So Shaft and Shinbo’s hightly anticipated original magical girl show has started, which means we finally get to see what all the hype was about. At the same time, this was still just the first episode, so the “wait and see” approach would be the right one to follow at this point. Still, what was shown was unique and displayed a lot of potential, leaving me excited for more.
Story-wise, nothing presented here should make anyone even raise an eyebrow. It strictly followed well established cliches and tropes of schoolgirl anime, although it did it to such a fault that I can’t help but think that it was on purpose. I was inclined to facepalm when Madoka Kaname (Aoi Yuuki) ran out of her home with the toast hanging out of her mouth but was delighted to see her quickly munch it down just seconds after exiting the premises. Was that a casual wink and nod about that particular trope and how the show was using it but also destroying it?
Then, of course, there was the attractive transfer student, Homura Akemi (Chiwa Saito, channeling Hitagi Senjougahara with a heavier, more masculine voice than her usual cutesy one) around whom everyone clusters instantly. And like any attractive transfer student, there’s something mysterious about her (see: Itsuki Koizumi), such as the fact that she appeared in Madoka’s dream during the cold open, and that she already knows who Madoka and her friend Sayaka Miki (Eri Kitamura) are, as well as the general layout of the school. Oh yeah, and it turns out she’s the bad guy, some magical girl trying to kill the ferret Kyubey (Emiri Kato) who also appeared in Madoka’s dream.
But enough about the plot. Again, nothing special here. What really struck me about this episode was the art. First of all, the character designs obviously reek of Aoki Ume, she of Hidamari Sketch fame. Though the faces aren’t quite as wide as in that show (for shame), the soft, rounded faces and simple and solid colored hair styles reminded a lot of the characters from Hidamari Sketch. The key was in the large, widened eyes, though, with the subtle pencil strokes for shading visible during the close ups.
But, as was the case before with Shaft’s Bakemonogatari, the backdrops were what really stole the show. Shaft was clearly going for the super-clean near-future aesthetic with the designs of various locales from the episode. It started with the Kaname house (speaking of near-future, we’ve got a working mother and a stay-at-home husband in this one, a very modern nuclear family) with its hard rectangular lines, wide open spaces with huge windows. The bathroom scene with Madoka and her mother could’ve been terribly boring without all that architectural eye candy (and, of course, Shinbo’s favorite visual trick, reflections). There were some subtle touches here and there as well, such as the presence of the staircase in Madoka’s parents’ bedroom, or the changing digital picture frame behind Madoka’s mother just as she leaves for work.
The same aesthetic was pushed hard at the school as well, with all of the walls surrounding the classrooms being made of glass, and the use of digital whiteboards instead of the traditional chalkboards. Same goes for the CD shop at the mall, with its glass shelves and walls filled with square shaped windows. All in all, the super-clean near-futuristic look made for a very appealing world, one very pleasing to the eyes.
And all that served as a strong contrast to what would happen when the magical girls actually entered the picture. As the battle started in an unfinished portion of the mall, the style took a distinct shift in a more dirty, lived-and-worked-in direction. Even with the daylight peeking through the large windows, the place was oppressively dark and dirty. What really pushed that was Mami Tomoe’s (Kaori Mizuhashi – played Miyako in Hidamari Sketch) entrance, when the scenery became full-on psychedelic collage, the same type seen in some episodes of the later seasons of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei as well as parts of Bakemonogatari (it is displayed well here in the OP to the 3rd Goku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei OVA).
We’re talking some really disturbing stuff, the stuff nightmares are made out of. Creepy chanting butterflies with clouds with handlebar mustaches. I’ve never seen a magical girl show, but I’m guessing that the art style during their transformations and fighting are a lot cleaner than what was shown here. At the same time, the contrast levels took a huge jump, painting the characters with far more stark and harsh colors, away from the soft, more pastel tones from during the everyday scenes.
So even though Magical Girl Madoka Magica isn’t exactly taking things to The Tatami Galaxy or Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt levels, it’s doing some very fun things with its art style. And so far, the eye candy alone intrigues me enough to be excited about seeing more. Again, the story is strictly run-of-the-mill, and the music isn’t much to write home about. The tune during Mami’s transformation scene (one that was wonderfully short and to the point, I might add) was quite nice, but the rest of it was forgettable. Yuki Kajiura‘s music has never done anything for me in the past, other than fitting in wonderfully with the dark horror theme of the Kara no Kyoukai movies. And the opening theme, usually a strong point of Shaft’s shows, might have been good if it didn’t sound exactly like Irony, the opening theme to last season’s horrendous My Little Sister Can’t be This Cute.
This was a strong first episode overall, certainly stronger than the first episodes of any of Shaft’s (new) efforts last year (Dance in the Vampire Bund, Arakawa Under the Bridge, and Yet the Town Keeps Going). Even though we’ve yet to see any of the story unfold, the distinctive and pleasing art style makes me see a lot of potential for the rest of the show.