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Mahou Shoujo Madoka★Magica Movie 1: Hajimari no Monogatari Anime Cover

Score: 8.22/10

Synopsis

Madoka Kaname and her best friend Sayaka Miki are ordinary middle school students in the city of Mitakihara. But one day, they encounter a strange cat-like creature named Kyuubey, who claims he can grant them one wish. In exchange, they would become magical girls and fight against evil perpetrated by witches. A veteran magical girl in the area, Mami Tomoe, decides to show them how to hunt witches, while the mysterious transfer student Homura Akemi warns them to not take Kyuubey's deal, though she refuses to say why. However, after witnessing the brutal reality of fighting witches, the girls decide it may be safer to decline Kyuubey's offer. But when another magical girl arrives in the city and Sayaka decides to make a wish to help the one she loves, things quickly escalate as they are confronted with the harsh truth behind their powers and the ultimate price of their wishes. [Written by MAL Rewrite]

The Puella Magi Madoka Magica franchise is a juggernaut. When it first aired in 2011, the series quickly became popular, appealing to fans around the world with its amazing visuals and suspenseful story. Riding on the success of the original series, Shaft decides to expand on the franchise with a movie trilogy.

Yet, was it needed?

Let’s set the record straight: the first two movies cover the same story of the original series. However this is not a simple rehash of the original. It’s a bit unfair to use the term “recap” simply because most fans know the story; the movie contains the same events, but everything in the film has been revamped. Newcomers will be treated with an amazing experience, and fans will be delighted by the subtle changes. Mostly.

After the first few seconds, it becomes quite clear that Shaft had no intention on simply recycling Blu-ray footage: it’s even better. The visuals are absolutely stunning — these changes extend beyond fixing the infamous “meduka meguca” quality drops; the art is much more polished, the animation is more fluid, and backgrounds are incredibly elaborate. The use of the paper-cut-out style returns, bringing an dynamic contrast between the two worlds. Fortunately, these changes are more than simply cosmetic. I have always praised Shaft for having amazing cinematography and this movie is no exception. Familiar scenes have subtle changes: pans, close ups, dynamic angles, head-tilts. When combined with the directing of Shinbo Akiyuki, all these tweaks enhance the tension and suspense.

Shaft also spent much time reworking the sound design. Compared to the original series, audio plays a more prominent role is establishing the atmosphere. Whispers and footsteps add to the eerie nature of the witch-hunts, while the crashes and explosions add power to the action. Of course, the biggest highlight would have to be the amazing soundtrack. Kajiura Yuki created an amazing score that reflects the magical yet horrific world. And just like the visuals, the movie boasts a few new tracks to please the returning fans.

The most controversial change is the pacing. By switching from a television format (12-episodes, 25 minutes each) to a movie format (120 minutes), the story is definitely accelerated giving a great sense of development and plot progression. The movie covers the first eight episodes of the original. The faster pace works to improve the drama (especially with Sayaka’s arc later on) and help give more personality to the characters. However, this change is the Achilles’ heel of the movie.

The original series excelled in “shock and awe” tactics. Before airing, there was mysterious nature to the show. The eerie aesthetics and haunting foreshadowing toyed with the audience’s expectations in the early episodes, only to dramatically reveal its true nature in a stunning plot twist. By deconstructing the genre and using parallels to Goethe’s Faust, it was a roller coaster of madness as the world witnessed the tragedy and downfall of our protagonists. Every week, we were treated with stunning revelations and jaw-dropping cliff-hangers. The pacing was slow yet methodical, only to enhance the suspense and drama. The movie does not have this. The story continuously progresses from scene to scene, granting no time to let it all settle. The audience has no chance to reflect. This isn’t to say the movie is incompetent. The experience is all in the story and the directing, but it’s clear sacrifices were made. This ultimately boils down to one question: What is the purpose of these movies?

Essentially, these movies are a love-letter to the fans. The enhanced audio and visuals definitely deliver a new experience, though the added benefit is quite minimal. Shaft could have simply reused old footage, but it’s clear they chose to make something more. The movie is fantastic as a stand-alone product, but it’s hard to critique it without comparing it to the original. Fundamentally, the story is faithful, yet it lacks the same emotional impact of the original. I’m confident that both die-hard fans and newcomers will enjoy this movie. However, for new fans I recommend the anime original instead.

A number of things come to mind when thinking of the mahou shoujo genre. Friendship, frilly dresses, cute young girls, and equally cute mascots ... what more could a young female audience ask for? All of these of these things are prevalent within Madoka★Magica. And yet there's no anime quite like it. Back in 2011, Madoka★Magica took the anime industry by surprise with a decidedly mature take on an otherwise lighthearted genre. Important characters die in brutal fashion. They struggle with the concept of right-and-wrong, that 'justice' is arbitrary and often fanciful. The villain is driven not by greed or vengeance, but by rational motives, occasionally making you wonder if the girls are the ones you should really be rooting for. It was dark and twisted - it took the tropes of the genre and fed them to the ghouls. And it was a massive financial success. Enough to spawn a movie adaptation only two years later. Now, let's be honest - the first thought that came to mind when hearing about these movies was that SHAFT was milking the money cow. TV to movie adaptations don't have the greatest reputation, and really, it's hard to be too surprised by that when comparing the bulk of them to the quality of their source material. So where does that leave Madoka★Magica? Somewhere else entirely. A place where a movie adaptation can not only equal the source material, but surpass it, too. A glimpse at the art is enough to tell the quality of the movies. It is a beautiful anime to look at, befitting of a full-feature movie and far more than just a copypaste of the TV series. A TV series which, mind you, was marred by subpar animation and technical mistakes in its original broadcast (which have sorta-kinda been fixed in the BluRay release). There are next to no technical mistakes in the movie adaptation, and while the characters' faces could use some more work, SHAFT has put the effort into making the animation flow as well as possible. And that's to speak nothing of the art direction and scenery. Even simple locations like a secondary school are given unique designs (in this case, something resembling a cathedral), while the worlds of the witches are illustrated in some weird clay-like design which mixes in several widely different animation styles. Your eyeballs will be treated to one of the best-looking anime out there. The pacing also sees a significant amount of improvement. A few lighthearted scenes involving the school teacher (rambling on about not being married-- poor lady) are added in to set a more appropriate atmosphere at the beginning of the story. The dream sequence from the beginning of the TV series has also been removed, which tones the foreshadowing down a notch and makes the big 'shock' scene seem all the more crazy. It's a little bit odd, though, that SHAFT would make all these improvements and yet not keep in a vital scene for one of the characters. Mami receives no character development, no depth. The scene where she explains her past to Madoka is gone. Erased. And why? It was the only thing that made her seem like a human being and not just a mentor for Madoka and Sayaka. In the movies, she's just that - an archetype and a plot device. For a series which stands out for having well-written and developed characters, I can't for the life of me understand why they would remove such an important scene. It's an unnecessary blemish on an otherwise brilliant story. The music, much like the art, is exceptional. Rather than simply accompany each scene, the music enhances them. Fights feel tense. Emotional scenes make you want to go and grab a blanket. It's a powerful soundtrack, and even listening to the music weeks or months after will be enough to get those same feelings back. The voice acting is stellar as well, with Kitamura Eri providing an especially commendable role for Sayaka's character. For those looking to get into the series for the first time, both the TV series and the movies serve as equally valid entry points. I would argue that the movie duology is the better of the two, though, as the cinematic experience makes the climax so much more satisfying. Having only one break in the story does wonders for pacing. Madoka★Magica is just as great as it's always been. There's no need to make significant changes when the existing formula is already so sound. All the little changes (with one notable exception) are enough to improve the story and make it even better than before. Has all the praise the series received over the past few years been exaggerated? I never thought so. As much as SHAFT is reaching for our wallets, it doesn't change the fact that the Madoka duology is a solid adaptation of an excellent series. More of the same isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes it's more than enough.

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