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The End of All You’ll Know

joan of arc was a magical girl? that explains things

Puella Magi Madoka Magica #11

Imagine Rei in episode 25 of the Evangelion TV series, running to school with toast in her mouth. That’s me trying to catch up with what’s popular these days, and also me trying to blog whatever it is that catches the eye. Slow as an old turtle, this place is. Anyway, it’s been a storied and much-talked-about wait for the final two episodes of Shaft’s Madoka, and last week they finally saw the time of day (or should I say, night). The series is now undoubtedly one of the most popular TV anime in the past few months, and the final two episodes only served to whet the appetites of the fans of the show due to the massively long delay it faced because of the tragedy in Japan a month ago. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, it seemed.

In my case, though, I’ve been pretty much ambivalent to the entire series since the first episode aired. Save for about two really outstanding episodes, there hasn’t been a lot in it to make me sit tight in my seat eagerly awaiting the next episode to come (granted, I haven’t felt that way since spring 2010). Lots of speculation were born from the script, but I never got into it. Still, I was interested in seeing how it all finished, especially after that very long hiatus, which itself came with a lot of hooplah. Coming off the heels of the excellent episode 10, the series had a lot of forward momentum going for it, and anyone would think that the next episode would rightly carry over that energy needed to drive the story to its conclusion.

Well, apparently not. Episode 11 took it all down a notch, providing the grounding for the final confrontation between the remaining magical girl and the dreaded witch Walpurgisnacht, and also the resolution of the inner conflict of the character Homura. The episode was a set-up episode, and it knew that. It busied itself at laying the groundwork for the finale, building up anticipation for it. I really didn’t have much to say about the episode after watching it, but it did well for its own purposes. I felt that it ended on just the right moment, providing the obligatory cliffhanger for the final episode.

Though I did fall into the expectation that episode 11 would maintain the same level of emotional intensity and momentum in terms of the story, since it came right after the superb ep 10, but I really wasn’t disappointed with what I saw. It was a buffer episode, but it still had points of interest especially in terms of the visuals, which stayed consistent with the level of quality in ep 10. If people were disappointed with it, I suspect it was because of the long delay that bred lofty expectations and hopes that they would spice things up. Obviously, they didn’t, and what we saw was what they had intended for us to see beforehand, if not for that break. But be that as it may, I would have wanted them to continue to ratchet things up until the explosion of the finale, like say, Kaiba. It definitely would have made things more interesting.

Hopelessness is the theme in episode 11, with various characters facing their dire situations involving the plight of the magical girls. Three of them are dead, and now our feisty little Homura must face her daunting task of preventing our protagonist from forming a contract. I really liked her angle, especially after watching ep 10, which was tightly constructed and well-scripted, giving the girl another dimension to her character and the reason for her existence, all with the necessary level of dramatic weight. I can’t say I love their situations on the whole, though. Watching it made me remember Bokurano (manga, not the anime), which had roughly similar scenarios, but was even more hopeless. In Madoka, only one or two characters were convincingly emotional to me, but in Bokurano, everyone was. It made me care for everybody, whereas I only invested my attention to one pivotal character in Madoka.

One thing of note in ep 11 was the apparent full synergy of the visuals. At the beginning of the series, I had the nagging feeling that the combination between the clean, polished art of their everyday life and the colorful, almost abstracted scenes in the witch fights (all thanks to Gekidan Inukare) didn’t gel that well. They visibly clashed, with the latter, more adventurous sensibility overpowering the normal anime art designs, despite the considerably good animation. To me, these contrasting approaches to art and animation didn’t have that glue, that one factor that unified both of them into the best combo they can  possibly be. Then, as I went deeper into the series, I began to see that combination slowly solidifying. Ep 8 was the start of that growth, with the stylized dark backgrounds and all, which lulled a bit in 9, and then peaked in 10. I think that ep 10 had the best possible combination of the abstract and the structured. The action scenes alternated fluidly and smoothly between the standard Inukare parts with the normal animated parts which were definitely helped by the staff on the ep (GoHands people were on hand in the ep, with Hiroshi Okubo and such contributing work). They mixed so well that it didn’t matter to me who did what–the whole thing overall was visually pleasing.

While ep 11 only had a short action sequence at the end, they had the right idea of inserting those painterly images inside the expository sequence between Kyubey and Madoka, giving it more artistic flair, preventing the scene from being too dragged out and talky. I liked the dialogue though (especially Kyubey’s lines), but it certainly didn’t hurt giving the conversation a little more style. Of course there’s the climactic battle between Walpurgisnacht and Homura, which aside from being creative with the actions, also boasted that peak of synergy between the normal and the artsy. That is to say, it’s probably my first time in a long while seeing someone use modern firearms like that, even in anime, and I was pleased. Hell, just the fact that a magical girl uses modern firearms to fight is deliciously refreshing to see. You also have the whole design of Walpurgis itself, which was great, though a step lower than the clothesline witch that appeared in ep 10. But still, its design was one of the best in the series.

end of madoka, just without the tang

Puella Magi Madoka Magica #12 (END)

Starting at exactly the point where episode 11 ended, the finale of Madoka played itself out in a way that I sort of already expected, but never really envisioned. It worked well as a conclusion to the series, laying down the emotional heft of a good, working ending, and wrapping up the narrative with again the same kind of vagueness that anime seems to like. Even then, though, I can’t shake the feeling that episode 10 just had the better balance between the drama and the script, evoking real sympathy for the plight of Homura and the magical girls, while setting up the damning fate of the story leading up to episode 12. I agree that the ending of the series itself was a good ending, but I just didn’t feel it was provocative enough to mark a lasting memory in my brain.

Graphically, the episode continued in the same vein of great synchronization between art animation and normal animation, the random swishes of Inukare rightly dominating the proceedings at times, and letting up just enough to serve as a stylish backdrop to the more ordinary visualizations. I have nothing bad to say about the affair, visually, except that it took too long for the stylistic approach to fully mature and settle into its own element, even if the series was only one cour long. The best part for me was the section where Homura and Kyubey were in space, witnessing the spectacle of Madoka fulfilling the stipulations of her contract. It had that spontaneous yet subdued feeling, with bewildering drawings interspersed with traditional images.  The designs of the Magical Beasts or whatever were a notch lower than the witch designs, but since they came along at the very end of the series, they’re acceptable.

I believe I’m alone in saying this, but watching this episode gave me some heavy fits of Evangelion vibes, even a little of Utena, the reason for which I can’t really put a finger on. Maybe it’s in the scenes and the events flowing from one to the other, especially after the sequence with Homura and Madoka in space (which gave me the Utena vibe). The switch from the scene of the desperate battle being waged in the real world into the scene of the magical girls having cups of tea after Madoka made her wish really knocked me back to Eva, though it wasn’t as sharp, or as dissonant. The sequences immediately coming after the final battle were clever, giving closure to a character arc with the requisite amount of emotion and vagueness, and then moving onto the transfer into the new timeline, where the magical girls are forced to live life anew. I also liked the scene afterward with Madoka’s family meeting with Homura. I found it to be simple, yet moving. I guess it should be, since the thought of being fading away into the realm of the imaginary friends would be heartbreaking. The last short section after the ED was a bit unnecessary, though. It was a redundant parting shot–the ep/series itself already ended quite conclusively with Homura’s final shot, so adding in another similar cut at the end is superfluous and needless.

All that aside, the ending itself didn’t strike me as particularly convincing. It works and is satisfying, that’s for sure, but I didn’t really get the feeling that it’s something that’s etched into the mind, lasting for the years to come, similar to the other fantastic endings out there. Granted, I don’t know Gen Urobuchi that well, so this may just be part and parcel of his writing style or something like that, but it’s just not as memorable an ending as that of one timeless anime that Madoka gets (unfairly, if I may add) compared to. I won’t mention any name, but it’s fairly obvious. In the unnamed show, there’s a highly significant amount of emotional heft and dramatic intensity, even putting aside all the crap about irrelevant aspects of production. It used magnificently striking images to present its finish in such a way as to give room for truckloads of speculation and assumptions that until today still persist. Plus, it had the unmistakable cinematic power that floored just about anyone who watched it (which I guess is a trademark of sorts for the director, as previously seen in his 1988 mecha OVA, the one with Gun in its name). It was a powerfully and fully realized vision, and it showed, remaining a relevant piece of work even today. All of which, I have to say, Madoka is not.

It’s meaningless trying to compare both, so I’ll stop there. I already said that the ending of Madoka was a fine, working ending, even if it only worked on the technical level, not so much on the emotional aspect. It satisfied me, and that’s enough–not a lot of anime can pull off a conclusion that clean and entertaining anyway. The lofty comparisons between this show and that other one is a bit too overblown, in this humble viewer’s opinion, since they’re two different beasts. Call me a stupid fan if you want, but I don’t think they stand on the same ground here.

As for the series as a whole, I thought it was a legitimately good and enjoyable single-cour series, despite its ups-and-downs and how slow it came into its own. The characters were cutely designed, and they all lived in a world where the normal genre rules aren’t really what they seem, and where everything can happen. The basic rules of the game are interpreted anew, going down the road that I don’t think any series similar to it have walked. Visually, it was also a uniquely stylized approach that made use of wild, spontaneous images to heighten the effects of the action and give the series its personal flavor, though it didn’t reach its peak until the 10th episode. But just because it offered a different take on convention doesn’t make it some sort of a legendary flawless masterpiece to me, since it was rather lacking in some respects, like the characters.

The only character I found myself caring for was Homura. In her I felt the series was at its most effective; she characterized the inherently hopeless plight of the magical girl, and she was the most affecting character of them all. In fact, I believe that the most important person in the entire series isn’t the titular character, Madoka, but Homura. She’s the pivotal character on the show–the drama and the tension hinging on her presence–and without her, the drama behind the story would fall apart. I thought the other characters weren’t characters, but they were only there to say to everybody how the series was unconventional and different from all the others out there. Sayaka‘s arc I found to be quite contrived, even if her problem was a basic one for all girls her age, and Madoka herself bland and her presence felt like she was merely pasted there on the screen doing stuff. Homura carried the show on her back, and the show wouldn’t be as entertaining as it was without her.

I believe that Madoka was a reliable, good anime, no doubt about it. It’s the best show Shaft has produced, in my opinion, as it showed the creativity and the predilections of the main man on the production floor without falling into the all too common trap of being too artsy for its own good. It’s legitimately artistic.  The backbone of the show as unconventional, bearing a subversive edge to the normality of its genre, and being credibly dramatic as well (even if it’s only for one character). But I think that’s all there is to it. Do I think it’s a flawless, timeless masterpiece? No; it’s still lacking and inconsistent for that, and it could be better. On the other hand, do I think it’s a truly enjoyable series that stands well on its own merits? Yes, absolutely. In a way, I’m glad that it’s selling really well, since it could open up new opportunities for more daring projects like this one to be produced. And that at the very least, it opened an avenue for Gen Urobuchi to cross over into anime.


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