Reviewby Zac Bertschy, Apr 11th 2012
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Limited Edition Blu-Ray Vol. 2
Sayaka has accepted Kyubey's contract and made her wish, saving Kyosuke in the process, but the staggering price of her decision isn't made clear until a confrontation with another magical girl, Kyoko, who is hell-bent on teaching her that self-preservation is the only way to survive. Madoka struggles with the decision to take Kyubey's offer, but as things get worse, and the situation becomes dire, she may have no choice…
The second act of Puella Magi Madoka Magica had every chance in the world to stumble and fail to deliver on the sheer promise of the first, which ended spectacularly, with a mountain of unanswered questions, searing imagery and the potential to become something truly special. Thankfully, not only do these four episodes succeed wildly in living up to what came before, the stakes are raised exponentially and the show pulls off a very difficult trick – brilliantly expanding on and discussing its themes solely through character development, something so few shows even attempt to do. That Madoka Magica does it and makes it look easy is something of a revelation.
Make no mistake, in these four episodes, the story slows down. The first four were a rush of plot development – 12 episodes isn't a long time to tell a story, and the ideas in this show are big ones, so they needed to get you right into the plot – but it turns out this series is dedicated to fully exploring the emotions it's putting on screen, and they needed to slow things down in order to do that. For most of these episodes' runtime, we're watching these characters hash out their feelings, explaining why it is they're making the choices they're making and sometimes violently clashing over their differing worldviews. There's a lot of stuff going on in this series thematically, but in these episodes, one concept in particular takes center stage: the idea that happiness and the naiveté that's inherent to being happy is toxic and antithetical to survival. Hardened cynicism and ruthless self-preservation is the only way you'll truly survive; the innate need to protect the ones you love will cost you everything, including your humanity and any memory that you ever existed. Abandoning your desire to help those around you is key.
This is all played out as an extended, violent argument. Representing cynicism is Kyoko, the sneering, confident redheaded magical girl we're introduced to at the end of episode 4. Kyoko has decided that as magical girls, they're at the top of the “food chain”, killing the witches who kill weak humans. She's all cruel Darwinism, smugly dismissing the idea that you should ever do anything for anyone else, especially if you're powerful and important. Sayaka, who entered into the contract with Kyubey specifically to save her friend and is fully dedicated to using her powers only to protect everyone around her, represents the other side; the two are immediately trying to kill eachother, and their conversations about what it is they're supposed to do with this power are crucial.
Note: the following paragraph contains spoilers about episode 6 of Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
Sayaka herself winds up being the biggest clue we have about which side of this philosophical argument the screenwriters fall on. Her tragedy is front-and-center in these episodes, and it's a powerful and fascinating piece of writing. There's a fairly big revelation about Kyubey's contract that comes about halfway through episode 6, one that sets the tone for the rest of the disc; in exchange for her wish and her status as a magical girl, Sayaka has lost her humanity. Kyubey, in typical fashion, explains this away as ruthless efficiency – separating the soul from the body is simply a way to minimize the damage to your true self in combat, and can even help you ignore the pain completely. The body is merely a vulnerable vessel – why should it matter where your soul is? It's a total existential crisis, however, and it means that Sayaka is no longer human – the one thing she sacrificed everything for, love, is totally out of her grasp now. The screenwriters don't stop there, either – the character is punished for her decision. She is literally wasting away, harboring a tainted soul, neither living nor dead but on the verge of total collapse. Sayaka's despair is so effectively portrayed it's almost tough to watch. Seeing her break down emotionally as a result of having her soul torn from its host really brings home the impact of the situation – it wouldn't be anywhere near as powerful a story without having all those pieces fall into place exactly as they do, and it's a real testament to the quality of this show's writing.
Spoilers end here.
The only character, in fact, that seems to be suffering a little in the writing here is Madoka herself. Simply put, she doesn't have that much to do in these episodes – mostly she's standing on the sidelines watching all these horrible things happen while Kyubey reminds her over and over again that if she decides to take the plunge, she could totally put a stop to all of this and will become the most powerful magical girl in the world. There are a couple things about this that don't sit well: one, obviously Kyubey can't be trusted, and two, we're given no understanding of exactly why Madoka is so special and powerful. As the episodes go on and the tension builds, it's pretty clear this is all intentional; by the end of episode 8 all of that comes to a head and Madoka's decision is given the emotional weight and story context it needs, but we do spend 3 solid episodes watching her do not much of anything. The payoff is there, but there are moments where her character arc feels like it's in the weeds. Thankfully, it looks like her role in this story will really blossom in the final episodes.
Visually, the show continues to thrill, when it isn't stuck with the usual cost-saving television animation techniques. There are fewer witch battles this time around – a necessity given the amount of time we need to spend with these characters struggling in the “real” world – but when they do kick in, they're just as inventive and eye-popping as ever. There's a particular battle late on the disc that's portrayed entirely in silhouette, and it's a very effective visual tool, letting the raw emotion of the scene play out, bathed in razor-sharp angles and pitch blackness. Special mention must be made of the show's score, as well – there's a heavy Celtic influence, with haunting choruses that help the show's already suffocating sense of dread feel that much more intense. The music also helps further undercut the show's cheery character designs – this is already a very fractured thing, like a beautiful woman looking in a broken mirror, something that's using cutesy anime imagery to tell a very dark and emotionally brutal story. The music helps bring that sinister side to the fore very well – particularly the ending theme, which feels much more honest about what the show is than the completely deceptive opening. All this discord is obviously intentional – the show likely would not be as successful as it has been so far without piling on the cognitively dissonant production design, and it's nice that the music is so expertly woven in to that dynamic.
The English dub continues to be mostly just fine, although Christine Marie Cabanos' portrayal of Madoka occasionally dips into “woman trying really hard to sound like a little girl” territory. It doesn't help that most of her dialogue in these episodes is completely self-deprecating, filled with doubt and worry, and you can only hear so much “little girl isn't sure what to do” dialogue before it starts to grate a bit. The performance is better in Japanese, or at least sounds a touch more natural. There are, again, a few strange localization choices – this time during some particularly important scenes. During one of her many scenes where she's justifying her decision to save lives, Sayaka says she'll stop anyone who's trying to hurt people. In the subtitles, she says she'll stop them “even if they happen to be magical girls”, but in the dub, she says “especially if they're magical girls”. This changes her motivation and it isn't clear why that choice was made; for a show that absolutely lives and dies based on what comes out of its characters mouths, fiddling with the dialogue during moments like that should've been verboten. Those changes don't help anything and only serve to confuse.
Once again we're cursed with Aniplex's decision to only release this show 4 episodes at a time, and it's particularly dire this time around since we're so close to the ending. Once again the package itself is very handsome – a similar box, with postcards, double-sided posters and a soundtrack CD are all included, for the same princely sum as the first one. There are more affordable versions, but if you want to experience this show in high definition – and the artistry on display practically demands that – they're still asking upwards of $49.98 per volume. It's not an ideal situation, but the limited edition versions are very nice and will make any fan of the show happy.
The show is two-thirds over and right now there are no signs of it falling apart – this is a brutal, emotionally complex and beautiful story and feels like one of the most artistically vital anime series made in recent memory. What they do with the ending now is absolutely crucial, and whether or not this show sticks the landing will determine if the work as a whole is a success, but these episodes are so well-executed it's hard to imagine the ending will wind up being a letdown. For the time being, however, it's easy to appreciate what they've accomplished so far. Now bring on the finale.
Overall : A
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B
Art : A
Music : A
+ Builds on what's come before to reach some staggeringly dark emotional places; visually captivating.
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