Look at any Japanese anime related site/store/magazine and even if the next Evangelion movie was just announced, you're almost certainly going to see something Puella Magi Madoka Magica related featured with dominating prominence. Look at any North American/English language anime related site/store/magazine, and maybe the chances aren't quite so high, but, you're sill probably going to see a spot slotted for Madoka Magica. Since its April 2011 premiere, and even a bit before given that the hyped series wasn't an out of nowhere hit, Madoka Magica has been the IT anime. It has attracted some nitpickers, some avoiders, some small minority of detractors, but, remarkably for a work that has ruled the roost for that long in a quickly churning pop medium, it hasn’t developed any strong negative constituency. Well it was the most overrated anime in a February poll, but it’s rare to see the series insight much hate. Even the likes of Lone Wolf and Cub creator Kazuo Koike, recently quoted as saying that anime and manga are in a slump because much of it is not very good these days, have tipped theirs hat in admiration of Madoka Magica.
Personally, I'll go with the Chuck Klosterman centrism position that Madoka Magica is an accurately rated anime. It's hugely admirable. It wins over tons of affection. I've had little personal interest in owning anime paranephenalia for the better part of a decade, but I can certainly see the attraction towards the many, many merchandise releases featuring the likeness of the anime's winning cast. Recognizing a character nuance or expression is enough to rekindle admiration for the great series.
There are more than a few references to Madoka Magica being a "next Evangelion." In the sense that it is going to be transformative in America or Japan, no chance. The conditions aren't/weren't close to right in either landscape. Yet, the moniker is far from unfair. Like Evangelion, it's more about adding new details to anime's domain than it is expanding that footprint. Madoka Magica's conceits are very native to anime. Its concerns are very native as well. Anime frequently repeats and refines what worked - occasionally hitting upon something inspired and jumping to a higher orbit or running a concept into the ground and descending into a lower one. In this case, Madoka Magica does what anime does, and does it exceptionally well.
Madoka Magica is not transcendent. It's not Paranoia Agent or Serial Experiments Lain or a movie by one of anime's accomplished directors. It's not addressing new topics or exploring new perspectives or telling a new type of story. I think that, with the glut of choices out there, anime has to compete with other media, and in the year 2012, most media consumers have some reasonable semblance of an idea of what anime has to offer. As astonishingly rewarding as it is, it's hyper-competent rather than different or eye opening. To that extent, I wouldn't go out of my way to push the series on former/non-anime watchers. By the same token, while I wouldn't push it on the uninterested, if someone with a kernel of interest asked what anime to watch I'd give Madoka Magica the highest possible recommendation.
As the series opens, a lace curtain is drawn. Alien jumbled labeling appears centered on the screen. Then a film reel clicks and a phantasmagoric checkerboard labyrinth to a tableau of sweet, pink haired Madoka standing witness to a raven haired girl throwing herself into a CLAMP style apocalyptic showdown with monster churning, grasping silhouette.
A white, marshmallowy kitty-foxy-creature tells Madoka that the dark haired girl can't handle the threat alone. The young stranger yells in impotent frustration as the smile affixed creature informs Madoka that the power to change fate lies within her. "Can I really do it? Can I really change the ending?" Of course replies the mascot creature. It gives her the sales pitch. Madoka just needs to become a magical girl.
Madoka wakes up, clutching her teddy bear in a messy bed, in an ultra-modern house where she lives with her stay at home father, just vocal younger brother and a mother who loves living the model work-self-to-death corporate ideal.
After helping out her father with the darling little brother and helping out her mom through her out-too-late-with-colleagues hand-over and OCD make-up routine, kindof, not-entirely but borderline inept Madoka meets up with her far more decisive friend Sayaka at their ultra-modern school (the anime's technology is pretty much out own, except for homes and schools that meet then fantastically exceeds the now expired America notion of way-sleek-high-tech Japan), where... shocker... the dark haired girl joins her class as a transfer student. The icy girl, ironically named Homura (flame) turns away the many admirers of her luxurious hair, her dazzling academic prowess and amazing athletic ability, but does seem to more than tolerate Madoka.
An after school mall excursion ends with Madoka and Sayaka stumbling on Homura attempting to exterminate the strange creature from Madoka's dream. A clumsy intervention from Madoka delays Homura before Sayaka is able to save the critter. Kyubey then thanks the girls, informs them that they should make a wish... any wish... and after it's granted they can become magic girls and do wonderful things protecting humanity from witches.
Magic girls are a co-opted genre. It's generally not Sailor Moon heroines for girls anime anymore and not about the fantasies of children. Even the new notables that do appeal to female audiences skew a bit older (Penguindrum for example) and recognize the baggage now carried by a genre 20 years removed from Sailor Moon, 14 from Cardcaptor Sakura, ect. There's still the juggernaut Pretty Cure (Precure) franchise rolling along with recent, successful Smile iteration, featuring five magic girls facing down the big bad wolf, the which witch and such from the Bad End Kingdom to protect Märchenland, but that this point, its Toei curators know that to make a hit Precure they need to appeal to otaku, the same way that they know to make a hit Kamen Rider they need action that appeals to the kids and a handsome lead that appeal to their moms.
Chances are, if there is post 2000 magic girl anime, its probably going to focus on moe elements, risqué parody, some mix of the two, and maybe some emphasis on action.
Then again, most anime genres are co-opted at this point. The Bandai brain trust recently tried to re-pitched Gundam to young audiences, bringing aboard Level-5's President Akihiro Hino (the popular Professor Layton and the hit in Japan soccer franchise Inazuma Eleven) to mastermaind the ambitious multi-generation story/multi-media franchise Gundam AGE. To say that AGE struggled would be an understatement. Low ratings were accompanied by persistent rumors that the anime would be ending prematurely. No longer the effective vehicle to sell toys to kids, rarely even an effective power fantasy anymore (Gurren Lagann is five years ago at this point), successful mecha anime nowadays are either for male audiences with busty gals or female audiences with pretty boys or both. Same goes for sports anime/manga. Kuroko's Basketball is a baseball series from the wellspring of male anime/manga - Shonen Jump (home pf Dragon Ball, Naruto, One Piece, Slam Dunk, Fist of the North Star), but if you look at Japanese online artist community Pixiv (comparable to DeviantArt), which apparently adores the series, you'd think that the manga's titular sport was just a pretext to show handsome boys in physical contact.
The opening credits for Madoka Magica match its packaging and a lot of its market material, suggesting a cute, funny story of a circle of friendly girls teaming up to fight creepy crawly nasties. Cutely inept Madoka and green grass and blue skies and cuddly puppies.
Yes, in ealy 2011 the anime writer did feel it necessary to apologize for misleading people that it was a "healing anime". Yes, even creative contributors wound up horrified... but even at the time the was plenty of "no shit" sentiment from observers when the storm clouds started rolling in for Madoka and company. Especially given the résumés involved, the accentuated cute veneer was always done more with a wink than it was a fake-out. It was the particulars and their significance that were important. Within the context of the series, there was some daydream notion of magic girls as the pastel colored protectors against the things that bump in the night, but even the most innocent characters knew that the simple view of this was a fantasy. In the external view of the series, Madoka Magica quickly became a work that you were supposed avoid spoiling at all cost and simultaniously one for which spoilers became unavoidable. Still, it was hard to imagine that anyone suffered the illusion that this was going to be a straight moe magic girl comedy.
The director on the anime was recent fan favorite Akiyuki Shinbo. A 2009 Famitsu survey of American anime fans placed him just after Hayao Miyazaki, Shinichiro Watanabe, Hideaki Anno, and Satoshi Kon in a list of top anime-makers. Shinbo's (SoulTaker, Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, Pani Poni Dash, Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei, Maria Holic, Bakemonogatari/Nisemonogatari, Dance in the Vampire Bund, Arakawa Under the Bridge, And Yet The Town Moves) trademark is visually jumping the rails - shifting into neon lighting, employing radical negative space or tossing in quick references to different schools of art or media. It's an approach that is extravagant and showy, but sometimes clever or effective in service to the theme, humor or story of the anime; perfect for something very literate and reference heavy like Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei or the Monogatari series, interesting enough to be the defining characteristic of horror works like Soul Taker or Le Portrait de Petit Cossette. It's disappointing when the look of one of his works doesn't frequently metamorphose or surprise.
Shinbo also directed Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, a fairy well regarded (even by people disinclined to like the type of material) action/moe magical girl series spun off from the bodyguards and assassins eroge visual novel series Triangle Heart.
Madoka Magica was teased as Shinbo doing Nanoha action magic girls at Shaft - the anime studio - the anime studio that supported his most visually dynamic works.
Ume Aoki, creator of the moe artist community (shared apartment) anime/manga Hidamari Sketch was onboard for character design - giving it the broad, innocent faces and gentle fashion sense that beguiled viewers looking for that healing anime. (She was one of the creators who were a bit taken aback by what was jokingly called 'Chidamari (blood puddle) Sketch').
The accelerant on that bit of fandom arson was that the series was to be written by Gen Urobuchi.
Apart from the far end of the anime interest curve, anime fans, especially in North America don't pay too much attention to who's writing anime apart from a few names. During the anime boom, Dai Sato had some name recognition for his contributions to Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex, and Eureka 7; Chiaki J. Konaka had some for anime like Serial Experiments Lain. These days, if you pay attention to credits, you can't help but notice that Mari Okada seems to writing about half of all series these days. In 2011 she won an award for her work Fractale, Horo Musuko (Wandering Son), Hanasaku Iroha and Anohi Mita Hana no Namae wo Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai over the course of the year.
Then again, anime is full of resumes of writers who have worked on both excellent and terrible series. The writer can certainly help or harm anime, but so much else goes into production that they're rarely the final arbitrator of if an anime works.
Then there's the meme-tastic Gen Urobuchi - given the nickname "Urobutcher" along the lines of Gundam's 'Kill 'em All' Tomino. He worked on visual novels (somewhat interactive adventure games) in his early career, with works like Nitroplus' Phantom: Phantom of Inferno, about a boy kidnapped and forced to join the 'United Nations of crime syndicates.' The game was spun-off into the anime series Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom, which he also worked on. He wrote Ichiro Itano's 2008 horror action motorcycle anime series Blassreiter - a not-well received collection of impressive talents. He wrote a Black Lagoon light novel around the same time.
Beyond the visual novel work, what really made Urobuchi's name was, compounding his reputation as THE anime writer the way that Madoka Magica is THE anime with its recent adaptation, was the Fate/Zero light novels (physically small books, generally quick reads with often with a lot of world building, in the tradition of Vampire Hunter D and Guin Saga). Written between 2006 ans 2007, the four volume merciless incarnation of a merciless franchise served as a prequel to Type-Moon's Fate/stay night series, in which the (mostly) adult parents and mentors of Fate/stay night's cast summoned heroes out of history to battle to the death for the wish granting Holy Grail.
The narrative, laid out in places like the post script for the first volume of Fate/zero is the Urobuchi wanted to create heartwarming stories, but a personal brush with hospitalization (a theme that carries into Madoka in two characters) and mortality left him with a painful writer's block when it came to creating a convincing state of happiness.
He populated the cast of Fate/zero with super hero comic style absolutist views of the world. Men (for the most part) dedicated to heroically sacrifice all to saving as many lives and possible or to protect the woman they loves and her child, absolutely dedicated to chivalry, lineage or heredity or even blasphemy. Urobuchi then blessed/cursed these characters with the opportunity to put their ideals into action and maybe live to see the results.
No good plan survives contact with the enemy, and... it’s not so much that these philosophies don’t survive contact with the enemy as that that unrelenting certainly had dire consequences for both the admirable and the detestable. Maybe the characters got to see their ideals in action because the results were often not just shattered dreams and death, but painfully unjust, long lasting suffering for all those around the men fighting for the grail.
Through a small, but prominent sample size, Urobuchi’s name has risen in prominence because when given the opportunity, he guides anime in a very discernable direction. In Madoka Magica, he takes endearing characters and feeds them into the woodchipper. The anime industry has make a science of designing characters that elicit affection. Knock moe if you want, I certainly have, but when executed well, it's hard not to find its subjects adorable (see Yotsuba&! or My Ordinary Life). In Madoka Magica, Urobuchi admittedly bullies the cast. He's coming at a different side of his conversation than Fate/zero by focusing on adolescents rather than hardened adults. Though Madoka Magica is not fetishizing purity, it's remarkable how little malice there is this. It could be debated, but I'd argue that though there is a scam of sorts at the heart of this, it’s not truly a function of scheming duplicity.
For all its tradeoffs and justifications, Madoka Magica is full of well meaning decisions that yield terrible consequences.
As harsh as this sounds and as it is, Madoka Magica became a hit and its popularity endures by setting the stage for a world that does not look as dire as its potential. It's like a flame, enthralling to look at, but also with the potential to be terribly destructive. Shinbo has a field day here. The mundane looks fantastic. The way he plays with angles and light exposures in a scene such as Homura running track in gym class exemplified how much attention was given to making this anime visually interesting. Then, when the anime turns fantastic, it really enters its own world and embraces the opportunity to get creative. Many of the witches are designed by animation troupe Gekidan Inu Curry, who bring an Eastern European influenced stop motion paper look to Cyclopean gingerbread houses, gum drop nurses and attacking crayon drawings, all of which have dreamlike look that contains the capacity to be both beautiful or adorable and compassionatelessly threatening. When the magic girls respond to the threats with a righteous ballet of violence, the power and appeal of a mahou shoujo is nakedly apparent. The anime production does subtly and body language well and it does unsubtle grand gestures spectacularly well. The apologies and surprises belie the fact that Madoka Magica would not work nearly as well if the characters in general and as magical girls specifically weren't presently so spectacularly winningly by the production.
Urobuchi evidently both loves genre and has a deft hand working with it. Not just a slavish geek, he's certainly drawn to conceptual baubles, but he has factored in what they do to the story.
He seems drawn to erecting or working with fascinating, complex systems: the baroque, perpetually imploding rules set up by major families of mages to battle for the Grail in Fate or his complex ecosystem of magic girls in witches in Madoka Magica. Movies like the Matrix and Inception would suggest that it's not only geeks who can be drawn in by that sort of big concept clockworks. In Madoka Magica, this is intricate enough that he's revealing new facets throughout the series.
Once he has the viewer wondering about the system he's laying out, he goes to the genre toolkit to great effect. He seems to have considered what different atmospheres and concepts elicit. For example, he's usurped Chiaki J. Konaka's position as anime's foremost Lovecraft fans, and along the lines of what you a Junji Ito manga, he manages a potent sense of human fragility: that a person's psyche has only a certain amount of elasticity to it; that something human can fracture it and that something cosmic can really snap it with hurricane force.
There's a conceit in Madoka Magica that is possible to have avoided being spoiled on. It's one that's frequently a trigger for many to get emotional and consider their own lives and decisions. It's revealed at the right pace at the right time, with the right character reactions that the series hits square on making it fully impactful.
The cast of Fate/zero was densely packed with huge egos. It was giants of history, would-be world-changers, kings, heroes and generally people who were certain that they had it all figured out. You could compare them to figures in other stories, you could fit them into archetypes, but there was a fundamental individuality to them.
In contrast Madoka Magica is populated by rounded, deep and dynamic characters wishing to become stamped into the role of magical girl. There's a vision of a magical girl from manga/anime that the characters are as familiar with as we are, there's the complexities of reality of what a magical girl is in the context of this specific series, and in overlap her, the concept of "magical girl" is something defined.
The girls' relationship with genre twists back around to Urobuchi's interest in what happens when a view of the world or a mission comes into conflict with inexorable and intractable realities. Madoka Magica/Urobuchi's fascinations eats its own tale, and finds the meal nutritious.
In the course of the anime, Madoka sketches herself as a magic girl and hopes with vague details, she can seize that fairy wand and do something positive with it. Transforming into magical girl becomes a grand gesture with all the possibility to fix anything. It’s the shonen/shoujo centerpoint of the great aspiration. We're drawn into the pitched teen emotions and heroic spirit. However, the well meaning decision in a Urobuchi anime is as likely to bring about consequences, intended, foreseeable and or more often otherwise as the repugnant decision. As such, much of the anime proves to be events spiraling into the ravine that the decision dropping them into. The magic girl may be quintessential aspirational material, but as Madoka Magica head down its path, there's plenty of seinen/josei reconciliation being worked out. There's an interesting extent to which the anime is about realizing what the past means and considering its implications.
The genre conversation is also part of the reason why Madoka Magica is superb anime for anime fans and a recommendable but not necessary one for audiences who are indifferent to the medium. It's good in every way, and important in so far as anime needs to generate solid works of pop media that excite fans and make money for the beligered industy. To its benefit, but also to some extent to its limitation, Madoka Magica is not a destructive work. Its harsh cruelties aren't purely done for shock. And, at the same time, it's not hypocritically criticizing its type of show or audience expectation or audience interests. It's not chiding the viewer, and in fact it steps away from lecturing the audience. Urobuchi is dissecting these characters, but he's not interesting in reading the aruspices in their entrails or throwing the guts at viewer from his soap box a loa Shoji Kawamori. The next magical girl anime for an adult audience is going to pale in comparison next to Madoka Magica, but it's not going to look invalidated by it. It's an exceptionally well made example of what it is and not something new or different or even a jolt to its genre.