The magic girl genre (known as mahou shoujo) is one of the most well-known kinds of anime and manga. Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Revolutionary Girl Utena are all classic examples of this popular genre that dates back to the 1960s with Sally the Witch. It’s also one I’ve never really enjoyed. Maybe it was the elaborate transformation sequences or the downright odd enchanted objects — a magic compact? Really? Or perhaps it was the fact that our fates were resting in the hands of girls who typically struggled with balancing school, romance, and saving the universe. Something about magic girls just never quite worked for me until I watched Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
PMMM starts the way so many of these stories begin: with a cute and cuddly creature offering a young girl great power. Kyubey, a cat-like being, asks 14-year-old Madoka and her friend Sayaka to make a contract with him. He’ll grant them one wish and, in exchange, they must fight against witches. These corrupt beings are responsible for suicide, disease, and despair. Whatever the wish the girls make, they’ll receive related powers; a girl who wishes to heal someone will gain the ability to quickly heal herself. However, wishes are not to be made lightly. Madoka has already received an ominous warning from new student Homura Akemi against changing her life. Still, when she and Sayaka are rescued from a witch by Mami, the magic girl responsible for the area, Madoka is tempted to accept Kyubey’s offer.
What begins as your average series quickly takes a dark and twisted turn. Whereas most anime present the girls as cheerful, caring protectors with glamorous powers, PMMM depicts them as dealing with sacrifice, isolation, grief, and the loss of their own humanity. The girls compete when hunting witches because there is power to be gained from them. They also slowly realize that the contract carries a far greater price than they were told. Kyubey tempts Madoka when he tells her that she was the potential to become the strongest magic girl ever, but she remains undecided. Homura, a magic girl herself, intends to keep Madoka from ever accepting, but with the powerful witch Walpurgisnacht approaching the city, she may not have a choice.
This short series serves as a deconstruction of the magic girl genre. It takes viewers into unexpected places, both with the plot and our assumptions about the genre. Kyubey is as manipulative as he is ominous. The girls are punished for their self-sacrifice rather than being presented as worthy of admiration. Several times, Madoka and Sayaka are admonished that they should never make a wish on someone else’s behalf. The basic elements of the magic girl genre are all turned on their heads, and the resulting story is refreshing and compelling.
PMMM draws attention to the use of young girls as guardians, the strength of their emotions, and issues of maturity. Only young women with hope can serve as magical girls; to lose that hope is to fail into despair, a destructive state for a magic girl. Kyubey relates the loss of hope as a loss of innocence, but also a time when the girls will reach maturity. This certainly puts an interesting spin on the genre’s motifs and has me thinking about different ways to view previous magic girl series.
The art style of PMMM is a pastiche of many different animation techniques. Madoka’s world is done in a crisp style, with girls who acknowledge that they’d like to look like anime characters and carry sketchbooks full of frilly outfits. The opening credits and teaser trailer are done in traditional magic girl style, with the girls enjoying themselves in a variety of poses and outfits. The colors are subdued, though the girls themselves stand out in bright, solid pinks, yellows, maroons, and turquoises. The introduction of witches, however, immediately tells you that you’re not in Kansas anymore. Each witch has her own unique style, one that gives hints about the witch’s past. Charlotte, a witch with perhaps the strongest fan-base, exists in a world of desserts, candy, and silverware. Though she looks like a creature borrowed from Yellow Submarine, she is quite deadly. Other witches take us into surreal realms resembling the paintings of Salvador Dalí or the animation style of Terry Gilliam. Ragged collages, intricate clockwork, paper dolls, and neon circus animals are all part of the witches’ realms, each taking on a bizarre and menacing tone. The art style of PMMM is haunting and disturbing, mixing the witches’ art with long-established magic girl fashion and colors.
PMMM is rated 13 and does have intense violence and death. While it rarely depicts blood, the fights between magic girls and witches can be gruesome and brutal. However, the mental and emotional anguish of the girls is much more devastating then the physical fights. This is a series that packs a powerful punch on multiple levels and the possibility of lengthy discussion, a great opportunity for anyone running an anime club.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica, discs 1 – 3
directed by Akiyuki Shinbo
300 minutes, Number of Discs: 3, Single discs
Company Age Rating: 13
Related to: Puella Magi Madoka Magica by Magica Quartet and Hanokage