Monday, 16 May 2011

Bloated blog post incoming

Recently, I watched His and Her Circumstances (aka Karekano) and it was great but had a shit ending; at around the same time I watched Puella Magi Madoka Magica and it was shit but had a great ending. They have no relation other than this, but let's compare.


Karekano is a high-school romance story about Yukino Miyazawa, a girl who puts on a "model student" facade, but has this image ruptured when she encounters Souichiro Arima, a boy who's apparently even more perfect than she is. Hijinks, drama, friendship, and romance ensue.

It's great because it has a protagonist who's so appealing, so endearing, and also so flawed and human and relateable that she could almost carry the entire series by herself. She's not some perfect waifu construct with artificial moe traits and token non-flaws like "clumsiness" or "shyness": she's eccentric and quirky but also self-centered, competitive, vain, compulsive, and petty. These flaws make her cute but also a specific personality. The secondary characters who join in are all good, but rather than being overshadowed by such a strong protagonist, they're all made better by the way they bounce off eachother. They're still able to stand on their own, though: there's a couple of episodes that don't feature Yukino at all, and I barely noticed. The pacing is much better than the only other romance series I've watched so far: by episode 5, they're a couple. By episode 19, they've had sex. This means that it actually gets into real, believable issues instead of fucking dancing around them for 26 episodes. Although I can't judge it as an adaptation, having not read the manga yet, it's also clearly got a director's touch , as the images above will hopefully suggest. The character designs switch between very 90s shoujo-manga "sharp-noses-and-chins", and chibi "round-faces-and-big-eyes" styles. One may not particularly like either, but the contrast is consistently pleasing. The first half was directed by Hideaki Anno of Eva fame, the second half partly by Kazuya Tsurumaki of FLCL, and both leave their marks on their episodes. Anybody who's watched either of those works will know the sorts of things to look out for.

The only problem is that, apparently, Masami Tsuda hated the adaptation for whatever reason, and halfway through the series, the budget was slashed. This led to recap-episodes galore, less animation, less visual treats in general (the paper cutouts of episode 19 are a triumphant last gasp), and a total inability to put any sort of conclusion on the end of it. It's not a Gainax end, it's a non-end: as of episode 26 it seems like we're just starting to get into a new arc for a couple of different characters, but things just stop and we're treated to the words "And so the his and her stories continue". I can't really hold it as a serious negative point against the series, it just looks like I'll have to read the manga after all.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica is about Madoka Kaname, a high-school girl with a very happy life and loving family, who one days finds herself thrust into a world of magic and monsters.

A cute little fluffy white thing called Kyubey wants her to forge a contract with him and become a magical girl to fight beings called witches. She's accompanied by Sayaka Miki, a schoolmate, Mami Tomoe, a magical girl who offers friendship, and Homura Akemi, a frosty bitch who for some reason is dead set on Madoka not making the contract.

Left to right: Homura, Madoka, Sayaka, Mami.

I already discussed many of the problems of this series, but basically it boils down to shitty pacing and characters that I just couldn't make myself believe. Alot more went on after the point I was up to with my last entry, though, so there's more talk about. Since this series is more plot-driven than character-driven I'll have to spoil stuff and give a plot summary in order to make my points clear, but I'm sure nobody cares. I can't really condense it very well, though, so there's WORDSWORDSWORDS ahead. Feel free to skip.

The first three episodes form an arc of sorts. We're introduced to our four main characters, and we get the setup: girls with magical potential contract with Kyubey by making a wish, which he grants, and in exchange, receive a Soul Gem and become magical girls, tasked with fighting witches. If magical girls are born from wishes, witches are born from curses; one spreads hope, while the other spreads despair. When a witch is killed, it leaves behind a Grief Seed, with which a magical girl can cleanse the darkness that builds up in her Soul Gem as she uses magic. Kyubey is keen for Madoka to contract, saying that she has the potential to become the most powerful magical girl ever. Mami provides not only the exposition for all this, but is also a guiding figure in general.

Madoka wrestles with the fact that because she's got such a damn happy life, she's got nothing to wish for, but ultimately decides that all she wants is to become a magical girl and help people. However, in episode 3, Mami suffers a sudden and violent death at the hands of a witch, and Madoka and Sayaka realise what becoming a magical girl really means: you risk your life.

The next arc is longer, spanning episodes 4 to 9. Madoka, distraught and terrified by Mami's death, decides she can't contract with Kyubey after all. Sayaka, however, has other worries: Kyosuke, a boy she's known for a long time and is in love with, is in hospital after an accident; he used to be a talented violinist, but now it seems unlikely he will ever be able to play again. As he becomes more depressed, Sayaka decides to contract with Kyubey, and uses her wish to heal Kyosuke's hand. Shortly afterwards, however, another magical girl, Kyoko, turns up, frustrated at Sayaka's naivete in destroying witches' familiars before they kill someone, which allows them to mature into useful, Grief Seed-bearing witches.

This extends to severe disagreements over how properly to use one's wish: Kyoko insists that it should only be used for oneself, and using it for someone else leads only to ruin. Sayaka and Kyoko repeatedly come to blows over this, neither willing to back down over their beliefs.


Eventually, Madoka tries to prevent them from fighting by grabbing Sayaka's Soul Gem and throwing it away before she can transform, only for Sayaka to suddenly cease moving. Thus we learn that the Soul Gem literally contains a magical girl's soul, and can only operate her body by proxy within a 100 metre radius. Kyoko and Sayaka are horrified, but Kyubey can't understand why: it's convenient as it allows their bodies to take alot more punishment than usual.

Kyoko gets over it, but Sayaka doesn't: she becomes convinced that Kyosuke will never accept her with a "zombie" body, so she lets another girl take him. Kyoko tries to talk to her, but Sayaka is inconsolable. Eventually, she refuses help to such an degree that she falls into total despair, and thus we learn what becoming a magical girl really means: when a magical girl inevitably loses all hope, her Soul Gem shatters and becomes a Grief Seed, and she turns into a witch.


This, it turns out, is the crucial part of a system devised by Kyubey's race, the Incubators, for generating energy to avert the heat death of the universe (dialogue translations all refer to "entropy", but I'm fairly sure that's a misuse of the term). They found a way to create energy from emotions, but their own race lacks these, so they use pubescent human girls. Energy is generated when a girl "matures" into a witch, and can also be harvested from the used Grief Seed that she will give up when slain.

Kyoko and Madoka make an attempt to save Sayaka, but it's in vain, and Kyoko gives her life to destroy Sayaka and end her suffering. However, this leaves a problem: all these events have been set to the backdrop of the impending Walpurgis Night, a festival of witches that no single magical girl can take on. Now the only one left in the city is Homura. Unless, that is, Madoka contracts. But Homura can't allow that. And in episode 10, we finally find out why.

Homura was originally a shy, bespectacled girl, who transferred to Madoka's school after a long hospital term. She got made fun of for being useless, and Madoka was the only person who was nice to her.

Soon after, she was attacked by a witch, but found herself saved by two magical girls: Madoka and Mami. They told her about magical girls and witches. However, a month later, they both died to Walpugis Night. Distraught, Homura contracted with Kyubey, wishing to redo her meeting with Madoka, and to be somebody who protects her, instead of being protected. Thus, she became a magical girl, and gained time control powers: she is able to rewind time to when she left the hospital, just before transferring and meeting Madoka. The second time around didn't go much better, however, as instead of dying to Walpurgis Night, Madoka's Soul Gem became overloaded, and she turned into a witch. So Homura went back again. In fact, she went back multiple times, but somehow, each time Madoka's fate only became more dire, as did, for some reason, her potential as a magical girl and a witch. In the penultimate loop, she had the power to destroy the entire earth in a matter of days once transformed. Thus, it's out of the question for Homura to allow her to contract with Kyubey in this timeline.

I'll end that long-winded summary here for now in order to give some actual thoughts. My problems with the series mainly stem from the second arc, effectively the "Sayaka" arc. A fair bit is developed in this part, but the overall driving force is Sayaka's gradual descent into despair. The problem for me is that this, in itself, is not believable, or at the very least it fails to garner sympathy. It's at least partly because Kyosuke, who motivates the entire series of events, is a really shit, unappealing character. All we really see is him lying in bed, at best moping about how he can't play violin any more, at worst, being a total dick to the girl looking after him. He doesn't have any sort of personality that we, as the audience, could possibly like, and any actions he takes can only make us like him even less. We're simply told that Sayaka loves him, and this isn't good enough when a visual medium is meant to show, not tell. So when Sayaka starts destroying herself over him, I don't feel sympathy for her: I think that either she's fucking stupid, or this is a poorly written story.

Some of the actions Sayaka takes are also downright inexplicable even given the circumstances. "He can't love me because I'm a zombie" is melodramatic crap, but I can at least believe there's some motivation behind it: turning down Grief Seeds that she's been given specifically to clean her Soul Gem before it reaches its limit is just... nonsensical. Of course, a self-destructive character doesn't need to have a sane reason for what they do (my graduation film is practically about that fact), but somehow the writing was just insufficient to make me take Sayaka seriously. Maybe I just didn't feel it was consistent with what we knew about her as a character beforehand. It's a complicated problem and is basically rooted in suspension-of-disbelief, which is highly subjective, but that's my view on the matter.

There are other, lesser issues along these lines, such as Kyoko suddenly deciding she's lesbo for Sayaka and killing herself along with her, and the stuff that I talked about last time, but this is my main beef. Even though it only lies with one character, this is a character who drives a good 7-episode arc of a 12 episode series. The first two episodes weren't horrible, the third episode was decent, the 10th episode (the Homura-reveal episode) was actually pretty fucking good. Everything in between just felt slow, unconvincing, and artificial to me.

The ending though. My god, the fucking ending. For the most part, I was only sticking with this series because I wanted to know how the hell it was going to end. The fact that the last two episodes were delayed only added more frustration. Amazingly, though, when they finally arrived, I was actually satisfied.

Episode 11 was essentially a formality. We got the exposition that Madoka's steadily increasing power was, in fact, caused by Homura's constant rewinds: since the energy generated by a magical girl is proportional to the misfortune she's destined to carry, the interwoven fate lines of multiple alternate universes all being wound around Madoka gave her incredible magical potential. Other than this though, it's basically build up to seeing Homura fail to stop Walpurgis Night, and very nearly give in to despair when she realises that if she rewinds again, she'll only make things even worse.

Episode 12 is where the busines happens: Madoka makes her wish.

And it's a clever one: "I want to erase every witch before they are born! Every witch from every world, from the past and the future. With my own hands."

In a flash, we see Madoka transformed, finally, into her magical girl attire, and fire a single arrow into the sky.

This triggers a sequence where magical girls throughout history, about to succumb to grief and transform, see a smiling girl in a pretty pink dress appear out of the sky and draw the darkness out of their Soul Gems, allowing them to simply disappear peacefully.




Eventually the giant witchlike creature at the centre of Walpurgis Night is destroyed too, and Homura finds herself on the moon. She hears Kyubey's voice telling her that the laws of the universe are being reworked to account for Madoka's wish. Then a giant, swirling comet appears in the sky: it's Madoka's Soul Gem. It quickly swells up on the massive amounts of despair being absorbed from every point in time, enough to destroy a whole universe, until it shatters, and the worst witch ever is born.


However, Madoka reappears out of nowhere, repeating that her wish was to destroy all witches. This includes her own. So she declares that she has no reason to despair, draws her bow again, and destroys it.





The paradox this creates results in reality being totally rewritten: Madoka no longer exists as a person, but as an omnipresent force. Basically the hope of magical girls. Or magical girl Jesus. We get alot of Madoka and Homura naked and in space and talking about how they won't forget eachother and blah blah blah

Basically Madoka gives Homuhomu her hair ribbons and disappears, while Homuhomu goes back to a world where she's the only person who remembers Madoka. In this world, magical girls and the Incubators still exist, but instead of the whole witches thing, creatures called demons appear from the directionless, shapeless sorrow of humanity in general, and these give up little black cubes that the Incubators use to harvest energy and avert the heath death of the universe. Then there's a confusing epilogue that nobody understands where Homura has some distinctly witchy-looking powers, but hasn't given up hope, and is still fighting demons. The end.


So why did I like this ending so much? Essentially, it was a satisfactory resolution to the ongoing themes of the series, and it actually felt consistent with the main character, unlike the whole Sayaka farce.

Although I couldn't fit it into my plot summary, one of the ideas developed throughout the series is that hope and despair balance out. Although a magical girl has a wish granted for her transformation, it will ultimately create an equally powerful curse: for every person she saves, another is damned. It's pretty trite, but this ending was satisfying because of the way it challenged that idea, essentially defying the internal rules of the story's own universe, and resolved it while remaining consistent with the personality of the character doing it, Madoka.

What do I mean by that? Well, the problems I've seen brought up with this ending are many and various, but mostly boil down to "Why didn't she wish for something better?" Suffering still exists! For example, "I wish the Incubators didn't exist"; "I wish the Incubators never came to earth"; "I wish entropy didn't exist"; "I wish suffering didn't exist." The thing is, none of these would be in Madoka's nature, and this was made apparent throughout all 12 episodes. Even if they're a bunch of emotionless self-serving bastards, it's clear that she's just too nice to wish for the non-existance of an entire race. And although she shys away from doing it for a long time,she also states that she loves the idea of being able to become a magical girl, not only having a wish granted but also being given the power to help people. Overall, she loves the world as it is, she just felt that magical girls got a raw deal, having to turn into the very things they fought, and be doomed to curse everything that exists until they get destroyed. That was the only part she wanted to fix. Yeah, it's silly and naive to rewrite the laws of nature just so a bunch of girls in frilly outfits get to die peacefully, but Madoka's a silly and naive little girl, so it makes sense for her to make a wish like that.

Essentially, the ending succeeded where the middle failed for me: it made me believe that the focal character would do what she did. It was also just fucking awesome. I can't really justify it in terms of serious "good writing" or "good storytelling" or whatever, because it's fucking silly: I just enjoyed it. So even though there were about 3 good episodes to 9 mediocre-to-shitty ones, and the whole show is still blatant otaku-fodder with terrible character designs that belong in a different genre, it managed an ending that satisfied me, and satisfying endings are something that anime just doesn't tend to do. Lots of fans are clamouring for a second season, especially given that weird epilogue, but I feel that, on a thematic level, this series has concluded.

It kind of feels weird that I wrote only a little about Karekano, which I loved, and loads about Madoka, which I mostly didn't love at all. I guess it's because I was able to sum up pretty much all my thoughts about the latter in the above writing, whereas my thoughts on the former just wouldn't fit in a single post, so a very brief summary was necessary.

To go back to actually comparing them, I guess they're the result of two very different situations and approaches. Karekano had loads of talent working on it (direction, animation, writing of the source material), but, ultimately, a shortage of money. Madoka had, as far as I'm concerned, very little talent working on it (one-trick pony director, hack writer, shit animators, terrible character designer, though I guess Gekidan Inu Curry did the visuals for the witches and they're quite good), but huge amounts of money (remember how I've talked about Shaft's inability to do expensive animation that actually looks good). The fact that the ending was good might as well be luck, though. I've been told that Gen Urobuchi is actually a good writer, but if this is what all his work's like I'm not expecting much.

My token creative effort is unrelated this time. It's also old: the Jeopardy theme in Notessimo!

I do have something actually good that I've been working on, but that's saved for the next entry. I'll be good, I promise. I don't like doing these "summarise all my thoughts on an entire series" entries these days, the way I write turns all shitty when I do, so the next one will be more directed.

By the way, if you like that stupid nyan-cat thing that's been going around, you suck. Because it's a shitty second generation meme. This is the original. And I don't care how much of a basement dwelling loser anyone thinks I am for caring or even knowing.


Emily said...

Single funniest part of this blog was getting to the end and seeing in the tags "jesus christ why do I bloody like anime everyone else who likes it is a goddamn moron", actual laugh out loud moment.
Once again I'm taking your input on what anime to watch seeing as I can barely ever bother to find any on my own, so I will put these two on my "get from somewhere and watch" list

Jonathan Harris said...

You're going to watch Madoka? After I wrote that about it and spoiled the only part worth watching? You're a brave soul, Em.

Also BakaBT is the best place to get almost any finished anime that isn't licensed by Funimation.

Jonathan Harris said...

Although it seems they've picked the the worst possible release of Madoka, derp. Go for Yesy on nyaatorrents.