So I watched Puella Magi Madoka Magica over the last three days, 4 episodes an evening, 12 episodes total, finishing it up last night. I've been thinking about it ever since. I read some reviews of it today and I wanted to write some of my own thoughts on the subject. This is, after all, my blog to talk about writing, so breaking down an anime series probably counts. I'll try not to spoil too much, but it's hard to write about the series without discussing some of the major elements so YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Two of my favorite encapsulations of the anime series so far are "The cutest Faustian fantasy" you're likely to see, and, my favorite, a review on TVTropes titled, "Aw... what a cute slice of OH GOD HOLD ME". It's no spoiler to say that the first two episodes play like a very typical magical girl story, cute girls discovering their potential to fight evil beings as uber-cute, colorful magical girls with a cute animal sidekick providing advice. There are hints that not all is right with the world, of course -- why does Homura want to kill Kyuubey? Why is she so adamantly opposed to anyone else becoming a magical girl? But on the whole, you're probably expecting typical magical girl conflicts, not for things to go careening down an elevator shaft into the pits of hell.
That changes with episode three, but it takes time before the real horror sets in. The show does not reveal its secrets all at once. I've seen many reviewers arguing about whether this series merits being called a "deconstruction" of the magical girl genre, in a manner similar to how Neon Genesis Evangelion warped and deconstructed giant robots. I think the ones that say it is both a deconstruction and a reconstruction have it right, but make no mistake: this is, to start with, a deconstruction of the genre. That's not because magical girls die... they die in Sailor Moon as well, of course. But in this series they don't come back. In this series, it is inevitable that every magical girl will live a very short life, and die in pain or descend into grief and madness. That's a complete inversion of the wish-fulfillment that is typical of the magical girl genre -- in fact, the very premise of this series is that wishes come with a cost, and that cost is very, very high.
And although I can see that the end could be argued as resolution by wish fulfillment and as a reconstruction of the genre... the resolution does not come without a cost. To me that saves it from ultimately being just a magical girl wish fulfillment ending. But given that the ending is more uplifting than dark and depressing, and given the ultimate outcome, I can buy that the series also works as a reconstruction of magical girls.
The strength of the series is undeniably the plot. You won't see most of it coming, and even the parts you do see will seem inevitable and logical. Of course, you have to accept some premises of the magical girl genre to begin with, but once the story starts rolling it's very tightly plotted. The entire story is told in just 12 episodes, and comes to a clear and definite end. Once you get to the end, you'll see that events in even the first episode, particularly Homura's actions, flow inevitably from plot points revealed much later.
Some reviewers call this a horror story, or a magical girl horror. That's true -- it's not merely a dark tale, but incredibly bleak and violent. But with a mostly happy ending, or, at least, a bittersweet ending.
Several reviewers note that characterization is the weak point of the series, and I'd agree with that as well. Homura and Kyouko are well-rounded characters -- some have problems with Kyokko's sudden change from antagonist to wanting to save Sayaka, that didn't bother me so much, but either way she has a well-developed back story. Mami and Sakaya and Madoka are mostly two-dimensional stereotypes of the genre, and while much of that was probably intentional (Homura starts out as a stereotype as well), and while Mami is only around for three episodes... there's not a lot of excuse for the weak character development of Sayaka and especially Madoka, the main character of the series. She's the least likable character in the series, she spends most of the series crying and being afraid, and doesn't really change until her big decision in the final episode (or maybe it was the tail end of episode 11, I forget). You could argue that she's the normal, everyday girl that the target audience is meant to identify with -- and if this were a typical magical girl show, that might be true. But this is not a series for children. And while we do learn things about Sayaka and Madoka's backgrounds, it really doesn't amount to making them fully-rounded characters.
Even so, the series can ride on the strength of the plot. Deeper characterization might have turned this into a series for the ages, but even lacking that, I think it's a truly stellar series.
The series was re-released as two movies that, for the most part, repackaged the TV series with some added material. Apparently one of those additions is more development of Sayaka, which can only be a good thing.
I should add that I love the artistic look of the series as well. The city is modern but slightly futuristic, which gives it a "not of this world" or fantasy feel, and the witch battle sequences are cluttered and weird and dark and contrast nicely with the clean, bright "real" world. You feel the twisted darkness of the witch realms just through how they are presented. It all works brilliantly.
The review at nihonreview.com probably puts it best:
...a solid, refreshing production that challenges genre preconceptions with a wonderfully stylized tragedy that comes only at the cost of slightly less real characters.