Puella Magi Madoka Magica
It should go without saying that what follows is my personal opinion, and that your personal experience may differ.
That being said, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is not only the greatest anime of all time, but perhaps the greatest thing ever shown on a screen. It transcends its medium in a way no other animated work has. I would rank it just short of the greatest works of literature.
The status of film as subordinate to literature deserves note here. Text has as the great advantage of ambiguity: by leaving most details to our imagination we can fill a story with ourselves. Generally this advantage is overwhelming; few intellectual heavyweights would claim to be as affected by film as any of their top ten books. Madoka Magica overcomes this with a courser-grained approach to storytelling, presenting only the scaffolding of a story and letting us fill the rest in. On the other hand, film has the ability to deliver so much more information to us. Normally this is squandered on giving us a self-insertion fantasy. But Madoka Magica has realized the potential of this capacity: by giving us the richness of image, it can convey tone in a way text cannot; by exploiting the visual nature, it can use smash cuts to tell several intertwined stories at once.
Madoka Magica is both a good anime and a great one. The distinction is important—in my view, a "good" anime is one that entertains and enthralls us, while a great one changes us. For example, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was a good anime, but not a great one. Conversely, Neon Genesis Evangelion started off as a good anime, but by the end had lost all its good elements—the art, the pacing, the action—but became something great. Certainly goodness can contribute to greatness, drawing us in and making us sympathize with the characters, but it is not necessary. What makes any work of art good is generally relatively easy to articulate; the key aspects are well-known, even if incorporating them can be challenging. Greatness is necessarily more difficult to describe, as if it were obvious what aspects of a work make it great, its greatness would be easily replicable and would thus vanish.
A myriad of factors make Madoka good:
- The characters are people, not the characters you see in most shows who could never exist in reality. They are complex. They have various, sometimes conflicting motivations. They act reasonably, never picking up the idiot ball because the plot demands it. The writers don't hijack them as mouthpieces to reveal the plot or comment on the action. This may not be obvious at first; several of the characters actions seem strange at first, and require careful analysis to understand. For example, in the first episode Kyubey is fleeing from Homura's attacks, even though they pose no threat to him. But Kyubey does not know anything about Homura, and does not want to reveal that her attacks are no threat to him, lest she have or develop effective ones. On the other hand, Homura knows that her attacks are ineffective, but is counting on Kyubey to react in this way, as her actual goal is not to kill him but only to get him to retreat.
- It presents an enthralling mystery. Who is Akemi Homura? What is Kyubey? What are they hiding, and what do they want?
- There is real conflict, with enormous stakes on both sides. On the one hand, death or worse. On the other, a wish, a desire to save a friend. The characters are not missing an easy way out; none exists.
- It challenges us, showing rather than telling, leaving us to infer key elements. This forces us to pay attention, and at the same time personalize the story. As a result we become invested the world the authors create, having done much of the creating ourselves.
It is considerably harder to articulate what makes Madoka great. Madoka presents several questions central to our lives, and makes the case for various positions while not forcing any of them on us. It is hard to describe these questions or the positions it presents in mere words. Language relies entirely shared experience, and language alone cannot pierce the most central aspects of our being because they are too personal. This is were great art comes into its own—it somehow reaches these aspects that we cannot describe objectively.
These days, when I watch a western TV show all I can think is "What happened?!". It seems we are satisfied when a show is good, and have forgotten our appetite for greatness. Have we simply given up on the screen as a medium? Take, for instance, the almost universally-acclaimed drama "The Wire". In 65 hours, it presents a compelling look at the lives of people caught up in the drug trade in Baltimore, reminding us that crime is a complex phenomenon that pulls people in from different directions for a variety of sociological, political and economic reasons, and that many of these factors are a result of the advantages enjoyed by the same people who vilify criminals. This is an important lesson, but one that anyone with a brain and a basic knowledge of the world should be able to deduce in ten minutes of thought. We have been reminded of something important, yes, but the series makes no original or difficult claim.
Anime, in contrast, is not always so safe. Neon Genesis Evangelion seeks to tell us something novel about human nature and the meaning of life—even if it's not completely clear what it's saying. Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt is deeply subversive, criticizing the Japanese culture of propriety and a focus on appearances in ways that if not original, are at least fringe and very risky. Kill la Kill makes similarly difficult if unoriginal claims, arguing that human nature and freedom are ultimately incompatible. Fate/Zero shows us that war is hell, but that the worst sin of all is heroism: you cannot make the world a better place, and the harder you try the more you will end up destroying. And in only 4 hours, Madoka does more than all of these combined.
The myriad of lesser issues Madoka addresses might alone make it great, while remaining within my power to describe. These include:
- The nature of lying. Kyubey lies by omission, and the anime shows just how awful this is. But unlike most portrayals, Kyubey is not a strawman: he does not rely on "exact words", or purposefully misinterpret questions. He offers straightforward answers and will answer any questions honestly. The anime shows that simply choosing to reveal select truths, along with the targets not knowing what to ask, are all that is required to successfully and monstrously deceive.
- Utilitarianism. Is it alright to sacrifice the few for the good of the many? Kant argued that morality required always acting in such a way that respects people as ends in themselves. But what does this duty entail? Is consent enough? If so, what does consent entail? If we object to Kyubey's methods, how do we reconcile this with the fact that our entire civilization, morality included, is built on his methods?
- Humor as a quintessentially human activity. The entire series contains one joke, and a bad pun at that. It is delivered by Kyubey, and so marks him as alien that it makes clear just how essentially human the notion of humor is.
- Naturally, the value of a wish. How does one wish weigh against a life?
In my view, there are two more serious issues addressed by Madoka. One of these is the nature of love. The show examines and contrasts various kinds and ideas of love: paternal, platonic, possessive, protective, selfless, selfish. It forces us to consider what these entail, and whether they are compatible. The doting mother, forced to reconcile the conflicting emotions of concern and trust. The lovestruck Sayaka, who realizes too late that she never intended a selfless wish. Madoka, torn between her fear and her concern for her best friend. And Homura, whose wish is not that Madoka be saved, but that she would be the one to protect Madoka; who fell deeply in love with Madoka, but only after caring about Madoka became her only recourse from despair.
"If someone says it's wrong to hope, I will tell them that they're wrong every time." - Kaname Madoka
First and foremost, however, Madoka Magica is a descent from cynicism. It is the antithesis to Gen Urobuchi's previous show, Fate/Zero. Against a backdrop of a cruel and horrid world, it defends a notion of hope so earnest and idealistic that in any other show it would be saccharine. Even this, Madoka argues, cynicism cannot dismiss; that even if we live in a cruel world, even if we do not have the luxury of hope ourselves, such a view is still Good, still valid, and we must treasure it nonetheless. This is in a way usual Magical Girl territory, although most shows do not articulate the notion to the point where they could be called a defense. The key difference is that Madoka does so successfully.
The Rebellion Story
Many fans took the "happy" ending of Madoka and tried to make it into something it wasn't. The Rebellion story is the pendulum swinging back. It reminds us that our victory against cynicism was a small and costly one, that the world is still a cruel place. That even our triumphs, like Madoka's love for Homura, have their dark sides. But in reminding us how hard the battle against cynicism is, it also underscores the brilliance of the show in overcoming it. Even in the end, Rebellion concedes that Madoka's hope and selflessness have a power that goes beyond what their cost to Homura can taint.