The magical girl show has been a well-defined genre of anime since the mid-1960s and Mahou-tsukai Sally. The conventions of mahou shoujo anime--a young girl is given supernatural powers by a mascot animal from another world, in order to fight supervillains and protect her home town--have become so thoroughly ossified that hardly anyone thought to question the implications. Aren't magical girls child soldiers? Could a plan to grant moody adolescents with amazing power and life-or-death responsibilities really end well? What are those inscrutable, beady-eyed magical pets thinking? Nobody thought about these sorts of questions very much, except apparently Akiyuki Shinbo and the gang at production studio Shaft, who have come up with the new anime of the season, and maybe the year: Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica ~ Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
Madoka Magica starts with a bog-standard magical girl plot, with young protagonists fighting a righteous battle for peace and friendship, but the story quickly winds up in some ugly places. There are early hints that not everything is going to be bunnies and rainbows--what does the mysterious Homura Akemi have against mascot character Kyubei, and why is she so opposed to our heroine, Madoka Kaname, becoming a magical girl?--and episode by episode, events spiral out of control and the characters are dragged into a world of confusion and despair.
Madoka Magica is instantly recognizable as a Shaft production, with it's heavy use of bold, experimental visual techniques. The surreal alternate realities of the witches--one inhabited by animated photo collages of desserts and medical equipment, another consisting solely of color-coded silhouettes--practically scream "Shinbo." The look of Madoka's real world is comparatively tame, though the squashed-frog moe character designs, courtesy of Ume Aoki (Hidamari Sketch) are not exactly mainstream.
Previous Shaft projects have excelled as quirky works of art, but sometimes come up short as entertainment. Madoka Magica has achieved a better balance. The stories and characters are engaging on their own, not just as excuses for metaphysical monologues and psychadelic animation. The cliffhangers are gripping, and the plights of our heroines are affectingly tragic. It may be melodrama, but it's convincing, craftily paced melodrama.
Madoka Magica seems to be aiming at being the Evangelion of magical girl anime: the show that takes the conventions of an established genre, smashes them, and rebuilds the genre from the ground up into something that becomes the new standard. It's hard to tell how well it will succeed: Madoka Magica is powerful and compelling entertainment that has attracted a dedicated following, but it may be too narrowly targeted at an otaku audience to ever have much of a cultural impact (witness the chipper, fan service-y opening). We'll see how reaction to the show plays out at the end of this month; the finale, delayed by the Tohoku earthquake, and probably, sensitivity about scenes of ruined and flooded cities in episode 10, is scheduled for broadcast on April 22.