Somebody ought to hash out an equivalent of psychology’s famous “Eight Stages of Man” for adventure genres. They all seem to evolve in similar arcs, don’t they? First, there’s the simple, earnest era. Then, the audience grows up, and there’s an era where more sophisticated stories are demanded. After that, there’s the deconstructionist era, then the reconstructionist era, and so on, and so on. American superhero fans know this all too well. Just look at how Batman went from chasing harmless pranksters across giant typewriters to confronting deep, philosophical torture in The Killing Joke.
The storied genres of anime have evolved in drastic directions, too: whether it’s Evangelion turning mecha inside-out, or Samurai Flamenco going meta on tokusatsu. So, if you grew up on Sailor Moon, you’ll definitely be intrigued by Madoka Magica and the wrecking ball it swings at magical girls.
Like Watchmen, which was filled with clever analogs of DC heroes, this show has a cast which will seem familiar to seasoned fans. In Sailor Moon, Serena/Usagi is a normal high school student who gains powers and an alter-ego when Luna, a talking cat, enlists her into the super-heroic Sailor Scouts. Here, it’s Madoka Kaname who’s the normal high schooler being courted to a squad of magical girls by the “talking cat”, Kyubey. Though these set-ups are roughly the same, the parallels sharply diverge once the battles with horrific “witches” begin in Madoka Magica. Unlike Luna, Kyubey has a complicated, alien agenda; and it’s soon clear that becoming a magical girl is a far more Faustian proposition than it initially appears.
The series is the brainchild of Gen Urobuchi, a prolific writer whose work (like that of Watchmen‘s author, Alan Moore) has demonstrated both a thorough knowledge of pop culture, and an iconoclastic urge to pick it apart. Indeed, his inspiration for this may have actually sprouted from the awkward particulars of Sailor Moon’s publishing history, of all things…
Some trivia: Sailor Moon’s creator, Naoko Takeuchi, essentially tried out a rough draft, Codename Sailor V, before refining the concept with a new title and lead character just a few months afterward. And this prototype, Sailor Venus (or “Sailor V”), would be demoted to a supporting role in the Sailor Scouts for the final series.
While this shift might’ve been arbitrary–the simple result of a manga artist listening to studio execs about what works better for TV –Takeuchi’s choice to keep both titles in continuity does raise some questions about the world she created. Not only does it establish that there are several generations of magical girls getting the same offer, it also implies that these young women can fall out of favor, too. Takeuchi likely didn’t intend for darker implications to be read into these plot particulars. However, that hasn’t stopped Urobuchi from finding a compelling story in the gaps, much like how Moore showed that the masked vigilantes of comics’ Golden Age could have political motivations and violent tendencies that weren’t always in line with truth, justice and the American way.
Madoka Magica is full of twists, and it’s hard to fully convey its brilliance without giving too many away. Still, it’s worth sharing that one of the superhero origin story’s most fundamental tropes is inverted here, because Madoka takes more time to weigh Kyubey’s offer than Prince Hamlet takes to ponder revenge. She isn’t just jumping into action no questions asked like Sailor Moon does in her first adventure. And when she does get around to deciding, she might be the one of the first heroines to ever treat a deal with the devil like a real, legally-binding agreement. That is, she does her research, interviewing the veteran magical girls and tagging along on missions to basically audit her prospective job. Indeed, our protagonist examines the whole concept of the magical girl with as much scrutiny as the series itself.
At only 12 episodes, Madoka Magica runs tight. There are three movies in addition to the series, but none of them are essential viewing. The first two, Beginnings and Eternal, are basically clip shows –abbreviating the experience for anybody who somehow finds a three-hour-long viewing that much preferable to a four-hour-long one. And the third movie, Rebellion, is the worst kind of sequel, needlessly extending the plot and completely invalidating the point of the series’ ending. Imagine a Watchmen follow-up about all the masks getting back together to fight crime after the incident with the squid in New York. Yeah. It’s that unnecessary.
Where do magical girls go after such a major deconstruction? Well, the latest Sailor Moon anime re-told the Scouts’ origin story once again (this time with changes to bring the plot closer to Takeuchi’s older-skewing manga), so perhaps we’re in the reconstructionist era, now. Even if you have no affinity, or experience, with magical girl adventures, Madoka Magica is still a powerful trip that’ll at once break your heart and stimulate your intellect.
Featured Image Credit: Aniplex