Considerable excitement struck the anime community with the arrival of the first episode of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, a show combining the talents of Shinbou Akiyuki, Aoki Ume, and Kajiura Yuki. And considering Shinbou’s art style is unique in the world of TV anime and the novelty of the genre he’s working in, it’s not surprising just how much attention is being paid to Madoka. However, I’m not convinced. I want to take a step back from all that’s being tossed around about the show and deconstruct it from a particular perspective. Through this deconstruction, I want to analyze Madoka’s potential for success as a mahou shoujo anime.
Central to my project are two fundamental questions:
- Why mahou shoujo? In an interview with Megami Magazine (cited by Wikipedia), Shinbou had specifically expressed interest in doing a show about mahou shoujo.
- What does Shinbou’s directing bring to the genre? I’m willing to bet that Shinbou had some ideas in mind when this project was proposed. Perhaps he felt that he could take themes prevalent in magical girl series and do something with them.
I concede that there’s a problem with question two. I simply cannot fit a discussion of multiple aspects of Shinbou’s directing at length, so I will focus on a specific aspect of the art in Madoka. This will by no means be a fully comprehensive analysis. Now, with all that said and done, let’s begin.
The (De)Construction of Space
What stood out most poignantly in the episodes of Madoka thus far was the unorthodox use of lines and color to generate space. Generally, we humans imagine ourselves as three dimensional creatures, adding depth onto height and width. Shinbou’s style, however, distorts perspective throughout the show. At first this distortion seems to quirky and random—typical of Shinbou. Instead I present a more structured view where style is critical to identifying some sort of meaning inherent in the visuals of the show.
In the image above you can see how the strong use of white on the incline leading up to the school gates has almost wiped out depth. Were it not for the difference in sizes between the three girls in the foreground and the other students, as well as the slight gradient on the steps, the image would almost look two-dimensional, with the school floating on top.
Another thing worthy of note is the function of glass so far in the series. It has a significant role architecturally and decoratively. Take for example Madoka’s house. Not only is the style identifiably postmodern in its design, but the functional yet structural lightness, so to speak, of the building is generated by the thin walls and frame. Likewise, at school the sleek golden frame with glass panels form cages that trap the students in their classrooms, but I think just as importantly it creates openness by allowing students to look through the rooms, inside the rooms, and outside the rooms. This isn’t surprising to see in Shinbou’s work; Gaguri over at Ha Neul Seom discussed something similar with Bakemonogatari.
Decoratively, glass features prominently as a surface that reflects or mediates the human figure. In the shot of Madoka and her mother brushing their teeth, the placement of two mirrors opposite each other in the room produces unending image within image, embedding a space within a space. On the other hand, the glass table appears non-existent during a close-up of Mami in episode two—the tableware looks as if it’s floating in the image.
What does it all mean? In my opinion, Shinbou portrays Madoka’s reality as a world remotely related to our own, existing in a three-dimensional world. The visuals de-emphasize “stuff” (for lack of a better word) in exchange for expansive negative space through the use of white, the delicate use of lines, and the revealing and reflecting properties of glass.
On the other hand, the world of the witches is a fundamentally dark, deranged world in which space is utterly collapsed; everything just seems like a giant animated collage, with all of the elements pasted onto screen. It is only for the sake of character movement do we really get a any sort of depth in this alternate realm, and even then depth remains minimal.
Take the battle scene between the Mami and the witch in episode two. Artistically, the design is so eclectic it immediately reminded me of Dada, or the “anti-art movement” early in the 21st century. Although we realize that this final battle takes place in a room, the overlapping of unrelated layers renders the scene surreal. Linear perspective is dropped along with the previously pleasant colors, now replaced by patterned wallpaper. A quick look at some shots from other areas of the magical world reveals the same propensity for skewed perspective resulting in what I call a collapsed space, where the visual signs provide us with an incoherent sense of the world.
Essentially, this polarizes the visuals into two strongly opposing sides. The real world in Madoka tends to be open to its inhabitants while the evil witches have created a world in which there exists no such openness. Color-wise, the real world is a sequence of clear, sharp, and vivid colors while the alternate world consists of dirtied, patterned, and inconsistent blocks. Even in the few moments when we are led to believe that there’s any sense of normal space in this freaky magical world, we become subject to conflicting signals from multiple visual cues.
As Mystlord of T.H.A.T Anime Blog pointed out about the first episode, the narrative is fairly standard. It still feels bland in the second episode. However, he goes on to write:
I really don’t think it’s a far stretch to attribute Madoka’s absolute awesomeness to Shinbo alone. I mean if there’s one thing that everyone can agree on that separates SHAFT from other animation studios, it’s the animation style. And that’s why I love SHAFT when they get it right. The mark of a great SHAFT anime is ultimately the utilization of some element that just can’t be captured in any other medium.
But here is where I turn around and ask: “Has SHAFT gotten it right? Have they captured something unique?” I think the real question we have to address is not whether Shinbou’s visuals are intellectual, interesting, and provocative (which they are), but what exactly it has to do with magical girls. Why would he direct a new show for an established genre and paint it so differently from other directors?
To provide a point of comparison, let’s look at typical mahou shoujo anime. We find shows like Cutie Honey, which pioneered the transforming magical girl, and Sailor Moon, which popularized it for both men and women. Sailor Moon certainly does embody the idea of modern, capitalistic consumption: for girls, the magical nail polish and accessories and the transforming clothes allude to modern beauty products, and for guys, the cute yet strong battling girl was a novel way to intake the female body. This latter trend continued until we saw the moe-fication of mahou shoujo anime today (John Oppliger of AnimeNation claims this occurred 2003-2004).
Throughout all this, narratives for mahou shoujo anime have largely remained the same. Schoolgirls, charged by chance or destiny to protect themselves and the world around them, must rise to the challenge by overcoming their own initial hesitation, doubts, and worldly troubles. By doing so, the girls reaffirm the importance of their realities in two ways. First, after each transformation they return to their normal selves; in no way does the magic permanently force them to change outwardly. Second, through saving the world they imply that the best option, rather than change or destruction, is to leave the current world as is. In essence, the narrative structure of mahou shoujo reaffirms the superiority of the status quo, despite having some overtones of empowerment in areas of gender and consumption. It is a celebration of the possibilities for self-improvement in a mundane, everyday setting.
So far in what we’ve seen in Madoka, nothing suggests that the narrative structure will be any different from your standard magical girl series. I don’t mean to say that this won’t be different later on, but it makes me worry about where this show is going.
Now, you might ask, what do these two seemingly unrelated topics have to do with one another? I want to point out that from here on out, mostly speculation takes place. Because only two episodes have aired, I’m not in a place to discuss definitively what Shinbou wants to say. But what I can do is guess where this show is going.
Why mahou shoujo? It seems to me that Shinbou chose to do a magical girl series because he wants to offer a fresh spin on the genre. This, I think, is a relatively noble goal—attempting to create a series far different from the stereotype can be a challenge. With so many different elements (the magical weapons, the magical world, animal-looking magical companion), Shinbou could potentially reverse the tendency for loli magical girls (Nanoha, anyone?) Just looking at the transformation sequence above, we can see how Shinbou has taken on the series and made it his own. But the sequence is short, Mami doesn’t seem to have a super powerful final move, and she doesn’t have some sort of catch phrase either. Did Shinbou reduce these typical mahou shoujo elements on purpose?
What does Shinbou’s directing bring to the genre? The more difficult question, I see the art as dividing the show into two halves: that of the regular world and that of the magical world. The regular world carries with it a delicate use of line and color that creates a complex sense of space, with the emphasis on sleekness and functionality reminiscent of postmodern architecture in general. On the other hand, we have the magical world which is surreal. Expression lies not in the abstraction here (Shinbou masterfully employs abstract minimalism in Hidamari Sketch), but in the defying of convention to an absurd degree (similar to some modernist art). In terms of narration, there seems to be no difference between Madoka and any other standard schoolgirl-turned-heroine. They both attempt to vanquish evil and save their world.
I surmise that the tension between these two worlds will lie at the heart of the narrative’s conflict. From what we’ve seen of the story so far, it’s highly likely that Madoka will reject the magical world, thus affirming the standard in the mahou shoujo literature. If Shinbou chooses to go this route, then I feel that Madoka will have lost all of its potential in providing a fresh outlook on the genre. By adopting a narrative that’s almost the same in every other magical girl anime, Shinbou essentially does nothing new with his trademark artistic style. And once the novelty of Shinbou + mahou shoujo wears off, it becomes nothing but a well-executed anime.
However, with the conception of space Shinbou has created, I think the series numerous possibilities it can take to stand out from the crowd. One possible way is to reveal the witches as sentient creatures, adding a relativistic element to the typical good vanquishes evil situation, and seek in the end to incorporate both worlds together. Space then, in the final product, will play a key role in illustrating a synthesis of worlds.
To conclude, I find that a comparison with shows such as Revolutionary Girl Utena or Serial Experiments Lain may give us a better understanding of the directions this series can go. Utena’s power lay in many of its boundary transgressions, melding shoujo and shounen together into a unique creature. Lain, quite the opposite of Utena, embraces a conception of conflict between cyberspace and reality, resulting in the final absorption of the schoolgirl into the Wired that approaches a concept of a postmodern space. Both of these shows contain a synthesis of sorts that subverted previous stories in animation as well as creating unique visuals; in the case of Lain the conception of space is a critical plot device. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, Shinbou will be able to turn this into a masterpiece. As it stands now, what we’ve been shown doesn’t seem that special at all.
Which is why, unfortunately, I see little to distinguish it from the usual Shinbou at the moment.