Zachary's 5 Favorite Anime Pt.1

I’m assuming that you’re caught up, right? If not, check out my introduction. For everyone else, let’s kick this series off with Mahou Shoujo Puella Magi Madoka Magica, aka the biggest surprise in anime that I’ve ever experienced (show-wise, that is. Spirited Away still takes that title for anime in general.)

Anyway, Mahou Shoujo Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which is a mouthful, so I won’t mention it by name again, wouldn’t have been in my Top 5 until my most most-recent re-watch. But it’s aged like fine wine or good cheese, and while it’s not the “show to end all shows”, it’s a pleasant surprise from what I’d initially passed off as uninteresting. And chances are it might move up a spot next time I watch it. Take that as you will.

The story follows 12 year-old Madoka Kaname in a futuristic Tokyo. Madoka is a sweet, caring girl with a workaholic mother, a stay-at-home father and a toddler brother, and she’s top in her class. Her life changes when she and her best-friend, Sayaka Miki, are introduced to Homura Akemi, a cold and distant transfer student who warns Madoka to never change anything about her life. It isn’t long before she and Sayaka encounter a bizarre creature named Kyubey, who promises to grant any wish she wants for a chance to become a magical girl and fight witches. As she begins to witness what that means, her conflicted feelings come into play: should she, or shouldn’t she, become a magical girl?

This is a Studio SHAFT show, which means that it’s under the auspices of Akiyuki Shinbo. For those who aren’t aware, I don’t generally like Shinbo. I’m sure he’s a sweet guy, but his shows, beautiful as they may be, usually consist of moe incest and pedophilia that appeals to an Otaku on a hormonal level, but not an intellectual level. Which is all the more shocking that this show, which has his fingerprints all over it, is as good as it is. Either he was fortunate to pick Gen Urobochi as his show writer, or it’s a one-off. I’m still debating which is which.

What makes this one stand out is how it plays to conventions of the magical girl genre before subverting them. This is shown in its cutesy opening, its first ending (which is dropped right after episode 3) and the moe-ish art style from Studio “why don’t you make a friggin’ porn show already?” SHAFT. Everything about it works, as I definitely think having a cutesy aesthetic against a vicious and unforgiving story was more than enough to make this worthwhile. Brutal, but worthwhile. I think Shinbo needs to collaborate with Urobochi again, as he only appears to be competent under his leash.

Another aspect that surprised me was how compelling the magical girls were. There are five characters of importance, Madoka Kaname, Sayaka Miki, Mami Tomoe, Homura Akemi and Kyoko Sakura (the last of whom isn’t introduced officially until Episode 3), but amidst their appearances are girls with doubts, insecurities and desires that I guess you could say Kyubey exploits, until you realize they’re doing this of their own volition. Besides, their wishes make sense, although they come at the cost of their humanity. Even Homura, who seems detached at first, is quite complex, although why remains a mystery until the final stretch. Regardless, they feel like real pre-teens, which is nice in a genre that often doesn’t explore its characters to this extent.

Additionally, the common ideas and tropes normally in magical girl shows, like friendship, fun and adventure, are thrown out the window in favour of a “being a magical girl sucks” theme. Frequently throughout the 12 episodes, you get a sense that protecting the city from monsters is unglamorous, and the constant perils are complimented wonderfully by Yuki Kajiura’s score. Every time a ray of hope appears, it’s immediately shattered by darkness and tragedy. There’s simply no other way of saying it: this is a dark, depressing show, right down to its bittersweet ending. I know I’m being vague, but you need to see it to understand why.

Which leads to the crux of this show: tragedy. More specifically, Faustian tragedy. This is a show about the dangers of selling your soul for power, with Kyubey as a proxy for Satan. As you quickly find out, being a magical girl can easily corrupt you and make you into the monsters you’re fending off, hence the fight is cyclical. And it’s all linked to Kyubey, who might seem like a villain, but actually isn’t despite his cold, calculated thought process. You hate him, but you always understand where he’s coming from. It’s frustrating, yet really clever.

My only, major issue, and this is what keeps it from getting any higher, is that its underlying subtext about the religious institution as a whole makes me angry. Perhaps I’m overthinking this, but everything about it, right down to the ending, is jabbing at how blinding theology can really be to its followers, treating them like pawns that have no real purpose. It’s especially problematic because the institution of religion can be beneficial to the needs and desires of its followers too, as it’s not a one-way street of Marxist misery; true, it doesn’t solve life’s most-pressing issues, and it’s certainly not for everyone, but it at least gives people the skills to deal with them if they let it. It’s something I wish more religious criticism would take into consideration, instead of going down that tired, cliché-ridden path of “religion is the opiate of the masses!” that’s never been proven.

And I find that annoying. I know it might get me into trouble, but religion is a neutral entity. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s simply there. Any misgivings people have with it are based in human error, not religion itself. Because humans are flawed and chaotic, they’ll use what suits their misguided ways regardless of intent. If you need proof, all you need to do is look at the teachings of Jesus and compare that to how Western Christians have distorted them. So to see this show preach that religion is extremist, even if subtly and understandably, without it actually listening to its own, extremist message is hypocritical.

Still, I can’t fault a show for being clever in spite of my misgivings. Is it the best ever? No, but it doesn’t have to be. Is it the most-profound ever? Again, no, but it doesn’t have to be. It is what it is, the 5th entry on this list, hence it earns a…

Next time, we move up a rung and talk science-fiction with a writer I find divisive, yet interesting. Curious to know what it is? here’s a hint: I’m going digital.


  1. This was a show that pleasantly surprised me. Its not absolute perfection by any stretch of the imagination, and I likewise have my philosophical disagreements with it. And yet...perhaps the most amazing thing about it to me is that it works at all, let alone as well as it does. It won't be going on my mental list of favorite anime I've seen thus far; its a show I respect more than I enjoy. Yet my respect for it is higher than I expected it to be. While not entirely my cup of tea, I will not begrudge this one the moniker of "actually pretty good".

    1. It had to grow on me. I liked it the first time, but it left me confused by the end. The re-watch is what really sold me on it...


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