Given that this is the tenth anniversary release of these films, I’m going to assume some familiarity with them in this review. When Puella Magi Madoka Magica came out as a TV series (which the first two films are a retelling of), it initially started a conversation about the darkness inherent in the magical girl story. While some people credited the series with “making” the genre dark, the truth of the matter is that magical girl tales have always been dark – from the earliest progenitor of the magical girl I’ve been able to find, Zenmyo in the thirteenth century Tales of Gisho and Gangyowho ultimately sacrifices herself for the people she loves, to Nurse Angel Ririka doing the same in the 1990s, to Sailor Moon sacrificing herself at least once a story arc. All of this informs Madoka and Homura’s cycle of mutual self-sacrifice, and had magical girls not always had this dark undercurrent, a series with more of a focus on that aspect would not have been possible in the first place.
That’s something that’s readily apparent in the imagery of all three of these films. While the first two don’t necessarily do anything new with the plot from the original TV series, all three up the series’ game to the point where the background visuals more or less qualify the collection as “art history on a plate.” From Russian Constructivism to a reproduction of one of Alphonse Mucha’s Art Nouveau works, the designs of the witches and their labyrinths are a smorgasbord of art references. But that’s not all: for every surrealist image or hint of Dadaism, there’s also at least one visual reference to earlier magical girl stories. The most striking, and obvious, is of course the use of shadows, which feels very much like a tribute to Revolutionary Girl Uten‘s infamous Shadow Play Girls; by the third film we’re even getting a play on the whole “smash the world’s shell” bit, although in all fairness that owes a great deal to Hermann Hesse’s 1919 novel Demian. The third movie also seems to owe a little something to the Sailor Moon Super S film, with its persistent imagery of toys and childhood, as well as a similar idea that while childhood (representative of innocence) is wonderful, to be stuck in it eternally is decidedly less so. This works well with the recurrent fairy tale imagery that we see as well – Sayaka’s initial transformation puts her in the position of Little Red Riding Hood (although in the third film it’s Madoka with the basket of goodies, which is symbolically very interesting if we consider Red as also representing “innocence”) with Kyubey as the Big Bad Wolf; later Sayaka is framed as the prince or knight figure, albeit one who cannot get through the thorns to reach Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Going back to the notion of innocence, this means that Sayaka is able to preserve her own as Little Red Riding Hood by outwitting her pursuer, but she is unable to truly awaken to something beyond innocence – Sleeping Beauty can be framed as a story about awakening to adulthood, something no magical girl in the story’s world ever gets to attain. Perhaps this is why we also see Mami and Madoka as Hansel and Gretel, a pair of red shoes (which in the Andersen tale must be cut off along with the dancing girl’s feet), swans who are often trapped maidens, and of course Kyoko’s ever -present apples: the instrument of Snow White’s death, the fruit the boy in The Juniper Tree is reaching for when his stepmother kills him, and the accepted marker of Eve’s forbidden knowledge. The pomegranates that appear briefly in the third movie are positively subtle by comparison, as are visual references to Cleopatra, Himiko, and Joan of Arc as past magical girls who had to die in order for the world to change.
Although the first two films don’t offer much that’s new when compared to their source material, they are a very competent retelling of it that can still hit hard. The third film, Rebellion, is the wildcard of the collection, at least in terms of story. Some elements of it are very well done – it takes as its central question whether you’d want to wake up if you learned that your happy world was only a dream. As with the magical girl genre, this is a concept that can be traced back to early Japanese literature, with one tanka by Heian courtier Ono no Komachi specifically musing on it. Her answer is “If I’d known I was dreaming/I’d never have wakened,” but it’s a much more difficult question in a two-hour film than a five-line poem. There are, of course, signs before the truth is revealed that attempt to lead us to the answer, with the two most striking being signs written in English – the first at the start says, “Welcome to the Cinema,” while midway through a second reads, “Do You Enjoy the Movie?” It’s a bit too metafictional for its own good, but it still works with the idea of a dream you don’t want to realize you’re having. Regretfully this question and its answer feel far too cruel for the franchise as a whole, making the ending of the film feel like someone’s edgy fanfiction scenario rather than an organic evolution of, specifically, Homura as a character. On the other hand, Sayaka’s treatment feels much better than what she gets in the TV series, which is at least a bit of a balm to those who feel injured by the rest of it.
Although the extras are slim – commercials and trailers are the only on-disc extras, while the cardstock box and a paper insert in the BD case are it for physical – this is still a good collection to pick up if you don’t already own the movies or just want them all in one convenient place. The picture quality is beautiful and both English and Japanese language tracks are very well performed. The music works incredibly well with the mood of the story, and if the animation and art can be far too busy, well, that’s just a good excuse to rewatch them. Puella Magi Madoka Magica may not have reinvented the magical girl story, but it is an important step in the genre’s evolution. These films are both a pretty good place to start if you haven’t experienced the franchise yet and a visual treat if you’re already a fan.