It's long been the case that specific genres of anime are often intensely focused on certain genders and age groups, and this fact is most apparent when one considers the mahou shoujo category. From Sailor Moon and Tokyo Mew Mew to Pretty Cure and Shugo Chara, the titles on offer that feature the exploits of one or more magical girls all seem to have several things in common - cute characters, cute outfits, cute sidekicks, "cute" costume changes, twinkly/sparkly/sugary atmospheres, and a penchant for appealing to the sensibilities of 7 to 14 year old girls.
Then there are the anomalous titles that deviate from the tried and tested approach as they attempt to broaden the horizons of the genre, the most successful example being Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha. The franchise gave audiences a chance to see Takamichi Nanoha grow from a very young and naive magical girl into the Ace of Aces for the Time-Space Administration Bureau, and combat instructor to the next generation of heroes. The surprising thing though, is that somewhere along the way the series managed to successfully bridge the shoujo-shounen divide, which is a difficult thing to do in a genre that's generally aimed at girls who still think bright (sometimes almost fluorescent), pink is a good colour to wear.
Unfortunately there are only a few good titles on offer that have broken with the traditional mahou shoujo mould, which isn't surprising if one considers the difficulty of the task in question - take something for young girls and make it appeal to as broad a fan base as possible. Then again, Shaft seem to relish that sort of challenge, and while their take on magical girl anime retains a certain "fluffiness" that is prevalent in the more stereotypical shows, Puella Magi Madoka★Magica is an altogether different beast.
The story begins with a young girl looking for and exit with which she can escape a strange black and white checkered area, but instead of finding the outside world she finds that surreal destruction has come to Mitakihara City as a dark haired girl fights a very odd creature in the sky. A small white animal named Kyuubey advises her that she has the power to help the dark haired girl, to change this fate of grief and destruction, to be granted her heart's desire. All she has to do is make a contract and become a Puella Magi ...
And then she wakes up.
After the rather dramatic first few minutes the storyline takes on a fairly staid measure as the main plot is laid out and the characters are introduced, but while the narrative is relatively well constructed, it's not without its flaws. The series has a tendency towards melodrama that can sometimes slow the pace of events, and this brings into focus certain aspects of the plot which are very clearly designed to evoke a sympathetic reaction from the audience. In addition to this, while the rather obvious influence from Buddhism (the whole deal with maintaining balance, karma, etc), is prevalent for much of the show, the decision to broadcast the final episode on a specific date only serves to highlight the reference to Christian beliefs that forms the grand finale. That said, it's easy to overlook these as the main thrust of the storyline is entertaining , and much darker than one might initially expect, especially when one considers the character design and everyday scenery.
One thing that is interesting is the manner in which the writing team have tied in the importance of the third wish to the whole concept of resurrection (ask me if you want an explanation), which may sounds a bit strange at first but it actually works rather well, especially as the traditional "deal with the devil" scenario generally doesn't have any kind of achievable escape clause.
Unfortunately there are two problems with the storyline, both of which aren't immediately obvious. The first is the assumption that only girls of a certain age are ideal for becoming Puella Magi, with all that entails. The justification for this is debatable, and brings up the whole idea that "boys don't cry". The storyline is built upon the concept that adolescent girls are more emotionally unstable than boys of that age, yet this is an untrue statement for two reasons, the first one being that boys are also undergoing physical and emotional changes. The second reason is that boys are taught from a very young age that they shouldn't cry or show certain emotions, and the continuous bottling up of all those feelings more often than not manifests itself during the adolescent years.
The simple fact is that a race as advanced and intelligent as the one in Madoka★Magica would have known this, and would have experimented with male Puella Magi as well, yet the story makes no reference to this. Quite the opposite in fact, and the explanation given states very clearly that all Puella Magi throughout history have been female.
And before you ask, there are such things as male witches in the realm of the occult. They're called Warlocks.
The second flaw is the explanation given as to why Kaname Madoka has more potential than anyone else, which again makes a major, yet highly debatable assumption. The simple fact is that if one follows the idea to its rather logical conclusion, the most powerful Puella Magi should actually be Akemi Homura. It's a far more conceptual plot hole, but given the usage of the many worlds theory, especially at the end, it quickly becomes a major issue that could destroy the foundation of the story.
So it's a good thing the series is as entertaining as it is.
Now given that this is an anime by Shaft one might well expect a degree of experimentation with the visuals, and the opening sequence gives viewers some very clear signs of things to come. The character design is very similar to that of Hidamari Sketch, and while this adds a degree of cuteness to the show, it also emphasises the stark difference between the Puella Magi and the witches, especially in terms of their humanity.
The experimental nature of the series is prevalent during the combat sequences, and Shaft really have gone to town in creating surreal, mind bending environments that serve as a home for the witches, and the arena in which the Puella Magi must fight. The mixture of animation techniques on display during these scenes is surprising, not only in terms of application but also in quality, which is why it's somewhat disappointing that there are occasions where entire frames have been left out of the animation during everyday events.
That said, Madoka★Magica is a good looking anime for the most part, even though much of the effort has been expended on crafting imaginatively unusual other world settings and surreal enemies for the girls to fight. Strangely, this may actually be purposeful as while the everyday environments are colourful yet mundane, like the character design these emphasise the difference between the real world and the one in which the Puella Magi must combat the witches.
The opening theme, Connect by ClariS, is a fairly uplifting J-pop song that's set against a surprisingly routine (for mahou shoujo anime), sequence, all of which belies the darkness of the story proper. Thankfully the ending theme, Magia by Kalafina, is more in keeping with the atmosphere of the anime, especially with the ephemeral approach to visuals. The series is also littered with a variety of background tracks that are generally appropriate in their usage, and one of the high points of Madoka★Magica is the quality of the audio choreography.
As for the acting, the cast is made up of experienced seiyuu who add depth and nuance to proceedings, for example Kato Emiri's role as the amorally enigmatic Kyuubey really is something to see, especially with her off hand explanations and her ability to make the character sound devoid of emotion. The rest of the cast also perform very well, except for one, but the issue isn't actually with her skills. Yuuki Aoi (Kaname Madoka), generally works well with the other seiyuu and delivers her lines with a decent amount of passion, but she's unable to express the true depth of emotion that the character feels because the script simply does not allow for it, which is a shame as it's a minor blemish on a very good performance.
Scripting issues aside, it's interesting to note that the series seems a bit lacking in core characterisation, especially as Madoka, Sayaka, and Mami have personalities that verge on the mundane. It's this averageness that makes the story that little bit more accessible to audiences, even though some rather fantastic back stories have been used to justify the actions of one character or another. Which brings up an interesting issue with the developmental process as rather than try for an intuitive approach, Shaft and Aniplex have applied the "growth by numbers" method. Each character is given the opportunity to adversely affect Madoka in some way, and the order in which this occurs is dependent on the relationship between the two. The problem is that this methodical approach is in clear conflict with the experimental nature of the series, and while it can easily be overlooked or forgiven due to the entertaining nature of the story, it's still not what one would expect from a studio like Shaft.
Now I will admit that at first I was expecting nothing more than another cutesy mahou shoujo anime, so finding something that was more to my tastes was a bonus. That said, the series isn't without its flaws, but these can either be ignored outright or forgiven as the story is a very interesting and unusual take on what it means to be a magical girl.
It's just not as groundbreaking as some might believe.
While Madoka★Magica may at first seem like a totally unique concept, it should be remembered that the Nanoha franchise possessed some dark themes, Black Rock Shooter featured a young girl's alter ego fighting strange creatures in a surreal other world, and Uta Kata tried to show the breakdown of a person who becomes controlled by their power. There are other shows that explore some of the themes of the series, sometimes in more detail, but in truth these are only minor niggles as Shaft have managed to create a mahou shoujo anime that, like those that came before, successfully displays the true potential of the genre.
Which leaves only two questions. If Shaft wanted to experiment with the genre, then why not go the whole hog and have a mahou shounen? Why leave that sort of thing to comedy anime like Kore wa Zombie Desu-ka?