Okay, disclaimer: I’m not gonna claim I know Jack Rat about the magical girl genre. I know it’s a long-established and much-loved subset of anime, but I’ve never sat down and watched a magical girl series, mainly because I’ve gotten the third-hand impression that the good ones will choke you on cute and the bad ones are nonstop panty shots. (–Maho shojo fans, please feel free to school me on the topic. Suggestions are welcome.) Even admitting my ignorance, though, I think it’s safe to say that the magical-girl universe seems to be a pretty sunny place. Some strife, some tears, sure; no drama without conflict. But overall, a place where innocence, courage, and the power of love always triumph in the end.
Okay…and then there’s THIS series.
‘Puella Magi Madoka Magica’ (It’s ‘Maho Shojo Madoka Magica’ in the original, and no, I’ve no idea why the translation puts it into Latin) has got to be the bleakest little box of nihilism anyone ever tied a pink ribbon on. It’s 12 episodes, and at the end of episode 9, here’s where things stand: (1) Three of the four Puella Magi, including the heroine’s best friend, are dead. (2) An evil invasion of apocalyptic scale is bearing down on their town, and; (3) Our heroine Madoka, the last and potentially most powerful candidate, is understandably uneasy about signing on, having learned that (a) the bizarre, hallucinogenic monsters –called Witches–that the girls fight are none other than the corrupted souls of former Puella Magi, and (b) every Puella Magus is doomed to mutate into a Witch and be hunted down by her successors, unless she dies in battle first. None of which, incidentally, any of them were told when they joined up.
Dark enough for you? if not, add this in: the bright little glass vial every Puella Magus carries isn’t just a magical trinket, it’s her soul, which was sucked out of her body and shoved into a bottle during the now-you’re-a-magical-girl process. (That’s the other big thing they weren’t told about this job.) Never mind that being physically parted from your soul separates you from your emotions and makes you essentially a sentient machine; never mind that if a Puella Magus gets more than 100 feet from her soul gem, she drops like an unstrung puppet; it just has to be this way, because without your soul you feel no pain and therefore make a much better Witch fighter. [And gee, why are humans so weird about it anyway; what difference does it make where your soul is?]
And why is all this happening? To stave off entropy. That’s right. Kyubey, the prime-mover of the series–a chilly little alien engineer in the guise of a cute plushie–calmly explains that the energy released by human emotion is the only force that can stall the slow unwinding of the universe, and young girls (all the Puella Magi look to be about 13-15 years old), whose emotions are so intense, generate the most energy of all. So naturally, for the sake of the universe, he conjured up this scheme in which brave, innocent schoolgirls get their one greatest wish granted by the near-omnipotent Kyubey, in exchange for their souls, their emotions, and an inevitable, horrible fate.
Charming, huh? And I didn’t even get into how Madoka’s friend Sayaka drove herself to her death after realizing that her lost soul had made it impossible for her to love the boy she had sacrificed herself to save. There’s a good reason the index tags this series has collected in the Anime News Network encyclopedia include ‘tragedy’ and ‘despair’.
I’m going to watch it all, but tell you the truth, after this I think I’d be more than ready for a series with an overdose of cuteness. ‘Princess Tutu’ anyone?