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Old 2017-08-18, 12:00   Link #1
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Thumbs up Mahou Shoujo Madoka★Magica

To say that Mahou Shoujo Madoka★Magica is a foray into the magical girl genre is to leave a great deal unsaid. To call it a deconstruction or subversion, as many have referred to it, is also inaccurate, for that is reductive and vague. Madoka★Magica is far more complex than can simply be summarized in 130 characters or less.

Madoka★Magica follows the titular character Kaname Madoka and her close friend Sayaka Miki through their encounters with the mysterious supernatural being Kyubey and other magical girls. Through these encounters, they are confronted by the growing realization that there is a terrible price to be paid for the power they acquire. Their wishes have drastic repercussions, ultimately leading to each character's own internal struggle between hope and despair. Their power becomes less of a blessing and more of a burden as the characters struggle to balance the desire to make the world a better place despite the horrific toll it takes upon their naive, adolescent minds.

This summary barely scratches the surface of the thematic impact of the series. The magical girl concept is merely the backdrop, the vehicle for telling the story, giving it an immediately familiar and understandable framework upon which to build a greater narrative. What Madoka★Magica eschews is the typical structure of the magical girl show, focusing instead on the drama and dilemma inherent to the condition of being a magical girl. Indeed, Madoka★Magica re-conceptualizes the magical girl as a condition.

Loss of innocence and the beginnings of adolescence are often thematic tropes found throughout Bildungsromane, though typically those follow male protagonists, especially in Western literature. The magical girl genre often touches upon these aspects but often from a stance of empowerment and entrance into womanhood. Sailor Moon is ultimately the seminal and pivotal work upon which the magical genre has stood for decades and has informed the perception and conception of the magical girl as blossoming into a romanticized adolescence and ultimately young adulthood, in spite of the challenges that puberty and loss of innocence convey.

Madoka★Magica instead confronts loss of innocence much more directly and symbolically examines the negative consequences of puberty and adolescence--broken hearts, tension with parents, mortality, sexual anxiety and fear of objectification. Where once the world was familiar and full of wonder, it becomes strange and foreign (indeed, at one point, the characters literally comment that they feel as though they are estranged in a foreign land). This is reflected by the witches' labyrinths, with their surreal terrain and horrifyingly familiar yet foreign (since they are piecemeal composites) inhabitants and design.

This loss of innocence is part-and-parcel with the mounting sense of despair that grows throughout the series. Wishes are made to try to preserve the idyllic state but the wishes always carry with them a powerful price that results in the alienation of the characters that make them. The idyllic situation may continue but for someone else and not for the wishing character--they cannot stop aging, they cannot delay the onset of puberty and the physical, psychological, and neuro-chemical changes that will invariably occur. To put it somewhat crassly, one cannot stop the onset of one's first menses, and although menstruation is never directly discussed, once the viewer remembers that the characters either have or will soon experience menstruation, the permanent estrangement from innocence and idealized childhood should become crushingly apparent to the viewer.

Instead, the characters have thrust upon them the burden of responsibility and eventually obtain more and more knowledge and experience that makes their tragic destinies all the more apparent. It cannot be understated how elegantly Madoka★Magica unravels truth before the viewer and the characters alike. Each episode peels away more mystery and as each layer is exposed, more knowledge is obtained and the more innocence is lost.

Mahou Shoujo Madoka★Magica also introduces the concept of magic having a price to the magical girl concept. Long a trope in Western literature, magic is said to come with a cost, especially through the signing of a pact or contract with a supernatural entity (often a demon in Western fiction). Thus, the characters of Madoka★Magica are committing to a Faustian bargain, injecting a dose of Western-style fictional tradition. Yet this is married to a very Eastern attitude, as the narrative reaches toward its climax and takes a uniquely Buddhism-influenced turn which, for the sake of avoiding spoilers, must remain further undiscussed beyond advising the viewer to consider what a "Buddha" or a Bodhisattva is at the end.

All of this and more are conveyed within a brief 12-episode run. There are times where I wish the show had received more than a single cour to develop the characters and their struggles and to take more time delving into the gradual devolution of hope. However, that would have disrupted the incredibly tight pacing and perfect narrative flow that this show displays. There is not a single moment wasted throughout this series. Every scene is crafted with a tight attention to detail and a deliberateness that conveys volumes of meaning.

Shinbou's visual and directorial acumen are an excellent match for Urobuchi's dramatic and tragic storytelling. The conceptualization and realization of the world in which Madoka★Magica takes place is heavily stylized, with exuberantly avant-garde architecture juxtaposed against dense urban skylines, oil refinery towers silhouetted against red skies at sunset, and interior designs at times elegant and at other times almost fantastically futuristic. Every frame begs for analysis and examination as much as any film of Stanley Kubrick's oeuvre.

The style is the substance, visually calling to mind the dichotomies and tensions throughout the series. The simple, sunshine world of Madoka's childhood, her family, and school life is represented by architecture dominated by transparency--enormous floor-to-ceiling windows instead of exterior walls distinguish Madoka's house, the classrooms at her school, and the shelter at the end of the series. This is contrasted with shadowed buildings at sunset, like the aforementioned silhouetted oil refinery or the orange-bathed hospital room at sunset, and further contrasted by the witches' labyrinths, their runic language, and their highly allegorical and metaphoric architecture, bringing to mind Soviet/Russian animation by the likes of Khitruk's Winnie-the-Pooh adaptation and Khrzhanovsky's The Glass Harmonica, as well as early-20th century German expressionist film (like Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari).

Madoka★Magica has the makings of a classic. It will undoubtedly stand up against the test of time and take its place alongside other seminal works in the medium of Japanese animation.
--Qvidqvid Latine dictvm sit altvm videtvr.
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