In a bizarre dream, kindly fourteen year old Madoka Kaname (voiced by Aoi Yuki) glimpses an apocalyptic battle between a brave magical girl and a world-threatening evil entity, overseen by a weird cat-like magical creature called Kyubey (Emiri Kato). As the magical girl plummets to her doom above the crumbling city, Kyubey tells Madoka only she has the power to save the world. At school the next morning, Madoka and her blue-haired best friend Sayaka (Eri Kitamura) discover the girl from her dream looks exactly like Homura Akemi (Chiwa Saito), the new transfer student who excels at everything she does even though others are unsettled by her cold, driven demeanour. The school friends next encounter Homura at the mall where they are startled to find her attempting to kill cuddly little Kyubey.
Madoka and Sayaka rescue Kyubey who promptly transports them both to a surreal fantasyland where they watch Mami Tomoe (Kaori Mizuhashi), a perky blonde magical girl, vanquish an army of wildly weird monsters. They learn Mami is one of the “Puella Magi”, magical girls that protect the universe from evil entities known as Witches. According Kyubey, meek, unassuming little Madoka carries the potential to become the most powerful Puella Magi the universe has ever seen. If she and Sayaka agree to serve as magical girls, Kyubey promises to make their most heartfelt wishes come true. For reasons of her own, Homura does her utmost to prevent Madoka from making this pact...
Magical girl stories are among the oldest, most enduring anime genres, from pioneering classics Little Witch Sally (1966) and Princess Knight (1967) to fan-favourites Gigi and the Fountain of Youth (1985) and Creamy Mami (1983) and modern works like Card Captor Sakura (1999) and the phenomenally successful Sailor Moon (1992) franchise. Often delightful, occasionally insipid, rarely innovative... until now. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a subversive assault on the magical girl tradition, turning its key concepts inside out and achieving a wholly unique balance between candy-coloured fairytale fantasy and an unsettling aura of existential dread worthy of the most apocalyptic horror scenario. There is nothing else on the planet quite like its giddy, exhilarating headrush of ideas and imagery, whose scope, tone and imagination run closer to something like Inception (2010) than your average carefree cartoon for little girls.
After a deceptively familiar set-up, episode three throws the first killer curveball after which the gut-punching plot twists keep on coming, with the most mind-blowing occurring in episode ten which recasts events as part of a Groundhog Day (1993) style cyclical nightmare relived by one key character. To reveal any more would be heresy and simply spoil what in this writer’s opinion ranks as the most ingenious anime fantasy of recent years. Creator Akiyuki Shinbo deftly balances comedy, pathos and action with intense psychological drama that is often quite hard to watch, fusing the flowery whimsy of traditional maho shojo fare with surprisingly cerebral musings on fate, morality, life and death, self-sacrifice, and the entropic nature of the universe verses the belief in hope that marks the human soul. Like the similarly subversive giant robot anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), this touches on Christian theology and explores the psychological toll taken on young heroes who have their childhood stolen by emotionless alien entities to battle evil. Yet it counterbalances its gloomier aspects with a celebration of friendship, decency and love. A key component of its subversive agenda is the depiction of Kyubey. Far from your stock cutesy magical animal sidekick, his glowing eyes and permanent smile take on an increasingly sinister aura as the plot progresses and the reality of servitude to this ambiguous benefactor becomes clearer to Madoka and Sayaka. He emerges a truly alien entity, beyond good and evil with a rationale that proves amoral yet unsettlingly logical.
The animation is simply one of a kind. Shinbo juxtaposes appealing, traditional anime chara designs with psychedelic horrors rendered via cut-out animation akin to Terry Gilliam animating the Sgt. Pepper Album. The witches are not your usual hags in pointy hats. Rather they are enormous, rampaging Lovecraftian terrors as reimagined by a kindergarten art class: all-powerful cuddly toys, killer creatures made from candy bars, ravenous pot plants, and in one episode a child’s crayon drawing of a laughing princess in an aeroplane. Sounds ridiculous in concept, but in this universe of childhood terrors brought to life, it is genuinely unsettling. One episode features a battle between one of our heroines against a tentacled beast done entirely in silhouette, sort of like Lotte Reineger meets The Thing (1982).
It builds towards a crescendo of psychedelic horror quite unlike anything else in the gentle, whimsical world of maho shojo, wherein the creators reach inside the bleakest possible scenario and draw forth a frail, profoundly beautiful note of hope. I’ll say it again, as an example of anime at its most experimental and lyrical, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a masterpiece.