Over twelve 24-minute episodes, PMMM tells the story of an ordinary, somewhat naïve fourteen-year-old girl called Madoka Kaname. The story begins when Madoka is disturbed one night by a strange dream, in which she witnesses a dark-haired girl (whom we later learn to be Homura Akemi) fighting desperately against a powerful magical enemy in the ruins of a city. In her dream, a cat-like creature called Kyubey tells Madoka that she can save the situation if she agrees to let him turn her into a magical girl. At this point Madoka wakes up and gets on with her day, wrongly assuming (like many a protagonist before her) that it was “just a dream”. However, later that day Madoka and her friend Sayaka become trapped in a supernatural labyrinth and find themselves under attack by surreal, blade-wielding assailants. Madoka and Sayaka are rescued just in time by Mami Tomoe, an established magical girl who, it turns out, knows Kyubey—no figment, but a real creature. Mami and Kyubey explain that labyrinths are created by witches, malign creatures who lurk in the human world and draw in victims to kill them or drive them to suicide. As in Madoka’s dream, Kyubey asks Madoka and Sayaka to become magical girls and join the fight against the witches. He offers the inducement that, on becoming a magical girl, each will be granted one wish and issued with a Soul Gem, a piece of jewellery that acts as the source of a magical girl’s power. Should Madoka and Sayaka accept Kyubey’s offer?
This summary of the opening of PMMM may sound familiar to anyone who has seen other mahou shoujo anime, for it uses numerous tropes that are standard features of the genre. Mahou shoujo anime typically centre around an apparently ordinary teenage girl who, on encountering a magical creature (sometimes known as a mascot character), is given magical powers and a cool costume to go with them, then goes on to fight evil and uphold justice, usually while having to keep her magical identity secret from family and friends.
The most economical way to convey the extent to which the opening of PMMM adheres to the established conventions of the genre is through a direct comparison with earlier mahou shoujo anime. In Table 1, PMMM is compared with Sailor Moon (1992–1997), probably the best-known mahou shoujo anime in the West; Cardcaptor Sakura (1998–2000), another well-known mahou shoujo, broadcast (in a significantly edited and straightwashed form) in the West as Cardcaptors (2000–2001); and Lyrical Girl Nanoha (2004)—a series that is less well known, but significant in this context because, like PMMM, it was directed by Akiyuki Shinbou.
This table is far from being an exhaustive list of mahou shoujo tropes, but is indicative of the extent to which the opening of PMMM conforms to the features typical of the genre. It does so in terms both of major elements (the existence of a magic-granting mascot creature reminiscent of Sailor Moon’s Luna, Sakura’s Kero or Nanoha’s Yuuno) and of details, such as the protagonist running to school with toast from breakfast dangling from her mouth, a habit associated with the disorganised Usagi Tsukino (alias Sailor Moon). The result is that, the jarring surrealism of the labyrinth sequences notwithstanding, there is little in the first two episodes of PMMM to suggest that it is anything but a relatively typical mahou shoujo anime. This impression is reinforced by the show’s official trailer, which carefully selects only the gentlest and least disturbing sequences from its early episodes and matches them with an equally saccharine text, for example describing Kyubey simply as a “magical messenger who will grant a girl’s one wish” (the inadequacy of which description will become apparent).Footnote 1
The conventional nature of the opening episodes is underlined, but also somewhat undermined, by the degree of self-aware genre-savviness exhibited by some of the characters. Sayaka, in particular, recognizes both Homura’s appearance in Madoka’s dream and her later incarnation as a mysterious transfer student as anime clichés. Madoka, enticed by the prospect of becoming a magical girl, takes time to sketch out “costume ideas” in her school notebook (Episode 2). Although these details ostensibly highlight the show’s mahou shoujo credentials, the degree of self-consciousness they imply may hint that this is something of a pose. It may also reflect the fact that, by 2011, the mahou shoujo genre had a long and rich history, of which middle-school students such as Madoka and Sayaka would plausibly have some awareness.
It is only at the end of Episode 3 that the viewer is alerted unambiguously to PMMM’s departure from the conventional parameters of mahou shoujo anime. Here, in a scene set within a cake-themed labyrinth, we see Mami fight and apparently kill a witch, witnessed by Madoka and Sayaka (both still pondering Kyubey’s offer). At Mami’s moment of triumph a giant caterpillar-like creature hatches from the witch’s body, bites Mami’s head off, and feasts on her corpse. Madoka and Sayaka are horrified, and so it seems were many of the show’s viewers. Mami had been introduced as a main character, a dependable mentor to the other girls. As if to confirm her permanence, she features heavily, along with Madoka and Sayaka, in the show’s opening credits. To kill off such a major character so suddenly and violently, as early as the third episode of the series, was shocking, and the scene has become notorious in consequence. Youtube hosts numerous reaction videos to the series that allow us to witness the shock of unprepared viewers at Mami’s death (see, for example, Timekeeper 2015).
This moment marks a decisive shift in the series. The first two episodes ran the end credits against an everyday picture of Madoka, Sayaka, and their friend Hitomi, set to a melancholy ballad performed by Madoka’s voice actress. From Episode 3 the ending theme changes to rock guitar and drums, against an animation of Madoka walking, then running, past her silhouetted friends into the darkness of an abyss. Early in the following episode the distraught Madoka, who is suffering flashbacks, leaves the sketch book containing her naïve sketches of herself as a magical girl in Mami’s empty apartment, as if abandoning the idealistic version of magical girlhood that Mami had embodied and to which she herself had aspired.
What does this change of direction imply? There are several possible interpretations, distinct but by no means mutually exclusive. We may view this simply as a change of tone—from an essentially upbeat show about good triumphing over evil to a dark and unhappy show that emphasizes the suffering and cost involved in heroism. We might in addition say that this tonal shift indicates a change of genre, from shoujo to seinen anime, that the mode of address has changed, and with it the implied viewership. Finally, we might suggest that there is also a change of audience, again from shoujo to seinen—that is to say, from girls in their early teens to boys and men in their late teens and early twenties. It is tempting in fact to assume that each of these three potential inferences implies the other two, but the situation is rather more complex, and for the moment it is helpful to keep them distinct. The dual function of terms such as “shoujo” and “seinen” in describing both genres and audiences is a potential source of confusion and ambiguity here, much as “child” and “adult” are within children’s literature criticism.
In subsequent episodes, the initial optimism of PMMM continues to be undermined. It turns out that Kyubey is not after all a helpful mascot in the tradition of Sailor Moon’s Luna. Rather, he is a predator who lures girls into a Faustian contract for his own ends, knowing that (as well as the enticement of a wish and magical powers) he can rely on his victims’ familiarity with the mahou shoujo genre itself and the attraction of fighting evil while looking fabulous. The genre-savviness of Sayaka and Madoka is thus revealed as wrong-genre-savviness (TV Tropes, n.d.). That is why, for example, the term “Soul Gem” causes them no alarm. After all, Sailor Moon possessed a lot of magical paraphernalia with similarly grandiose names, such as Spiral Heart Moon Rod and Moon Power Tiara. Anyone familiar with mahou shoujo anime might expect magical girls to be issued with accessories of this sort. What Kyubey fails to mention, but is lying in plain sight, is that the Soul Gems are actually containers for the girls’ souls, which he “rips out of their bodies” when he makes them into magical girls, leaving their bodies as mere “exterior hardware” (Episode 6).
Thereafter, the emphasis of the series is on the inescapable tragedy of life as a magical girl. Not only are magical girls slaves to their fate of fighting witches (which they must do in order keep their Soul Gems from becoming corrupted), but when they inevitably succumb to despair they are destined to become witches themselves. This metamorphosis is in fact the point of Kyubey’s system: Kyubey is an alien, who uses the anguish of magical girls, and specifically the emotional energy generated by their witch-transformations, as a power source. The device of aliens harvesting energy from humans is not in itself an innovation (energy-sucking aliens were regular antagonists in Sailor Moon) but here it is an industrial process. Magical girls are created precisely to fall into despair and become witches, and are then recycled as fodder for new magical girls.
One of the favourite manoeuvres of PMMM’s writer, Gen Urobuchi, is to take the tropes of the mahou shoujo genre and explore their possible rationales. Should we assume that mascot creatures are benevolent, or might they have ulterior motives? Where do monsters-of-the-week come from? Why is it that magical girls (like other cartoon characters) are able to withstand so much physical punishment in fights without suffering serious injury? (Here, it is because their bodies are merely animated corpses, sustained by magic.) Why is it always magical girls, rather than boys, women or men? Kyubey explains that he chooses teenage girls because “females in the second stage of development” have the greatest fluctuations in emotional state and thus make the most abundant energy sources (Episode 9).
This approach has led to PMMM being widely discussed by Western fans as a “deconstruction” of the mahou shoujo genre,Footnote 2 in that it follows the consequences of the genre’s assumptions through and attempts either to find explanations for them or to consider how they might play out in a real-world context—for example, showing the mental trauma caused by witnessing a sudden violent death. For those who are dismissive of the mahou shoujo genre, PMMM’s strength lies in its ability to expose the genre’s supposed absurdities; for others, it validates the genre by stress-testing its possible weaknesses and resolving issues apparent in earlier series. Some fans see the show’s change of direction at Episode 3 as a disclosure of its true nature, a pulling away of the “cute” mahou shoujo mask to reveal the nihilistic truth behind, making it “a seinen that’s cleverly disguised as a shoujo” (MasterKingJC4ever, 2012), in the words of one Youtube reviewer. In this discourse, the seinen and shoujo genres are placed firmly in opposition.
Nevertheless, the conclusion of the series arguably rehabilitates what one might call mahou shoujo ideals and aesthetics. At the start of the final episode, the notebook containing Madoka’s magical-girl sketches, which she had abandoned in Mami’s apartment, is returned to her, suggesting that her first, idealistic vision of magical girlhood is not after all to be definitively discarded. When she finally becomes a magical girl in that same episode (in which incarnation she appears in a pink costume stereotypically bedecked with ribbons and frills), Madoka makes a wish to erase Kyubey’s system, rearranging the universe in consequence. Under Madoka’s dispensation evil still exists, but now takes the form of wraiths (魔獣, “majuu”, literally “magical beasts”) rather than witches (魔女, “majo”). When magical girls’ Soul Gems are exhausted in fighting wraiths, instead of turning into witches they simply disappear from the mortal world and are led by the now-godlike Madoka to a comfortable afterlife. “Magical girls make hopes and dreams come true” (Episode 12), declares the transformed Madoka—a line that would not have been out of place in Sailor Moon. The ending of the series is not entirely happy: magical girls still die in battle, and Madoka’s transformation means that she is forgotten by almost everyone she loved; but it is far less inconsistent with previous mahou shoujo anime than the wholly bleak trajectory of Episodes 3-11. The final generic status of PMMM is thus debatable: does it come to praise the mahou shoujo genre, or to bury it?