You must be thinking to yourselves, "Really? Mahou Shoujo? What are you, 12?" Ah, yes. The Mahou Shoujo ("Magical Girl") genre – bunch of cute schoolgirls with magical powers, mascot characters, chibi humor, and fanservice galore...
Not here, my friends. Not here.
If you read my Mawaru Penguindrum review, you know I am a fan of shows that are not what they seem, and Madoka Magica is firmly in that category. It breaks almost every rule you'd associate with a show about little girls in adorable outfits fighting evil witches, and manages to do so much more than shows with a similar launching point. Madoka Kaname is a cute little girl with a nice family, nice friends, at a nice school, in a nice city. Then Madoka and her friend Sayaka discover that not only can they become Magical Girls that save the world from evil witches who curse weak humans, but they get those powers by having one wish granted to them. Sounds like a sweet deal, right?
Wrong. Way wrong.
Sure, she's smiling now...
This show actually reminded me of a couple of other shows I watched a while ago – Ga-Rei: Zero and Angel Beats. Much like Madoka Magica, both shows are of the shorter format (12-13 episodes), but manage to do a lot in very little time. Also, all three provide a certain twist on fairly standard concepts (Ga-Rei: Zero on the "team battles supernatural monsters" concept and Angel Beats on the "school hijinks" concept). Angel Beats in particular came to mind watching Madoka Magica simply because it takes a while for you to realize how mature, sober, and emotional the subject matter really is. It kinda creeps up on you when you don't notice. At least Ga-Rei:Zero has the decency to let you know in advance how messed up it really is (it has one of the best first episodes of any anime I've ever seen).
Before we get to some spoilers (which I will carefully mark since I hate spoiling shit for people), I want to address a couple of points:
Pacing – as mentioned above, Madoka Magica is only 12 episodes long, but boy does it make those 12 episodes work. If you read OR and have come across the word "pacing," chances are that the words Eureka Seven followed close behind, since it is a perfect example of a show with great pacing. I can also point to Blood+ as another show that is well paced, and enables the characters to have meaningful arcs and develop in ways that make sense. However, both of those shows are more than four times as long as Madoka Magica. And yet, it seems that pacing is not dependent on length. It's all about using your time properly. Madoka Magica has some really good character development, and the pacing is great. You will be really surprised at how much story they managed to fit in there, and you will definitely care about what happens to the characters by the end. The pacing was one of the things that reminded me of Ga-Rei: Zero – another show that makes 12 episodes seem like 50.
Pocky Chocolate: Endorsed by both Ga-Rei: Zero and Madoka Magica as the perfect post-monster killing snack
Visuals - After emerging from a long stint of Studio Deen material (which consistently disappoint me in the visual department), Madoka Magica was a feast for sore eyes. It looks phenomenal. I particularly like the almost sketchy quality of the art (especially in the eyes), and the backdrops and use of light are just terrific. It also has some really interesting use of non-anime visuals for the battle scenes. Think Monthy Python's Flying Circus meets Yellow Submarine. I'll add a couple of pictures, but they won't do it justice. In short – the visuals are awesome, and there are some really cool battles.
Yes, these are indeed four screenshots from the anime
Music – Nothing too spectacular, but solid throughout, and I like the use of classical music (especially in the parts related to Kyosuke).
I also want to say something about the tone, which is where Ga-Rei: Zero and Angel Beats come into play again. This show is sad. In fact, I would go so far as to call it downright tragic. Now, while sadness is not an emotion that you "enjoy" feeling, I find that sad shows often evoke the most emotion in me – and as I've said before, the worst thing a show can do is leave you apathetic. Both Ga-Rei: Zero and Angel Beats are at their core very sad shows (as is Gunslinger Girl, which is another show that had a major impact on me, but let's not get into that now), but that emotion is expressed extremely powerfully, and this is also very true of Madoka Magica.
Bottom line – give this show three episodes, and I really think most of you will have a hard time walking away. And it just gets better after that. This show won a ton of awards in 2011 (along with Steins;Gate, another terrific show that I will reference ad neuseum), and they were well deserved.
More of the terrific art, including the sketchy-style eyes
Not convinced yet? Well, here come some spoilers if you're still on the fence.
WARNING - SPOILERS AHEAD
It's easy to just say "this show isn't what you expect," but that doesn't mean that it will be something you enjoy. So why is Madoka Magica unexpected? Well, it starts off normal enough with your typical protagonist scenario – Madoka is introduced to the world of Magical Girls: girls who fight evil witches, and have signed a contract (by having one wish granted to them) with a mysterious creature called Kyuubey – a cute little thing who looks like a cross between a bunny and a kitten. Basically your typical mascot character. Or is he?
Don't let the cute face fool you - this guy is an asshole
Without really spelling it out for you, I'll just say that your typical Mahou Shoujo scenario does not have little girls dying horribly, characters experiencing terrible pain, guilt, and regret, mascot characters turning out to be fucked up emotionless aliens who passionlessly exploit and manipulate humans, or multiple timelines converging into one crazy conclusion. Like I said above, this show is sad, and it has one hell of a bittersweet ending. Going back to the ever-referenced Eureka Seven, I'll say that the ending to Madoka Magica left me in a similar mood, so if you've seen it, you can draw your own conclusions. There's also another major difference between this and typical Mahou Shoujo-type shows, but it is too big a spoiler, so I'll leave it to you to find it if/when you watch.