The Mike Toole Show The Thing About My Dokes
by Michael Toole, Dec 15th 2013
Okay, let me tell you what going to the movies to see anime is like in the year 2013. Most of the time, the whole “booked for a week at a time” song and dance that we're accustomed to with Hollywood films doesn't happen, except for Ghibli films. It used to happen-- I'm pretty sure I remember Ghost in the Shell and Metropolis each hanging around my local arthouse theatre for a good three weeks-- but not no more. Instead, I had to wait for the licensor, Aniplex USA, to announce theatrical screenings. Since they were relying on their partner Eleven Arts to book single-date and weekend showings, the schedule was posted in dribs and drabs. Boston wasn't listed on the first update, which had me on edge-- we've missed out on premieres, like the recent Space Battleship Yamato live-action film, before. But sure enough, for the second update, my local Brattle Theatre was on the boards.
Then, it was time to order tickets-- and order them fast, because almost every one of the goddamn shows, nationwide, was going to sell out immediately. Aniplex are really good at sniffing out supply/demand benchmarks; witness the sellout of their spendy Garden of Sinners box, gorgeous Rurouni Kenshin OVA bluray, and the fact that stock is running low on several of their premium box sets. I put down for two tickets, and-- wait a second, thirty-three dollars?! Yep, each ticket is fifteen bucks, close to twice the cost of a regular movie ticket, plus a completely unavoidable “convenience charge” from the ticket broker. But after the hit to the wallet, I was content to sit back and watch the two announced showtimes sell out in hours, with a hastily-arranged third show date appearing (and filling up) soon after. I was all set to see Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Rebellion!
It was rainy when we got to the theatre. You could tell we were at the right place, because of the adult man at the head of the line-- the very long line-- with a plush backpack of Kyubey, the show's adorably unsettling mascot. We huddled close to the building, staying out of the icy chill, until it was time to hustle in and upstairs to the screening room. I didn't count how many ladies showed up dressed as the show's quintet of magical heroines, but there were at least three. (A particularly good Mami was being escorted to the screening by a guy dressed as Kotetsu from Tiger & Bunny. Now, there's an odd couple…) We got in nice and early (but not early enough to get really good seats, Jesus the place was packed!) so I flipped open my new 3DS and watched my StreetPass count, the number of nerds in the building with their 3DS active, zoom hilariously upwards. People had gone as far as changing their little StreetPass greetings and avatar accessories to reflect the fact that they were seeing this movie. So in spite of the Brattle's uncomfortable seats and rotten sightlines, all these folks were pumped for Dokes.
I've been referring to the franchise (and, of course, the character herself) as “Dokes” for a good year or so. I got the term from my friend Christian Daly, who runs Anime Boston's dealer's room. Something about reducing the mouthful of Puella Magi Madoka Magica (remember kids, that's a hard ‘g’ in “Magica!”) to a single syllable appealed to me. Plus, while “Madoka” brings to mind images of a timidly-smiling, pink-haired 7th grader (or, in my case, the raven-haired bad girl in Kimagure Orange Road; it's a generational thing), “Dokes” makes it all somehow more personable. “Dokes” is the kind of abbreviated name you'd give to your pal at the local bar, who's always ready to do a round of darts and is really good to have on your team at trivia night. When one of my twitter followers threatened to slash my throat for shortening the title so drastically, I knew I had a winner. I hope it catches on!
Even if you're by yourself (I often hit the movies alone, though this time I took my wife, who'd watched and enjoyed Dokes TV with me), it's pretty neat to sit in a packed theatre full of anime fans. With my network of pals and frequent convention trips, it's easy for me to forget how much watching anime and reading manga can lead one to solitude, or even isolation. But in the theatre, as we awaited the darkening fo the auditorium, fans buzzed happily about Dokes, about Sailor Moon, about Attack on Titan, about Kill la Kill, and about all the other dumb stuff they'd been watching and reading. Thankfully, when the lights went down, the mob quieted down in turn. The Dokes movie itself, an indubitably gorgeous piece of magical girl storytelling, washed over us, leaving the crowd murmuring in confusion as the ending credits rolled. We'd just seen an immense spectacle, but one that involved an overabundance of talking and explaining, details that seemed to diminish the weight of the excellent TV series, and a final act with at least two too many false endings. When the post-credits scene came up, a man in the front row hissed, “This had better be an apology!” It was not.
I'd kept an eye on the hype leading up to Dokes first appearing on TV in 2011, but I didn't jump on the bandwagon. I've long had mixed emotions about both SHAFT and the series director, Akiyuki Shinbo, and plus, their fare, like the Monogatari franchise and Dokes itself, didn't immediately show up on any of the streaming services in my neck of the woods. My chance to watch would come several months after the show had wrapped, at its official US premiere: Otakon 2011. The key art I'd peeked at didn't prepare me for the visual and auditory feast, and so I was delighted to discover an energetic, fun, and engrossingly weird tale of the terrible price that Madoka Kaname and her friends must pay to become magical girls and make their wishes come true. The show's sketchy character and art design was unique, and I loved the way director Shinbo introduced new visual elements to the magical girl aesthetic - I particularly liked how each girl wielded a dangerous weapon instead of an abstract wand or baton, and especially enjoyed the destructive witch sequences designed by collaborators Gekidan INU Curry, which were both oddly charming and terrifyingly surreal. “Madoka Magica,” I announced on twitter, “is punk rock as fuck!” Years later, the theatre marquee in Portland would accidentally echo my sentiment. (Thanks for lending me the photo, Lynzee!)
Like the Rebellion screening, the Otakon premiere was bracingly well-attended; the crowds at convention video rooms have thinned, but you can count on a big premiere to get people in seats, even if many of them had likely already ganked the digital fansubs. It seemed apparent that the majority of the crowd knew the series, and spent the second-episode closing credits heaving and hollering for the big shocking twist at the end of episode three. One group behind me talked avidly during episode two, and when I turned around to ask them to quiet down, they complied-- but not before giving me a confused, searching look; hadn't I, like everyone else in the theatre, already watched the digisubs? Nah. I'm not one for ruining surprises. Eventually, Aniplex USA got the show into legal channels, and I got my fix.
My opinion of Dokes isn't so different from that of our own Zac Bertschy-- I think the series is one of the best in recent years, a vital, surging effort from Shinbo and company that balances creative risk-taking with smart writing and beautifully-animated visuals. I haven't yet stumbled across Shinbo in person, but the show's other creative force, screenwriter Gen Urobuchi, made an appearance at Otakon the following year. He was pretty much exactly what I expected-- a rakishly grinning raconteur who, for fan photos, kept his face buried in in a jet black ASSASSIN (the guy from Fate/Zero, which he also scripted) hoodie. Urobuchi weathered a remarkably detailed and knowledgeable Q&A from fans, who grilled him on everything dating back to his first forays into writing, PC visual novels like Kikokugai and Saya no Uta. In response to audience entreatments to reveal his storytelling techniques, the writer pointed out that true creativity is often accidental. With Dokes, Urobuchi has stated that he's tried to bring back old sensibilities, the dark and daring, try-anything approach that permeated anime in the 1980s-- you'd think a guy like him would point to writers as his sources of inspiration, but instead he cites iconic animator Ichiro Itano, the “Itano Circus” guy, as his biggest influence. Here's a pair of Dokes cosplayers who came to see Urobuchi at Otakon 2012, somewhat alarmingly in-character!
Over the years, the magical girl genre is one that, moreso than other anime genres, thrives on change, on pushing limits. There are scads of good, clean, safe favorites that get revisited every decade or so, like Secret Akko-chan and Sally the Witch-- but when that happens, it's with an eye towards the most current target audience, little girls who want to be dashing heroines and world-saving princesses. Only really innovative fare, like Minky Momo and Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, seem to keep and retain a weirdly broad spectrum of fans-- young and old, men and women-- for years, even decades. I have a feeling that we can put Dokes into this group already-- the genre is always hungry for change, and SHAFT and their creative team really prepared a banquet for the beast, opening the series with a gigantic, apocalyptic final battle. It only gets more exciting from there.
So we meet Madoka Kaname, daughter in a loving family, who goes to school at a facility that looks like Oslo Airport. She's been having weird dreams, and things get even stranger when a transfer student, a dour slip of a girl named Homura, acts both angry and weirdly familiar towards her. Soon, Madoka is set on by a witch, and confronted by an adorable little white cat-like critter who speaks to her, entreating her to sign a contract and become a magical girl. The critter, Kyubey, is a particularly effective piece of the puzzle-- series director Yukihiro Miyamoto has mentioned his delight with the way fans reacted to Kyubey, the show's stand-in for Lucifer in the story's unsubtle re-enactment of Dr. Faustus. See, it's important to make the character sinister, but it's still a cute magical animal, so it also has to be lovable. That's a hell of a balance to strike, but Dokes strikes it with aplomb; Kyubey toys sell right alongside merchandise of the heroines.
So yeah, the TV series is good, something that I recommend watching. I'm not wild about Aniplex USA's inflated home video prices, but you can catch the whole thing on Hulu these days. But what about that movie, the one I paid fifteen bucks for? The debate's already raging in Hope's review, but I haven't read it, because I don't want her prose seeping into my own brain; I'm terrified of accidentally stealing other people's remarks like that. I think the first 75 minutes of Madoka Magica: Rebellion are really wonderful, a bit lightweight but highly enjoyable-- we get to see somewhat re-imagined versions of Madoka, Sayaka, Kyoko, Mami, and weird Nice Homura do battle with Nightmares, fiends that seem to resemble the witches of the TV series but behave a bit differently. I was particularly happy to see more of Gekidan INU Curry's work manifest here-- the collective are particularly proud of the mustachioed familiars that sometimes appear with the witches, and they show up in this film, flitting about like malevolent Pringles mascots.
There's a lot of service for existing fans-- an extended henshin and battle sequence that made me think Shinbo and Miyamoto were trying to one-up Kunihiko Ikuhara, flashy fight scenes, cute domestic bits of the girls hanging out together, and a wonderfully surreal song about a cake. If I had to compare the first fifty or sixty percent of the film to something else, I'd rate it as a bit similar to the fine but non-essential Sailor Moon films - good stuff for fans, not compelling to outsiders, and sort of a stand-alone product, complete with movie-only character. The problem is, Madoka Magica Rebellion keeps going for quite some time after that satisfying opening part.
Shinbo and Urobuchi and company tied up Dokes TV nicely. A lot of really good anime gets wrecked by weird or bad endings (I love The Big O, but even I'll admit that it's inexplicable final episode is incredibly frustrating), but this was absolutely not a problem for Madoka Magica TV. The creative team gave it a really tight, well-considered, and thoughtful ending; they put a bow on that shit. It's an ending that doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room for a sequel or follow-up, which introduces notes of awkwardness into Rebellion-- there's really only one or two ways that Urobuchi can possibly continue the story, so he slavishly attacks one of them.
The film never really recovers from this need to pick a bullshit “BUT THEN…” scenario and stick to it. The tumultuous events and big sacrifices at the end of the TV series seem weirdly moot, and the plot starts heading into the kind of storytelling territory that reminds me of junky, shabby, superfluous sequels like Blues Brothers 2000, Eddie and the Cruisers II, Highlander 2, and those Star Wars prequels. Most of the new story is straight-up recited by Homura, who stares off into the distance pensively, or glares threateningly as she fills in the blanks. I'm kind of surprised she didn't start restlessly circling the room at any point. The movie is compellingly gorgeous, but its climax is superfluous, confusing, and just irritating. I don't blame them for making it-- the franchise still has an excited, engaged, and fired-up fanbase, who spend $200,000 last weekend to see it at the smattering of theatres that showed it. But a sequel to one of the best shows in recent years, while it's certainly not bad, needs to be better than this.
That said, there's still a lot of fine points about Dokes: Rebellion. TV viewers will come in knowing that Homura's a badass, but the film makes her downright Nietzschean, a ruthless cipher willing to turn on and destroy anyone that threatens the safe place she's trying to maintain. This results is an engrossing, close-range fight scene with Mami; the only problem is, two combatants using firearms from a distance of about twelve feet just kept making me think of this iconic gun battle.
There's also some revealing truths about the characters: for example, Urobuchi makes it obvious that Mami is too nice to be battling evil in a life-or-death struggle every night; even putting aside the nature of Kyubey's contract, it's ruining her, even if it's not quite as obvious as the way she got ruined in the TV series. I just wish the film's final act wasn't such a dead end. My overall impression of Dokes: Rebellion? Picture Kyubey eating its own tail. I went looking for some fan art depicting this, but couldn't find any. I did find some great Madoka Magica ponies, though!
I'm not quite done talking about Dokes. There's one thing about the franchise that's understandable, even typical, but it's starting to get on my nerves a bit. It's the sheer extent that the production committee and licencees are going to in order to monetize Dokes. It started with pricey single DVDs and blu-rays (if you're a collector in Japan, you probably paid around $400 to get Dokes TV). It progressed, as expected, with Figmas and Nendroids and other fancy little maquettes. There's tie-in manga, and CDs, and plush dolls, and the usual avalance of shit like cellphone straps, postcards, and more cellphone straps. If you couldn't afford Dokes on bluray the first time around, there's a new collector's set in Japan hitting later this month, which will only cost $200ish. Lots of people are expected to double dip, because it's got some new exclusive artwork! Here in the US, we've got the usual priced-up premium sets, which are stunning and absolutely worth it if Dokes is your #1 favorite. But even the standard edition costs about twice as much as any other series. Aniplex were hawking exclusive merchandise at some of the showings, and if you missed out, you can get that stuff in a single box for two hundred dollars. That doesn't include the actual movie, mind you-- it's just the premium items. I love that the product description even includes a photo of the shipping box (note: the shipping charge is $33).
Premium! I dig it all the way. Now, producers have the right to recover their costs for stuff like this—and god knows, plenty of shows have been churning out merchandise for decades-- but I just feel like fatigue is setting in here. The characters’ likenesses have recently been added to curious golf MMO Pangya, and an advertisement for a new Madoka Magica cellphone app was met with sustained jeering at my screening. If the franchise is really winding down, how far are they gonna go with this? Ultimately, I just wish the anime release was a bit cheaper - I don't think any anime, even the best stuff, should be particularly hard to afford.
Here's a good talking point to pick over in the talkback thread: do you want more Dokes? Are you still really enamored with these girls, who sign shadowy contracts for fantastically destructive powers, and want nothing more than for their adventures to continue? If so, how? I myself would be perfectly happy with an OVA side story called Mami Gaiden, where the character drinks tea and complains to the viewer about the finer points of arquebus maintenance. Until we get such a production, Happy Holidays! If you're going to Otakon Vegas, so am I - track my down at my panels or the inevitable Anime News Network event.
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