This piece contains spoilers for several episodes of Puella Magi Madoka Magica. If you haven't seen the series, it's probably best to skip this. The full series is available streaming at Crunchyroll.
Earlier this Spring, I was helping to moderate a discussion panel about Mawaru Penguindrum. The conversation meandered towards direction and directorial intent. I compared Penguindrum, which has strong, deliberate framing and story composition, to Madoka, which is artful but lacks directorial intent, in my opinion. The world needs both approaches; there are fans who take great glee in being able to follow a director's particular line of thinking and having the experience of uncovering the clues he or she has left behind, while there are other folks who aren't in the business of dissecting their entertainment and enjoy series on their surface appeal. Though I usually count myself among the former, I can see the latter's appeal.
Madoka, on its surface merits, doesn't amount to anything particularly special. It has an atypically good story for the type of series it is and its art direction is unique and appealing, but as far as I can tell Akiyuki Shinbo is not really in the business of impregnating the anime he directs with a lot of hidden messages or symbolic meaning. Yet here I am, having spent multiple weeks examining and interpreting the motivations of the different characters as they relate to feminism. Why argue for something that many would say is relatively pointless?
I arrived at the conclusion somewhere throughout this exercise that the show's strength isn't in its director's intent, but in its ability to serve as a framework upon which others can hang their own ideas. It has a solid skeleton as a piece about girls and women, and excels in the way that so many people in the audience, from professional anime critics to average viewers, are able to invest in it emotionally and interpret meaning for themselves. In essence, there's a little bit of something for everyone, and that isn't always a terrible thing.
I've spoken previously about what I see as a "post-moe" culture shift that's been occurring with some of the recent anime series being released. While by no means is this a forceful or wholly deliberate movement, I've seen several series that appear to use elements of moe characterization as a tool to help tell a different sort of story. Series like Sora no Woto, which tells the tale of humanity in post-apocalyptic decline through the experiences of a group of cute female soldiers, or Spice and Wolf which banks on the appeal of its heroine to tell an unexpected story of myth and medieval finance, draw in viewers who enjoy seeing cute female characters while providing something a little extra for fans who may not otherwise find that an entertaining prospect. Puella Magi Madoka Magica seems to be cut from the same cloth, its financial success based not only on its ability to hit a sweet spot within the moe fandom, but also its ability to remain approachable and appealing to fans who don't call that particular niche their home.
When I watch the series (which I've seen several times at this point, a rare experience for me), I don't focus on the cuteness of the characters, nor am I deeply affected by the unusual artistic touches (though I do enjoy them). Watching the show is like looking into a mirror where what's staring back at me is exactly what I need to see. The past year or so has been a bit of a feminist (or, more generally, a social justice) awakening for me, and it has really begun to inform the way I interpret what I watch and read, so it stands to reason that a show about a group of girls making huge, world-altering choices would ring true to that interpretation. Others may interpret it slightly differently or latch on to a different emotional component of the series; therein lies its strength as a piece of art.
Do I think the series will endure throughout the years? That's difficult to say. I think that fans labeling it the "next Evangelion" might be jumping the gun a little bit. But the fact that a show about girls and the power that they wield has so many fans from different segments of anime fandom talking and getting excited gives me a lot of joy, and allows me to feel connected to a fandom that has been difficult to tolerate at times.
As we close off this series-focused edition of Women in Anime, I find myself with a wealth of possibilities for future entries in the column. I may spend a couple of weeks writing more extensively about "real life" fandom before choosing another anime series to tackle in depth. Stay tuned to this space for more, and thank you for reading!
Check out the other entries in this series: