Review for Puella Magi Madoka Magica Complete Series
This is it! The big one! You can see by my egregious usage of exclamation marks that we’ve reached that point in the Manga Entertainment release schedule where we get one of their Blue Riband titles, a series or a movie that stands head and shoulders above all the others, the ones that fans salivate over with an unsettling lack of dignity. It’s Ghost in the Shell time, it’s Akira time, it’s Evangelion time. It may be 2012, and the world will end, but you will PVR that, because you have to watch Puella Magi Madoka Magica first. This is one of those game-changers in anime, those shows that come along once every so often and blow apart what has come before, and set new standards that will be chased after for years to come. Puella Magi Madoka Magica does for the magical girl genre what Evangelion did for giant robots; it’s that big a deal of a show.
While the show itself may be a radical revolution for its genre, that’s nothing compared to what Manga Entertainment have done for its pricing. In the US, Madoka Magica is available in standard edition and limited edition single volume releases. The standard edition Blu-rays will set you back around £100. The limited editions come with lots of physical extras, the show on DVD, soundtrack CDs, postcards, stickers, booklets, posters, manga, special artboxes, and will put you out of pocket to the tune of £200 and more. Even the Australian and the European releases will set you back some £70. There are some minor differences in the on-disc extras between Regions A and B, but the most important thing, the show is there. Manga Entertainment are alone in the world in releasing Puella Magi Madoka Magica as a single series boxset, and they are doing so at £40. On the day of release you can have it for around £25. That is a spectacular price. If you have the slightest interest in this show, and given its status as a landmark anime, you’d be remiss if you didn’t, buy it now. Indeed Manga have hinted that following its initial print run, subsequent releases of Madoka Magica will have to be more expensive, single volume releases.
The irony of it is that while Madoka Magica may be a landmark deconstruction of a much loved anime genre, the magical girl genre really hasn’t had much play in the UK, where our anime is descended from the Manga video nasty boom of the nineties. We got the cyberpunk and violence, while cute, shiny and fluffy got more play in the US. MVM gave it a shot with a few tentative volumes of Sailor Moon and the Revolutionary Girl Utena movie (itself a deconstruction), but there haven’t been too many serious magical girl shows in the UK, not a lot of magic wand waving and egregious costume changes outside of parody shows like Nurse Witch Komugi, or parody episodes in shows like Slayers, Excel Saga and other comedies. Manga Entertainment briefly held the licence to a Pretty Sammy show, but that never saw a UK release. In recent years, other than through import, our primary source of magical girl anime would be through online streaming. It’s thanks to sites like Crunchyroll streaming shows like Fairy Musketeers, Steel Angel Kurumi, and Yoku Wakaru Gendai Maho that I even know some of the clichés of the genre that Madoka Magica deconstructs.
Madoka Kaname is a pretty normal schoolgirl in the town of Mitakihara, sometime in the near future. She’s got a baby brother, her mother is a businesswoman while her father looks after the family. She’s got two great friends in Sayaka and Hitomi, and no real problems. All of that changes following a strange dream and an odd encounter with a transfer student named Homura in school, when she meets a peculiar creature called Kyubey. Kyubey offers her and Sayaka a deal, a wish granted in exchange for becoming magical girls. There’s the real world, and there’s the magical world, and where the two intermix, trouble results. Magical girls are born of wishes, and it’s their duty to protect the world from the witches. Witches are born of curses, and to amass power they bring grief to the world by corrupting innocent hearts. Magical girls fight and destroy the witches, and harvest the Grief Seeds left over to enhance their own powers and purify their Soul Gems, but as Madoka discovers, being a magical girl is nothing like she expected.
12 episodes of Puella Magi Madoka Magica are presented across three single layer Blu-ray discs by Manga Entertainment.
01. I First Met Her in a Dream... Or Something
02. That Would Be Truly Wonderful
03. I’m Not Afraid of Anything Anymore
04. Miracles and Magic Are Real
05. There’s No Way I’ll Ever Regret It
06. This Just Can’t Be Right
07. Can You Face Your True Feelings?
08. I Was Stupid... So Stupid
09. I’d Never Allow That to Happen
10. I Won’t Rely on Anyone Anymore
11. The Only Thing I Have Left to Guide Me
12. My Very Best Friend
Puella Magi Madoka Magica gets the 1.78:1 widescreen treatment at 1080p resolution. The image is outstanding, with exceptional detail, smooth animation, and strong, vibrant colours. It’s a Studio SHAFT production, those people behind Moon Phase and Pani Poni Dash, and they are renowned for their avant garde visual style, and their occasional tendency to throw everything including the kitchen sink at the screen in order to impress. They’ll use shadow and light, odd camera angles, silhouettes, different animation styles, anything to fill the screen with stunning imagery. They’ve restrained themselves a little with Madoka Magica, establishing consistent styles for the real world, while really letting go for the warped, alternate realities that the witches generate, and in which the magical girls fight. At these points the show looks it’s been cross-fertilised with a Monty Python animation, and the contrast is striking.
The perennial problem with anime of digital banding does crop up in the show’s darker scenes, and there were one or two moments of aliasing, particularly in the background ironwork whenever Madoka and friends adjourned to the school roof.
The images in this review are sourced from the PR and are not necessarily representative of the retail release.
The audio comes in uncompressed stereo form, PCM 2.0 English and Japanese to be exact at 1.5Mb bitrates. I went with the original language audio with subtitles and was very satisfied with the experience, with excellent clarity and dynamic range throughout. While a 5.1 track would have been preferable, the stereo does a good job in bringing across the impact of the action sequences. I sampled the English dub and what I heard seemed pleasant enough.
Of course it wouldn’t be an anime release without some flaw or another, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica is no exception. Disc 1 of the Blu-ray release lacks a signs only subtitle track to go with the English audio, although discs 2 and 3 are fine in that regard. The translated subtitles for the Japanese audio are all present and correct though, accurately timed, and free of error (except for one caption 1.04:00 into disc 2, where a stray word creeps in.
The discs get animated menus.
You get the textless opening presented at 1080p resolution, as well as trailers for Madman titles including K-On!, Summer Wars, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and Evangelion 2.22, all presented in 720p resolution. These are repeated across all three discs.
If you shell out the extra for the US release, you’ll also get a couple of trailers for the show, a music video version of one of the end sequences, and a textless ending sequence, all in all not a lot that we’re missing out on to get up in arms about.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica comes to the UK surfing a wave of hype so high that in its spare time it works as a stunt wave in the Point Break movie. With that kind of word of mouth, PR and reputation, it’s a title that is wholly review proof, and nothing I will say will convince you to buy, or not to buy as the case may be. You’ll either be jaded by the relentless juggernaut of publicity and will avoid it out of sheer contrariness, or you will have already placed your order for the collection. I can tell you that you won’t be disappointed by the series, as it does what it says on the tin, it reinvents the magical girl genre and delivers a visual, aural, and narrative experience that will have you glued to the screen, and will have you re-watching it repeatedly to catch all the subtleties and nuances that you missed the first time. It almost lives up to that hype.
Almost, but not quite. Madoka isn’t the saviour of the anime industry. Everyone always looks for the next big thing, the next Cowboy Bebop, or the next Neon Genesis Evangelion, the show that will revitalise an ever inward looking business with a static and niche otaku fanbase, will deliver an experience that will change the game, will attract a whole new demographic and bring back the glory days when anime sold in the millions, and not the thousands. Madoka Magica isn’t that. It isn’t new, it isn’t revolutionary, and it isn’t doing something different with anime that rewrites the rules. What Madoka Magica does is the same thing that anime has been doing since Evangelion, and it follows the same formula that Evangelion established. Evangelion took a limited, and quite frankly childish genre, and re-invented it. It took giant robots with teen pilots, stripped the genre down to its essentials, and took it seriously. The writing took on a more adult approach, the characters were written as flawed and realistic, and the world was infused with metaphor and ideology that fundamentally enriched the story. And it was made dark and moody in a way that would shock an audience out of its complacency. When Evangelion was made, that was the revolution that the anime industry needed to draw in new fans. Doing it again, won’t guarantee the same results.
For that is what Madoka Magica does. It takes the magical girl genre, strips it down to its essentials, takes it seriously with characters that react, and are written realistically, with a complex world that is enriched with metaphor and ideology, layers of meaning that will guarantee repeat viewing and fan obsession, and it takes the story in a dark direction that shocks and mesmerises. But that’s old hat now. Anime has been doing the same thing for its various genres for several years now, in the hope of repeating the success of Evangelion. Want a dark harem show? Watch School Days. For a dark take on the shonen tropes there’s Berserk, and you can watch a sentai show taken to the extreme in Gurren Lagann. Some re-imaginings work better than others, and a few, like Gurren Lagann manage to reenergise and re-enthuse anime fandom as a whole.
Madoka Magica is one of those shows, it delivers a jolt of electricity through the fibrillating body of anime fandom, like very few shows in a long time, and it will get fans buying anime in their droves. Everyone wants a piece of Madoka Magica, everyone wants to know what it’s all about, and it’s a magical girl show that you will have never seen before, even if we don’t get too many of them in the UK. It won’t make any new anime fans though. Madoka Magica relies too much on at least a passing knowledge of the genre it reinvents for it to break out of the regular demographic. In terms of characterisation, design style, and to a small degree its storytelling, it also sticks to furrows familiar to fans, and it’s very much recognisable as a modern anime series, rather than a complete departure from what has come before.
Evangelion’s fraught production resulted in several attempts at a do-over, with Platinum Editions, Director’s Cuts, the End of Evangelion movie, and most recently the Evangelion rebuilds, all over a space of some fifteen years. This had the serendipitous effect of keeping its fans interested. Madoka Magica seems designed to milk the target demographic in just the same way, albeit in a far more compressed time frame. These Blu-rays when they debuted in Japan offered ‘up-graded’ animation in comparison to the television broadcasts. Right now, the Madoka Magica movies are playing across the world, and movies 1 and 2 are recaps of the series, with yet further enhanced animation, while movie 3 alone offers a whole new story, and just this week plans were announced for a follow up, 24-episode plus Madoka Magica series. This show is already a lean, mean, money making machine, and it all seems a little contrived.
That’s five paragraphs reviewing Madoka Magica’s hype, and I have yet to review the show itself. I’m not going to. Madoka Magica is a show that simply must not be spoiled. I managed to avoid the hype, and most of the spoilers floating around forums, and took the show in at face value, and I have to say that it is the most satisfying anime that I have experienced this year. But its twelve episode story so intertwines its characters, world, and narrative that just discussing one aspect out of context will serve to spoil it. I’d love to talk about the various characters and their traits, I’d love to discuss the story, I’m aching to talk about the twists and turns, but it’s like tugging on one string of a tapestry. To do so risks the whole story unravelling and the story is something that really needs to be experienced firsthand, without the comments of an overeager reviewer spoiling it for you. I also have criticisms of the show, and I can’t even talk about those for the exact same reason.
I’m unsure about the third movie or a potential follow up series, as Puella Magi Madoka Magica tells a complete and fulfilling story in its twelve episodes. It’s as accomplished a piece of writing as any I have seen in anime. It has rich and layered characterisations, a complex yet easy to grasp story, it’s perfectly paced and hits all the right emotional notes to get the viewer invested in the story and characters, without feeling manipulated or contrived at any point. It’s comfortable and familiar anime though, there will be elements that you have seen before, certainly the ending was very familiar to me, but I have to say that Madoka Magica employs its conclusion in a very appropriate and fulfilling way. The strong writing combines with awesome animation from Studio SHAFT, who for once find the right balance between their usual excess and self restraint, so that the visuals never distract from the story. To top it all off you have a breathtaking music soundtrack from Yuki Kajiura, who captures the emotional complexities of the story in her music, and you quite justifiably have an anime that people will be talking about for years to come.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica probably won’t create any new anime fans, but it will unite anime fans that have become increasingly fractured into their own niches of choice. If you are an anime fan, you must see Madoka Magica, it’s really that simple. Despite a small technical issue with disc one, this Blu-ray is the way to see it.