Earlier this month, the first two Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica movies finally came to the fine city of Toronto — at a theater right across from my flat, no less! The sold out theater looked like any anime convention in this part of the world: dressed up and disproportionally Asian. There was a festive air at the screenings, and if the Madoka movies ever do show up in a city near you I would whole-heartedly recommend attending for that bizzaro-world vibe alone.
If you are curious about actual movies, don’t be — these movies don’t really add anything new to the series. There are some new cuts here and there (most notably some spiffy transformation scenes), but they’re fairly inconsequential and most of them would go by unnoticed unless you’re comparing them side to side with the TV series like the nerd you probably are.
Rather, these movies simply a slightly dressed up version of the original series that retains the integrity of the storytelling, nothing more. If you’ve never watched the series before, you wouldn’t be missing much if you dived straight into the movies. The Gurren Lagann movies these are not.
However, the movies are a good occasion/excuse for fans of the series to revisit the story — a perfect way to reflect on the little SHAFT show that took the world by storm. It’s been a long while since I watched the series, and I’ve forgotten the a lot of Madoka‘s quirks. The first movie made me look down at my watch far too often, while the second movie warmed my heart enough to make me think twice before writing a tl;dr textual smackdown. So instead of a smackdown, this not-so-little post is a gentle putting down of Madoka — a retrospective on the series and a couple of the storytelling problems that irked me during my two-part re-visitation.
Needless to say, the following rant contains plenty of spoilers, so you have been warned.
Sayaka is not very bright.
…Okay, that came out a little too bluntly, but throwing your life away for an arm? Talk about selling yourself short.
I never was a huge fan of Sayaka in the original series, and as I found myself rolling my eyes in the theater, I started to remember why. Don’t get me wrong though, the whole “saving my not-boyfriend’s fapping arm” thing isn’t my problem with her, because the frivolity of that wish reinforces her naive nature. Stupid as it may seem to me, it certainly paints her as a character who is innocently romantic. Nay, it’s when Madoka threw Sayaka over the bridge that the eye-rolling commenced.
Sure, the realization of having been transformed into an Easter decoration is a lot to take in. But after the initial shock and horror, is the idea of having a super-durable magical body really that bad? Of all the things she has to worry about (i.e. dying a horrible violent and lonely death at the hands of otherworldly horrors), this line of fine print on the magical girl contract is pretty benign.
But alas, Sayaka seems to be impervious to common sense as she latches on that one detail with like a hungry piranha on a drowning man’s buttcheek. Her reaction towards it becomes the driving reason behind her freefall down a cliff of angst, spouting nonsense like “I can’t even hold him with a body like this.” The length of the series rushed things along even further, but at the same time the entire phase of the story felt agonizingly long.
Seriously, what bloody difference does it make? The fact that no one other than Homura knew about it means that there is no difference on a functional level. The faculties of her senses remain perfectly normal and would not a hindrance between her and her would-be boyfriend. You know what would be a hindrance? The constant need to go engage in mortal combat with the aforementioned horrors — something she is perfectly aware of already. If I were Sayaka, I would have no problems with the idea of having violin boy plow my invincible pain-resistant zombie vagina. Just sayin’.
With Mami removed from the picture rather quickly, Sayaka’s drama is essentially the core of the first movie — a very flimsy core at that. The weight of the drama dangles on this thin string — a weight it could not sustain.
Telling, not showing
For all of the time spent on Sayaka’s sob story, the time spent on Kyouko and Mami’s respective stories is remarkably scant. The only thing I remember about Mami’s past was that she was a victim in a traffic accident who made her wish on the verge of death. Oddly, no mention of the accident was made in the movie, nor did it expand on the loneliness of her life as a magical girl beyond the brief mention shortly before she had the run-in with Charlotte. Ultimately, I never got the chance to really know Mami as a character, and I still think losing her head was the best thing that’s happened to her.
Kyouko fares a bit better in that she actually gets a back story — an effective one at that. What happened to her was truly awful and made me empathize a lot more with her cynical attitude. Yet as good as it may be, it could’ve been so much more — instead of having Kyouko narrate over a short recollection of paper cut-out lookalikes, a flashback could’ve been included to allow the audience experience this story directly.
Kyouko reminds me a lot of Archer in Fate/Stay Night — not only are both of these characters defined by their tragic pasts, but both character also suffer a big case of having their stories told to the audience instead of being shown to the audience. Archer is by far the bigger offender, though — not only was his past completely conveyed by telling, but it was also vague — it was almost as if Nasu ran into a writer’s block and gave up. I still have trouble picturing Archer running around a world of guns brandishing his little swords around, but that’s a rant for another time.
The reason why I think Mami and Kyouko are big missed opportunities is because of how well-done Homura’s backstory is. Instead of merely telling the audience, we are actually shown Homura’s attempts to save her friend. We see her frustrations and the way she changed over time, and by the end of her montage, the audience has a good sense of how emotionally exhausted she must be. The sheer determination with which she carried out her task made her admirable, and the growing sense of futility in her attempts was heartbreaking. That’s quality character development.
Because of this, the second half of Madoka soars above the first. It make me wonder what Madoka would’ve been like if it was a 2-cour show with enough time given to each of the supporting characters. Hell, even Sayaka would probably benefit from this — if I knew more about her history with violin boy, maybe I wouldn’t think making a contract to heal his arm is such a stupid wish. Madoka did a good job at fitting its story within its twelve episodes, but the glossing over of its side characters is its biggest flaw — a character drama needs to give its characters time to develop.
At the end of the day, Madoka is not high art. It is not anime Shakespeare. It is, however, a great blend of entertainment value and substance — a clever twist to an existing genre, along with unique art direction and a stellar soundtrack. I can nitpick at it all day long, but at the end of the day it would be like nit-picking Inception for its plot holes instead of just enjoying the movie for what it is: an action Hollywood blockbuster with an idea. And with all the derivative schlock on so prevalent in both anime and Hollywood, I would feel uncomfortable dismissing the few gems out there, flawed as they might be.
My hipster senses do get inflamed sometimes at how the anime fandom (especially on MFC) worship Madoka as if it’s the best thing since sliced bread, but between the quality and the marketability of the series, the reaction it has received is pretty reasonable. I guess I just wish the anime industry was in such a state that an offering like Madoka would be considered “above average” instead of ANIME OF THE YEAR ALL YEARS — an industry filled with shows venture outside of tropes and conventions to varying degrees, an industry fueled by a fanbase that would actually reward ambitious shows with sales figures.
…Well, a man can dream, can’t he?
Anyways, what do you think? Am I being a little hard on Sayaka? What do you think of Madoka, both the anime itself and the reaction it has had?