“No matter how many times I have to repeat this, I promise I’ll save you.”

Puella Magi Madoka Magica is one of the most popular and acclaimed series in a long time, and not without reason. When it initially aired I skipped it over, but I’ve come to appreciate it much more as the series does some truly interesting things with its plot and characters, and explores some intriguing philosophical ideas. Don’t be shocked from the first impression. The anime isn’t what he may look like the first time you see it.

From wikipedia:  In this world, there exist strange creatures who have the power to grant one wish to a chosen girl. However, in exchange, that girl must then become a magical girl and use her powers to fight against witches, evil creatures born from darkness that are responsible for murders and suicides.

In the city of Mitakihara, a schoolgirl named Madoka Kaname and her friend Sayaka Miki are approached by a familiar named Kyubey, who offers to grant each of them one wish in return for making each of them a magical girl. Another magical girl named Homura Akemi tries to prevent Madoka from making such a deal, while Kyubey urges Madoka by telling her she will become the most powerful magical girl. However, contrary to the glamorous notions one would expect, a magical girl finds herself dealing with death, isolation, loss of humanity, agony over the value of her wish, and existential crisis. Madoka, following her friends, soon sees the darker side of being a magical girl, and because of knowing the truth about being a magical girl, she questions if she should become one as well.

Amongst the endless stagnation of clones and ripoffs, the countless bore of sameness and overused cliches, stories and characters, there has always been a studio who prided themselves on excellence, on originality, on creativity and sheer balls to the wall crazy. A studio who dared to go where no one else will, to push the boundaries, to question convention, to pioneer new grounds and to redefine genres. That studio is SHAFT. The moment when SHAFT and words “original animation” were used in the same sentence to describe an anime could be described as a turning point for the anime world, much like the moment Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press could be considered a turning point for human civilization.

What made Madoka so popular is it’s uniquely dark take on the magical girl genre, and for that it definitely deserves praise. It questions the ethics and consequences behind the concept of employing young girls as heroes, as well as the motivation of the magical girls themselves. These girls don’t just become magical girls because it sounds fun or they want to help people, they have a goal in mind, that being their respective wishes. At first. Once they realize the harsh reality of their new job, their goals change, and in some cases fall apart.

I can’t really decide if I should call the story predictable or not. As you may know, the show has spawned an enormous amount of speculation and discussion throughout anime fandom in general. As the story went on, many of these speculations turned out to be true. When following the discussions on the Web, it’s hard to tell if the story would be predictable to a lone viewer or not. But one thing is certain – the writers managed to tell the story in such a way that even when you know what’s going to happen, everything is still exciting and makes a huge emotional impact.

The story is heavily character-driven, with many events happening because of the characters revealing their feelings to each other. Even though many characters are quite clear from the beginning, nothing is certain, as the world – and other characters – constantly turn out to be different than we all thought. There is no white and black, characters are deep and believable, which is certainly one of the key factors of this show’s enjoy-ability.

Madoka raises the question of whether there is truly a selfless wish, and explores the difference as well as the overlap of selfishness and selflessness. Taking into account the larger questions SHAFT was willing to indulge, such as utilitarianism and universal thermodynamics. It shows us five girls (arguably four) that could be called heroes from one perspective, and not from another perspective, and all in different ways. What makes a hero anyway? Their motivation, their will, even their hopefulness? Each girl explores a different facet of the concept of a hero, and, by extension, a magical girl.

The tribulations the magical girls are subjected to is what Madoka is really all about. They–and you as the viewer–are revealed truths about what it means to be a magical girl that you never would’ve dreamed of. The psychological trauma they endure is painted on a dark and cynical canvas of reality for you to experience along with them; the joys and pains as the bonds of friendship are created and strengthened, strained and broken, will play with your heart strings. If you didn’t know what it meant to be sympathetic before, consider this your crash course.

While there certainly have been magical girl shows that have taken a darker focus in the past, none so far have been able to deconstruct the genre as successfully as Madoka Magica. In this regard, Urobuchi Gen lives true to his name, as he manages to carefully and logically dissect the magical girl genre, turning it into an often cruel and unforgiving place. The tension and horror that Gen creates is further compounded by an aura of ambiguity that lies over the setting, which is propagated by one of the most unreliable exposition characters of all time, Kyube. In such a universe there is no solace to be found in this little mascot companion, all the while there are barrages of unsettling revelations.

However, despite everything, the story can be boiled down to the personal struggle of our main character Kaname Madoka. As an idealistic young girl, she has to come to terms with the cynical universe she is placed in and search for the best answer to solving the vaguely dark and evil forces that threaten to destroy the world she has come to love. The decisions she has to make eventually culminate into a very touching and emotional conclusion.

For this particular series, SHAFT has produced a world that is engaging with a futuristic approach in their architectural designs from the very spacious, technologically sophisticated, modern design of the main character’s house and the school where she study completely devoid of tight physical space. The background animation is superb, very detailed and probably rivals their other previous best background works in Bakemonogatari (when they didn’t try to be lazy). The color tones are dark and sometimes movie quality indicating how SHAFT probably gave everything they got to animate this one.

Complementing the anime is a beautiful and stunning OST composed by Yuki Kajiura. There is always the perfect track to accompany every scene–whether the mood be light-hearted, sad, ominous/foreboding, or exciting/thrilling, you can be guaranteed that the music will be there to help burn the feeling into your heart. The OP (“Connect”) is great and serves as a constant reminder of the false sense of security constructed in the early episodes; the ED (“Magia”) is phenomenal and much more accurately reflects Madoka’s true nature (it’s also used strategically during a couple scenes in the series, to great effect). There are some pretty intense sound effects utilized–particularly noteworthy are crashing noises and explosions. The seiyuu do a stunning job delivering their lines with the perfect levels of emotion and energy. They make their characters come to life so much so that one may think they’ve BECOME the character.

I would definitely recommend Madoka to anyone without a second thought. Everything it sets out to do is done marvelously, through stunning animation, a beautiful story, and real, fleshed out characters. It succeeds in bringing more people to the genre in a way that’s definitely not convention, but is better for it. The magic here enchants the viewer and at the same time breaks their hearts. Madoka Magica is the perfect proof that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. This is a masterpiece.