First Impressions – Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica

It’s Mereru! Oh, maybe not…

I must confess to some trepidation at the notion of an original series directed by Akiyuki Shinbo. I’ve long felt that his spastic impulses work better within the framework of an established property – Soredemo and Natsu no Arashi being good examples – where he has to check his impulses so as not to completely overwhelm the material (as he so often does). But so far, I have to say I’m pleased with the results.

This is a heavyweight lineup, no question. Shinbo earned his Mahou Shoujo stripes by directing the first season of Nanoha. Music is from the legendary Yuki Kajiura and the character designs (controversial ones at that) from Hidamari Sketch creator Ume Aoki. Our heroine, Madoka Kaname, bears an eerie resemblance to Shinbo’s version of Satsuki from Negima and indeed, all of the characters have a rather retro, chubby-faced appearance. The look of the series is classic Shinbo with his washed-out color palette, and while the animation isn’t especially fluid the backgrounds are gorgeous. I especially want to point out the school uniforms of Madoka and her friends – they’re absolutely lovely lace affairs. I suspect the simplistic animation may be an intentional statement by Shinbo rather than a cost-saving move.

What of the story? Well, nothing too groundbreaking so far – but it is a somewhat different spin on the Mahou Shoujo genre. Madoka seems a very typical little girl – the only thing unusual about her family is that Mom works while Dad stays home with her three-year old brother. She has two school friends (by law, all mahou shoujo must have exactly two BFFs) and no unusual talents at all – until odd transfer student Homura Akemi shows up, first in Madoka’s dreams and then her classroom. Soon enough Madoka is in a desolate construction site rescuing an odd cat-like creature named Kyube that Akemi is apparently trying to kill. That’s when the Shinbo kicks in and things get really weird – a kind of Dali-esque surreality takes over and another strange girl appears and rescues them both. Revived, Kyube grins like a Cheshire cat and asks Madoka and her friend to complete a pactio  magical contract with him.

It’s always nice to watch an original series, because there’s no spoilers out there and no one quite knows where the bodies are buried yet. I’m not sure who the good guys are yet, but there’s something sinister about Kybue and I suspect Homura isn’t as bad as she seems. Whatever the results Shinbo is never boring and a genuine talent, and it’s interesting to watch him tackle this and try to do something different in a genre with very well-established guard rails. This is already darker than Nanoha started out, with a lot of disturbing imagery and a decent sense of unease under the surface. Let’s see if Shinbo can listen to the better angels of his nature and let the series develop naturally without smothering it with trickery.

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