A Relook at Magical Girls

This is the second in a series of articles about Japanese anime culture inspired by Anime Festival Asia 2012.

Outside of the Japanese geek or otaku culture, the mention of magical girls conjures images of the classic Sailor Moon-style pre-teen girls dressed in frilly dresses and armed with magical MacGuffins, driven by idealistic causes like hope, love, friendship and so on. Stereotypes have some basis in truth, as those who have watched the shows that have shaped the genre as we know it today will attest to. But suffice it to say, the shows that have most influenced the popular understanding of the genre, especially outside of Japan, come off as cartoons which are best watched when one is 6-10 years old and then outgrown.

Anime Festival Asia 2012, hosted at the Singapore Expo, offered an exclusive airing of the Puella Magi Madoka Magica (“puella” being Latin for “girl” or “maiden”) movies. Puella Magi Madoka Magica was originally a 12-episode anime series that achieved critical and popular acclaim in 2011 and was remade into two movies spanning two days, Part I airing on Saturday morning and Part II on Sunday morning.

Last year, the anime series ran its course unbeknownst to many Singaporeans uninitiated into Japanese popular culture. But in the parallel world of the anime blogosphere, it made a huge wave – this work was something special for the magical girl genre. No one told me it was going to be the greatest show that year.

It was as a fan, then, that I went to the screening of the first magical girl movie I had ever watched.

The movie tickets also came with these lovely booklets.

Simply put, Madoka at first looks like a magical girl show, but doesn’t play out like one.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica tells the story of Kaname Madoka, a fairly typical 14-year-old middle school girl who encounters a cute magical creature called Kyubey. The strange little being offers to grant Madoka and her friend Miki Sayaka magical powers. He will also grant them each one wish (any wish, no matter how small or big); but in exchange they will have to risk their lives and become magical girls with the responsibility to fight “witches”, terrifying eldritch abominations that sow despair amongst the human populace. Madoka and Miki befriend Tomoe Mami, a magical girl who encourages them to take up Kyubey’s offer. Another magical girl, Akemi Homura, seems determined to stop Madoka from accepting the deal.”[1]

What follows this innocuous premise is a simple but focused narrative in which dramatic hooks capture the audience with well-timed, game-changing plot twists, holding the audience captive within its narrative labyrinth.

While the initial premise in that blurb might not have worked on paper, the production team does a masterful job of executing it. And no one who’s watched Madoka can give a fair review of it without discussing the series’ stagecraft – its visuals and sound.

The backdrops serve the same purpose as well-crafted stage sets do in the world of theatre – they set the mood without distracting the audience from the focus of the play. But that is not to say that all Madoka’s backdrops played second fiddle to the rest of the art – of special note are the labyrinths, the surrealistic pocket dimensions that witches inhabit. These unusual stage sets, best described as psychedelic madness, each follow their own set of art forms as design rules, ranging from post-impressionist landscapes to cubist nightmares. The result is beautifully grotesque:

Soundtracks are as vital in anime as they are in movies. The music by Kajiura Yuki is composed and deployed brilliantly, from the uplifting Latin chorus thematically fitting with Tomoe Mami’s assured, optimistic character in the initial part of the show; to the haunting orchestrations that underscore the show’s suffocating and pervasive sense of dread thereafter. These are woven with the visuals so artfully that they seem natural. Many of these peripheral devices (backdrops, soundtrack) function in the same way as they do in theatre: to enhance dramatic impact. Kudos also to the powerful vocals of Kalafina, the group who performed the ending theme for both the 2011 series and the 2012 feature film edition.

Madoka’s character designs: One of the most deceptive aspects of the show. [2]

With a cast of cute, large-eyed girls in line with modern-day Japanese geek tastes depicted in frilly, colourful costumes, the show baits its viewers into a mental association with more traditional magical girl shows, while building darker, more sinister undercurrents which break through the superficials with impeccable dramatic timing. Both the characters and audience ride the same rollercoaster as the brutal truth is slowly revealed: the girls’ adventures are no longer about the justice, selflessness or cute costumes they thought magical girls were supposed to be about.

What results is a marriage of marketable style and well-written plot that catapults Madoka into a league far beyond the stereotypes it subverts.

Hardly the most shocking scene in the show. [3]

But more than leaving a trail of stereotypes as casualties in its wake, Madoka’s ending returns to the ideals that inspired the traditional magical girl and takes a fresh look at them in a brilliant, impactful ending. And what a finish it was. I can say nothing more for fear of undermining the excellent plot Madoka delivers to its viewers.

I’ll avoid touching on the blogospherical debate on whether Madoka is a true deconstruction of the genre, but safe to say the series makes for a smart take on things often taken for granted about magical girls. Like great literature, a second watch is necessary to appreciate the richness of all the elements woven into the show. While the core plot is outstandingly executed, a more complete understanding is simply mindblowing. I truly enjoyed this great show, a testament to the power of anime as a storytelling medium.

Obligatory full-cast End Card. [4]

[1] Adapted from plot summary at: http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/encyclopedia/anime.php?id=12120
[2] Episode 1 End card by Hanokage. Hanokage is also the artist of the manga version of the series. http://hano.pepper.jp/
[3] Episode 1,4,7 Blu-ray screencaptures.
[4] Episode 11 End card by Buriki. Buriki is the artist for the light novels Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai and Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko, later adapted by SHAFT into animes.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica wiki: http://wiki.puella-magi.net/ *major spoilers abound*

End Card:  Endcards are fanart used to close off an episode.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: