later on, making the viewer decide they actually don't want her to become one. For the first few episodes the show is somewhat identical in plot to other monster-of-the week programs. It's when we start to learn a little bit about Homura Akemi, the other main character, that things start to change drastically. Unlike long-term shows such as Naruto or Digimon, "Madoka" doesn't have the luxury of being over 100 episodes, clocking in at only 12. It is truly astounding what is accomplished in just these episodes. Characters are deepened and viewers grow attached. For example, Kyoko, who at first was the most annoying and unlikable character, ended up being one of the most likable just a few episodes later. Her death, and all the main deaths were extremely sad, which means the writing succeeded at engaging the viewer.
Back to Madoka, in some other show she could come across as weak and annoying for all her crying, but not here. She's a true friend, and very few shows today display what true friendship is all about. (Other than My Little Pony, try finding an American cartoon where it perfectly displays the love of best friends!) The other main character is Homura Akemi. She is obviously fantastic. Too often we have "tough" characters in shows with no real reason why they are like that. They're just there to be cool. Homura's backstory in episode 10 breaks this trope. We see that she knows Madoka in a different timeline and comes to know her as a true friend. So, what happened in the present day for the previous nine episodes is given a whole new meaning.
The plot twist with Homura being a time traveler was a very cool one, though might be one of the show's only plot points which wasn't explained properly. Her wish was to be able to meet Madoka all over again, which she does, but then she's able to repeat the process over and over. Perhaps the wish meant that she would be able to do that continually, but it could have been worded a little better. It's not a major thing in the long run. Her love of Madoka is perfectly looked at in two scenes: the one where she falls on the floor in tears and the one where she hugs Madoka inside the former's house near the climax. Again, you have to give credit to the writing for making the viewer feel invested and share in the sentiment with just a few episodes
Obviously the most intriguing character might just be Kyubey. In another series, this cat-like creature would have been the mascot and companion like Luna in "Sailor Moon" or Snarf in Thundercats. But once again, all magical girl tropes are dropped here as the viewer slowly learns just who Kyubey is. He is quite a brilliant character, being basically a manipulator without evil intent, in his mind anyway. According to him, emotion is a disorder in his species, and by using his contracts to turn girls into witches it serves a greater good for counteracting the spread of entropy in the universe. When one thinks about it for a second, Kyubey is never actually portrayed as purely evil, just as an entity keeping a balance. It's brilliant writing when something like this creature can be portrayed as evil and not evil at the same time.
Still, despite any thought process about greater good, at the core viewers knows what Kyubey is doing is wrong, and they can feel the despair as Madoka desperately tries to convey that. Throughout, I think the show harkens witches, Kyubey himself and the Labyrinth to demonic influences. In episode 4 we have a bunch of people being fed with the thoughts that it's better to leave the Earth by killing yourself. In that same episode Madoka is flooded with unwanted memories where she's made to feel guilty about almost everything. (With angel-like beings playing the images, making it appear like she's even more wrong, and then being pulled in every direction.) Not only that, but in Homura's backstory there's a voice prompting her to just die. Then we have Kyubey whom is basically manipulating Madoka into accepting a contract with him, which is basically a deal with the devil. He uses things such as telling her that only if she transforms could she save her friend (the scene near the climax where he basically tells her that Homura holding on to hope is meaningless comes to mind) to simply just saying whatever wish you want can be granted. The classic question the show asks is, "Is there a wish you'd be willing to trade your soul for?" It's a classic scene of the devil as he tries to get a person to see what kind of temporary satisfaction is alluring to steal that person's soul. I don't know if the show intended for these things to be a comparison but with the religious themes present throughout I wouldn't be surprised.
Mami is another main character, whom dies way too early. Her death was handled well, and her presence is still felt afterward. Again, she didn't appear long but somehow the writing made her one of the most likable characters in anime history. That's why the viewer feels a sadness when we see her get chomped by a witch because it was right after she revealed she had a found a true friend in Madoka. The emotion in this show is incredible. The scene when Sayaka, (we'll address her in a sec) breaks down at the fact that her friend is going to steal the guy she's been in love with forever away would have been groan-worthy if this were any other show, but it's handled wonderfully here.
The friendship established between Sayaka and Madoka is established very well. That's why the former's death was perhaps the most heart-breaking to watch. The fact that she got turned into a witch added an extra dimension of emotion. It's important to now mention perhaps the most iconic aspect of the show: the imagery. For the most part it's normal animation (and pretty crisp too) but when the girls delve into a Labyrinth the graphics become trippy. When the butterflies appeared in Episode 1 I had no idea what I was watching anymore. The insane cartoony, creepy, and unique graphics never got old. Seriously, there's nothing quite like this show for those scenes alone.
You might hear this show be compared to Serial Experiments Lain, and for good reason. That show has so many different thought-provoking themes which one never truly forgets. People still debate what exactly the series even meant. "Madoka" goes down some similar routes, especially with the final episode. When Madoka finally decided on her wish to become a Magical Girl she found a loophole where she managed to essentially rewrite time & reality. The fact that Kyubey was shocked and said, "Are you trying to become a god?!" when before he tried to coerce her into becoming a Magical Girl with the words, "You could become the god of this world!" gives proof that he's truly a manipulator. The writing truly succeeded at making one one of the greatest anime villains of all time. Now, about that final episode...
The final episode of a show like this is usually 3 things: 1, a finisher, 2, controversial, and 3, open to interpretation on purpose. "Lain" is a perfect example of this. While Puella has some of these elements, it's definitely more clear-cut than "Serial Experiments" in providing a finisher. Since Madoka basically became a god, she rewrote time where things preceded as normal, just without her existence. Somehow Homura is the only one that remebers. Why? Well, perhaps being a time traveler herself has given her that ability. Or perhaps being a god, Madoka put her memories inside her. It's a fascinating ending, and the entire scene in space displays what it means to love your friend.
The soundtrack is definitely a highlight. The main theme is fantastic, and the use of a heavy violin upped the mood. (Case in point in Episode 8, against the rain.) As mentioned already, the show asks some tough questions. The subway scene for example was definitely off-putting. But it wasn't there just to display language, it was there to show how a good chunk of humanity operates. Sayaka is there wondering if it's worth truly fighting for them when she hears a conversation like this. Is it worth it when most of humanity is like this? The answer is of course yes, as when Madoka in the final episode says, "If someone ever tells me it's a mistake to have hope, well then I'll just tell them they're wrong, and I'll keep telling them until they believe, no matter how many times it takes." At the end of the day, there's always hope. Despite all the crying, deaths, and end of the world, Madoka at the end displays that hope does exist. The show's ending might appear open-ended to some, but to me I think it's nicely showcased with 1. true friendship & sacrifice and 2. a person standing up the devil's schemes, or in this case Kyubey. Her saying of, "I'm here to take that burden for you" is reminiscent of the Cross of Jesus Christ, and in many ways she's represents that: a second chance. Right before the world is about to be destroyed by evil, she comes, offers her life to give everybody another chance of redemption. The Magical Girls who were basically under condemnation because of their contract are lifted of that burden. Likewise in the real world, because of the Cross people who were under condemnation are given a second chance through faith. Whether or not this was the intent of the ending I'm not sure, but one thing I can say with certainty is that the show did a great job showcasing the love of a friend, and someone whom inspires hope in others. I'm reminded of the verse from John 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends."
Puella Magi Madoka is a much-watch. It takes a popular genre and modifies it extremely. What appears to be a happy show is much more interesting. While not going to perhaps the surreal levels of Serial Experiments Lain, it nonetheless is a show along similar lines. The plot twists are astounding and you get very attached to the characters. The insane imagery when they battle witches in the labyrinths is worth the watch alone. Then in the real world the subtle imagery with things like flies forming together on a streetlamp to look like a skull and the classic portrait of "The Creation of Adam" above in the scene with Madoka's mom and the teacher add to the overall atmosphere. The hype for the final battle against Walpurgisnacht was excellent. (Not to mention the epic choir!) All of this is accomplished in just 12 episodes. Madoka definitely belongs in everyone's top 5 anime of all time.