With the year rapidly coming to a close, and the apocalypse soon to be upon us, I thought it would be a good time to make my pick for the one anime of the year that if you watch no other, you should at least watch this.
There were many worthy candidates this year. From top notch dramas like Ano Hi Mita no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai (or AnoHana for short) to very solid slice of life shows like Hanasaku Iroha and Usagi Drop, comedies like the second season of Ika Musume, and Working!!, to more thoughtful fare like Fate/Zero, all these and more could and deserve to be delved into more in depth. Perhaps I’ll manage to do that at some point. But as good as these and other shows this year were, there is one title that stands out from the crowd. I speak of a little show called Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
This is a difficult show to talk about without spoiling things, so I’ll try and be careful to avoid dropping any huge bombs about the show, but a few things do need to be brought up. First off, don’t let the images fool you. This show takes the cutsey magical girl genre, and drags it through the darkness, permanently staining it. It starts off very standard, where you have our titular heroine, Madoka, saving the traditional mascot character Kyubey from harm. From there, she’s and her friend Sayaka are introduced to another Magi, Mami, and then another character, Homura, shows up and plays the role of chief rival/antagonist. All sounds like every other magical girl show you’ve seen, or heard about, yes? Well, you get a feel for what this show is really like with the events in episode 3. It’s something that should definitely be experienced firsthand to get the best impact out of it. I had it spoiled for me prior, because people are jerks like that, but even knowing what was going to happen didn’t make it any less shocking, so I can only imagine how people who saw it for the first time without any inkling of what was going to happen felt.
After that episode, things continue to follow along a very tragic storyline, and you can pretty much feel the sorrow that everyone experiences. In a lot of cases, when anime has these tragic storylines, the emotions can feel cheap and manipulative. But with this, even though they of course WANT you to feel that way, you end up feeling that way without it seeming like you were forced into it. When each of the girls find out the truth behind what they’re doing, you get a range of believable emotions, from sadness, to anger, to despair. This isn’t the typical reaction where a plucky young girl tries her best with a never say die attitude and prevails against all odds. Things don’t go as the heroine wishes, and in fact the show seems destined to end with the complete opposite of a happy ending. Even the ending itself is debatable as to how happy of an ending it really was. And I think that’s a refreshing change of pace. Madoka ends in a way where you could take it as being a happy type ending, or you could view it from another person’s perspective as having lost something important. There does remain a tiny glimmer of hope, but it’s one that could easily be extinguished.
While the story written by Gen Urobuchi is the real meat and potatoes, the art and animation is certainly worthy of calling this the best anime of 2011. The character designs were done by Ume Aoki, who has a very distinctive style as seen in her previous works such as Hidamari Sketch. They’re typically characterized by wide faces and large eyes, even by the standards of anime, which lends a nice contrast to the seriousness of the show. People in the know also were a bit more prepared for the direction the show took, since it was directed by Akiyuki Shinbo, who has some amount of note for taking shows in different directions and using a lot of surreal imagery. And that is very evident in scenes where the girls are fighting against the witches. The backgrounds look as though they’re walking through a Dali painting. It’s a very effective blending of animation and CGI. Plus the fluidity of the animation in the battle scenes shows that no corners were cut in any aspect of production. The musical score is also done by well known composer Yuki Kajiura, whose tracks set the perfect mood for each scene.
While there is no one universal title that everyone everywhere will point to and say “This is a masterpiece!” Puella Magi Madoka Magica is definitely a title that people shouldn’t just write off as yet another tired old magical girl show and should give it a fair chance. Tastes are always subjective, but this is one that you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you missed seeing it.