Jul 012011

So yeah, yesterday I ranted about how Infinite Stratos refused to go for those little touches that can allow for something generic and formulaic to break from its boundaries and become infinitely more interesting.

As if on cue, Puella Magi Madoka Magica comes along and does exactly that.

Madoka ain’t doing anything new. It’s playing with your typical magical girl scenario: ordinary, slightly dimwitted girl gets sucked into the world of magic and fate and all that shit. There’s magical pets and rivalries and transformation sequences and the whole shebang. We’ve seen this before a hell of a lot of times, and we’ll see it again and again and again because there’s an audience for this sort of thing. But unlike Stratos, Madoka ain’t willing to play it safe.

The catch is, I wouldn’t say it’s the visuals that make the difference. The usual Monty Python-esque SHAFTisms we see when the shit hits the fan and the characters are drawn into the parallel dream-like world or whatever the hell that was is awesome and all, and it’s a neat stylistic flourish that goes a long way towards making this enjoyable, but that isn’t the primary thing that’s drawing my attention. It’s the series’ overall attitude that caught my eye.

During the mundane home life shit showing Madoka prepping for school, during the moment when you’d expect her mother to give her some sort of pep talk about “being yourself” or “believing in yourself” or whatever, she says something decidedly more cynical. She tells Madoka that women need to use their looks to get what they want out of life, and encourages Madoka to wear something decidedly more flashy than she normally would. It’s a throwaway comment, but it isn’t the sort of thing you expect from this sort of show. We usually get the usual spiel about how you don’t need to change and stick with your inner strengths to change the world, but we get the exact opposite message for the main character’s mother.

Juxtapose this with the comment that the main rival tells Madoka later on in the episode. This girl obviously knows that something’s going on with Madoka. She knows that Madoka has been chosen by whatever forces are out there, and she’s opposed to these forces (as we see later on when she’s trying to kill the token magical pet). In order to distract Madoka from her destiny, she tells her “All you need to do is be Madoka Kaname.” She uses the same line that we usually hear when a character is trying to encourage the main character, but she’s saying this as a way to put down the main character. She doesn’t want the competition, and the only way said competition won’t come about is if Madoka maintains her current state of mind.

So yeah, most anime series say “You’re already a hero, don’t change anything about you!” while this one’s saying “The only way you can become a hero is if you become a hero.” We’ll see if this attitude persists, but I hope it will, since it’s refreshing to see a series do away with the whole Oprah Winfrey/The Secret “belief is all you need” bullshit and tells its audience that you need to earn your place in the world through action.

There also doesn’t seem to be the feeling of “safety” that we get in most magical girl series. Most series, whether they’re Sailor Moon or Precure or Cardcaptor Sakura, start with a sense of whimsy and fairy tale like wonder. While they may delve into darker aspects later on, that “light” feeling said series start with always gives the audience the feeling that there isn’t much at stake in terms of the characters’ safety. They’ll win in the end and there’s nothing standing in the way of that fairy tale ending.

That’s well and good and works for many of these series, but the series throws that out in the first three minutes. Madoka’s introduction to this world of magic isn’t some fluffy encounter with a cute pet or some vision of beautiful castles in the sky or whatever. Nope. Madoka has a horrific nightmare where she witnesses the end of the world, and she’s outright told that she has the choice to help save the world. The stakes are raised right off the bat, and Madoka’s backed into a corner rather than given the sort of leisurely introduction that many magical girls get when they burst onto the scene. Couple that with the not-at-all subtle threats that the other magical girls deliver to each other towards the end of the episode and we have a world that’s decidedly more grim and nasty than your standard magical girl series. It ain’t oppressive or anything, since we get a healthy dose of the usual sunshine and happiness while Madoka’s at home and at school, but there’s a prevalent streak of menace present.

These are all fairly minute details in the grand scheme of things, but they go a long way towards making Madoka pretty damn cool. Hopefully it’ll keep up this pace. If it does, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the best series of the season.

Also, a chick whose big magical girl attack involves her summoning a horde of antiquated rifles to blow shit up? How can that not be awesome?

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