On Friday, the Downtown Independent Theater was teeming with anime fan for the premiere of the Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie, a film trilogy based on the popular Japanese TV series of the same name. The screenings, which will continue at the theater through Oct. 25, consist of the first two films, Beginnings and Eternal, retellings of the series with some new animation. A third film with an all-new story is due out next year and a trailer for it followed the double-feature.
Both the series and the films were hits in Japan and the U.S. anime community has taken to Madoka Magica with serious fanaticism. Last summer, I noted that the TV series was one of the biggest sensations at this year's Anime Expo, where fans turned out en masse for appearances from the U.S. voice cast. The reception for the films, which have only been released in subtitled form, was equally enthusiastic. Friday's 6 p.m. screening sold out in advance of the event. During intermission, a large crowd lined up to buy Madoka Magica DVDs, plush keychains, messenger bags and other merchandise.
That Madoka Magica is a hit should be no surprise. Aniplex, the company behind this franchise, built a crew filled with the top talents in every discipline. They brought in animation studio Shaft, director Akiyuki Shinbo, whose joint efforts include titles like Maria Holic and Sayonara Zetsubō Sensei. “They are the hitmakers today,” says Hideki “Henry” Goto, President of Animation Business for Aniplex of America. The anime firm also brought in writer Gen Urobuchi and composer Yuki Kajiura, who have their own string of successes to their names. Inu Curry, a wildly inventive animation team, is responsible for some of Madoka Magica's most surreal moments. It is a series designed for acclaim.
While Madoka Magica is an original story, its roots are tied to a genre with a long history in anime and manga. “Magical girl” refers to stories centered around female protagonists, usually in their teens, whose supernatural talents belie their appearance as ordinary students. Though the idea of the magical girl has been around for decades, the genre really came together with the immense popularity of Sailor Moon in the mid-to-late 1990s and a slew of similar shows that followed, such as Tokyo Mew Mew and Cardcaptor Sakura. Since a lot of these shows were available in the U.S., they do hold a significant place in the American anime fandom. For many female fans, including several of the actors featured in the Madoka Magica U.S. dub, magical girls were their entrance into the realm of anime.
But Madoka Magica is far different from other magical girl franchises that have hit big in the U.S., and so is its audience. Where Sailor Moon, in particular, was a hit with young girls, the Madoka Magica crowd is older, think teenagers and young adults, and is heavily male.
One Madoka Magica fan, Elliot Trinidad, surmises that the large male audience is thanks in part of the “oddball dream team” of creators that Aniplex developed. “Any anime fan who's into alternative, dramatic, subversive or just plain weird anime would absolutely recognize one of these players,” he says.
But the fanaticism surrounding the show isn't just a result of the talent involved in it. Madoka Magica's characters and themes appeal to a broad audience. “It's not just a frou-frou girly show,” says Cassandra Lee, who voices the creature Kyubey in the U.S. version of the television series.
Sarah Williams, who plays troubled teen Sayaka Miki in the dub, is herself a fan of magical girl anime and she was taken aback when she first saw Madoka Magica. “This one is not going to be a normal ride,” Williams recalls as her reaction to the series. “It's probably going to hurt.”
Madoka Magica shatters anime stereotypes in an absolutely beautiful fashion. The characters may initially appear to be archetypal anime girls in school uniforms — the mysterious beauty, the cute buxom one, the sassy thin girl who is constantly eating — but they aren't. Christina Vee, the voice of intriguing transfer student Homura Akemi in the dub, says that her character is the most “complex” she has played yet and that kind of character depth is prevalent throughout the show. These magical girls aren't quite heroes, nor are they damsels in distress. They are, however, edging closer to adulthood and forced to make the biggest decisions of their lives. Throughout both the series and the films, they constantly question those choices. They live with regret and try desperately to cling on to hope. This is heavy stuff, less of an action-packed cartoon and more of an allegory about adolescence, and it has struck a chord with a lot of anime watchers.
“If this show had just been another one of the same kind of magical girls show, I probably would not have watched it,” says Eddie Xu, who caught the Saturday night screening at the Downtown Independent. “I watched it for the writing, and the art style being superb didn't hurt either.”
The fanbase for Madoka Magica is certainly still growing and, while the audience is finding lots to love within the series, there is one thing that keeps them hooked. “There's a lot about Madoka Magica that fans have engaged in — encrypted alphabets, references to Goethe's Faust, even Buddhist themes of the cycles of suffering; all things that might be intellectually enticing to otaku [anime fans] — but on the surface Madoka Magica also works because the characters are, in my opinion, extremely easy to empathize with,” Trinidad comments. “I think that stuff can grab males and females alike.”