It Doesn’t Take a Madoka Magica

I was recently asked about why I don’t seem to like Puella Magi Madoka Magica nearly as much as other anime fans, bearing in mind the degree to which the show seems to garner an extremely devoted, I might even say evangelical fanbase. “Have you not seen Madoka Magica?” they ask.

While I think it’s quite a good show, even excellent in a number of respects, my opinion is that unlike so many others Madoka Magica did not open the world to me. It is not the greatest magical girl anime I’ve ever seen, let alone the greatest anime, and rather than showing me that it’s possible for such a genre to be full of rich depth and interesting ideas it just reinforced my already existing beliefs in that regard. So, yes, an excellent show and a fascinating twist, but something I always knew was possible (in a good way).

What I’ve kind of noticed is that the people who seem to be the most awestruck by Madoka Magica are the fans with little experience actually watching magical girl anime, and so when they discuss what makes the darkness of the series so special, it always feels less like people are talking from actual experience with the genre and more with just their idea of the genre from watching some Sailor Moon. Or if not Sailor Moon, their experience is comprised primarily of watching the genre exceptions, such as Revolutionary Girl Utena and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha.

This is not to deny the legitimacy of other people’s watching experiences, as telling someone that they don’t have the right to enjoy a show without x or y prerequisites is pretty ridiculous. However, I feel as if many people who think the world of that show and have an opinion on how it’s done so much with the magical girl genre, while in some ways right, have only experienced the “darkness” of mahou shoujo without being familiar with the “light,” in other words the shows which manage to achieve genre highs without falling into themes like subversion or dark parody. Even in the past decade or so you’ve had shows like Heartcatch Precure!, Ojamajo Doremi, and Cosmic Baton Girl Comet-san which are able to achieve a lot without flipping conventions all the way upside down.

It doesn’t take a Madoka Magica to realize the potential of the magical girl genre, which is something I hope more and more people come to learn.

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17 thoughts on “It Doesn’t Take a Madoka Magica

  1. This reminds me of the AWO review of Gurren Lagann, where they said the only reason people like the show so much is because they haven’t seen enough mecha anime. That sort of elitism bothered me when I listened to the review and it bothers me now when I’m reading this post.

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    • I agree that this kind of elitism can be alienating and downright mean, but if leveraged correctly, it can be used to educate as well. I try to tell people “Oh you like Gurren Lagann? Awesome, that’s a great show! If you like *that*, check out *these* shows that did similar things earlier and/or better.” It all amounts to keeping the conversation positive and not trying to prove your geek cred.

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    • It’s funny that you bring up AWO’s opinion on G-L because I agree with you in the sense that I was bothered by the idea that G-L isn’t that special. I thought Gurren-Lagann was extremely well done and unique because of one important reason: whereas other giant robot anime have themes and metaphors, no other show has taken the concept of the giant robot anime and its tropes and scrutinized them so closely. G-L, in other words, actively addresses the giant robot genre in ways no other anime has. Not to mention that its approach to characterization resonates well with a lot of non-mecha stuff in a good way.

      But even so, you seem to find a similar problem with my post, so I’ll explain myself, as I don’t believe myself to be a hypocrite (at least not in this case). Basically, I know that Madoka Magica is impressive AND UNIQUE in a number of ways, and I do like it, and like G-L I think the fact that people can enjoy it without having any sort of prior knowledge of the genre it’s coming from is fantastic. It pushes envelopes, but it must be said that there had to be an envelope to be pushed. It didn’t just suddenly materialize pre-pushed.

      The thing I consider to be an issue is when I see fans making broad statements about how Madoka has changed its genre, how it is better than the rest when it’s clear that a lot of people have not seen the shows they’re comparing Madoka with. While it’s not my opinion, I can think of plenty of reasons why Madoka could be considered the greatest anime ever, or the greatest anime someone’s ever watched, but it shouldn’t be about propping up magical strawgirls.

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  2. This kind of reminds me of (though it’s not quite the same as) when I watched Princess Tutu with my school’s anime club. Everybody was struck with this ridiculous awe that a show about magical ballet could have a serious story. It’s a very good show, but not because it’s “surprising.” It’s good because it touches on interesting themes in interesting ways and has a great cast of characters and all the other reasons that I won’t list here.

    Also, in the Madoka podcast on Ani-Gamers (http://www.anigamers.com/podcasts/038-madoka-magica-review-evangelion-of-anime/), we talked about how the deconstruction in Madoka seems to be made by and for people who were never invested in the fantasy that it’s deconstructing. Maybe this contributes to the disconnect you’re talking about.

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  3. I find that Gurren Lagann quote a stupid thing to say frankly, and reads like it came from someone who wanted to sound more knowledgable than he was. TTGL is a distillation of pretty much everything that makes super robot anime cool, and in my experience the more a person loves giant robots the more he appreciates TTGL, not the opposite. But thankfully it works on both crowds because it’s a genuine love letter to the genre.

    Madoka, however, is an inversion, an adult-ification, a gritty reboot, a dark parody as SDS calls it, whatever. I’m guilty of being one of those people who’s only seen the outliers (I’d put Cardcaptor Sakura at the top of that category but not so much Nanoha since it’s also aimed at an otaku audience). I think context is useful for appreciating most media to its fullest — doesn’t mean you have to do so for everything you like, but something that is so reliant on its genre as Madoka, I can’t see how context would do anything but help. That’s one of the reasons why I recently started in earnest on the Precure franchise.

    One thing that interests me: SDS, IKnight, and quite a few other fans of the genre seem anywhere from uninterested, to nonplussed, to flat out irritated by Madoka. What is it? Be honest. Are you unhappy with the stinky otaku party invading (bad news, Nanoha sent them over years ago and half of them were there already because they were yuri-lolicons who liked CCS)? Do you not enjoy the dark perversions of the previously pure things you enjoyed (I can actually understand this to a degree because I am so non-ironically enjoying Heartcatch)? Or is it something else? Because the most vocal Madoka non-fans seem to be mahou shoujo fans, it tells me there has to be something.

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    • As I said in the post, I actually do like Madoka, and I am okay with Nanoha (though I have written a post in the past where I expressed displeasure at people calling Nanoha the best magical girl anime), and I like Madoka in part BECAUSE of its darker themes and the way those themes are resolved over the course of the series. It did not flip my world upside down, but it gave me a lot to chew on, and I even wrote a couple of posts about it.

      The thing is that I don’t think it’s impossible to enjoy darker shows AND lighter shows and everything in between, whether it’s legit for-girls-only anime or stuff geared towards otaku, but simply that I feel like many people have never experienced a solid, conventional magical girl anime. To kind of increase the scale a bit, imagine if you’d been an anime fan for ages and then a new big anime came out and suddenly you got this new crop of people who’d never even bothered watching anime suddenly telling you how amazing and medium-defining the work is.

      How do you explain something as genre-defining when (the rhetorical) you has had no prior interest in the actual genre? It’s not about elitism or having too much knowledge, I think, but is more about wishing that people be able to experience the other side of the genre, the pinnacle of the “rule” instead of the “exception.”

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      • It’s not about elitism or having too much knowledge, I think, but is more about wishing that people be able to experience the other side of the genre, the pinnacle of the “rule” instead of the “exception.”

        Yeah that’s where I agree completely, like I said I’m all for any context that can help your enjoyment of something, and Madoka seems to be a piece of media where context is key. Anyway, I don’t think this came off as elitist at all; I don’t think I agree 100% on the TTGL thing but that’s a tangent and I hate going too far down those in someone’s comments.

        btw, apologies for characterizing you as not liking Madoka… reading comprehension etc.

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      • but simply that I feel like many people have never experienced a solid, conventional magical girl anime

        Which has nothing at all to do with Madoka, and everything to do with people talking out their asses. Which happens on every subject imaginable.

        How do you explain something as genre-defining when (the rhetorical) you has had no prior interest in the actual genre?

        Can you provide examples of this happening? I wouldn’t call Madoka “genre defining”, because its genre doesn’t need defining, its already been quite well defined. Madoka works in large part because of that existing definition.

        You’ve set up a very nice strawman, and knocked him down quite thoroughly, however thats all it is.

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        • I misspoke when I said “genre-defining.” What I meant was “genre-RE-defining.” Obviously it had been defined for many years which was part of my point, but if you want to actually see what I’m talking about, you can look at many of the blog posts during the time Madoka was airing that talked about how dark it was, or how it was a deconstruction because it wasn’t as kind or simplistic as Sailor Moon.

          If you want a more specific example, though one I can’t prove to you because it’s a personal experience, I briefly talked with a guy at Anime Expo who was really, really into Madoka Magica. He was trying to convince a teacher who taught a history of manga class at a university to check it out, and brought up how it was a deconstruction, a postmodern take on the magical girl. The more he talked though, the more it was clear his experience with the genre had been kind of sparse, especially when he said “Well without Sailor Moon, where would Utena be? That’s just one person, of course, but that’s pretty much what I’m talking about.

          As for people talking out of their asses, if that’s what’s happening then I think that’s all the more a reason to point it out.

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    • People don’t get called out by name enough in the Anglotakusphere so it’s a shame this comment doesn’t have an independent existence somewhere.

      I basically agree with what sds has said here, though if I said it I’d be less careful and less gentle. Anyone who cheerfully groups a bunch of titles and then says that a particular one is the crowning glory of that group, and perhaps that group’s only worthwhile member, without making at least a bit of an effort to, like, watch the other titles, is being a fool. Rushing to compare a title’s reception to the reception of various other titles with no care for history, audiences and business models is also foolish. After years of listening to anime fans, and after producing some similar foolishness on my own part, I’ve stopped suffering fools gladly. Madoka has produced a prize crop of fools in various spaces where I get my anicommentary. This makes me unglad. It’s frustrating, because I feel the show deserves some credit for some things, but generally not the things for which it gets credit.

      I don’t think I’m particularly annoyed by the stinky otaku crowd, having been part of that crowd for some years when it comes to Nanoha. And I’m fairly confident it’s not about the dark perversions, for two reasons. First, I like a bit of darkness: I’ve enjoyed plenty of grimmer’n’darker mecha shows, for example, and I know I even got some entertainment out of Uta Kata. Somewhere on this computer I have a half-written thing inspired by a different magical girl franchise which is plenty grim. And second, while it does play with some ideas, I’m not convinced that Madoka genuinely inverts or perverts very much. Many others have pointed out that at the end of the story the same ideals are in place. It’s a small point, but from memory, a certain entry in the Precure franchise finishes with more characters permanently dead.

      You’re right that there is something. I think it’s what sds posted. In my case it might be compounded and intensified by premature get-off-my-lawn-itus and a callow desire to demonstrate knowledge.

      __

      My local anime club showed Madoka this year, so I got to watch it again at a considered pace in a discursive environment. The majority of members weren’t especially impressed by the show, I suspect because they’re mostly not the kind of person you find discussing anime on the internet (‘casuals’, if you want a stinky otaku term for them).

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  4. Ok, that makes sense. No, Madoka did not re-define the genre, in fact it worked completely within the bounds of it, it simply removed all the soft edges.

    Madoka’s wish actually brought the setting much more in line with a standard magical girl setup.

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  5. I though I already solved this back with ‘on genre’…

    Madoka isn’t so well received because it’s an ‘inversion’, unique, or a ‘deconstruction’ (lol, go read Derrida and learn what that term really means).

    Madoka isn’t a magical girl show. That sort of reading-by-elements doesn’t matter in the end. Any bonus it got for that in each individual case (each individual viewer) has likely passed.

    Categorize Madoka by the moods that it strokes. Rate Madoka by the how it strokes the moods. I’m not going to do this here (I’m not writing a large-scale review in your comments), but the result is simply: Madoka is the best (or among the best) at what it does.

    Not because Madoka is different; but because Madoka is one in a long line, and it exceeds all that has come before it.

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  6. This is really a red herring. As Michael says, it is dubious that, aside from a few surface elements, Madoka even belongs to the “magical girl anime genre” at all. If anything, it borrows more from magical girls as an eroge trope! I don’t mind magical fans encouraging Madoka fans to also watch Fancy Lala and Princess Tutu (by all means do!), but to the extent that “context is useful for appreciating most media to its fullest”, it is not clear that those shows are the most relevant ones—you might as well complete a few magical girl nukige.

    More importantly, it seems that a number of magical girl fans are frustrated at Madoka for not bringing much novelty to the magical girl genre, or failing to address it in a way they find satisfactory (I even translated a friend’s essay for a criticism doujinshi that made exactly that argument). But that’s a ridiculous yardstick by which to judge the show: it never set out to challenge, redefine, deconstruct or make any kind of statement re magical girl anime to begin with!

    Now I will admit that you don’t *explicitly* echo that sentiment in this post, but you do make it seem as if the answer to the opening question of why you don’t like Madoka as much as other fans do has to do with your familiarity with the magical girl anime genre.

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  7. Good points. I admit that I haven’t seen that many magical girl anime besides Madoka; I’m a big fan of Cardcaptor Sakura, I’ve seen a lot of Sailor Moon, and some Tokyo Mew Mew…that’s about it. I think Madoka is a great show, but I don’t think I ever said it “re-defined” the genre whenever I talked about it. It just has a lot of things that make it special and stand-out, which is why people are quick to place it on a pedestal. I love it and feel like it deserves the praise it gets, but like you’re implying with this post. people should give it the right kind of praise.

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  8. This is ultimately one of the struggles whenever I think about Madoka: how do I view it in context to the other Magical Girl shows I have seen? Unfortunately, my experience with the genre stems from my childhood where I avoided Sailor Moon like the plague, then somewhere around high school, the only other magical girl show I watched was Wedding Peach. Needless to say, I haven’t watched a lot of Magical Girl shows. So now it comes down to how do I view it in context to the other magical shows that existed before Madoka?

    I can only go by what I have seen so far. What I have seen so far: Madoka is worthy of most of its praise. It may not be a show that re-defined the genre, but it is a show that I can say is memorable, and provides moments that I have not seen in my time watching anime. Now I’ll have to find out what others did better or executed just as well or at the level I have seen so far of Madoka, and eventually brace myself for a series in the future that tries to be a great Magical Girl anime. I think that’s kind of the mentality I have to have.

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  9. Pingback: Day 23 – Your favorite anime genre | Nizy's Life Compendium

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