What’s it about ?
Technically a magical girl series, but it’s all about the atmosphere. Madoka is an ordinary middle school student, up until she starts having weird dreams of magical battles. Then the girl she saw fighting in her dream suddenly transfers in, she finds a wounded critter offering her powers, and she soon finds herself sliding into bizarre side planes where it’s not exactly clear who’s fighting whom.
Madoka, our protagonist. Tends to be pushed around a bit by her friends and family. I find it notable that her mother wears the pants and is the bread-winner of the family, while Daddy stays at home. This pretty much sets the tone of how much guys are going to matter in this series.
Homura, the mysterious transfer student, of course establishing she’s awesome at everything from maths to sports in a montage just after she’s introduced. Also : very –ing creepy. Her first interaction with Madoka is to lead her to an isolated place and warn her off from doing anything. After that, she acts threateningly towards a wounded critter, and it’s ambiguous whether she’s the one who provokes the slide into a dangerous side plane.
Sayaka, one of Madoka’s two best friends. The cheerful one. (There’s also a Yamato-Nadeshiko-in-training one.) Earns my love by distracting a powered up Homura with a fire extinguisher. (Also, wondering what this girl is thinking of being in full cosplay gear at school.)
Mami, an experienced magical girl who rescues Madoka and Sayaka, and obviously has a much better clue than us viewers about what’s happening. While always smiling and cheerful, she barely conceals her hostility towards Homura, making it clear that there’s much going on under the surface here.
Kyubey, the mascot rescued by Madoka. Enthusiastically offers Madoka and Sayaka to become magical girls at the end of the episode, which given everything else in the episode ends up sounding far more sinister than he probably intends.
Wow. This looks gorgeous ; Studio SHAFT obviously pulled all the stops here. In particular, the backgrounds are very pretty, and the dream/side world sequences are a weird combination of CG and collage that work perfectly. I’m a bit less enthusiastic about the character designs, although they do work as a nice contrast to the grim settings. Also, props to Yuki Kajiura’s soundtrack, which is as atmospheric as ever.
No ED ; the OP’s song is average stuff, although there’s a lot going on in the animation.
Given its pedigree, this was always going to either be a mess or a fantastic mesh of styles ; thankfully, it’s the latter. The contrast between the “childish” (the magical girl premise, the middle school setting, the character designs) and “grittier” elements (the dream and side world sequences, the music) works well to generate a “not all is as it seems” atmosphere, and the plot is obviously going somewhere. I also liked the restraint of not rushing Madoka into becoming a magical girl in the first episode, too, as everything else they included here has some purpose (I particularly like the characterization of Madoka’s mother and of her homeroom teacher, who both exude tons of personality despite their minimal screen time).
This is a strong contender towards the best show of the season.