Posts Tagged ‘Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica’


I see the phrase “so bad it’s good” pop up frequently in reviews of some popular series. It takes no genius to see the paradox of the words, and I dare believe the emotional background behind the people choosing to use this expression is almost always the same. The reviewer has, in his or her mind, a clear definition of what a quality anime is. He or she is then shocked to encounter a title which meets almost none of the criteria, and yet manages to be extremely fun. This puts the reviewer in a bind – is his or her taste not quite as refined as previously assumed? Better put the blame on the show being bad enough to act as a parody of its own concept.

But because art is a dialogue, it is not surprising that there will be shows not normally up a given reviewer’s alley that will nevertheless win him or her over. It is all quite straightforward – anime should promise, and deliver on its promises; whip up expectations, and meet those expectations. Series like Code Geass and Gurren Lagann had plenty of flaws, but they knew exactly what they wanted to be, and were upfront enough about it. People violently opposed to the styles of those shows were spared the time necessary to finish them, and everyone else knew what they were getting themselves into. We suspend disbelief when diving into the multitude of fantastic anime worlds, and we can just as well suspend judgement and expectations, if the show is skillful enough to talk us into it.

So in a sense, I see all this “so bad it’s good” thing as people being tsundere about shows they unexpectedly came to like. But the reason I am writing about this all is that there are indeed scenes/episodes/series out there, however rare, that need to be bad in order to be good – in a literal, and not tsun tsun sense. And watching Kill La Kill ep. 8 made me wonder if it is not one such example.

Getting my personal opinion on the show out of the way, I had a difficult time warming up to Kill La Kill at first. The rapid pace made it difficult to connect with any of the characters. But it is getting to the point where I can say I am enjoying the show for what it is, especially since we’re finally seeing some character development for the cast.

Episode 8 was received by fans as a “smooth transition episode” and by haters as an episode where “not a single thing actually happens”. But even proclaimed fans note how the elections changed nothing. So I was not alone in expecting some kind of twist, even if it was unlikely anything could go awry – the students still had on the uniforms they used up to that day, and so the power gaps were still there. The characters themselves agree, Nonon quipping that the result was obvious to begin with. That was one pointless revolution, I thought.

But then, is that something new? Mankind did experience several revolutions where great ideas reached critical mass and exploded, bringing about a new order. But if you take the time to watch the news, your average revolution is little more than a coup d’état, changing nothing but the name of whoever’s on top at the moment. The people of Africa get dragged into very real domestic wars, but those never result in real change.

Satsuki’s little purge is a shining example of such a revolution because it brings together two conditions:

1) people fighting each on their own, and for their own benefit only, with nothing greater to unite them and prevent them from stabbing each other in the back whenever the opportunity arises

2) a completely skewed power balance, with the eventual victors starting out with more firepower than the grunts they crush have combined

One of the characters wonders at one point if Satsuki is going to destroy the system she herself has built up. The answer is: no she is not. To Satsuki, who sees the common folk of the academy as little more than swine acting on base instincts, the result of the elections is obvious to begin with. In their selfish struggle for power and wealth, the students inevitably protect the system keeping them on Satsuki’s leash, preventing any chance of actual change.

Seen like that, this episode had to be pointless. Because pointlessness was the point.

Those “so bad it’s good” elements of a show are fascinating, because they are inevitably playing with fire. No show quite gets across the horror of time loops as well as Suzumiya does in its Endless Eight episodes. The portrayals found in Higurashi and Madoka (heck, even Steins;Gate) are poetic, dramatic and beautiful. And we want that sweet veil of false beauty in our entertainment – we might want to watch people suffer, but only from a safe distance. Endless Eight is so vicious in making its point that it almost entirely fails as entertainment, even if it succeeds as art.

Here is hoping Kill la Kill does not feel too obligated to be bad from now on.

PS Then again, I might be going easy on the episode because of it having Nakahara-sama, albeit in a short scene.

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Kanji:            不撓不屈

Hiragana:     ふとうふくつ

Romaji:         fu – tou – fu – kutsu

Literally:      never – bend – never – yield

Meaning:      Indomitable, unbroken regardless of the hardship encountered.

Akemi Homura, representing Puella Magi Madoka Magica, is the one to open the yojijukugo series. With her indomitable spirit, she sets out on the quest to save her only friend, never giving up or slowing down regardless of the pain and hardship she has to face along the way.

Time travelers often shoulder a burden heavier than a single human should ever be allowed to, and so other candidates might include a certain mad scientist of Steins;Gate fame, or maybe a small miko trapped in the eternal June of Showa 58.

But the strength to conquer any and all adversity is of course not limited to those jumping across different timelines. What characters does this week’s yojijukugo make you think of?

Yojijukugo are four-kanji idioms representing some of the most important ideas and concepts in the Japanese language.

In this weekly series, I see how those ideas are represented in the anime world, and invite readers to share their own examples of series, characters and scenes best illustrating those concepts.

For other posts in this series, look for the Yojijukugo Series under the Category section on the right.

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Inside my heart, I desperately try to recall Mami’s smile

The kind smile which has always given me courage and comfort

But what comes to mind

Is only the cruel image of a yellow dress torn into shreds…

Mami’s body with nothing above her neck…

Character relationships and scenes that benefit from insight into characters’ emotions are the novel’s strong points. But what the novelization cannot escape are the comparisons to the anime scenes made memorable by Shinbou and Inu Curry. The battle against the TV witch which takes advantage of Madoka’s guilt over Mami’s death is no less engaging in the novels thanks to the psychological aspect. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for other scenes involving battles and magic. Descriptions in those scenes tend to be underwhelming, too short and simple to paint a vivid image. Mami’s “Gate of Babylon” barrage from episode one, for example, is described as follows:

“Suddenly, she released a great number of rifles into the air and fired them all at once. The projectiles rained mercilessly outside the ring of light enveloping us, blowing away all of the eerie things surrounding us.”

While there is nothing wrong with the description, it probably doesn’t measure up to the image conjured in the anime.

The battle against the garden witch, seemingly a golden opportunity to play around with the concept of a magic battle without the time restrictions of an anime episode, feels more like a laconic summary of the moves exchanged in the anime and does not attempt to create a true feeling of tension. Charlotte’s transformation scene also doesn’t live up to its full potential.

It could be argued that the simplicity and brevity of those scenes are a conscious decision on the author’s part, necessary to stay true to Madoka’s voice as the narrator. But it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the author takes magic, something incredible and unfathomable, too much for granted.

Other scenes where the anime remains ahead of the book are those where Shinbou shows us the power of detailed visuals. The restaurant scene where Homura recreates Mami’s final moments by twisting off the cover of her coffee, the incredible clash of the mundane with something cruel and macabre, is missing from the novel. Similar details in other scenes are also lost in the transition. Of course, those scenes are more proof of the anime’s quality than any particular fault of the writer.

Yet another similar issue arises with the lack of voice acting. While it is the advantage of a novelization that it allows the reader to find a new voice for the characters, this doesn’t work as well for characters we aren’t supposed to understand in the first place. It is a shame there is no way to transplant Katou Emiri’s stellar performance as Kyuubey into written form.

As the novelization is made up of two volumes, I’d like to applaud the way the material is divided. The first volume covers events up to episode six of the anime While this may appear as an obvious solution, splitting the story cleanly in half, the trick here is that the events of the last minute of the episode are left out along with everything Madoka doesn’t see for herself. Separated from her soul gem, Miki Sayaka collapses lifelessly to the ground. Akemi Homura disappears without a word. And finally, Kyuubey opens the jar of truth, his words slipping out like maggots starved for food, corroding hope with despair. The book closes with Kyuubey’s exasperated question “I don’t get you. Why do people care so much about the whereabouts of the soul?” This is the moment which transforms a world filled with danger and adversity into a cruel farce where despair was the only choice to begin with. A great way to end the volume.

On a technical note, this volume contains 291 numbered pages, including ten pages of full-color illustrations. There are also some extra pages with advertisements for Madoka goods and some other books. While text density per page is the same as in an average pocket-size light novel, the format is bigger and allows for a bigger font (making it easy to read, but difficult to carry around.)

The story uses little flowery language (due to Madoka’s narration), making the reading difficulty level quite low. On the other hand, it uses very little furigana, requiring a very solid grasp of kanji to be enjoyed.

The removable cover is beautiful but dark, showing the main characters on a black background with looks of worry, anger and yearning on their faces. This is a more honest approach to what’s actually inside than with the anime… but the contents page is as pink and kawaii as it gets. The inside cover is dark purple with a subtle pattern of Kyuubeys, soul gems and other symbols, and it displays the title proudly with large letters. Again, not something easy to walk around with and read on the train, but it looks great on the shelf.

Bottom line: The strengths and weaknesses of the novel are different enough from the original to keep things fresh and interesting throughout. While the novel can’t replace the wholesome experience the anime offers, it is not a bad read in itself.

(Review of the second volume to come sometime in the future. Also to all of you who have made it this far… have some chibi Saya and Madocchi. Sorry for the quality ;])

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Do you remember this girl? This is a story about Kaname Madoka

A story that tells of her undeniable existence

How much of the impact of the explosive mixture known as Madoka Magica should be attributed to each of its components? Urobuchi’s devilish story, Shinbou’s artistry, Kajiura’s captivating compositions, Ume’s deceptively cute character designs… all of them fit together like puzzle pieces to form a single, bigger picture. But now, the novelization of the record-breaking anime series gives us the opportunity to isolate one of those pieces and judge it on its own merits.

The name behind this book is of course not Urobuchi himself, but one Hajime Ninomae, who’s famous enough not to have his own page on the Japanese wiki. The afterword says he is the author of Yuushiki and Kukurikuri, neither of which gives any good hits on Google… Research shows that the former is a fairly typical romance-and-ghost story, while the latter a love story between a stalker guy and a suicidal girl too unlucky to succeed in her attempts to ‘reach the other side’. Wait, that actually sounds kind of interesting!

So the quality of the writing is a complete mystery. Well, make way for the trailblazer!

It is so delicious, it makes me feel guilty…

And I realize once more that I am alive.

That I can taste something delicious…

What I took for granted was actually such a blessing…

The fundamental difference between the anime and its novelization is perspective. While the anime could be considered a recording of events revolving around Kaname Madoka, the novel takes things a step further by retelling those events through her eyes. This decision brings with it a challenge that needs to be overcome by the writer.

Copying the anime scene for scene would require a third-person omniscient narrator, as some developments take place without Madoka’s knowledge. One example is the entire Sayaka-Kyousuke subplot with its numerous hospital scenes. The novel deals with that part of the story through Madoka’s guesswork and observations, and sometimes even strays slightly from the anime script to add new conversations or slip the pink-haired heroine into some scenes she does not originally appear in. Ninomae manages to weave a sensible narrative without losing any key information in the process, and we get a fresh look on some of the scenes.

Once that difficulty is resolved, it is time to enjoy the benefits this kind of narration bestows on the story. With direct and constant access to Madoka’s thoughts, we always know when she notes a minute change in a friend’s expression and we can follow the reasoning leading her to make particular decisions. The author is granted the license to add any kind of new information at the drop of a hat, as long as it is at least peripherally related to Madoka. This is not to say that Ninomae goes crazy with reinventing Madoka, but neither is he afraid to develop some of the ideas presented in the anime.

Some of the themes Madoka’s narration allows us to better understand include:

  • The importance of Mami as Madoka’s role model. Madoka creates the magical girl version of herself in Mami’s image. But to Madoka, the magical girl persona overlaps with her vision of who she wants to become as a person, her ideal self. Fearless, invincible and infinitely kind to those around her… Through her meeting with Mami, Madoka finds a goal to strive for. The confident Madoka we see in the original timeline is probably the result of that pursuit.

  • Madoka’s relationship with Homura. The weak crybaby that Madoka is, she can’t help being afraid of the cold and silently angry Homura. But because she thinks about others more than about herself, there are also some things she notices. She doesn’t know why, but she realizes that her words often seem to hurt Homura, filling the girl’s cold eyes with flames of pain, anger and regret. Madoka helplessly tries to break through to the person she sees in those fleeting moments. In a way, Madoka sees a reflection of herself in Homura – it is revealed Madoka had had to transfer schools in the past, experiencing the feeling of being all alone in a new place.

  • Madoka’s relationship with Sayaka. Sayaka was Madoka’s savior when the latter transferred schools. And when the two became friends, Sayaka would always stand up for and protect Madoka. But Madoka’s gratitude is mixed with feelings of inferiority and guilt. If there is nothing she can pay Sayaka back with, can Madoka really call herself Sayaka’s friend? Madoka’s burden only grows heavier when Sayaka becomes a magical girl. Madoka’s greatest fear is coming true. She will be left behind, alone, because she isn’t strong enough to stand by Sayaka’s side when Sayaka needs it most. Because she never had the right to call herself Sayaka’s true friend to begin with…

(Continued in part two…)

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Gen Urobuchi has recently given an interview to Asahi Shimbun (Japan’s second most circulated newspaper), where he talks about Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica in context of recent real-world happenings, making some daring statements in the process.

The following extract was copied directly from the Anime News Network site:

Asahi: Madoka Magica is an original story. Where did the idea come from?

Urobuchi: I received a request to write a bloody story where magical girls appear, and then drop out one by one. I paid attention to the aspects that are troubling or overlooked in the traditional magical girl genre. I’ve been thinking that magical girls who have acquired superhuman abilities will find themselves removed from the world, which would cause contradictions and reactions.

Asahi: Magical girls, who are full of hope and who strive to save the people, soon suffer from hatred and jealousy, which turn them into the enemy witches. The change from good to evil left an emotional impact.

Urobuchi: For example, Al-Qaeda brought down the Twin Towers due to their self-righteousness. Justice for some people is an evil for others. Good intentions, kindness, and hope will not necessarily make people happy.

The following is my translation of the remaining part of the interview.

Asahi: In the climax of the series, witches bring a disaster upon the city. Isn’t it that in modern society, people’s negative emotions are what destroys the world?

Urobuchi: One curse brings about another, creating a cycle of hatred. That’s what I find the most terrifying. Positive words like happiness, victory and glory are only spoken after being thrown into the same trash can with their opposites. Even if it starts smelling or maggots get out, we pretend not to notice and paint the world in bright colors. America, for example, could be seen as having gained and maintained its prosperity by forcing its own negatives on Third World countries.

Asahi: In the face of the disaster, one of the characters repeats the same time period in a loop several times. Her struggle to stop the event fills the viewer with pity. The usage of such loop has become a common form of expression since the last decade.

Urobuchi: I think it’s a useful way of conveying the feeling of entrapment. The panic of 1999 didn’t bring the end of the world. In the 80’s and 90’s there was a lot of shouting and worrying that the end might come, and many images of the apocalypse, like the nuclear war fallout, were created in the public mind.

Asahi: The end didn’t come, but it’s not like the situation has improved. Is seems those troubled days will never end.

Urobuchi: There is no absolute justice and no absolute conclusion. In the anime series, there is a scene where one magical girl argues that “By trusting in hope, you only bring about equally strong despair. The world is made to keep its final balance at zero.” Even if we chase after hope, despair is sure to follow. We must be willing to accept this from the beginning. To make some tempura, we have to throw out the oil used. It is impossible to create something beautiful without producing waste matter in the process.

Asahi: The nuclear reactors which were supposed to bring us abundant life now spread radioactive material. “Desires which go against logic bring about distortions”, this anime line sounds like a fitting aphorism for this situation.

Urobuchi: Now everyone goes on and on about saving electricity, but we should have thought about a world which doesn’t require such dangerous things to be built in the first place. I thought we were aware of the risk of radioactive pollution when we wished for the brilliant Christmas illuminations.

Asahi: But isn’t it that humans cannot live without desiring something?

Urobuchi: Getting back to Al-Qaeda, the desire to lead the world in the right direction is not wrong in itself. The decision Madoka, the main character, makes at the end of the series is the result of her not wanting to deny the fact that the magical girls held hope.

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