Last weekend, the nerdmageddon known as FanExpo Canada hit Toronto’s Metro Convention Centre, and despite my well-documented thoughts on convention season, I was seriously considering going, but ultimately tapped out due to the financial commitment required and my unwillingness to spend my rent money getting photos with Nathan Fillion and The Walking Dead’s Dixon Brothers. But it was dicey there for a minute.
I’d forgive you if you’d forgotten or were unaware of how deep my geekery runs. Most of the topics around here lately seem to centre around hip-hop or weak-kneed attempts at personal insight. But it’s always gurgling inside me, ready to spurt out at any moment, from my continued love of professional wrestling, my slavish dedication to the comic series Saga, or the fact that after September 17, I will be on permanent vacation causing mayhem throughout Los Santos.
I did not expect it to be triggered by a Japanese anime about magical girls.
On the off chance you are ever planning on watching Puella Magi Madoka Magica, there will be mad spoilers coming.
I’d heard of Madoka Magica long before I thought to watch it: one night I stumbled across the ‘Headless Mami‘ meme and found it odd that a character in a cutesy-wutesy magical girl show would get decapitated, but stranger things have happened. But the image stuck with me, solely because it wasn’t something I’d seen before. I’ve been long burned out on anime, the tropes of the medium had become too trite and predictable to me [I solely blame Love Hina for this]. But something about Mami’s demise stuck with me, so when I saw that Crackle [the dollar bin of online video] had the whole series available, I gave it a shot. And was pretty much stunned into submission. Because it’s Sailor Moon-meets-Evangelion.
In the late 90’s, the North American broadcasts of Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z combined with a fluke viewing of the cult classic Akira to transform me into the most rabid of anime fans. The crap we would have to go through back then to see anything that wasn’t already bought for syndication on children’s television would floor the fans of today. There was one store [ONE] that had a small selection of VHS tapes from the now-defunct Streamline Pictures and early releases from Manga Entertainment. If you’re of my generation of fandom, you remember these shows: Wicked City, Ghost in the Shell, Macross Plus, The Wings of Honneamise, Dirty Pair. Smaller distributors like ADVision or Central Park Media had started releasing shows by the mid-90’s, but digging them up in Windsor, Ontario was next to impossible, and when you did they were usually horrific English dubs by barely conscious voice actors [the ‘sub v. dub wars’ were real, friends; even worse, dubbed anime retailed for less than its subtitled counterparts, since manufacturers considered anime in its original Japanese a more ‘niche product’ and because, as rumour had it one executive explained, ‘fans will pay it.’ DVDs, with their multiple audio options, changed the game]. One afternoon in my university computer lab I did a Lycos search [really] of ‘anime’ and discovered something called The Right Stuf International. Today, TRSI is an online behemoth, the oldest North American anime retailer in the business. Back in the day, its sales were done via mail order, and all we had to go on were recommendations and descriptions from the catalogue. There were no trailers to watch, you could maybe glean some info from the fledgling message boards that started cropping up, but a lot of times you went on instinct, what you though sounded good. Then you sent them an order form and a cheque, and six weeks later you got some tapes.
We will not talk about how much of my money this company received from 1996-1998.
Many of the shows I love to this day I learned about from the TRSI catalogue, or from people I met on their message boards and would send/trade tapes with. One of those shows was Neon Genesis Evangelion. I would never call it my ‘favourite’ anime in the same way I wouldn’t call The Sandman my ‘favourite’ comic, but images and story points of Eva have stayed with me for almost 15 years. We don’t need to get into a major plot synopsis of the show, all we need to say is that Eva took the genre of giant robots, which had been around in Japanese SF for decades and added an element of psychology and deconstruction that no one had ever tried before. When fans didn’t approve of the show’s conclusion, director Hideaki Anno rereleased the ending in the theatrical release End of Evangelion which has to be the most flagrant pair of middle fingers to a property’s fanbase in the history of filmmaking. It was glorious to witness. As the series gets tweaked and retold in a new theatrical tetralogy, its impact is still being felt [the tandem piloting of the Jaegers in Pacific Rim is one of a few ideas in that movie that seems to be inspired by Eva]. What makes that show so fascinating is that ultimately, it was never about smashy-smashy robotic fisticuffs, it was about the trauma inflicted on the 14-year-olds forced to pilot the things, all of them dealing with abandonment issues, all of them searching for a meaning in a meaningless world. Existentialism at its finest [or worst, depending].
PMMM looks to do the same thing with the magical girl genre. In shows of that type, typically some unremarkable girl has a trinket of some sort bestowed on her by a sparkly cat/puppy/squirrel/wolverine which then allows her to transform into a powerful crusader of justice who battles the monster of the week before squaring off the overarching menace.
PMMM takes the formula but turns the magical girl proposal into an overtly Faustian bargain: Kyubey, the show’s wonder-rodent of choice and indeterminate origin grants wishes, anything a young lady may desire, and in return, said lady must work as a magical girl fighting ‘witches’, physical manifestations of hopelessness and despair. For most of the show’s 12 episodes, Madoka, the titular character and protagonist, wrestles with the decision whether or not to take Kyubey up on his offer, despite his forceful encouragement and claims that she would be the most powerful magical girl ever. For those characters that do decide to accept Kyubey’s offer, the gift turns to a monkey’s paw: Mami’s elation at the possibility of no longer being the lone magical girl leads to overconfidence and death; Madoka’s friend Sayaka makes a wish to help the boy she loves, which brings her nothing but pain and hurt, and also death, turning her into a witch [the ultimate fate of all magical girls]; the antagonistic Homura reveals herself to be a time traveler who had her life saved when Madoka sacrificed her own, and has gone through hundreds of timelines to try and prevent the same outcome. And when Madoka finally makes her choice… well, I suppose I should leave you some mysteries.
The characters in the show are all wrestling with powerlessness and failure, despite the mighty abilities at their command. When Kyubey’s intentions are finally revealed, he turns out to be a member of an alien race looking to harvest emotional energy to restore balance to the universe and prevent entropy [shaky science here, but it’s still a rare hard-SF angle to the typically new agey approach these shows usually take] and what conduit can provide more emotional energy than adolescent girls? They’re nothing but unchecked emotional energy. While not nearly as nihilistic in its storytelling as Eva gets, I was taken completely off guard by the weight of the story, by the loss the characters feel, the elements of horror that emerge during the witch battles [the animation style changes to a flat, stop-motiony style whenever a witch is around, and the ending credits are…off putting].
At 12 episodes, it’s a tightly wound narrative, nothing is wasted, it has none of the filler that tends to plague most anime shows. You could do worse than checking it out on Crackle.
And I’ve always been a sucker for a good J-Pop opening theme.
As for me and anime, I’m already three episodes into Attack on Titan. This could be a problem.