“I want you to make contracts with me and become magical girls!”
The world was re-introduced to this line on January 7th, 2011. It was a harmless line seen in countless other anime series prior, but little did anyone know just how sinister a form it would take and how it would mold Puella Magi Madoka Magica into the beloved classic it is today.
Before Madoka Magica released, the magical girl genre was pretty much synonymous with shows like Sailor Moon and Pretty Cure. While there were a handful of exceptions here and there, by popular definition they were generally shows aimed at preadolescent girls that featured equally young girls transforming into frilly battle outfits and battling the forces of some exaggerated evil with friendship and magic. These series were typically episodic by nature, with each episode having some clear takeaway message for its young, starry-eyed viewer to learn from. While there was always some form of “stakes” involved — one’s drive to chase their dreams or the fate or some fantasy country — it was never a question if the girls would prevail or not in the end.
It was due to this popular perception of the magical girl genre that eyebrows were raised when Shaft and Aniplex announced their Puella Magi Madoka Magica project in late 2010. On some levels, the announcement tracked with what to expect of a series in the genre, with character designs done by Ume Aoki of Hidamari Sketch moeblob fame and bright and cheery promotional materials indicating a likewise tone.
Then there was the topic of Shaft spearheading production. Shaft was well-known at the time for its rather avant-garde visual story-telling, especially with series like Bakemonogatari, Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei, and ef: A Tale of Memories still relatively fresh in viewers’ minds. Even their most straight-forward series, Hidamari Sketch, contained tinges of isolation in its presentation. How Shaft would, if at all, apply their magic touch to the magical girl genre was something avid anime fans were keenly curious about.
That curiosity didn’t rival the sheer caution and trepidation they felt upon learning Gen Urobuchi would be the scriptwriter, though. Lovingly nicknamed the “Urobutcher” in some circles, Urobuchi was, and still is, well-known for his dark and twisted stories that often featured heavy amounts of gore and violence. Some of his most well-known works before Madoka Magica include the Saya no Uta visual novel and Fate/Zero light novels. Urobuchi repeatedly made claims on Twitter that this really would be his take on a wholesome magical girl show and that along with all the promo materials made many viewers lower their guard a bit.
Obviously in hindsight, it was all subterfuge.
The first two episodes aired to moderate unease and intrigue, with psychedelic witch labyrinths and a dour tone overall that got viewers engaged albeit wary. Its tribal score by Yuki Kajiura lent a raw feeling to the proceedings that only amplified feelings of anxiety. No one was quite prepared for the third episode twist, though, which has since gone down in universal infamy alongside the likes of Saber’s identity in Fate/Stay Night or Nina’s fate in Full Metal Alchemist.
Mami’s end was the signal to viewers that Urobuchi would be staying true to form, and that death can come swift and without warning in Madoka Magica’s world. What was equally impressive about the sequence, however, and why it continues to stick in peoples’ minds to this day, was the tactful restraint demonstrated in it. The purpose of this scene was to shock viewers and all too often creators go too far in trying to create that shock factor to the point it actually dampens the effect.
This scene could easily feature copious amounts of blood, or a shot of Mami’s severed head and/or decapitated body. It could show Madoka and Sayaka literally losing their minds. But it doesn’t. Why? Because the scene already accomplishes what it has to do; the sudden death of a likable and seemingly core character is plenty shocking alone.
In later interviews, Urobuchi revealed that the decision to kill off Mami was decided at the earliest point in production and was controversial even within the production team. Nevertheless, he stuck to his guns stating that sometimes the death of a character makes them even more memorable than if they had lived.
“I think there are quite many characters who became immortal exactly because they died… Precisely because of the way they died, they were able to live forever.”-Gen Urobuchi (Ultra Next, 2013)
Madoka Magica continued to lead its enraptured audience around by the nose, not letting the momentum gained from the third episode go to waste. The story systematically built its ruleset and managed to continuously surprise its viewers while operating within that ruleset. The masterful restraint demonstrated in the third episode was prevalent throughout, grounding the horrific events and revelations in places the audience could easily latch onto.
Speculation ignited like wildfire in message boards across the web. Popular postulations like the “death clock” or “Pillar System” theories took the community by storm. In every episode some were disproven but even more sprouted up to take their place. The speculation was endless and was probably the most involved I personally ever got with message boards in my life.
By the time the tenth episode had aired speculation had reached all all-time fever pitch. Unfortunately, that was also the time when the 2011 Tohoku earthquake disaster struck, crippling much of Japanese society. The final two episodes were indefinitely delayed out of their original mid-March air dates as TV stations utilized the air-space to broadcast updates on the disaster instead.
Production of the final two episodes carried on throughout the disaster recovery process, though, with Urobuchi even stating that the delay was somewhat of a blessing in disguise and citing some particularly challenging scenes to draw for the anticipated finale. Urobuchi even feared that it may have been a disappointing experience if the eleventh episode had aired on its originally planned date.
The final two episodes eventually aired back-to-back more than a month later on April 21st, 2011. They brought with them the answers to long-standing questions fans had fervently been waiting for, chief among them, “Would Madoka actually ever become a magical girl?” Imagine that. A magical girl show where one of your core plot points was when, or if, your protagonist would rise to the genre’s namesake.
The finale also dove heavily into one of Madoka Magica’s prevalent themes: trauma. It’s a subject matter that was portrayed so masterfully as to not only be heavily explored in fan spaces but the academic sphere as well. There’s Homura’s more fantastical form of trauma in having to watch her friends die or become witches over and over again, but there’s also the much more grounded trauma of having to be hospitalized for the better part of her childhood. Dissecting how she coped with both aspects is a thesis for another article in and of itself.
Reception after the finale had aired and the dust had settled was downright electric. The series garnered praise inside and outside Japan for its surreal animation style, unrelenting storytelling, and dynamic characters. “Puella Magi Madoka Magica” was the #1 most searched anime term in Google for 2011 while its first Blu-Ray volume went on to break the record for most sold in its first week of release for an anime TV series, pushing 53,000 discs despite them costing about $95 a pop. On the Western front, sites like IGN, Crunchyroll, and even our very own Goomba Stomp included Madoka Magica in their “Best Anime of the 2010’s” lists.
Many attest Madoka Magica’s success in large part to its dark tone and aesthetic but it was by no means the first “dark” magical girl show when it came out. Shows like Shamanic Princess and Uta~Kata that predate Madoka Magica experimented with stepping outside the bounds of frills and happiness. Similarly, Madoka Magica’s success kicked off a deluge of dark magical girl shows to follow such as Magical Girl Raising Project and Magical Girl Site.
None of these shows came even close to a fraction of Madoka Magica’s success, though, despite their similarities on a surface level. That’s because when you look past the peculiarities of the series, Madoka Magica is still very much a magical girl show at its core. Like any good satirical or deconstructive piece, it’s written from a deep love and understanding of the genre and all its tropes. The same can’t be said for these contemporary series that are more akin to shonen shows wearing the skin of a magical girl story.
As it stands now, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is pure lightning in a bottle, or maybe entropy in a bottle. After ten years we’ve seen the release of three movies, both PSP and Vita games, a mobile game, and a spin-off anime series. Even now, an as of yet unknown 10th-anniversary project is in the works that we will hopefully learn more about soon.
Madoka ain’t going anywhere. It’s rare for a 12-episode series to leave such a profound and long-lasting impact on the anime community which, along with the fact its success has yet to be replicated, is a testament to just how unique of a beast it is. With how prominent it is today, it’s hard to imagine how the franchise all started as a shot from the blue and a series of innocuous tweets. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is undoubtedly a hallmark of the anime medium, and that’s something I’d be willing to put down on a contract.