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.