Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Madoka Kaname is having a strange day. The night before the new transfer student joined her class, she had a dream in which a small animal asked her about making a contract with him to become a magical girl while another girl looked on. Now that girl is in her class at school, and the mysterious animal is back too, still asking her to form a contract with him! But Madoka (and her friend Sayaka) isn't sure about this, so when a magical girl named Mami offers to let them shadow her, the girls decide to go along...
By this point it seems safe to say that most people are familiar with Puella Magi Madoka Magica, at least in terms of its name, if not with the idea of its semi-infamous tonal shift. For the most part this is because of the anime incarnation of the title, and despite that (or because of it), this review will focus primarily on the manga volume at hand, although those who want nothing spoiled may simply want to read the book to preserve total innocence.
The story focuses on Madoka Kaname, a middle school student who, like many a manga schoolgirl, lives with her parents and younger sibling and hangs out with her two complimentary friends, Hitomi, the outwardly refined one, and Sayaka, the tomboy. One night, however, Madoka has a strange dream wherein a funny looking (yet still cute) creature asks her if she wants to make a contract with him and become a magical girl. It seems innocent enough, even though another girl is screaming in the very dystopian background. Madoka assumes that this is just a dream until the girl shows up at school the next day as a transfer student. Homura Akemi seems to recognize Madoka, and after pulling her aside issues her a warning in no uncertain terms. Madoka then meets Kyubey, the animal from her dream, and it becomes clear that there is more going on here than she at first supposed.
The much vaunted tonal shift ostensibly happens in chapter three, but observant readers will see the truth about the story almost from page one. While it could be argued that this is simply due to overexposure, Kyubey's use of the word “contract,” a term with hints of unbreakable deals, could be seen as a clue. It may also be that the manga lacks any subtlety that the anime might have. Even in comparison to other darker magical girl tales, like the final cycle of Sailor Moon or Full Moon wo Sagashite, Puella Magi Madoka Magica takes some pretty serious turns quite early on. If it doesn't quite redefine the magical girl genre within manga, it certainly does give the reader some implications about the genre to ponder. This has been done for the mecha genre before with certain incarnations of the Gundam series, but previously the magical girl has been fairly sacrosanct in terms of the grimmer implications. Madoka Magica is happy to go there.
Hanokage's art is a decent fit for the story, though perhaps a bit over-toned. Her characters look soothingly familiar to anime viewers, although every girl appears to have the exact same figure despite a variation of heights. While battle scenes show some motion, everyday ones are fairly static, and an overabundance of both gray and black spaces occasionally makes it hard to see what is going on. This is especially unfortunate during the pivotal scene in chapter three, where it is not immediately obvious what has happened. Since the entire tone of the story revolves around this one moment, having it take place across three dark panels is fairly inexcusable. Fortunately the panels flow smoothly and following the action is easy when you can see it clearly. Backgrounds in the other world where magical girls fight witches are filled with interesting shapes and insects, making the real world's lack of detailed settings stand out. Assuming this is purposeful, we can see the differences between what goes on in the two worlds highlighted, as the normal world is full of much less urgent actions than the other one...at least on the surface.
On its own, the manga of Puella Magi Madoka Magica isn't going to dupe most readers into thinking that it is a story of sweetness and light. Whether it is because we are predisposed to look for the dark underbelly by now or simply because Hanokage doesn't try to hide it, the true nature of the tale is very much in evidence. Magical girl purists may not appreciate the way the book handles the genre, but for those who are looking for something a little darker, this should fit the bill. It doesn't hit the level of the classics, but Madoka's story is just different enough while still being eerily familiar in its trappings to keep you reading.
Overall : B-
Story : B+
Art : B-
+ Ominously plays with the trappings of the magical girl genre. No anime knowledge required to enjoy.
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