Reviewby Zac Bertschy,
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Vol. 3 Blu-ray
The terrible secret of Kyubey's Magical Girl contracts is revealed. Walpurgisnacht, a witch with the capacity to destroy untold thousands, is nigh; Madoka has not yet made her wish, and Homura is the only magical girl left standing. She can't do it alone, but she can't allow Madoka to take the contract under any circumstance.
After 8 episodes setting up what could become one of the most remarkable anime series in recent memory, the final four episodes of Puella Magi Madoka Magica have a nearly impossible task to accomplish: somehow giving all of these story elements meaning and purpose, and delivering something resembling a satisfying conclusion. The good news is, Madoka Magica pulls this off with flying colors; a feat made that much more incredible given how much further the stakes in the story are raised just in episodes nine and ten. It's like watching an acrobat do the most intense aerial flips you've ever seen – then does it again, adding new techniques, and then completely sticks the landing. It's difficult to have any reaction to this other than a standing ovation.
Warning: the following paragraphs contain multiple spoilers for the final 4 episodes of Madoka Magica.
In the first episode included on this final disc, we're treated to one of several monologues delivered by Kyubey, and it's here where the stakes in this show are raised even higher. It had been hinted at earlier that Kyubey is some sort of extraterrestrial being devoid of emotion, but his description of what he truly is brings the character to life in a totally new way and sets up the show's ultimate thematic message. Kyubey explains – to a rightfully terrified Madoka – exactly what he is, an “Incubator” whose duty it is to maintain the energy level of the universe and try to curb entropy. In order to do this, the Incubators effectively use humanity as livestock, since the energy created when a magical girl becomes corrupted is greater than any other source in the universe. The way Kyubey describes this works beautifully in two ways: one, it shows us just how terrifyingly deep the show's writers have delved into the very notion of empathy and what a complete lack of it would actually sound like, and two, it fully expands the thematic ‘argument’ happening between self-interested, emotionally closed Kyoko and the self-sacrificial Sayaka in the previous volume. This is the first glimpse we get at what they're really trying to say with this show; they're blowing these themes out to cosmic levels, and suddenly this series is about the crushing, emotionless inevitable entropy of existence itself and the basic value and worth of simple human hope. That the show is aiming that high is usually cause for alarm; very few series can even consider diving in to material like this without completely whiffing it or becoming meaningless. Thankfully – and almost unbelievably - the conclusion of the series fulfills the massive promise they make in these episodes.
The Kyubey character, for his part, is a screenwriting accomplishment in and of itself. So fleshed-out and complete is his worldview that it's hard not to start (ironically) empathizing with how he sees things, and the reveal of exactly who and what he is – and how he sees the world – is executed so well it's thrilling in and of itself. As a result, Kyubey has all the best dialogue in the show, and some of it is laugh-out-loud hilarious near the end, putting a button on everything that's happening with a cold, calculating attitude. We don't see this kind of character writing often, and that it's accomplished so well here is a minor miracle. Simply put, it just shouldn't work as well as it does, but the proof is all there on screen.
The series really starts dismantling the puzzle box they've created here in episode 10, which is unquestionably the strongest one in the series. Here we're treated to the backstory of who is likely the show's most crucial character, Homura Akemi. This episode turns the entire series upside down with the heartbreaking reveal that Homura's actual power – the ability to manipulate time – means that she's seen the tragic events of this show over and over again, resetting the entire thing when she inevitably fails to stop Madoka from taking the contract. Further wrinkles are added when Kyubey reveals that in the process of doing this, Homura is actually responsible for the reason why Madoka is so powerful and so many threads of fate are wound up in her – all that emotion and energy, all those different timelines, have resulted in Madoka becoming the most powerful magical girl (and the most destructive witch) in the universe. It's Homura's empathy and desire to help her best friend that ultimately caused all of this. If Kyubey's monologue heightened the “crushing hopeless entropy” side of the argument this show is having, then Homura's entire story is responsible for the other side. The show holds on to fear and dread for so long in the face of all this - seemingly arguing that yes, it is hopeless and it's a complete pointless waste of time to bother wishing on a star – that it's completely wrenching, almost emotionally exhausting. The tension builds to an almost overwhelming state; when it finally breaks open in the final episodes and you discover what the show is actually saying about the potential pointlessness of life itself, it's a huge relief. Frankly, it's exhilarating.
The writing isn't 100 percent solid, however. The way they ultimately handled the Kyoko character feels like it's done simply for story convenience; early on this disc they wind up attempting to argue Sayaka, now a massive terrifying witch, back into human form (after having been told that it's a completely pointless endeavor by Kyubey) and suddenly, after spending 8 episodes trying to kill her, Kyoko sacrifices herself during the fight in the hope of bringing her back. They didn't spend much time showing us this sudden turn; it feels a little cheap, like they wanted to kill off Kyoko for the emotion it might wring out of the audience but didn't have a particularly solid way to take her out, so we get this sort of quick reconciliation of her feelings toward Sayaka. It's one of the only character moments that rings false in the show, and it hardly drags the narrative down with it, but it is a stumbling point, a rare moment of falseness that this series otherwise deftly avoids.
Ultimately, what Madoka Magica has been building toward – with an almost relentless amount of tension – is Madoka's transformation, and when it does finally happen, the payoff is intense. It winds up justifying all the self-doubt the Madoka character goes through in the episodes leading up to this and feels like an even bigger take (and gentle commentary on) the entire idea of a “magical girl”. Madoka's real “transformation” isn't one where she dons a frilly costume and magical plastic weapons in the service of what is Good and Right in this world (although that does happen!); Madoka transforms into the very concept of hope itself. Frankly, nothing about this should work – it should be a gigantic thematic mess where the writers wrote themselves into a corner and resorted to vague existential nonsense in order to close the series out so they can go grab a beer, but instead it's immensely emotionally satisfying. The ending of the series does drag on a while – in fact, the entire last 15 minutes or so are basically a long dénouement showing us what exactly happened to the fabric of time and space after Magical Girl Madoka restructured the laws of the universe in her image – but that's important, since the series is definitely not telling us that Love Always Wins or Hope Always Survives or whatever; the universe is still a cold and uncaring place, fraught with misery and despair. If Madoka Magica is saying anything, it's saying that life will absolutely crush you and entropy is inevitable, but there's reason to hope. That wishing for your loved ones to be safe and fighting for the things you believe in is the most important thing a human being can hope to do, even in the face of all that. If that isn't a happy ending, then I don't know what is.
The show's production values remain basically consistent throughout; the animation is television quality with corners cut here and there (although it does continue to thrill visually, with new aesthetic concepts and themes being introduced in nearly every episode), and the outstanding score by Yuki Kajiura starts getting a touch repetitive near the end, but it doesn't completely outstay its welcome. The serviceable but at-times-weak English dub concludes here with about as much effort as it started out with – there aren't really any standout performances save Kyubey, which builds to a crescendo in this volume. Unfortunately, Christine Marie Cabanos' performance as Madoka fails to really capture a lot of the intense emotion later in the series; she's a touch flat and seems to deliver all of her lines in the exact same cadence. I'm not sure what order they recorded these episodes in, but it feels like she's putting the exact same amount of feeling behind her line readings in these crucial episodes as she does in the earlier ones, which doesn't work. Madoka reacts to being told that humanity is being used as little more than cows for the slaughter with the same tone she uses reacting to everything else; there needed to be more here. Cristina Vee turns in a better performance as Homura Akemi, which is a good thing since so much of the series rests on her shoulders. It isn't a great dub by any means, but it's there if you prefer to watch in English. It's worth flipping over every now and then to hear Kyubey, however.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica works on just about every level. That the series has been such a monster-sized phenomenon is no surprise; this thing is operating at a level far above most productions, and the fact that it concludes so well is just the icing on the cake. The best part is, the show is structured so perfectly that the thrilling, edge-of –your-seat story reveals that happen throughout change the show so dramatically that a second watch is practically required, taking in the early episodes with all the terrible knowledge you've gained. Time will tell us whether or not this show will be remembered as fondly as it's regarded by the fan community now, but it feels like a masterpiece, something to be appreciated again and again. It is a must-see for anyone remotely interested in what anime can accomplish as an art form.
Overall (dub) : A+
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A+
Animation : B
Art : A
Music : A
+ Extremely satisfying and thematically rich conclusion to one of the most ambitious and beautiful anime series in recent memory.
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