Puella Magi Madoka Magica is available to stream on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Crunchyroll.
Madoka Magica’s place in the current anime production landscape is a bit tricky to pin down, to be sure.
It’s got the veneer of your standard magical girl series, but isn’t afraid to pull in some strikingly different imagery to make a point (what else do you expect from Studio SHAFT?). It’s inspired a line of similar shows from other studios following in its wake, none of which I’d argue have yet to match its high points (even the multi-season WIXOSS, commercially-successful as it appears to be). It’s at once a complete and satisfying story on its own, yet it’s got just enough of that franchise residue that smaller spin-offs and even a sequel film (contentious as it appears to be) have sprung up to drip-feed related content to those looking for it.
But despite some contradictions in the series’ image, Madoka Magica itself is an outstandingly solid show,owing largely to keeping a strong hold on its core ideals.
Oh, and if you’re not familiar with at least the first half of the series, consider this your call to action. It’s a brilliant bit of television with gorgeous presentation, an uncommonly potent story, and much to chew on after you’ve finished watching, and it’s not even especially long (about five hours; less time than I spent procrastinating on this article by playing Insomniac’s new Spider-man game just today). I’ll have to paint its final episode in broad strokes, which by its nature will give away much of the experience of watching the series for the first time, even as early as its middle act.
So, if you’re sensitive at all to spoilers, the below image is your cue to pull the ripcord on this article and go watch Puella Magi Madoka Magica before you reach the other side of this image.
So, Madoka Magica frequently gets pegged as a darker-and-grittier deconstruction of the “magical girl” strain of shows, which is a perfectly reasonablye stance to take. It’s certainly more comfortable letting its cast go down in decidedly un-glorious ways, the visuals can border on the stuff of nightmares much of the time – particularly in the witches’ domains – and it’s not often that you see a magical girl in other shows using military ordinance. There’s no shortage of down moments throughout, either, from Kyubey’s “demonstration” to Sayaka of her powers to the show’s infamous turning point to the entirety of Episode 10. (Fun fact: due to an earthquake among other factors delaying the finale, that awful note was the last aired of the show for over a month during the show’s original broadcast.)
It’s certainly willing to shoot holes in the traditional “heroism for fun and profit” idea, with the associated duties and consequences being on full display in a way that they rarely are for most running superheroes not named Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker (and even they tend to do all right in the long run). And I don’t think any other show, comic, movie, or the like does quite as good a job with portraying the mission of “vanquishing evil” being a thankless Sisyphean task. All this told through the skin of a show that’s traditionally the most optimistic of all the flavors of superheroics.
Yet I’d put a huge asterisk on the idea of it being a deconstruction.
Without pulling a “Webster defines the term as”, there’s usually a much heavier dose of realism setting in to deconstructions. Not to say that Madoka Magica is short on that – in all fairness, its putting the main characters through the emotional ringer as a result of their powers paints it as incredibly critical of the trappings of its own genre, and its refusal to establish a status quo is a deliberate counterpoint against the “everything works out in the end” attitude of other magical girl anime, with hubris being a catalyst for dire harm rather than a pleasant moral.
It even takes a hard look at each member of the core group as a specific heroic archetype: the paragon, the tragic hero, the anti-hero, and so forth; and none are particularly friendly with the others in a setting with a combative premise.
Still, in its heart of hearts, Madoka Magica still follows the biggest and most central convention of the genre:
Magical girls, superheroes, and every other brand of action-protagonist is built around the idea of overcoming adversity; it’s why villain characters are every bit as core to a story as most. And in Madoka Magica, the villain at hand proves to be fate itself, seemingly inescapable and wearing the protagonists down over the course of the series. That’s what makes some of the adversity these girls face among the worst possible – it has no face and no apparent ending, and is targeted at middle schoolers ill-equipped to face its harshness. We’re left with the distinct impression that the spiral to rock bottom is inevitable.
Everything that Madoka Magica does appears to deconstruct and pull down the optimistic tenants of what’s usually a sugary monster-of-the-week genre. But that’s just a singularly intense and slightly self-aware way of doing what every hero’s journey is: to let the protagonists hit rock bottom, so that they can push off and soar ever higher. There are moments of deep despair, but just like any good overcoming-the-odds plot, this is done explicitly so that in the eleventh hour, we can build that optimism up again.
Despite everything, all the bad things give way to the light.
Despite everything, our heroes make it out all right in the end.
Despite even the audience’s expectations that the series will have a bittersweet ending or finish on a down note, we’re left with the world a better place than it started.
Madoka Magica doesn’t end with becoming a deconstruction, but in a sense, it overcomes its own negativity to turn into a reconstruction in its final act.
It’s a magical girl show on a metatextual level, proving its titular heroine’s brazen positivity to be right and true – not only to the characters, but also to the viewers who almost certainly abandoned hope for these girls at some point before the end.
There’s some argument to be had as to whether it’s a qualified victory in the end or not, sure; but I’ve seen worse outcomes to stories that I’d ultimately pin as uplifting. And Madoka Magica, for all of its wallowing in misery and kicking its heroines while they’re down, is ultimately uplifting.
Even earlier on, when certain characters’ arcs are coming to a close, it’s easy to note (especially if you’re not on the roller coaster of a first-time viewing) that there’s some morsel inspiration in the end. They go out horribly in a way that underscores the atmosphere of dread clouding the meat of the series, but also with having made some statement or reached a slight upswing – not always the dominant mood of the scene, but always present nonetheless.
The despair in this show may be relentless.
But so is the hopefulness of the central heroine.
And when all the dust has finally, truly settled, Madoka Magica has taken a side.
Which is what really matters in any completed story. We don’t codify the moral and thesis in the first or second acts of a tale (unless you’re poor Uncle Ben) – you learn it in the finale, when you have the whole picture and can put it into context (when Uncle Ben’s mantra is repeated).
Amongst all the fatalism in its path, Madoka Magica shows all the signs of a deconstruction, sure. But if you were to watch the first hour and fifteen minutes of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the apparent takeaway would be “all people are terrible, self-interested creatures”. But neither impression is really how these these stories leave their audiences, and it’s important not to lose the forest for the trees.
The suffering that the series deals in is long, deep, and sharp, to be sure. But just as with a thousand other stories, its dark middle doesn’t necessarily lead to a dark end, no matter how inevitable it might seem to the onlooker.
That’s what makes it so much more poignant – and so much more important – that Madoka so persistently holds onto the idea of hope in a landscape doomed by storytelling conventions to be hopeless. And by showing its own belief in the value hope to have merit, even standing against something that by all rights the viewer should expect to tragically crash and burn, its idealism comes through all the stronger.