Metal Gear Homura
Do not be misled by the words “Mahou Shoujo” in the title, this is a military/sci-fi drama about an anti-terrorist unit, it is far more in line with Ghost in the Shell/Metal Gear rather than with any actual mahou shoujo series. In fact, Metal Gear is an almost complete thematic match for this show - gut-wrenching military drama plus “twenty minutes into the future and the world has gone to hell” sci-fi plus wacky tongue-in-cheek comedy.
As a military drama it touches on the themes of child soldiers (that is, magical girls), terrorism, PTSD of soldiers and civilians (one of the best and most accurate portrayals of PTSD in fiction, btw), the effect of a global war on the world order (the classical Mahou Shoujo battle with monsters was won by the MC several years before the series even begins), political fuckery between the competing military branches, battlefield camaraderie and so on - all the genre staples. The writing is competent, dealing with the brought up themes in a mature and nuanced way.
Naturally, given the genre and the height of its proverbial brow, this is an appropriately dark show. And by “appropriately”, I mean that if you hear someone calling a show like this “edgy” or “gratuitous” - those people are clueless. Like I said, this is a military drama about war and terrorism - if a story like this isn’t dark, then it’s toothless and fails to achieve its purpose. Try calling something like Saving Private Ryan “edgy” and you will be laughed at, yet the same shit flies with anime for reasons that are not the topic of this review (*cough*, only children watch chinese cartoons, *cough*). Anyway, don’t watch this if you can’t handle torn-off limbs, just don’t delude yourself into thinking one’s sensibility has anything to do with the objective merits of the work of fiction.
That’s not to say this series is completely dramatic. There is plenty of unadulterated brainless B-movie fun that would make for a totally inappropriate tonal clash if it was any less self-aware. Again, Metal Gear is the most apt comparison.
The big highlight of the series - it’s an absolute treat to any modern military buff, a hard sci-fi fan, or just anyone who likes authors doing their research. The show rightfully brags about having a dedicated military advisor, and it also sciences the shit out of anything magical. Magic animal mascot - a synthetic life-form with true AI. Magic shield - it’s actually a magic explosive reactive armor. Magic truth serum - a magically altered barbiturate cocktail. Magic memory wipe - a full-on complex neurosurgery that needs the use of a (magic) tomograph. It feeds both the sci-fi and over-the-top fun aspects of the series, because there is just something magical about watching a mahou shoujo overcharging an assault rifle bullet with energy to a point where it becomes a bunker-buster.
Returning back to the “Magical Girl” part of the title - the series’ genre can be accurately described as post-dark mahou shoujo - by the same merit as post-cyberpunk subgenre of sci-fi. Meaning, “dark magical girls deconstructions” are old news, it’s time to deconstruct or subvert their tropes already:
Of course the MC has PTSD just like any self-respecting child soldier should. And yet it never stops her from getting in the fucking robot, because she doesn’t fail to understand a very obvious idea that she is a hero who literally saved the world and should be proud of herself.
Of course mahou shoujos are gay for each other - nothing breeds emotional bonds like the battlefield - and then they drift apart because they don’t actually have much in common in the civilian life.
Kyubey lookalikes are a multi-faceted society with good and bad factions/individuals no different from humanity. They don’t harbour some universe-spanning conspiracy, they just want to profit via trading or smuggling.
Special mention for the visual style that seamlessly merges military and mahou shoujo aesthetics, especially in the design of magical girls’ costumes.
It’s not all roses, though, the anime suffers a lot from poor production values. Action scenes are slideshows (somewhat alleviated by their tactical nature, but still looking bad). Important scenes from the source material are cut or changed. In turn, anime original parts of the story are inferior and harm the narrative. There is an adequate story arc, but the plotline still kinda leads to “go read the manga”.
9/10 for a could’ve-been-a-masterpiece undermined by a subpar adaptation.