The Problem with Madoka Magica

Not too long ago, I wrote a post discussing a few things I found irritating about many review series. One of those things was the mindless praise that some series end up getting. I mentioned how it hurt the review process by both reducing the amount of valuable information the viewer gets and bundling all viewers into a single group, which hurts no matter how you feel about the work. But there’s another thing that bothers me about this kind of praise, and that’s the effect it can have on anyone who doesn’t feel the same way.

Have you ever had a series that everyone around you enjoyed except for you? The reason you don’t like it could be anything, but it’s something that can’t easily be changed. It can make you feel annoyed or possibly disturbed when everyone else praises it for reasons that have nothing to do with you. I’ve seen it happen before, particularly when one review disagrees with the others and gets shunned for it.

With that in mind, I thought I should tell you something about myself. It’s going to illustrate my point, but more importantly, it’s going to help me say some things I should have said long, long ago. I’ll start off by giving you the short version:

I hate Madoka Magica.

There may be some people out there who find that hard to believe. If so, then congratulations, you’ve proven the point I’m trying to make. Yes, I can understand why some people out there like it, but I understand even better why I don’t.

I should start off by explaining how I started watching this series, because it’s a little different than what most people would expect. See, I used to go to an anime club. It was a good club, and it got me into quite a few series, but not everything they showed me was great. Partway through one meeting, they turned on a show about magical girls. This was before the hype-wagon started up, so I had literally no idea what would happen later on in the show. And my overall reaction to that first episode? “Eh.” The characters were bland, I couldn’t find anything to identify with, and even the trippier visuals reminded me of the episode of Dream Eater Merry we watched half an hour before.

Of course that didn’t last forever, and eventually we got to that moment. You all know what I’m talking about. It’s the moment that, in my opinion, best solidifies the difference between how I saw Madoka and how everyone else did. Because when most people saw that scene, their reaction was “Oh wow, I’ve never seen anything like this before!” And when I saw it, my reaction was “Oh God, not this again!”

Anyone who knows the name Mohiro Kitoh (or Joss Whedon, I guess) knows about stories that pretend to be something they’re not. They present their audience with an established setting and then, with all the subtlety of a Michael Bay film, take something away to reveal how serious the show is. Maybe they’ll kill someone or nuke something or, in one case, have a cute side character put a knife to her own wrist. I’ve seen it happen enough times now that, frankly, it’s gotten old. If a series wants to impress me, it has to do more than that.

That’s another big problem I had: I didn’t care. What I saw before that moment was a set of stereotypical characters (the hero, her BFF, the mentor, the furry thing, and the dark one) in a stereotypical setting. After that, the series suddenly decided that I cared immensely about them without giving me any other reason to. This is why I find it funny when people say that non-anime fans would like this show, since it was clearly tailor-made for the magical girl audience and the reactions they would have.

But even after all that, I had difficulty finding anything to connect to. I didn’t think it was possible, but the characters felt flatter after episode 3 than before it. Apparently in this world, “deep characterization” is equivalent to “has a single-minded obsession with one other person”. It really felt like Sayaka’s immediate reaction to anything is “Yes, but how does this affect my relationship with Kamijou?” Hell, her witch fight seemed to loudly shout at the audience that there isn’t one other thought in her head.

Homura was even worse, since her obsession seemed to greatly cloud her judgment. I actually asked a few people about her odd actions during the show, and I was told that she doesn’t care who dies if it doesn’t affect her relationship with Madoka. I have two very big problems with that, though. One, how does that make her likable? Two, how does that explain her letting Kyouko kill herself when she’s the one person who could help her?

And as for Kyubey, you could argue that his obsession is the entire point of his character. Maybe it is, but doing it on purpose doesn’t make him any more likable than the others.

Madoka herself had a different problem, in that she had almost no personality of her own. It’s a common problem in a lot of shows, and simply having her cry a lot doesn’t fix it here. At least other bland leads know how to fight or get some kind of romantic subplot or something. Madoka, for most of the series, never felt like more than a MacGuffin with feet.

Then there’s Kyouko. Her introduction, in all honesty, was easily the high point of the series. She had a different way of thinking than the others, she provided actual personal conflict, and she seemed to have a pre-established relationship with the older girls. Sadly, this didn’t last long. At the end of episode 6, the show decided to throw out their conflict and her entire personality because those things weren’t dark enough. Kyouko got the same “deep characterization” as the others and became focused almost entirely around her relationship with Sayaka. I’ve honestly never seen a character this cynical, yet this easy to befriend, since her tragic backstory should make it far harder to get close to her than that.

That brings me to the other big issue I had with this show: the big shock moments feel overdone. I understand that finding out your soul is in the palm of your hand can be distressing, but was it really enough to cause Kyouko and Sayaka to have complete personality changes? After seeing and experiencing all that they’ve gone through, I find it very hard to believe something so metaphysical could affect them like that. This isn’t the only time it’s an issue, either. I officially have to call bullshit on the idea that Mami would shoot her own friends after learning the truth about magical girls. After the encounter with Witch!Sayaka, she didn’t say anything or even wait a full minute before shooting Kyouko, and yet it’s treated as such a hard decision. Do you understand yet why this show can be irritating?

It’s especially hard to believe in contrast to their indifference to what should be the most shocking part of the show: finding out the existence of witches in the first place. These girls walk home from school one day to find the world warping around them and horrible monsters emerging to try and horribly kill them. After the encounter, their first reaction to the whole thing is “Aw cool, you have a musket!” Throughout the show, I never got the feeling that witches were that big a deal. Even after seeing Mami die fighting one, they’re sad about the death of a friend, but it never seems to register that it was a witch that did it. Hell, they’re marching back into witch lairs the very next episode! Do these girls have strong wills or not?

I think, to conclude all of that, I should say what I think is really the problem with Madoka Magica: it tries way, way too hard to be dark and depressing. It resorts to a lot of tricks to catch the viewer off guard – massive tone shifts, multiple consecutive shock moments, trippy visuals, zooming in on a villain’s face for dramatic effect (did anyone else find that funny?) – but it felt like it was all just an act the show was putting on to look cool. I’ve seen and enjoyed quite a few dark series, like Claymore, Darker than Black, Psyren, or anything by Naoki Urasawa, but the difference is that those series didn’t need to try to be dark. They just put together a well written story, and that’s how it ended up coming out. I haven’t watched Fate/Zero (and after this show, probably never will), so I can’t say if this is what all of Gen Urobuchi’s shows are like, but it seems like he’s desperately trying to be a certain kind of writer, and for me, that just hurt more than anything.

That’s how I felt about Madoka Magica, and you might never have guessed that this was possible from the hype it’s been getting. That’s why I feel like mindlessly praising a series is a bad idea, because not everyone feels the same way as you do about something. I probably wouldn’t hate this series the way I do if not for the ridiculous hype it gets. Again, I can understand why people like this series, since the overall art-style is so different, and if you like those kinds of characters, it can leave you feeling very emotional. Or so I’m told. But you should also try to understand how not everyone likes the same sort of shows, and try not to shove your viewpoints down their throat.

—-

Thanks for reading all that (assuming you didn’t skip to the bottom because it was too long), and you’ll be returned to your regularly scheduled manga discussions shortly. And please try not to hate me for thinking this. I just…I just really needed to get this off my chest.

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Posted on November 2, 2011, in Madoka Magica, Misc. Rants and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. Hello Yerocha, would you like to rewrite PMMM? You can now!

    /人◕ ‿‿ ◕人\ Just sign a contract with me…/人◕ ‿‿ ◕人\

    No seriously, the whole story of PMMM is decent, but nothing exceptional or special. I liked especially Kyubey’s character, and the story flow was well managed by the director/studio (Shaft I love you) making this stand out compared to the other series. :P

  2. I have absolutely no problem with you “not caring” for PMMM at all, just with your criticism that those who love the show are heaping unjustified “mindless praise” on it. Just because YOU don’t find access to the show doesn’t mean that the story doesn’t deserve the praise. It’s probably just not your cup of tea.

    I’ve watched hundreds of shows over the years, and I’d easily rate the PMMM script as the best single-season show I’ve ever seen. Smart storyline with lots of twists and turns, but always logical and extremely consistent when it comes to explaining why a character does something. And any show which keeps the viewer guessing till the end, and then manages to explain 90% of all open questions in a satisfactory way deserves high praise. Not “mindless” one.

    • For the record, when I say mindless praise, I’m talking about people who just say how great it is without really going into why. No matter how great people think it is, it won’t matter if the reasons for it don’t work for the other person.

  3. While most would respect your opinions concerning Madoka Magica , and I personally don’t offense to that , I think the main reason why this show bugs you is because you approach this from the opposite direction from how other viewers would compare the show towards.

    Comparing this to Claymore , Darker than Black and other shows that have an exterior that’s the furthest from the Moe aesthetics and “light” atmosphere that Madoka initially presents in many ways goes against the point about the anime . This is not the direction others would compare Madoka Magica to.

    Madoka Magica can only be appreciated if it was viewed in the lens of gentler , lighter animes like K-on , or classic Mahou Shojous like Card Captor Sakura . All of which are rather idealistic, and much lighter . The show is meant to be approached from that direction , and contrasted to these kinds of shows , rather than cynical shows that unabashed about their true nature.

    Madoka is a subversive show however. Indeed , the whole show is build upon these foundations. Unfortunately , strip it of this quality , and strip it of it’s unique genre-defying setting , and I would have to agree with you that Madoka Magica’s characters aren’t compelling. Indeed , generic is the right word for it.

    However , the very Genericness of it’s character is likely deliberate , given that the whole show revolved around attacking the Mahou Shoujou concept , brutally deconstructing cliches about the genre and breaking viewer expectations. The magic is taken away when you expect it to be dark from the get go , unfortunately.

    Does Madoka have deep characterizations ? No , and that’s not really the point of the show in any case.

    Is it’s characterization adequate for it’s aims , premises ,and settings to put forth a decent show ? In my view , yes . Then again , I consider characterization a means to an end .

    Finally , I recommend you give Fate Zero a chance. It does not pretend to be something it’s not at least , and the plot follows completely different aims from Madoka Magica. Starting from it’s characterization onwards. Fate Zero is not a rehash of Madoka Magica , it has completely different settings , premises , aims , goals , plotlines and definitely chracters.

    One more thing to consider : 1 cour animes tend to have much weaker characterization than 2 cour animes. Most viewers tend to set lower standards for 1 Cour anime characterization. Characterization that might be praise-worthy in a 1 cour anime might not necessarily be as well received in a 2 Cour anime.

    • That’s pretty much the problem right there: I was NEVER a fan of magical girl shows, or moe in general. I more or less had to view it as a dramatic work, which was a big part of why I felt this way.It’s like I was being lectured by my parents for something I didn’t do.

      And thank you, you clearly put some thought into your response.

  4. I haven’t seen Madoka Magica personally (not a fan of magical girls series) so I don’t know if it’s a good or bad show but I don’t think anyone will hate you for writing this piece. It’s a well written piece and you’ve justified very well why you hate Madoka Magica.

  5. You aren’t the only one, don’t worry. A ton of people whose opinions I generally respect (Mystlord at THAT Anime Blog, Wintermuted at Anime Diet, etc, adaywithoutme at GAR GAR Stegosaurus, etc.) have spoken negatively about the show, so there’s certainly enough well-articulated criticism to go around.

    Having said that, Madoka Magica has probably been my favorite show this year behind Mawaru Penguindrum. It has its flaws–stereotypical characters, questionable science (the infamous entropy speech) and a tendency to go over the top when it comes to plot twists–but in sheer balls-out ambition and execution, it pretty much beat out almost every other show I’ve seen this year. Not only was it brave enough to both take the magical girl genre to pieces and put it back together at the end, but it attempted to do so in only twelve episodes (Evangelion had twenty-six!) Obviously opinions vary about how good it was, but I would say that not only did Madoka Magica succeed against almost impossible expectations but it was also probably the best paced anime I’ve seen this year. Not a single moment was wasted!

    In terms of the characters, I think that they work a lot better as symbols than as actual people, for better or worse. In some ways Madoka IS a MacGuffin with legs, but what she represents ultimately turns out to be an essential part of the show’s reconstructive elements. As for Kyubey, he isn’t so much terrifying because of his obsession as because of what he represents–the vast, uncaring universe, reliant on horribly torturing little girls in order to function properly. I think that Dave over at Colony Drop said it best when he said that Madoka Magica isn’t so much a show about magical girls as it is a show about the magical girl system; take that as you will.

    Anyway, you’re totally justified in not liking this show! There are shows that others like which I just don’t get, and shows that I like that others hate, so I think I can understand the feeling. Just be aware that there are a number of people out there who have actual valid reasons for liking Madoka Magica, just like someone might have actual valid reasons for loving something like K-ON!! or hating FLCL. (For the record I haven’t seen the former and love the latter, so…)

    • I think just about EVERYTHING in this show is a symbol in some way, so I get what you’re saying.

      You make a point about the vast, uncaring universe thing, but that’s also a pet peeve of mine when a show puts such a huge focus on the world being big and uncaring towards you. It can make the show itself feel uncaring to the audience.

      • Keep in mind that Madoka Magica is nowhere near as symbolic a show as, say, Revolutionary Girl Utena (which is one of the few so-called “deconstruction” anime that you could argue actually fits under the actual literary definition of the term) or Mawaru Penguindrum (which in one episode might reference Murakami, Barefoot Gen, modern art…) Most of the characters are meant to represent different archetypes and Kyubey obviously is representative of a greater unfairness, but it’s not exactly what I would call deep or complex. I mean, Evangelion (discounting the religious iconography, which is mostly meaningless) has a lot more going on under the surface than Madoka Magica ever did!

        Then again, like I said, it helps to keep in mind that Madoka Magica was only twelve episodes long. Considering how much it accomplished in that time, the sheer amount of stuff they were able to weave in is pretty impressive. That’s not even mentioning the fact that a show like Madoka Magica, with an incredibly quirky visual style and direction, managed to become as successful as blockbuster girls-doing-silly-things shows like K-ON! and its ilk. Hopefully that will leave wiggle room for more batshit-crazy deconstructions/mega-ambitious pet projects to be made, which I think would be a pretty good thing for everybody involved whether you like Madoka Magica or not. (praying that Madoka Magica will not herald an advent of magical girl “deconstructions” which totally miss exactly what made the show worth watching…although since that happened to Evangelion I guess that we’re in for such an era whether we like it or not? WHAT HAVE WE DONE)

  6. I liked Madoka and all, but the story was not absolutely perfect. It was well-written expect for the noticeable flaws that I will not mention, but not perfect. The only reason why it was held in such high respect is 1.) Gen Urobuchi was the script and original writer and a visual novel writer from Nitro+ 2.) SHAFT studio is considered untouchable to some people. Stupid reason for praise 3.) A deconstruction of the magical series – which is something that has never been done in this fashion. This a valid reason for praise.

    What do I think? Well, since I am waiting for the official North America BD’s to hit my region, I will save my review, however there were some aspects of Madoka that I did like for the surface meaning: 1.) Yuki Kajiura was the music composer, which I am big fan of her BGM and OST produced. It was well integrated with the overall mood. 2.) It had some nice themes and concepts on balance, responsibility, etc – yet I can not say I like it all that much due to how skewed it was.

    Personally, I would rewrite the whole thing, but then again, it was not completely stilled. Just not perfect as everyone exalt it as.

    • I’ve seen a few other SHAFT series, but they weren’t really enough to get me into SHAFT as a whole. I liked Bakemonogatari, if nothing else, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

      I didn’t have any real complaints about the soundtrack, but I’m not really an expert on music, either.

  7. I liked Madoka because of its unexpected dark twist and the psychology that was involved on the series. Aside from that, it has so many interesting elements that I could relate and make me think. For instance, the philosophical and physics behind entropy plus Kyubey’s character.

    But of course, different people, different opinions. No one object can fit and please everybody, which made your point understandable.

    • What’s odd is that I’ve actually seen a lot of complaints about the entropy thing, even from fans of the show.

      I can understand why you’d like it, though. It’s full of art and symbolism, which you’ve shown great appreciation for quite often.

  8. Finally, someone who understands how I feel about Doctor Who. I haven’t watched Madoka, having a general “if there’s a Moe character, I’m staying the hell away from it” attitude because watching it makes me feel like a pedophile, but congrats on taking a stand against unremitting praise of mediocre shows.

    • Well even I wouldn’t go so far as to call the show mediocre, but yeah, it’s generally a problem when shows are built up as something they’re not. This show has strong niche appeal, but not a lot beyond that.

    • Madoka Magica is a moe show in the same way that Evangelion is a giant robot show, or Revolutionary Girl Utena is a magical girl show. It is true that the majority of the cast are young girls, but a) that comes part and parcel with it being a magical girl show and b) there isn’t actually much overt fanservice, outside of the magical girl outfits (I guess.) It’s nowhere near as in your face as it is in, say, Bakemonogatari, another show directed by Akiyuki Shinbo.

      Then again, you could make the argument that by putting innocent magical girls through the wringer, Madoka Magica is inherently exploitative. I personally think that the show brings a lot more to the plate than “watch these girls suffer in horrible ways,” but if you were feeling really uncharitable, then…

      • I don’t even get as far as to comment on what makes me feel dirty. I knew from the second I saw Madoka Magica’s art style that it was the sort of thing I’d be embarrassed to have people find out I watched, and I’m a brony who’s admitted to people that I’m a brony. It’s completely subjective; other series that gave me the same sketchy vibe were Lucky Star and Magical Lyrical Nanohoa or whatever it’s called.

  9. Finally someone who doesn’t love this show to death, and hates its guts like I do. I watched this when it first came out and have been a big opponent of it ever since. It’s not original, it’s clearly exploitative, the writer thinks that making things dark and depressing compensates for lack of ideas and what is worse it’s clearly ripping off a show I liked ( Nanoha ) which was much more human. This thing made me want to beat the monitor to death. And the legions of fanboys praising this only makes me feel even worse about it. It tries to be smart and elevated, in fact it’s just posh and shallow, with little care given to sense or characters or whatever. This is like a Michael Bay movie for anime fans, complete mediocrity, with a big fat hype attached to it.

    • Question: if it’s not okay for people to flock to Madoka Magica for no other clear reason than because it’s popular or for some other ill-defined reason, than isn’t it also not okay for people to totally disregard any value it might have, and smear everyone else who enjoys it by association?

      I’m not saying that there’s no reason to criticize Madoka Magica–there’s plenty of reasons to do so. Some pretty considerate people have made the case that it’s flawed (although about just as many have argued that it’s great.) But throwing away whatever value it might have (stylish visuals? memorable villain? mind-blowing ambition? the fact that it kind of came out of nowhere?) and just labeling it as “overhyped” with no qualifications or reservations is just as short-sighted as mindless praise, to an extent.

      I mean, I’d argue about Madoka not having ideas (it does!) or ripping off Nanoha (it’s by the same director, probably a spiritual sequel of sorts!) But I don’t think that’s really the issue here.

      Actually, this is a pretty great article: (http://www.badassdigest.com/2011/11/03/film-crit-hulk-smash-never-hate-a-movie) The whole thing is written in capital letters and written by somebody taking on the voice of the Incredible Hulk, but I think it has some pretty valuable things to say regarding the difference between hating a film and appreciating it. Not necessarily appreciating by liking it–just examining a film through lenses other than “is it good? bad? overrated? underrated?” It’s the same reason why, for example, so many reviewers hate numbered scores. They’re the part that most people obsess over, but (when done right) they’re also the part of the review that’s least important in the grand scheme of things.

      • Aw, you called me considerate. Thanks.

        I did agree that making a show dark shouldn’t substitute for actual writing quality, but in the long run, I probably wouldn’t have as much of a problem with this show if not for the people surrounding it. So I don’t call it bad, even if part of me would like to.

        Hold on, this was actually made by the Nanoha director?! Wow, I was gonna compare Homura to Fate in the post, but I took it out because I thought that there couldn’t possibly be a connection.

  10. I’m not saying the show is the most horrible, the most anything, I’m saying that I did not like it, I detest the HUUUUge hype it’s getting, and I consider that depressing material is not good in in of itself. Does it have qualities? Sure. Is is over hyped? Surely. It’s just that it gave me a very very bad feeling and not in an artistic sense. Sorry if I seemed over the top, but the visceral reaction I have to this show is and I admit it, somewhat irrational. I just can’t stand it for some reason. And I’m a guy who liked Sailor Moon. I think it’s a matter of tastes. As long as that taste ins’t judged to be the universally available and obligatory standard.

  11. I really agreed with everything you said I was glad to finally find someone who thought the same as I did when I saw this. That’s not what I was writing the comment for anyway, I wanted to tell you that you need to see Fate/Zero if you want to see a good show in comparison to ”perfection” like Madoka.. =.= I haven’t seen as much anime as you so I don’t know if that is also a overdone thing but you need to watch it all the way through cause the ending did blow me away Its something most anime’s are afraid to do. This series went really dark and watching that before Madoka makes these girls wishes seem like a kid asking for candy something like in Fate/Zero was a good smart dark story that I won;t say comes close to Death note cause its just not the kind of show to rival that but I would praise it greatly for the darkness and its idea’s.

    I would like to hear what you think of Fate/Zero I really would like to hear your opinion on it.

    • See, the main issue with Fate/Zero is that it has the same overall style of writing and moralizing as Madoka did, which is a bit part of what turned me off it. There are a lot of different ways to be dark, and this isn’t one which works for me.

  12. Actually, I didn’t really think about why I liked Puella so much till’ I read this, I just liked the show for some reason. So when I actually thought about it I realized it was only because I have a thing for any Time Paradox kind of series. I mean, I hate Mahou Shoujo with all my might but I loved this series, seriously…

    • I’ve noticed quite a few people who have trouble putting their thoughts for this show into words. Maybe the fact that I can summarize what the series is about clearly is a bad sign by itself.

  13. ColdGoldLazarus

    Interesting analysis. I honestly enjoyed the show, but I’m one of the sorts who can respect opposing opinions. I can also see the flaws you pointed out, particularly in regards to Kyoko’s characterization shift, which I was dissapointed with from my first viewing of the relevant episode.
    So yeah, my general opinion is that it’s fairly decent, and if they’d put more focus towards rounding out and giving more dimension to the characters, (along with making Kyoko’s arc much more gradual) it could have been great.

    • From what I’ve gathered, there does seem to be an issue with this show when it comes to actually developing the ideas it has, and that extends to the characters, There was never any time given to them, which really made it hard to get attached to the girls.

  14. Roll Fizzlebeef

    Let me just say to you FUCKING THANK YOU.
    Oh my god this series INFURIATED me for the same reasons you mentioned in your article!When I bring these points up to Madoka fans they either 1)rage and ban me
    or 2) Look at me like I just killed their puppy and ask how I could say such a thing.
    Thank you for letting me know I wasn not the only person who hated this series.

    • Well it’s good to meet someone on the same wavelength. Yeah, the fans can get more than a little irritating and defensive when it comes to this show, so I try not to deal with them as much.

  1. Pingback: Yerocha’s 2011 Anime Awards – Part 1 « Shades of Grey

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