Screen & Page: Make A Contract With ‘Puella Magi Madoka Magica’
Most anime is adapted from manga, often produced by the manga publisher to raise awareness and sell it overseas. But what about the anime shows or film that go the other way, adapted from the screen to the page? How do those works hold up, and what changes or stays the same? That’s what Screen & Page aims to explore.
This week, we're talking about an anime that set the internet on fire because of all the ways that it does --- and doesn't --- break the magical girl genre: Puella Magi Madoka Magica!
If you've tried to get into anime the last few years, you've probably been told repeatedly to watch Madoka Magica. It was one of the biggest anime --- if not the biggest --- of 2011 despite being only 12 episodes. It's cultivated a huge fanbase that's followed it past the anime to three movie spin-offs, two of which retell the anime and a third with an original story, and several manga off-shoots.
But divorced from all that, how's the original core series? Well, it's just as great as the otaku Internet says, but perhaps for different reasons than they might give.
Madoka Kaname's an ordinary eighth-grader with an ordinary family life and ordinary friends. One night she has a strange dream where a dark haired girl fights a giant, abstract creature. A small, cat-like being appears to her and says that while the other girl can't fight this evil on her own, she can if Madoka makes a contract with it and becomes a magical girl.
The next day, the dark haired girl from Madoka's dream transfers into her class. Even stranger, the girl --- named Homura Akemi --- confronts Madoka and tells her not to do anything to change her life or she'll lose everything. The cat creature from Madoka's dream --- called Kyubey --- also turns out to be real, as does the creature Homura fought --- called a "witch." And the chain of events set in motion when Kyubey, Madoka, and her best friend Sayaka meet changes everything.
Directed by Akiyuki Shinbo, written by Gen Urobuchi, and animated by Shaft, with character designs by Ume Aoki, Madoka Magica starts as a typical magical girl anime (albeit one more abstract than most, but we'll get to that). The opening sequence and most of the first two episodes --- and all the promotional material surrounding the series --- only reinforce that.
But from the very beginning of the show, something seems off. The gorgeous visuals and immaculate backgrounds speak to that; it all seems normal, but you get the nagging sense there's more at work here. And there is.
I'm not going to say what the twists are, but the show's twelve episodes turn out to be the perfect number. Big twists occur every three episodes, which not only gradually reveal the true nature of this world and story, but also escalate the sense of dread that's a visible undercurrent from the beginning.
The perfect demonstration of this is Kyubey. Although at first glance, he looks like a more feminine-presenting version of Terramon from Digimon, the ultimate reveal of what he really is and his purpose recalls, of all things, the cosmic horror of the sheer, uncaring, unfeeling universe that H.P. Lovecraft wrote about --- something Urobuchi, a writer famed for his grim storytelling on many other anime and Kamen Rider Gaim, has admitted was an influence in interviews, along with Stephen King.
Having said all of that, though, the series ultimately ends on a hopeful note that undercuts all the acclaim that this is a "dark subversion" of magical girl stories. It's really not; it's just a grimmer variation of them. Let me put it another way: Batman Returns is very much a superhero movie --- Batman fights the villains and foils their plans. But it's also very much a story only Tim Burton could have told, from the heightened Gothic design sensibilities to the... singular take on female sexuality offered through Michelle Pieffer's Catwoman. Madoka Magica is the same deal.
Besides a compelling and rewarding story, Madoka Magica is also frequently a visual treat. When the witches appear, they conjure fantastical hellscapes around them called labyrinths. These segments --- helmed by animation duo Gekidan Inu Curry --- look like Dave McKean and Brendan McCarthy hijacked Yuriy Norshteyn's animation studio. They're a marvel of abstract surrealism.
Combine a great story and exciting, off-kilter visuals and you have a series that deserves every bit of its acclaim, even if it's not quite what fans will sell it as. Check it out.
Given the tight turnaround time of anime production, the Madoka Magica manga --- released in three volumes and illustrated by Hanogake --- takes as its starting point not what wound up on screen, but rather an initial version of Urobuchi's scripts. In that respect, it's like a tie-in novel to a movie; some deviations or emotional shading is gone, but it's still the same basic story.
The manga, as Hanogake admits in an afterword in the third volume, has to be its own thing, because it can't possibly replicate, for instance, the labyrinth sequences (which, for the record, were heavily added to during production). For the most part, it succeeds and is admirable. It even eschews my one big problem with the anime, and gets rid of the repetitive establishing shots and lack of background characters that drag it down.
But admitting you can't deliver a similar experience as the anime isn't the same as offering an adequate replacement. Hanogake's use of black and grey screentones frequently turns on her during the battle scenes. As a result, it's really hard to see what the witches look like and, indeed, what actually happens during battles. Given the first huge twist that takes place in chapter/episode three is during a fight against a witch, it's really disappointing. Furthermore, the manga can't quite match the growing sense of despair that unfurls within the anime.
The key word in the end is "rushed." While the manga is still good for the most part, it lacks the visual distinctiveness of what wound up on screen. While I'm interested in reading Hanokage's continuations of the Madoka universe --- she's illustrated most of the spinoffs as well as adaptations of the three movies --- this manga is best experienced after watching the original series. It's not inessential like the Kill la Kill manga is, but it's not exemplary either.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica is streaming on Hulu, Crunchyroll and Aniplex, and is widely available on DVD & Blu-Ray. The manga is available digitally from Yen Press and in print from a variety of retailers and your local library.