Home > Episode Reviews, Puella Magi Madoka Magica > Puella Magi Madoka Magica Episode 2 – The Kids are Alright

Puella Magi Madoka Magica Episode 2 – The Kids are Alright

The last time I talked about Puella Magi Madoka Magica, my main concern was that the story and characters would fall short of the gorgeous visuals, with its gorgeous cut-paste dreamscapes (nightmarescapes?) and sleek, modernist vision of reality. My fears, so far, have turned out to be entirely unfounded: PMMM is just as sharp and edgy in its writing as it is in its art.

If the first episode was about establishing the show’s unique visual aesthetic, the second is about fleshing out its setting. After saving Madoka, our heroine, and her friend, Sayaka Miki, from both a witch, the demonic creatures that the show’s magical girls fight, and one of her fellow magi, Mami Tomoe sits down to explain to her prospective colleagues what exactly a magical girl is, and what they do.

When fighting witches, Mami uses guns. Lots of guns

A girl who has been approached by a magical creature (like Kyubei, whom Madoka and Sayaka tried to save from antihero magi Homura Akemi last episode) can have any one wish granted. But that wish comes at a cost: the contract with the creature creates a Soul Gem, the power source of the magical girl. In exchange for that wish, the girl must spend the rest of her (likely short) existence fighting demonic creatures in surreal, hellish dungeons.

Friends are rare, as witches can’t be seen by normal people: who could understand someone who had devoted their life to fighting an evil no one else could see? Allies are even rarer, since defeated witches drop a magical item called a Grief Seed, which recharges a magi’s power. With such a scarce resource, competition, rather than cooperation, is the norm. Suddenly, it makes the dire warnings of Homura last episode seem more like a fair warning and less like the protestations of a Dark Magical Girl in the making.

Madoka’s mom is a spunky career woman with her eyes on the top. She’s a fairly peripheral character, but more interesting than the protagonists of many other shows

This is, it must be said, an unrelentingly bleak setting for any kind of show. Imagine if Buffy became the Slayer only after making a Faustian bargain that also rendered her incapable of having a real relationship with anyone who hadn’t also made that deal.

And yet, the show’s cutesy art style and characters intentionally undermine that bleakness. Where most shows would have gone for a uniform tone grim darkness, PMMM creates a contrast between the endearing sweetness of its characters and the brutally Darwinian world they’ve been offered a chance to join. It’s a bold and inspired choice that will no doubt pay dividends in pathos down the line.

Even when it isn’t going in a 2D fantasy land, the show is gorgeous

Right now, though, it’s just emphasizing how well-crafted the show’s characters and story are. Because, look, both Madoka and Sayaka live comfortable upper-middle-class lives. Madoka’s mother is a go-getting career woman climbing the corporate ladder, and her father is a stay-at-home dad who takes care of their cavernous house. They’ve ensured their daughter has never known hardship or misfortune.

She has never known want: what could she possibly want desperately enough to risk her life for it? Nothing, nothing at all. Both Madoka and Sayaka spend the episode unsure what to wish for, unable to think of anything that could make their charmed existence as ordinary middle school girls worth trading for a short, brutish existence of struggle against the forces of evil and despair.

But it’s especially gorgeous in the 2D fantasy land of the witches’ mazes

Magical girl shows have become increasingly co-opted by the male otaku scene because they offer an interesting, action-packed premise to center a lot of girlish, moe antics around. They can be light, breezy, upbeat fluff, because even when they were aimed at an audience of actual girls, that’s how they’ve been.

But what happens when the show makes becoming a magical girl seem destined for tragedy, and spends its first episodes explaining to its characters why they don’t want to choose that path? Then you have an amazing subversion of the genre that gives even more opportunity for both complex, interesting characters and heaps of pathos.

The evil moustache balls return for one last hurrah, before falling to Sayaka’s club and Mami’s guns

It’s not only magical girl shows: anime in general is full of normal middle and high-schoolers that enter a dangerous world of combat with only a meager justification. Normally they’re either unwillingly dragged along into dangerous situations, which either gets glossed over or played up for comedy, or they choose for reasons that typically only make sense for action heroes.

Why anyone would willingly choose to risk that ordinary life for one with a high probability of death is something only the darkest or grittiest shows ask, shows that aim either for realism or high tragedy. Being a magical girl show, Puella Magi Madoka Magica only has the latter available, but it’s going straight there, and it’s doing it with style.

You can watch this episode here.

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  1. February 3, 2011 at 1:03 pm

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