Sunday, March 3, 2013

March 3, 2013 -- Tea Time with the Queen of Hearts

Welcome to March, ABB faithful. I've been at this for a little while now, and I've decided that I'm finally ready to stick my neck out tackle one of the biggest shows that 2011 had to offer. It's the one that all of my friends who watch anime have been hounding me to watch.

Welcome to Madoka Month. I'll be watching this show every week in three-episode increments.

WARNING: I will NOT be avoiding spoilers. And yes, there are spoilers to be had in the first three episodes.

DOUBLE WARNING: This post contains very tasteless jokes.

I have to admit that I'm somewhat not looking forward to this. Whenever so many people recommend a show with such ardent enthusiasm, something like this usually winds up happening.

Oh, um, spoiler warning, I guess?
I also don't like the idea of the smug satisfaction that people who have seen Puella Magi Madoka Magica ("Madoka Magica" for short. "Madoka" for shorter) to completion would get from seeing me enjoy things that are doubtless going to be taken away from me in some kind of cruel fashion.

They also tell me that even though I'm a magical girl expert, able to sort out the Sailor Moons from the Wedding Peaches and lesser Pretty Cures, that this show will CHANGE EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT MAGICAL GIRL ADVENTURE FUNTIMES.

So I freely admit that this isn't the ideal way to watch this show, because this mindset makes me immediately suspicious of anything and everything that happens in the show. Then again, I've also encountered a few spoilers over the last year.

"What a perfectly innocent movie ticket," I thought quietly to myself.
Oh, that reminds me. Word to the wise: don't watch Hayate the Combat Butler: Can't Take My Eyes Off You unless you've seen Madoka first. I have it on good authority that one of their jokes doesn't flat-out spoil the ending, but it does reference a fairly major event.

Okay, I've put it off long enough. Let's face this beast head-on!

What strikes me most about these first few episodes is the art style. I'm immediately drawn to this hauntingly off-kilter dream world that our protagonist finds herself in.

Everything seems to be falling apart and horrifying forces seem to be flooding the skies through darkened overcast conditions. Some girl we don't know is fighting some thing we don't know what it is as Madoka, our hero, watches the fight unfold, powerless to do anything to stop it. Powerless, that is, until a strange creature contacts her, telling her that she can have the power to change the world. This power comes with the responsibility of forming a contract with the creature to become a magical girl. That creature is

Kill it. I'm calling it right now, that thing is nothing but trouble. Sorry, I'm being suspicious again, but everything I've learned over the course of my childhood is telling me that this thing is not to be trusted. Let's count all of the ways that this thing is completely suspicious.

1) This thing's mouth doesn't move when it talks. I know that's because it communicates telepathically, but that seriously doesn't make it any less unsettling.

2)Reaverbot eyes

That's the iconic eye of the Reaverbots, one of the primary enemies of the Mega Man Legends games. Since that game is so ingrained into my psyche, anytime I see those eyes, I start to get that hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-standing-up feeling.

3) It's a cute thing in a show that makes me feel uncomfortable just watching it. And not in the same way that iDOLM@STER makes me uncomfortable when I watch it. This is more of a Twin Peaks-style discomfort.

Anyway, it turns out that all of that was a dream. We cut to Madoka waking up and then we're treated to the opening sequence.

I have to admit that I love this show's opening sequence. The song, Connect by ClariS, is beautiful, and the way that the actual animation sequence doesn't quite match the tone of the song it's set to adds more to that haunting disconnect the show is actually quite striking. Maybe my head's not in the right place as I think about this, but as I watched it I seriously thought that it looked like the sort of intro that would be set to an obnoxiously saccharine J-Pop tune that's more typical of the magical girl genre. I hope I'm not the only one who got that impression from the intro, as I really think that it was a brilliant design choice if that turns out to be true.

When we return to the show, we get a sample of Madoka's average, everyday life. You know, that thing that all magical girl shows do. She goes to middle school, has great friends and a loving family, and overall seems to enjoy life quite a bit. She is content to ignore the strange dream that she had until the girl that she saw in her dream shows up to class as a mysterious transfer student.

Every show needs at least one.
She introduces herself to the class as Homura Akemi. It's a wonder she even attends school because she is clearly too cool for it.

Later in the day, she claims to not be feeling well, and asks Madoka, the Nurse's aid for their class, to escort her to the nurse's office. Madoka tries to make small talk as they walk down the halls, but the second the two of them are alone, Homura assumes a cold, threatening demeanor. She warns Madoka that if she values her life, she should stay the same person that she is and not make any changes to her life. All of this after having a mysterious dream where a creepy reaverbot-fox thing told her she can change the world if she forms a pact with it to become a magical girl leads her to start thinking that her dream might be more significant than she originally thought.

When she tells her friends about her dream, they laugh it off, because naturally it sounds completely ridiculous. This doesn't end Madoka's concern over the things she's seen and experienced in a period of less than 12 hours, and it weighs on her mind even as she goes to the music store with her friend, Sayaka.

What's a music store, you ask? See, back in the day we would go to actual stores that only sold music albums. Records, CDs, cassette tapes (ask your parents) and more: they had it all at the music store. You couldn't buy just one song, though. You would find the album with the song you like on it, and that would be the only song you ever wound up listening to on that CD. Like when people who don't like heavy metal were duped into buying Extreme's album just so that they could listen to "More Than Words". It was a simpler time.

This music store, hilariously, appears to be quite empty (as are most music stores in this day and age). After all, why would you go to a store and buy music when youtube has all the Renai Circulation mashups you could ever want.

As Madoka jams out to some sweet tunes, she hears a voice call out to her for help. Somehow this compels her to wander to an abandoned floor of the shopping mall until she stumbles upon the bloodied, injured frame of the creature from her dream.

This thing is named Kyubey, and he seems to be the one responsible for bestowing the powers of a magical girl. I'm going to try not to assume the worst out of this little bastard for the most part, but I still think they should put it out of its misery just to be safe.

Acting on my fears is Homura, who appears ready to kill it before it can say another word to Madoka, but her plan is interupted when Sayaka shows up with a fire extinguisher and is able to cover Madoka's escape with a helpful smokescreen.

The two escape, only to be sucked into...

Ummm... An animation sequence from Monty Python's Flying Circus?

The girls are saved by a new character, the impossibly cool and all-around badass Mami Tomoe.

She fights with guns. Like full rifles. I'm not a gun nut, especially not for rifles, but her fights are animated beautifully, and her infinite amounts of rifles and ability to summon forth firing squads from nowhere is just really stylish.

Mami is able to save Kyubey and the girls through sheer skill in combination with WTF levels of firepower, causing the Eldritch Terry Gilliam animation to collapse around them and return to the real world.

Mami revives Kyubey with magic, and the smug little demon hops up and thanks her for saving him. It then explains to Madoka and Sayaka that he wishes to make a contract with them so that they can become magical girls. And then this show kind of turns into Deal or No Deal: Anime Edition in that the girls have to consider whether or not to accept the contract and gain the power to fight witches.

"The banker thinks I'm kawaii."
The second episode mostly focuses on the girls considering Kyubey's offer. Kyubey explained that he can grant one wish, any wish the girls can think of in exchange for them becoming magical girls.

The girls consider what they would wish for, or even if they really want to be magical girls at all. They go home with Mami and have a conversation about what being a magical girl entails, fighting witches, frilly outfits, transformation sequences, and other stuff I just made up in order to make clear the dangers of this unpaid profession.

The next day, Madoka discovers that nobody else is able to see Kyubey, so the little bugger follows her to school. This leads to the discovery that she can communicate with her friends telepathically through Kyubey.

Homura continues to confront Madoka to warn her not to take Kyubey up on his offer.

After school, Mami takes them out on assignment to show them what it's like to be a magical girl and what their duties entail. It seems that it mostly consists of investigating on foot, but through magical objects called "soul gems", magical girls are able to track down witches.

They follow the witch's signature to an abandoned building, where they find someone attempting to commit suicide due to the witch's influence. Mami is able to transform and save the woman from killing herself before heading into the witch dimension (do the Monty Python dimensions have names?) to hunt down the perpetrator.

She is able to defeat the witch, and obtains something called a grief seed for her troubles. Grief seeds apparently are where the witches come from, and once they're defeated they can be used to recharge soul gems. In addition, I notice that a teacup and saucer falls from the sky after she defeats the witch, a gift she graciously accepts.

All in all, episode two is more for exposition and introducing us to the world of magical girls and teach us some basic terminology we're likely to encounter throughout the rest of the series.

I'm more interested in talking about episode three, which everyone who has recommended this show to me says will DESTROY EVERYTHING I KNOW. I feel like I'm not doing this show justice as I watch it, because my head is full of so much dread that I feel like it's going to explode. I don't like seeing bad things happen to good people, and I know that something terrible is about to happen.

"Keep your head up," I tell myself. "Just watch the show and enjoy it". So I do.

In episode three, the primary focus is character development. I'm really enjoying the fact that this show actually seems interested in telling a story rather than simply wowing us with spectacle. The acid-trip inspired witch dimension fights are cool to look at, of course, but there's definitely a heart and soul to this show that comes across in how the characters interact with each other.

In terms of Sayaka, we learn that she's been visiting a young violinist in the hospital. This is likely who she was trying to track down music for in that music shop in episode 1.

Which means Madoka Magica has more continuity in their
first episode than George Lucas did.
This leads Sayaka to ask a very important question about her wish. Namely the question of whether or not the wish has to be for herself. We get the sense that she cares deeply for Kyosuke, the boy in the hospital, and wants him to be able to fulfill his dream in spite of his injury. It is a very human moment that showcases what Sayaka considers most important at this moment in the story, coupled with a subtle guilt that she may feel over whatever injury the young violinist sustained.

With regards to Mami, we learn that her wish was made in haste after a horrible automobile accident. She didn't want to die, so she accepted the terms of Kyubey's contract for a chance at survival. She doesn't explicitly tell what her wish was, but she warns Madoka and Sayaka to think carefully about their wishes before they make them, no matter how selfless their intentions may be. She wants them to use the time they have to make their decisions, an opportunity she didn't have when she got her powers.

In terms of Homura, we learn that she and Mami have apparently been at each others throats for a while. She is still intent on ensuring that Madoka and Sayaka don't agree to the contract, and Mami threatens that she won't hesitate to get physical the next time Homura tries to get in her way. The two had avoided fighting for some time, and now I find myself excited at the prospect of a badass brawl between the two strongest characters we've met so far. It'd be the greatest battle ever witnessed by man.

Well, second-greatest.

The girls visit the hospital the next day, but Kyosuke isn't available to visit with Sayaka. As her and Madoka are about to leave, they spot a grief seed that is dangerously close to hatching out a full witch-labyrinth. Also they're apparently called Labyrinths. You know what that means! It's time to play "Choose Your Joke!"

Joke A
"A-mazing tale of never-ending uguu~"

Joke B
"Great, as if this show wasn't scary enough now I have
to listen to that drowning music."
Joke C
"Still not as creepy as Kyubey."
Which joke did you pick? Use the comment section to let me know! The joke you pick will help determine which ending you receive at the end of Madoka Month!

Madoka races to find Mami as Kyubey and Sayaka stay behind to keep an eye on the seed. They are pulled into the labyrinth shortly after Madoka leaves, disappearing from existence in front of the hospital.

This time, the witch's realm looks like what would happen if Sweet Mountain from Sonic Colors had a baby with the Otherworld from Silent Hill. It's making me hungry.

Homura arrives to warn them about the witch dwelling within, but Mami isn't interested in what she has to say. She ties her up with some magical ribbons and hangs her out to dry. She did warn her, I guess. Still I was hoping for some Sly Cooper-esque banter between the two of them leading up to a big fight.

Madoka mentions as she follows Mami that she thinks that her only wish would be to become a magical girl so that she can fight to save everyone from the witches. She looks up to Mami and hopes to be as cool as her with the powers of a magical girl at her disposal.

Mami sadly confesses that the life of a magical girl is lonely and thankless. Her life has been filled with nothing but despair since receiving her powers. It looks as though she'll finally have some catharsis, as she'll at long last have somebody she can fight for and call a true friend. It's is a rather touching scene, beautifully lit by glowing spheres that float along in the world.

Plus I hear there was some talk of a cake party if Madoka can't think of a wish by the end of the ordeal.

The witch seed hatches, and Mami wastes no time transforming. Newly inspired by Madoka's passion, she goes about her business of busting out thousands of rifles and slaughtering every monster that comes near her.

As we're about to fight the witch and progress through Mami's character arc, let's set the scene with some awesome boss-fight music:

When they finally encounter the witch, a creature that resembles a small stuffed animal, she follows her usual practice of shooting the hell out of it before stringing it up into the air. She readies her finishing move, and just as it connects...

Ummm... okay... it pukes out a snake.

Um. Duck?


Good God! Even knowing it was coming (through spoilers that I encountered before I knew that Madoka was a thing I wanted to watch) still didn't prepare me for what a gut punch this episode serves as. Here we have an interesting character, one who we're shown has known nothing but misery and loneliness for most of her life, one who is finally given something to hold onto and cherish as she fights on in her thankless job, and she gets savagely devoured by a giant demon caterpillar.

And speaking of those spoilers, every single one of you anime fans who participated in all the "Har har, Mami ain't got no head" memes are all horrible people. And yes, I am fully aware of the irony in that statement (If you don't know what I mean, please reread this post more carefully). This ain't funny. This is some sad stuff. Man oh man.

Homura steps in and defeats the witch, but do I even care at this point? The show further rubs it in that my favorite character is dead by having that teacup fall out of the sky again and shatter into pieces as it hits the ground. They don't leave much behind, do they?

And so the episode ends with Homura taking the witch seed with her, Madoka horrified at the sight of her new friend's gruesome end, and Sayaka deeply resenting Homura for claiming the witch seed for herself, a seed that rightfully belonged to Mami.

Well shoot. I feel like it'd be tasteless to try to end on a lighthearted note. After weeks of Amnesia and other shows of that ilk, I'd forgotten what it was like to watch a show that I can actually take seriously. Madoka got off to a slow but strong start, and I'm certainly eager to watch more next week, but I'm just so drained from the emotional speedboat that is this show that I physically don't want to watch anymore for a little while.

Madoka is definitely my favorite show I've watched for this blog, easily besting Sword Art Online, another show that I can't watch more than two episodes of without feeling emotionally drained.

Clearly I need to stop caring about characters in anime and video games. Every time I ever pick a favorite character, something awful happens to them and it usually involves them dying. It happened with Maes Hughes in Fullmetal Alchemist, it happened with Jin Uzuki in Xenosaga, and now it's happened to Mami in Madoka Magica. At least they all died hero's deaths.

If nothing else, I can imagine that Mami Tomoe, Jin Uzuki, and Maes Hughes are all in a better place, drinking tea and sharing battle stories. I think that's what I'd wish for given the chance.


1 comment:

  1. I had the same reaction to episode 3. I was like, eh this show is kinda interesting, bit slow pace for me but I like the topics discus--WHAT THE FRICK OH GOD NO