Anime Analysis – Puella Magi Madoka Magica

At some point, I will return to blogging about other things, if any fresh ideas come in (hint hint, suggest things to me!), but before then I thought around now, with the sweet soundtrack playing in my ears, was the right time to do another Anime Analysis.

For years, I have said Naruto was my favourite anime series, because it was one of the first I watched, because I had immersed myself in it’s fandom and continued to watch it episode after episode. I still love the series, but it’s crown of being my absolute favourite anime series has finally be usurped by this gem – Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Why? Because virtually everything about it is done PERFECTLY. The main characters are perfect, the villain is perfect, the pacing is perfect, the emotional impact is perfect, the music is perfect, even some of the visuals are so trippy and beautifully artistic, it’s just insane how brilliantly good they’ve been designed.
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A lot of people have come out to praise this series, but I don’t many who would say this is their all-time favourite. Well, here’s one now – I don’t doubt that the series isn’t without it’s flaws, but I will address that later, along with everything else. I will try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible for those who haven’t seen the series, but for those who have, we can discuss the finer points privately. For now, I’ll just sum up, as spoiler-free as I can, what the series is about.

It stars a cheerful, highly friendly middle-school girl named Madoka Kaname, who lives an ordinary, happy life with her parents, little brother and school-friends. One day, Madoka’s class gets a new transfer student, a mysterious, soft-spoken dark-haired girl named Homura Akemi, who Madoka vaguely recognises from a dream she once had. Homura gives Madoka a dire sounding message concerning the life Madoka leads and how she should hold onto it, but is otherwise a mystery to both Madoka and her friends. Soon after, Madoka and her best friend Sayaka Miki find themselves inside an incredibly trippy Burton-esque environment, only to be saved from it by an older girl in their school named Mami Tomoe and a weird, small, white furry creature called Kyubey. They seem to be very chirper and friendly, but Homura seems to have a strange antipathy towards them. Kyubey reveals he wants Madoka and Sayaka to become what Mami and Homura are – magical girls! Although through these girls perspectives, we soon learn that being a magical girl is not quite all the glammer it first seems…

I have to admit I never saw a magical girl series before this one, although I was familiar with titles such as Sailor Moon, Tokyo Mew Mew and Cardcaptor Sakura, and had seen clips and pictures from them. The obvious girly and overly cutesy nature of the design was, and still is immediately apparent, and this is the kind of impression Madoka Magica is also supposed to give. I won’t give away too much, but what the plot does with the magical girl genre is so beautiful and terrible that it just needs to be watched to truly experience. I should point out that the type of magical girls in this story are the magical girl warrior types, rather than idol singers – and the enemies fought in the story are the previously mentioned Burton-esque type Eldritch Abominations, known as witches, which are absolute pools of creative and wacky design every time they appear.

And the way the story unfolds is amazing too – it starts of quite light and cheerful before going in a different direction, but none of how it happens feels unnatural in the slightest. I mentioned earlier how perfectly paced this story is, and I think part of that is to do that this was originally an anime – many other anime series were originally manga, or light novels or video games etc, but this was made to be an anime of 12 episodes and so the breaks in the story for each episode, complete with cliffhangers are done extremely naturally and well, leaving you in just the right spot to ensure you come back for more. One of the main reasons I have to tread carefully in this review is that the plot keeps giving and has several of what are known as Wham Episodes. This essentially means that there are several episodes in the series that change your entire perspective and mean that nothing after them is ever the same. Prime examples of the Wham Episodes are episode 3, episode 6 and episode 8, although opinion may depend on whether or not there are more. Another advantage to the fact that this was originally an anime is something I already mentioned. Not only is the animation on the characters fantastically done, with beautiful shots of the city they live in, but the designs of the witches are so horrific, and yet so unbelievable to look at, that the way they’re drawn and animated will stay with you forever.

And in this series, they are far from the only things.

The character design and development is yet another brilliant thing about this series – no character is wasted, every single one introduced plays a key and memorable part in the series, and I find it impossible to dislike any of them.
One of the key themes in this series (trust me, you will find plenty more) is the idea of what you want, how much you are willing to get it, and whether getting it is even the right thing. Kyubey makes girls become magical girl warriors in exchange for a wish – his ability to grant wishes appears to be fairly expansive, and so each of the characters have a particular thing they wanted that they got in exchange for gaining magical powers. How well these wishes served them are key parts to the storyline and character arcs, and you can draw your own conclusions about them in fun and thought-provoking ways. To give you an example, I’ll discuss the one who has this theme most clearly set out to them in their character arc – Sayaka Miki.

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(Oh, she looks so happy here, doesn’t she? Yes, this is the kind of series we’re dealing with…)

I’ve already stated I virtually love every character in this show, but my favourite is undoubtedly Sayaka. Madoka’s closest friend, she is in many ways quite different to Madoka – whereas Madoka is meek, gentle, overly generous and very polite, Sayaka is headstrong, unbelievably stubborn, and whilst she has a strong sense of justice, she also has a warped view of the gap between what is right and wrong. She looks down upon magical girls such as Homura and a later introduction called Kyoko Sakura who are, in her eyes, too pragmatic. She refuses to associate with them, until Kyoko points out that she used to think much the same way Sayaka did, and that her wish, which was for another person, carried the same weaknesses that Sayaka’s did – she couldn’t rely on other people to be grateful for what she did, and nor could she let go of that, ultimately, what she wants may have come first, after all. Sayaka, who used her wish to heal a irreversibly injured childhood friend, dismisses this at first, claiming that she would never regret her actions, until she comes to realise that she’s not entirely above being selfish herself when unforseen consequences of her wish come to light – I won’t give away any more, but let’s just say, it’s beautifully and heart-wrenchingly done. I was moved to tears upon re-watching it recently, and I doubt that trend will vanish as I continue to do so.

The series does, in a way, have a villain, and I won’t give away their identity, although it will become more obvious as you watch on, as you grow increasingly disgusted with them. The way you’re meant to hate them, is, again, done absolutely expertly, and yet at the same time, you do understand their motivations, and the way they are written is done in a believable and almost a kind of defend-able way, although this is not something you’ll be prepared to do as you’ll be breaking your heart over what’s happening to all the other characters, including a belated backstory in episode 10 which will cause everything to make a beautiful and tragic sense.

The music? I really don’t know what to say. The entire soundtrack is filled with absolutely fantastic pieces of music, both personal themes, opening and closing themes and a lot more. Showing you all of them would hardly take less time than you just watching the entire series and experiencing them for yourself, so I’ll just share one gem – Decretum, Sayaka’s theme.

It’s very hard for me to think of anything wrong with this series, but I’ll suppose I’ll try and be as impartial as I can. Quite a few people dislike Madoka’s character, and on the one hand, I do see where they’re coming from. Madoka is a fairly typical protagonist, a cheerful, happy-go-lucky girl who’s also a little ditzy and occasionally naively pure-hearted. But I still like her, and more importantly, she is the perfect kind of character to have as the point-of-view character for this series, because it’s such a transformation to see her go from as cheerful as she is to absolutely horrified and broken by the trauma. Yes, I’m a bastard.

Another point I think is, although much of the applied magic and lore that goes on in this series is explained (Kyubey is our main exposition character) there are definitely some areas that are left a little vague. It’s quite understandable if you’re left after finishing the series with more than a few questions about why exactly everything went on: ‘Hang on, why etc, how come etc.’ But for me, this never caused too big a problem, as hey, you only have 12 episodes, and in those 12 episodes, the focus is where it should be, on the characters and storyline, not the few details. In fact, I’m still surprised they managed to accomplish as much exposition as they did without taking focus away. Applying thought to they way things could work, you’re bound to come up with a few potentially workable solutions, which is always fun. Another point is the ending – I will admit it’s not the strongest, because it leaves you, again, probably with a few questions, but the Rebellions movie (which I mentioned in my favourite animated movies list), which is a follow-up to the series, does clear up a few of the points you may be left with. The movie has a controversial ending too, but I personally like it, and I’m willing to explain my reasons to someone who has seen both the series and the movie.

Another point raised at one point was the fact that the opening theme of the series, whilst good, doesn’t match the increasingly dark tone of the show, unlike the ending theme, that changes accordingly. This much is true, but it’s really scraping the barrel of things to nitpick, and why? Because everything in this series works fantastically, and I will continue to hold by it and jealously defend it.

In conclusion, this series is wonderfully, spell-bindingly, unrelentingly, uncomparatively, tear-jerkingly and beautifully amazing, reminding us amidst the tragedy that hope can still be founds in times of despair. I highly doubt it’ll shift it’s position from the top of my list any time soon. If you haven’t seen it yet, THEN DO. IT’S ONLY 12 EPISODES, IT’S MORE THAN WORTH YOUR TIME, DAMN IT!!! If you have seen it, go and watch it again, because every time I do, it just keeps getting better.

Just one more thing to add to it’s list of merits – although it isn’t technically a yuri series ( a series about girl-girl romance), it might as well be, the undertones are so strong. And as the main picture of my blog might tell you, I am a die-hard shipper of Sayaka Miki and Kyoko Sakura.

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And if this doesn’t persuade you it’s a series worth watching, then nothing will!

Seriously, I can’t recommend it enough. I wish I could somehow do it justice, and the only way I can imagine doing so is to watch it all over again. Send this to your friends, like and comment and give me an idea of what to post next. I don’t know when I’ll post something again, but hopefully I’ll see you soon!

All images belong to their respective owners. 

 

Anime Analysis – Haganai

Whoa!

It’s like a reunion party.

Yeah, OK, so it’s been quite a while since my last blog post. I’ve been busy. Lol, brilliant joke that, I should be busy with all my work, but you tend to care less about things that matter when you get the feeling you don’t matter…

Sorry, this kind of thing settles in during the holidays, when I discover all of my friends actually have lives and they’re busy doing all this cool stuff whilst I’m just willing away the time and trying to stop my cat coming into my room, which is more difficult than it sounds, because she’s very stubborn.

Anyway, I was going to write a little piece about shipping in the fandom communities, but my mind’s not nearly together enough to write something like that at the moment. So, instead, I thought I’d do another anime review, this time of a little show that I like to call Haganai. Why do I like to call it Haganai? Because it’s less of a mouthful than Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai, which is it’s full name. Trust me, I’m not the only one.

Haganai is a harem anime based off of a light novel. Now, I can imagine that’s already ringing faint alarm bells. For those not in the know, a harem series is basically a set-up with a main male character who’s surrounded, either romantically or in any other way, by a whole load of attractive girls. They will all want him at various stages. There’s also reverse harem, which has the genders flipped. Now, obviously this kind of set-up is there for one purpose only – fanservice and wish fulfilment. OK, that’s two purposes, but if  you really care that much, come over to my house and we’ll have cake.

A lot of people in the anime community see harem series as largely glorified porn without anything resembling a decent storyline, and who can blame them? I certainly thought this way when I started discovering various harem series and was bitterly disappointed about how uncaring the writer seemed to be. But I get the feeling that my experience in harem anime was ruined beforehand by Haganai – after seeing that particular harem anime, nothing I saw since then measured up to it.

Haganai may be a harem anime, but honestly, I really love it, it’s one of my favourites. That is a personal preference though, to be very straightforward, I can see why some people may be put off. It is still, as I keep on reiterating, a harem anime, and an ecchi one at that. Whilst there is a lot to recommend in terms of story and character, you will find that the common harem tropes, including the less desirable ones, keep on creeping back in.
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Oh Lord, we’ll get to that in a minute…

No, let’s start with the story as it is.

A new transfer student to St. Chronica’s high school, Kodaka Hasegawa, hasn’t made a single friend in the month he’s been there. Why? Well, the blond hair he inherited from his late English mother makes him look, in the eyes of all the other students, a delinquent. And a miscommunication on his first day has cemented the image of him as a thug. One day, he finds a classmate of his, Yozora Mikazuki, chatting animatedly and cheerfully to an apparently empty room, which surprises him, as she is normally very sullen-looking. Yozora seems shocked to see him enter the room and is quick to defend her actions – she claims she was talking to Tomo, her best friend ever – who’s made of air.

As the two discuss the role of friendships, Kodaka quickly learns that Yozora has no friends either, but something they discuss gives Yozora an idea – soon enough, she announces to him that she’s founded a club known as the Neighbour’s Club, the purpose of which is to allow people to make friends and practice social events with said friends. Eventually the club begins to fill with a whole range of misfits, including Sena, a ridiculously hot, popular rich girl who’s fed up of being ogled and wants real friends for a change, Yukimura, a very feminine-looking boy (or so he says…) who looks up to Kodaka as the epitome of masculinity, Rika, a sex-obsessed reclusive teen genius who speaks in the third person, Kobato, Kodaka’s 13-year-old sister obsessed with vampires (whom Sena has a really creepy thing for…) and Maria, the club advisor, a religious sister of the school who Yozora finds very easy to manipulate considering she’s only 10 years old. Although a lot of episodes are just focused on the activities of the club, a story arc concerning the relationship between Kodaka and the main girls is made obvious early on, although I don’t wish to spoil it here.

One of the things that I think really appeals to me about this series is the concept – as someone who’s own social skills are hardly advanced and has often lamented about the role and significance of friends in my life, this spoke to me in a way that I’m sure any other harem series I started with wouldn’t. In this way, I feel like an equal to the members of the club, because no matter how they differ, their crippling lack of social skills puts them on a level of something I can relate to, and I think in fact most people can – although not everyone has such crippling social problems, I’m sure most people have felt insecure about who they can rely on. And not only can you identify with the characters on this level, but they feel very much like they’re on an equal level with each other too. Nowhere in the series did I feel that one character was being bigged up too much or too little, and I think that may have been deliberate on the author’s part to make the characters seem this equal and therefore, however subtly, strengthen their bond. Even Kodaka never felt like too much of a Creator’s Pet – although he very often played the straight man in whatever comedic punchline the story felt like dishing up, sometimes he was also the butt of the joke, and he also had his moments of being slightly unhinged…

And, significantly, I think I will bring up the humour – even if the plot or characters rub you the wrong way, this is one of the best comedy shows I have ever seen. The best part is, most of it literally comes from the members of the club just sitting around talking. The topic of conversation is normally relevant to whatever they plan on doing that day, but it often goes off on various tangents, whether it be Yozora and Sena’s inability to stand one another (which often leads to Sena overreacting to something Yozora said and flees the room crying), or Rika just being…Rika…
There is a reason she’s my favourite character in the show…
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Another key strength is the characters, which I’ll got into more detail about now. Kodaka might just be one of the best leads I’ve seen in anime series ever – and this makes a really nice contrasts to a lot of harem leads who are just as dull as driftwood. He isn’t some pervert who the world craps on from a great height, nor is he a pinball protagonist. He’s intelligent, fairly sane and values friendship and loyalty – perhaps even more significantly, he’s flawed in spite of his good nature. Apart from the fact that he’s incapable of telling a joke properly, he also suffers from the crippling need to maintain the status quo. His value of the present compared to the past or future that Yozora and Sena value respectively (more of that will become clear as the plot develops) puts him at odds with his life forcing him to make important choices. Although he acts oblivious, he is fully aware that the girls, particularly Yozora and Sena, are making moves on him, and he knows he’s going to have to confront it one day, but his inability and unwillingness makes for good drama – his refusal to face up to the changing motions of his life drags the conflict on, and allows for more drama, perhaps more than you’d expect from such a show.

This is also where Rika comes in – I’ve already established she’s my favourite character, but my preference stems from far more than just her wonderful desire to make love to every boy/girl/robot/jellyfish/train she sees (I’m sure there are more such things, these are just examples invoked in the show). She cottons on, quite early, to Kodaka skirting around the elephant in the room, and this comes into brilliant fruition in the second series. She seems at first willing to let it go, but she becomes more confrontational with Kodaka about it when his refusals begin to tear the club apart, as it’s something she can’t bear to lose, as the club has offered her the greatest experiences of her life.

OK – so what issues are there with this series?

Well…mainly the fanservice. On the one hand, being a heterosexual male, I’m certainly not going to say no to plenty of shots of cleavage, prominent female rear ends and girls in cute outfits. But there is a line to be drawn, I feel, for the sake of the plot, and well, there are occasions where they go too far – it may be a case of crossing the line twice, in that they go so overboard it suddenly becomes funny, but on other occasions it just serves no purpose.  Take the above picture as an example – it’s from the beach episode (standard for this genre) where the Neighbour’s Club stay at Sena’s family’s private beach as they’re not great with massive crowds and they’re putting on sunblock. Yozora takes the opportunity to humiliate Sena by applying some via her foot onto Sena’s back and pressing down hard on her centre of gravity to prevent her from getting up. The sunblock makes a very obvious and poignant noise, and it’s resemblance to a certain discharge is obvious enough – the main problem is, the scene goes on for a few minutes…and at the end of it you’re just really uncomfortable. More weirdly, Yozora is saying all sorts of things you’d expect to hear a dominatrix say. Now, she does have a fly-swat that she hits members of the club with to keep them in line, but this scene has nothing to do with it and is really out of nowhere.

And…OK…it’s got to be said. Lolicon.
Both Kobato and Maria play this role – they both see Kodaka as a big brother, which I think is fair enough. But they also get nude shots. Kobato is 13, and Maria is 10…and even though the scenes are in non-sexual contexts and are only brief, they are VERY uncomfortable to watch. I would completely understand if you couldn’t see past that, although it may provide you some comfort to know that, as Kobato and Maria are animated, there aren’t any real under-age girls being exploited or exposed. But admittedly, the idea is still very off-putting.

Oh, and then there’s the ending. The last episode of the second series (the current final episode) isn’t bad in an of itself, but the very end is ridiculous. I’m not going to say why, all I’m going to say is…brace yourself…

But overall, Haganai has some wonderful characters, hilarious comedy, very good writing for the genre and overall, despite the hiccups, it’s a personal fave. If you’re in the mood for something new, I’d say go and check it out. I hope you liked this review and I hope you’ll let me know what you thought.

All images belong to their respective owners.