After Madoka: The Past-Due Future

Now that a couple months have lapsed since I first saw those spoileriffic conclusion to easily the most talked-about anime in 2011, what is there left to say about Madoka?

This post is spoiler free.

My own view of the show is not too far from Wah’s, at least on a technical level. [I get the feeling that he "criticizes" it only because he didn't like it, compared to the average Shinbo x SHAFT production (which he is borderline irrationally in love for), so I doused it with the proverbial grain of salt.] If I had to use one word to describe Madoka, it would be inventive. The most inventive thing about Madoka is its visuals. A lot of its sharp and jarring directorial cues and visual tricks were already hallmarks of another best-selling anime, Bakemonogatari. And others. To that end, and especially if you subscribe the view that SHAFT’s anime are like things coming out of an iteratively refining process, an assembly line of adaptations, so to speak, then Madoka is simply the latest and best thing.

In other words, I think what’s really inventive was all the contractors the producers roped into putting Madoka together. SHAFT is a studio that contracts out to some of the rising stars from the scene for their work, to the degree that they could. Madoka isn’t the first time they’ve done it; it’s better to say that they have been doing it for years, and the whole thing is finally coming together. It is a refinement. Still, in essence, Madoka was very much of a 1+1=2 product, in that the end result is the sum of its parts. Great parts, they are; I think people were right to assume that Shinbo x Urobuki x Aoki x Kajiura made a powerful combination, and the hype was well-deserved, if we can still remember the months leading up to Madoka’s debut.

Of course, I think it wouldn’t be fair to just say that Madoka was “just sum of its parts.” For one, great parts don’t always make great anime. It’s safe to say that the Madoka collaboration works because Shinbo is pretty good at this now. The original anime gambit pays off because things went according to plan, earthquakes and tsunami aside. There is evidence that magical girls show can sell if it channels some kind of character-centric pathos. And Urobuchi is pretty much one of the top VN hack dudes at this sort of thing. It’s funny, because compared to “Buchi’s” CV, Madoka is, hands-down, uplifting.

So you get an “uplifting” show with strong character-driven pathos as hook while featuring innovative visuals, hacked into the magical girls framework and expectation. The end result is a best-seller is probably not a big surprise to anyone. Well, it’s kind of a surprise in the sense that it bucks the trend. There are a lot of magical girls anime over the years, and especially the ones that appeals to that mysterious group of people so-called otaku; Madoka bucks that trend. And what makes it so is the something that still made Madoka a little more special, a little more attention-hoarding, than the average otaku anime of the same pedigree.

But that something isn’t something we’ve never seen before. I believe it’s the same thing that sold three seasons of Zetsubo-sensei and Hidamari Sketch, or Bakemonogatari. It’s the reason why Wah loves his little SHAFT thing. It’s also the same thing that I am getting rather weary of. Back in 2008 this something was the bee’s knees, but in 2011 it feels that Madoka was the corner that Shinbo should have turned years ago; instead of Bakemonogatari, we should’ve had something a little more ground-breaking already. In fact, one could even see the original Nanoha series as attempt #1, if we read into the history of magical girls for adults. Were we ready for this kind of stuff back in 2004-2005? We may never know. But to me that is just a sign that we’re years behind where we could have been.

I ask this question because I still remember 2005.  I can tell you that something like Madoka is what we needed in 2005, something to punctuate the moe trend during its loudest hour. Because something like Madoka can actually stick, maybe, and by sticking I mean trending. Or alternatively, we just weren’t sufficiently sick and tired of it at the time and we didn’t complain as loudly as we do now. That is besides if Aniplex’s mercenaries can even do something like that, to pull off the troll, to get hype, during the coolest hour of Cool Japan.

Maybe we were not ready; maybe SHAFT still had a lot of kink to smooth out (see: how badly Bakemonogatari was delayed). Maybe the global great recession was at fault. I don’t know. It’s the fresh breath of air that we could’ve used, is all. It’s the thing that ef was (except nobody took it seriously), but now with 100% more star power (Tenmon is better than Kajiura, you heard it here) and not trapped by the weirdest content owners for anime ever. Madoka is great. It just came up a little too short, a little too late. I just hope SHAFTxShinbo and the rest of the industry are going to keep on playing catch-up.

[Homework: Imagine Geneon USA's last license was a show named Madoka instead of Nanoha...]

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12 responses to “After Madoka: The Past-Due Future

  • djwhack03

    I agree with you that Madoka felt like a breath of fresh air, but at the same time I felt there was something a bit lacking.I agree with Wah’s criticism that the characters felt lacking, and for me that was the critical flaw that stopped me from really loving this show. Sayaka felt more like a case study for this series’ take on magical girls, and Kyoko’s sole purpose seemed to be as a monologue machine. I wish there was more to the characters than just “being Meguca is suffering.”

    I guess what made it feel different and refreshing for me is that it had a definitive conclusion, unlike most of the sequel hook bullshit a lot of anime pulls. Thinking of it that way makes me realize how shitty the anime industry is at the moment.

  • Ubiquitial

    I never really saw SHAFT as an adaptive studio. A studio that develops it’s style based on prior shows and their reception, yes, but that’s the same for any other studio as well. If anything, Shinbou seems to be a lot more inventive, and each of his shows always had it’s own distinctive feel to it. Although I have to agree that Bakemonogatari was likely a large influence. One thing I felt was quite clever about Bakemonogatari was that it took out all background characters, and that it minimalized the scenery to make the characters stand out more. It creates a unique sense of intimacy I’ve never seen everything else duplicate. Madoka does it too, but in a different sense. The cast isn’t tiny, like Bakemono, but there’s certainly a lot of empty space in the background and a lot of abstract imagery. And that has the same effect, to an extent.

  • omo

    I mean adaptive, originally, as in adaptation. Not that each production adopts something from the one before it (even if this happen, as you say, for basically everyone), but each project was just cranking out something because they’re pros, not because it’s something they really wanted to do particularly (well, SoreMachi and maybe Vampire Bund aside).

    Madoka is the exception in that sense. I would say that Shinbo is actually the exception in the sense that his works all have the same distinctive feel, so this is where I’m going to disagree with you vehemently. Most of the time, the original source material takes control of how things look and feel, in your typical anime. This is rarely the case with a SHAFT x Shinbo work in that it all kinda feels the same, predominately because of what people like about them are more or less the same.

    But I would agree that they can be visually inventive. It’s just that usually what is inventive is something small and hard to discern.

  • wildarmsheero

    Augggh fuck you, now I have to comment on this.

    As for my own personal tastes, I was weary of that combo from the beginning, and in the end they did let me down, as you can so clearly see. Shinbou was the only good ingredient in there–Urobuchi’s just a hack, and Kajiura’s work is boring and has no dynamism at all. It’s way too heavy handed and just not interesting to listen to. I like Ume by herself, but when her designs are made to look flat, plain, and boring by some random guy sakuga nerds drool over, what’s the point? I’d rather Watanabe Akio anyway…

    I would have thought the plain design work would turn otaku off, but then again these are people who like Key designs, which also just look like some middle schooler’s scribbles.

    I would say that the most visually inventive part of the show are the Inu Curry parts, ’cause its Inu Curry. The actual main part of the show looked too normal. I mean, they tried to have cool backgrounds, but I think they forgot how to do it after a while. I think SHAFT’s better when they’re trying to save some $$$ and do very simplistic backgrounds; those tend to have more bold visual dynamism than just making normal digitally painted backgrounds. And man, SHAFT’s “normal” backgrounds look so digital that it hurts. It works against them. The Bakemonogatari/Hidasketch/Zetsubou Sensei style suits them much more. I think when they were making Tsukuyomi they still actually painted backgrounds, so they looked okay. And like I said, the character designs suck, so the only real good parts were the Inu Curry parts and the parts where Shinbou (or whichever enshutsu guy was aping his style at the moment) actually went wild and did something cool, ie when Sayaka kills those dudes and it’s all monochrome.

    I suppose it is a breath of fresh air… if your breath of fresh air is finally an anime that tells an okay story. Story based anime these days completely blows, partly because the otaku penning the ranobe they’re based off of are chiefly concerned with coming up with cute characters, and the story’s an afterthought. As you know I love character based stuff but… just don’t put a story in there; that’s why K-ON! and tons of other anime comedies are good. Anime where it is right now should just stick to comedy/slice of life stuff. Anime did story based stuff way better in the 80s and (maybe) 90s when they didn’t make the kind of concessions they do now-a-days. I think Madoka’s only a breath of fresh air because it does what anime these days does horribly to a satisfactory level… and… well… that isn’t good enough, really.

    I will give them points for actually going through with a fairly well thought out original anime, but at least be as good and as interesting as all the GOOD ranobe anime out there, like Bakemonogatari, Baccano, DRRR (to some extent…), and Haruhi. Those are written by people who actually have distinct styles and want to assert themselves. That said, I’m sure Butch sees himself as someone with a distinct style, turning mahou shoujo anime upside down and such but… it’s not different on a fundamental level. The character dialogue in Madoka is boring, and the way the story comes together is entirely too straightforward. The only thing that’s kind of different is that the end result is a “dark” mahou shoujo show, as opposed to a normal one. He didn’t mix it up enough. His style is too orthodox and easy. I’m not saying everyone should just go ahead and fuck convention–it’s good to know convention–but once you know it, you gotta mix it up. That’s why I like Shinbou, incidentally. In his best works he’s keenly aware of convention, then fucks with it. Of course, his lesser works (probably more the work of the actual series director) are a bit more slapdash. You can see Oonuma Shin aping it horribly in ef.

    I don’t really get your standards regarding when you think Madoka should have come out and kicked anime’s ass. Never mind that I don’t think it kicked much ass at all, and instead just sedated the appetites of teary-eyed otaku who want some nerdbait story.

    I think if story-based anime wants to be worth anything, they should switch to the format of a lot of short and interesting stories in one series (Bakemonogatari), making something completely bonkers and convoluted (Baccano), or masquerade as a comedy and hide a badass story under it (Haruhi). I should think we’re beyond writing normal straightforward stories that adhere too much to convention. And if you’re gonna do it, approach it with FIRE. Madoka don’t have no fire, mayne.

    >>I would say that Shinbo is actually the exception in the sense that his works all have the same distinctive feel, so this is where I’m going to disagree with you vehemently. Most of the time, the original source material takes control of how things look and feel, in your typical anime. This is rarely the case with a SHAFT x Shinbo work in that it all kinda feels the same, predominately because of what people like about them are more or less the same.

    I’d say it’s kind of a mixture between what you’re saying and that other guy is saying.

    I feel in Shinbou’s best adaptations, they take the most distinctive part of the original work and use it as a starting point for the show’s whole aesthetic, which will usually be quite unorthodox for mainstream anime. It’s not like Yuasa or anything, but it’s different. Zetsubou Sensei’s manga is marked by its bold visual design and use of text: SHAFT stays very true to that style, adapting it perfectly for television with their bag of tricks. Lots of stuff Zetsubou Sensei does can only work in manga, but it doesn’t feel weird in the anime, mostly because it works so well with the studio’s general weirdness. Zetsubou Sensei is enhanced by SHAFT’s style.

    Bakemonogatari does the same thing and highlights the literary nature of its source by using text constantly, and staying true to the original novel’s illust’s design sense. Actually, rather than repeat myself, I explain this all a lot better here: http://analoghousou.com/2011/03/05/shafts-edge-part-2-hidamari-sketch-sayonara-zetsubou-sensei-bakemonogatari/

    But yeah. Fuck you again.

  • DiGiKerot

    If Madoka had come out in 2005, I kind of wonder how many would have merely dismissed it as being a grimdark(er) derivative of My-HiME.

  • Ubiquitial

    Oh hey look it’s the guy with the webcomic everyone say Hi

    Now, what he said about convention and Madoka… I’d have to disagree. It’s not about how effective it was, but all throughout Madoka, Shinbou knowingly played around with conventions in anime and film, albeit in a very subtle manner. And in this case, he wasn’t trying to just come up with random elements; it’s fairly obvious that he knowingly subverted these conventions, much like how he deconstructed the Magical Girl genre (though, to be frank, he wasn’t the first). Pay attention to the episodes and you’ll find that things like focus, lighting, and camera angles are all arranged in an odd manner. It isn’t really apparent at first but after a rewatch or two I saw it. It does add to the atmosphere I suppose, as to how effective it was I’m not sure.

    As a deconstruction of various tropes, Madoka is quite clever. Seen solely as an anime in and of itself, it’s actually a bit bland. Though, you’ve got to admit, it does have a wonderful atmosphere and a clear sense of direction, more than I can say for most other recent shows.

    Then again, this was SHAFT’s first original anime. It’s probably a good thing that they decided to do something subversive rather than something that stands solely on it’s own merits. They really don’t have any experience, and it’s easier to play with existing tropes rather than to create something entirely new and interesting. Plus, think of it as an educational experience. Perhaps their next original anime will be mind-blowing.

  • wah

    Dude… Shinbou didn’t write it.

  • Ubiquitial

    Oh, no, when I speak of Shinbou’s subversions, I mean in the visual style.

    For example, this picture.

    Notice how the background actually distracts from the character rather than focuses attention to said character. I don’t know the context of said screenshot, but it’s fairly obvious, from the shading on Homura to the prominent streetlights, that Shinbou was being knowingly subversive.

    Maybe my phrasing was a bit confusing, and for that I apologize, but this is all I meant.

  • vendredi

    As a previous poster pointed out, we had Madoka in 2005; it was called Mai-Hime and it spawned quite the following (albeit a short-lived one). It lacked perhaps some of the edgier visual effects of Madoka, but to be honest I’m not sure if that was even possible. But the basic conceit and setup of Madoka is very similar to Mai-Hime – a light and happy magical girl setting that reveals a very dark underbelly.

    In terms of the technical aspect of the animation, in the early to mid 2000s you are only starting to see the first uses of blended CG and hand-drawn animation; there are a ton of digital composition techniques and software that just weren’t available back then that make the pieced. In a global context, the industry was grappling with the possibilities that were brought forth with maturity of computer generated imagery; with Disney temporarily abandoning hand-drawn animation completely. Plus, in 2005 SHAFT was still in its infancy; they had just released Cosette the previous year.

    So to sum it up – no, I don’t think Madoka was possible as early as 2005, from a purely technical and market demand standpoint. And even though it wasn’t, there’s Mai-Hime to think about – which seems to languish now in a forgotten corner. My impressions of Mai-Hime may be a little rose-coloured, but I think it generated about the same sort of buzz and reactions – it’s just that also in 2005, the discourse available on the internet was not as mature either – both in content and in the age of most posters.

  • omo

    Finally got in the mood to read WAH’s tl;dr. I’m just going to say that he is probably right in a lot of it and I agree. I think Aoki’s designs work on the same level as the Inu Curry’s weird visuals–it’s designed for dissonance. Same with the background choices, etc.

    As for the 2004 comment, I’m really just saying two things:
    1. Madoka is too little too late by 2011 standards. Genre subversion (I think Madoka is doing two types, one is this: http://myswordisunbelievablydull.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/a-way-in-which-madoka-magica-is-a-deconstruction-of-mahou-shoujo/ ). Both types would have been much more ZOMG in 2004-2005. WAH interprets this idea as “suppose to kick ass” because I framed it in an alternate-history way. It could be a backhanded complement, if you will, except I didn’t want to really assign a value to it.
    2. Mai-Hime feeds into the other type of subversion that I didn’t link. If you watch the show today you’ll see it’s kind of lackluster, even if it is a lot of “wooo drama” wrapped in a moe-harem context. If you go by calendar, both that and Nanoha were airing at the same time (MH is 2-cour, Nanoha took up the first cour in winter 2004).

    As to the story thing, let me just point out that, yeah, Mai-Hime is kind of just rotting in a corner in 2011. Part of it is because of the sequel (and the unending trickle of OAVs that are not really that good). The other part is that the story wasn’t that great. Unlike WAH I am not going to say anime should or should not be whatever, caz that’s like, lol, who the fuck do you think you are lol. I’m just going to say that there are plenty of story-driven anime, just that the good ones have to break the 13/26 mode. They either go long, or are just movies.

  • wah

    >>Plus, in 2005 SHAFT was still in its infancy; they had just released Cosette the previous year.

    Cossette was by studio Daume.

  • Tyler Saxby

    Ok, where can I watch this? Ive been looking all over and nothing.

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