Kaname Madoka is an ordinary middle-school student, at least until one day, a strange student transfers into her class and warns her to not make any big life changes if she wants to hang on to everything she holds dear. Then she rescues a cute fuzzy animal from aforementioned transfer student, and it offers her the chance to become a magical girl. In exchange for the power to fight witches, she can make one wish.
I first heard about this series when people were talking about it being a deconstruction of the magical girl and a successor to Revolutionary Girl Utena and Princess Tutu. I would say it's closer to Utena in spirit, with none of the fairy tale elements of both series, with a lot of Neon Genesis Evangelion added in. Also, as a warning to people who may think pink-haired protagonists and magical girls can't possibly be serious, this is one of the most depressing things I have seen in a while. I mean, people warned me about this, but it still got much darker than I anticipated.
Also, some of the animation is the creepiest and most surreal thing I have seen in a while.
So for me, the deconstruction of the magical girl genre lay mostly in the series' ability to twist everything that is usually a virtue for magical girls into something that not only backfires on them, but is the worst possible thing they could do. It's the nihilism in a lot of the series that gets to me the most, the notion that not only can you not change things for the better, but every attempt to do so will make everything demonstrably worse, until you finally turn into your worst possible nightmare. This was mitigated by the ending, but a lot of the scenes from the middle of the series really make me not want to go to sleep at night.
I was already pretty traumatized when the show killed off Mami, and even more so at the reveal of how the Soul Gems actually work, but the final reveal of the magical girls becoming witches in the very end, the endless cycle of witches, magical girls needed to fight them, and then become them, is SO DEPRESSING. Especially Kyubey's "Let me know whenever you'd like to sacrifice everything to stop entropy in the universe, Madoka. Bye!" attitude. It's all the visceral horror at how Mami dies—EW, and it totally reminded me of how some of the EVAs die in Evangelion—added to the incredibly creepy imagery of the labyrinths and the witches, the thanklessness of the job and how the magical girls are pitted against each other, all that with the additional bonus that it's kind of useless anyway, because any good you managed to do will be undone when you turn into a witch. In retrospect, Mami's death, though disturbing, is probably the best that magical girls have to hope for.
And poor Sayaka. I think, given everything, her wish doesn't turn out nearly as bad as it could have, but as anyone who reads fairy tales knows, "wishes come true, not free." At least her wish doesn't end up destroying Kamijo in the same way Kyoko's rips apart her entire family. Also, I think it says something about the series when I find Kyoko's self sacrifice to bring down witch-Sayaka undepressing.
Then there is Homura, whom I adore. I love we get to see her as the awkward new girl and that her transformation into a magical girl doesn't automatically give her the skills needed to fight witches. Also, I am really amused by a magical girl who basically uses a human arsenal instead of magical guns and swords and what have you. And while I absolutely love her friendship with Madoka, part of me keeps wondering what her life must have been like before for her to basically keep changing the world again and again for someone she only knew at first for a month. And oh, the awful moment when Kyubey finally figures out why Madoka has such immense potential and tells Homura that it's her very efforts to keep Madoka from becoming a magical girl that is drawing Kyubey to her.
But then, amazingly, Madoka finally manages to turn all the qualities that spell downfall for a magical girl—hope, love, compassion—into the strength they usually are in most shoujo series. (This is why I feel like the series isn't just a commentary on the magical girl genre, but also on shoujo in general.) I'm not quite sure what I think of the ending, partly because I have so many feelings about it! I absolutely adore the Madoka-Homura friendship and how there are so many reversals of who is the strong one and the protector and who is the one being protected. I love that Madoka manages to take what seems to be the ultimate despairing moment from Homura by using all the power HOmura has unwittingly given her to rewrite the universe.
Also, um, wow, rewriting universe.
On the other hand, I wonder what other bits of magical girl depressingness have continued, particularly the bit about the Soul Gem and dead bodies. (Also, how do the girls not notice that? I figure when the Soul Gem is nearby, they have a pulse and breathe and etc.) Are their wishes still fated to go tragically wrong? I felt like that was part of the witch curse, but I'm not sure.
Obviously the imagery here reminds me a lot of Evangelion, and a lot of the series does as well, possibly moreso at times than Utena. It's mostly how PMMM and Evangelions are deconstructing common genres that can be power fantasies for boys and girls, and doing so in the most depressing way possible! There's something about how powerless both Shinji and Madoka feel, especially the more and more they learn about EVAs or magical girls, though Madoka being depressed seems more circumstantial than Shinji's. There's a certain feel of nihilism to both of the series at some point; the idea that anything you do will only make things worse and that the only way through it is to become the thing you hate.
I think PMMM resolves it much better than Evangelion (HI ANNO STILL BURNED), though I was very amused by PMMM's floating figures in outer space talking with each other and general imagery around the transformation to the earth.
I was also thinking about parallels between Shinji having to go after his classmate in the berserk EVA and Kaworu, and especially the imagery parallel with Kaworu in the hand of EVA 001 and Madoka in the hand of witch-Sayaka.
A lot of my reaction to PMMM's ending is also influenced by Utena's ending, and at least here, Madoka has clearly influenced her world and rewritten it to be better, unlike Utena seemingly having no effect at all before we see Anthy at the gate. So I didn't find the ending depressing (at least given that the magical girls' wishes don't go so terribly and hopefully Kyubey and cohort are much less manipulative because there isn't as much to manipulate).
- I love the homage to Sailor Saturn and Sailor Pluto in the form of Homura—how come the purple color-coded character always gets the awesome boots? I was also paralleling Chibi Usa and Hotaru with Madoka and Homura.
- Do all the magical girls have surnames that are usually used as personal names? I'm not sure if it actually signifies anything though.
- I love how in the future of digital blackboards and fancy architecture, people are still using CD players.
I missed all the discussion going on when people were watching this; any links very welcome!