I have an affinity for the cutesier “kawaii” side of anime, which some would say is weird for an adult man to have. This is a completely justifiable detail. Because let’s face it: the real world is an unforgivably dark and cold void that we all so desperately try to ignore and escape from.
So when I see all of the bright colors and cute character designs, I am immediately lifted from the brutal confines of our reality into a different one where love and friendship reign supreme. This especially rings true with magical girl anime, where its adorable characters fight evil creatures using the so-called “power of friendship.”
It goes without saying that when Madoka Magica rolled in at the very start of 2011, I, along with so many others, expected yet another light-hearted take on the magical girl genre. And we got that. At least in the first two episodes. And then that pesky third episode had to come in completely uninvited to ground us back into reality.
In a mere twenty minutes, what was thought to be another garishly-animated magical girl anime had become something grisly and horrifying. Madoka Magica went on to be less like Sailor Moon and more like Berserk. Ironically enough, the grotesqueness of Madoka didn’t repel us—it just further piqued our interests.
The Story Behind It
After serving as director for Hidamari Sketch, a huge part of the Monogatari series, and a couple of hentai (don’t ask), Akiyuki Shinbo wanted to create something ultraviolent and doomy while simultaneously being mainstream and accessible. He wound up deciding that it would be a wholly-original magical girl anime that was not adapted from a pre-existing property.
Shinbo brought in Hidamari Sketch mangaka Ume Aoki to create the adorable character designs, and Fate/Zero light novelist Gen Orobuchi to write-up the storyline. For three years, the three would work alongside Studio Shaft to make sure that the final product would see the light of day. And finally, on January 7, 2011, the first episode of Madoka Magica finally aired on Japanese television.
To Deconstruct, or to Not Deconstruct?
The third episode aired just a few weeks later and captured the attention of the anime fandom. What then followed was intense debate over whether or not Madoka Magica served as a cynical critique and examination of magical girl anime. It got to the point where you could not escape Madoka discourse without hearing the term “deconstruction” so excessively thrown around. Even today, the infamous deconstruction debate still rages on across various Internet forums and YouTube videos everywhere.
Whether or not you think it’s a deconstruction, one thing certainly holds true: the heavy existentialist themes and violently psychedelic imagery definitely make it stand out as a very welcomed black sheep of the magical girl genre.
An Offer You Can’t Refuse
The plot of this show starts out standard fare: a magical creature named Kyubey appears before the junior high school student Madoka Kaname with a proposal; make a contract to become a magical girl to save the world against evil witches in exchange for one wish.
Madoka is tempted to, until the mysterious transfer student Homura Akemi, who has already made the contract, warns her that the offer is too good to be true. Madoka is initially skeptical of this, but as the series goes on, she learns the sacrifice and terror that comes with being a magical girl.
Our Tragic Characters
Our eponymous, pink-haired main character is just your average schoolgirl, living a carefree life at home with her mother and younger brother. Her personality is entirely utilitarian, always putting her friends and family before herself. But despite this, she lacks confidence in herself, and does not see herself as particularly talented.
When Kyubey offers her the magical girl contract, she sees it as a means to become a more useful and beneficial person. This is a trait that Kyubey constantly plays with and uses as a persuasive means of getting her to sign the contract.
The mysterious rival to Madoka, she comes across as cold and distant. Not much is known about her, outside of the fact that she’s a magical girl who warns Madoka not to become one. Her identity and intentions become a focal point of the anime, with her backstory revealed slowly but surely as the series progresses.
Madoka’s blue-haired best friend, she too is offered Kyubey’s contract. Sayaka becomes equally tempted by this, as it appeals to her desire to be a hero and fight for her loved ones.
Sayaka is shown as being a bit reckless, often acting upon her impulses before really thinking about her decisions. It is revealed that she especially cares for her friend Kyousuke, an aspiring musician whose dream came to a screeching halt after an unfortunate accident rendered his one arm broken beyond repair.
Much like Madoka and Sayaka, Mami first appears as another ordinary student, obsessing over tea parties and flowers in her spare time. However, she is secretly a veteran magical girl who made a contract with Kyubey before the series’ start. She is slightly older than Madoka and serves as a motherly mentor to her, even showing her the ropes of how to become a magical girl.
Yet another magical girl who made a contract with Kyubey. But unlike the kind-hearted Mami, Kyoko is an abrasive and competitive woman who uses her magical girl status to fend for herself in what she describes as a “dog eat dog world.” She originally became a magical girl so she could wish that her father’s church get more followers, but the plan backfired once her father went on an insane murderous rampage that ended with his suicide.
He’s just a cute, catlike, seemingly-friendly assistant to magical girls everywhere, so what’s the big deal? Well, apparently a lot when you force young women to sign a contract with ulterior motives in mind. Kyubey is also a character who displays no emotions, and is not concerned with any of the magical girls’ well-being whatsoever. In a way, he is less like Luna from Sailor Moon and more like HAL-9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Born from humanity’s feelings of sorrow and hatred, these are the evil beings that threaten the world’s existence. They are the mortal enemies of the magical girls, who will stop at nothing to thwart the witches’ malicious plans. The strongest witch of them all is Walpurgis Night, who has the power to destroy the entire world in less than a week.
The Movie and Other Things
The television ended at 12 episodes, with an open ending leaving fans to wonder what would happen next. To hold us over, Shaft made two movies to serve as a recap of the television series while they worked on a sequel. After being in production for nearly two years, the feature-length Madoka Magica: Rebellion was released in October of 2013.
The magic of Madoka would not be limited to merely television and movies. The anime’s soundtrack, composed by industry veteran Yuki Kajiura, would get enough attention to warrant an orchestral concert. The performance, Walpurgis no Yoru no Yume, was held in Tokyo’s Hachioji City Art & Cultural Hall in April 2013, with 70 musicians performing 15 songs from the soundtrack.
But even that was not the end of Madoka. Shaft would team up with game developer f4samurai to create the mobile RPG Magia Record which was released in Japan in 2017 and then in America in June 2019. Over half a year after its North American release, a spin-off anime based on the game was released.
Where to Watch
Madoka Magica is available on Crunchyroll, Netflix, VRV, and Funimation. You can also watch its spin-off Magia Record on Crunchyroll, VRV, Funimation, and HIDIVE.