Hello again, dear readers.  Sorry for disappearing unannounced; sometimes reality intrudes.  But let’s get right back to it!

I’m extremely skeptical of the perennial claim that anime is fading.  If 2011 is anything to go by, we’re in a beautiful heyday, more satisfying in some ways than even the Akiba-kei boom of 2006-7.  Creativity is in abundance.  Things are good.  Let’s sit back and appreciate that today, shall we?

So, without further ado, here are my picks for the ACAA, arranged by season.

Image source: Pixiv ID #20317045

Winter: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

This takes home the trophy for tight, economical storytelling.  Even now, well into the age of the twelve/thirteen-episode show, most shows toddle around as if they had many more, only to crash headlong into a flaccid conclusion.  Studio SHAFT didn’t waste a minute with Madoka Magica; once the ruse of the first three episodes was up, we were taken on a thrilling ride to despair and back.  And at the end, like all good tragedies, there was bittersweet catharsis.

Shortlist: Hourou Musuko, Dragon Crisis!

Image source: Pixiv ID #19927855

Spring: Steins;Gate

So many adaptations crash and burn.  Either that or they collapse under the weight of references to the original, a natural consequence of a market that favors hardcore fans.  So Steins;Gate was a true rarity, taking its ambitious source material (conspiracies, time travel, the fate of mankind and the love of a woman — things geeks take to like a fat kid to a pudding cup) and making a TV adaptation that was faithful, thrilling, but most importantly, accessible.

Also, this.

Shortlist: Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko, Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae wo Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai.

Summer: Usagi Drop

For characterization and scripting, Usagi Drop is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but where it really shines is its visual direction.  Rin and Daikichi live in an organic environment, full of lush colors and detail.  Little things, like the fact that people change outfits, do more to vivify the world than any number of gimmicky character designs.  In a medium so little-known for subtlety, in Usagi Drop subtlety is king.  Or queen.

Shortlist: The Idolm@ster, Mawaru Penguindrum

Fall: Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai

In some ways Akirascuro did a better job of explaining why I like this show, but I’ll still give it a shot.  If you look at the above image, it’s pretty much all there: Kobato the goth-fantasizer, unable to call on her dark persona when she has to deal with an overly-friendly stranger.  On the other side is Sena, the socially awkward beauty, who wants to be loved like in the erogames she adores, but who doesn’t realize that she’s failing at it and making Kobato very uncomfortable.

It’s a beautiful schadenfreude.  Haganai wins for characterization.

Shortlist: Un-Go, Last Exile: Fam the Silver Wing

This is probably my last word on Puella Magi MadokaMagica.  Ladies and gentlemen, as always, please mind the spoilers.  It’s been a fun ride.

“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.  The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
- Oscar Wilde

For those with an eye for such things, the costuming in Madoka is a true joy.

Each magical girl outfit reflects the personality of its wearer: Kyoko’s svelte lines and reptile-eye brooch indicating predatory ruthlessness, Sayaka’s caped musketeer look reflecting her self-image as a hero of justice, Mami’s frilly color guard embellishments indicating both discipline and a certain flamboyance.  Even Homura’s dark colors and stiletto boots speak of her burden by recalling aspects of Tomoe Hotaru, Sailor Moon’s feared and hated “Soldier of Death.”

Fashion design has lines and proportions down to a science, so understand that this is all quite deliberate on Aoki Ume’s part as the character designer.  Cheers to her for a job well done.

On the other hand, what does Madoka wear?  Why, a big fluffy dress, with frills, and lace, buttons and pretty bows!  Pinks and whites dominate the palette, and the effect in entirety is a kind of softness.

This costume doesn’t quite fit in with the others, obviously.  But if we had to point to a “classic” or “ideal” magical girl design, this would be it.  And therein lies the point, because this, too, is deliberate.  It’s Aoki Ume’s design, but it’s also Kaname Madoka’s.

I admit, I cried. Pieta-esque scenes always get me weepy.

Madoka dons the costume that she designed in the very beginning, before the rotten core of Kyuubey’s world was exposed, when she thought magical girls were special people who would save the world–  the world she knows and cares about, not an abstract dying universe.  With her wish and the power of her sacrifice, she creates that world.  It isn’t a perfect place, but it’s one at least where magical girls are true to the dreams that create them.

“Church of Madoka” jokes aside, she did essentially decide to become the patron saint and protector of magical girls.  And like the blue dress of the Virgin Mother, before they die, all of them see her: The magical girl who made the ultimate sacrifice to save them, the redeemer in frills and lace, buttons and pretty bows.

Further reading

Wah of Analog Housou is not a fan, but he goes into the visuals of the show much better than I ever could.

Beneath the Tangles finds a spiritual significance in the finale that I agree with.

(A note before we begin: Rest assured, this isn’t about the latest episode.)

Another very short entry, because I’m exhausted.  But I didn’t notice this being mentioned on the MadokaMagica Wiki, and I think it’s rather important–  at least for the fans who dedicate so much collective brainpower to unlocking the mysteries of the setting.  This one’s for you guys.

Remember the hubbub over Inception, dreams within dreams and all that crazy stuff?  In particular, remember the interesting techniques that the soundtrack used as the characters progressed further into the dream world?

If you haven’t seen the movie and can’t be bothered, here’s the short version:

A bunch of free agents are cavorting around inside a man’s dreams, going deeper and deeper into his mind in search of a psychic jackpot.  According to their plan, there’s a song that will play in the real world, essentially to wake everybody up.  But because perception of time stretches out the further down in the mind one goes, the music actually plays more slowly depending on what level of the psyche the characters are on.  At its most extreme, when the main character ends up in the deepest parts of the subconscious, a single note becomes a long and ominous roar.

Okay, now.

Consider Kalafina’s “Magia,” the ending theme of Mahou Shoujo MadokaMagica.

The very first time we encounter this song is actually at the beginning of the first episode.  But you may not have noticed something the first time you watched.  Unfortunately, I can’t link to any clips of this part, but I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume everybody has the first episode on hand.

So go ahead, please queue it up.  Notice something?

That’s right: “Magia” is slowed down.

Is it decisive proof that the global reset hypothesis isn’t true?  Well, no, not exactly.  But given our particular time and place in pop culture, it’s an intriguing case for a prophetic dream.

Incidentally, Inception was quite popular in Japan.  Ken Watanabe will do that.

A little while ago, Otou-san on Twitter asked me to elaborate on why I found gg fansubs’ choice to translate mahou shoujo as “Puella Magi” dissatisfying.  This is my reply.

(Warning: I’m going to assume you’ve at least seen up to episodthree four of Mahou Shoujo MadokaMagica. Otherwise, this is going to spoil you something fierce.)

 

A nice pretty picture to hide what's ahead. Much like the show itself.

“I just turned my back for a second, just one second.”
- Jason L. Blair, Little Fears

I find the content of MadokaMagica increasingly disturbing.  Mami’s death was one thing, gruesome and unexpected as it was.  But it’s the aftermath of the death that really chills: Homura explaining how long it will take before anyone notices Mami’s gone, and how she’ll remain an unsolved case because her body is literally buried where no one will ever find it.

On the books, Tomoe Mami is fifteen years old, missing and presumed dead.  Madoka is quite right to be terrified of this, the fate of Puella Magi.

Actually, in that scene Homura says that that this is the fate of “mahou shoujo”—which we in the west have long translated as “magical girls.”  I mean Sailor Moon, Cure Blossom and yes, even Nanoha; we’re being told that their ultimate destiny is to die violently and be left behind.  As they would in real life, if children were made responsible for defending the world against monsters.

To offer another example:

Japan has the highest rate of suicide in the developed world” has entered the realm of tired cliché.  But really, think about it: Every fifteen minutes or so, someone in Japan is taking off their shoes and leaping from a rooftop to smear their brains against the pavement, or jumping in front of a passing express train, or sitting in a cabin full of burning charcoal briquettes, sleeping pills in hand, often with other people who have met for that sole purpose.  It’s horrifying.

Mami, Sayaka and company are magical girls who fight witches, which sounds wonderful on paper.  But thus far, about all we really know about witches is that they coerce people into committing suicide, hiding in the gaps of an overwhelmingly huge statistic.  The latest attempt we’ve seen even piggybacks on a popular wave of suicides by hydrogen sulfide gas. Queen Beryl and the Dark Kingdom these guys are not.

When MadokaMagica was just starting its run, Ogiue Maniax asked us to really think about what’s being subverted in the show, rather than simply saying “it’s a subversion” and assuming that we knew what that meant.  This, for the most part, is why I’m abandoning gg’s subs.  No ill will against the hard-working fansubbers, but I believe that for this show to work, to have the most punch and take us for a ride, magical girls need to be magical girls as the story rips their lives apart.

Also, those Morning Rescue commercials.  Not a big fan, myself.

Further reading

A Day Without Me has written some intriguing pieces on suicide in Paranoia Agent, Durarara!! and most recently, Shiki.

I wrote once about the parallels between Canaan and the 1995 Tokyo sarin gas attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo. Creepy cult/new religion-based death seems to be a common motif.

I look deep into your heart and soul
Make your wildest dreams come true
I got voodoo, I got hoodoo, I got things I ain’t even tried
And I’ve got friends on the other side
- Dr. Facilier, “Friends on the Other Side”

If there’s anything to learn from Dr. Faustus, it’s that sorcery is one big con job.

A confidence man isolates a mark.  He makes them feel like they’re committing a crime, or at least doing something that they can’t tell anyone about.  Then he tricks them out of something precious.  A conman could, for example, pretend that he’s been hit by someone’s car and demand a few hundred dollars “just to cover hospital fees,” which they’ll gladly pay over facing the risk of penalty.  Or how about the Nigerian Letter?

In the very best con games, the mark doesn’t even realize they’re being conned.  They think in some small way that their prayers have been answered.  At least for a while.

In the world of Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, magical girls become what they are by contracting with a supernatural patron, who bestows upon them a jewel containing their powers.  To maintain these jewels, magical girls must periodically sacrifice enemies called witches and use their “grief seeds.”  Combined with the many onscreen Goethe quotes, the devil’s deal theme is fairly explicit here.

But I’m also noticing that this system is an economy in miniature, with grief seeds as the resource and magical girls as the consumers.  Mami, the mentor figure, has already stated that this relationship between their power and their prey causes competition among magical girls.

So why go out of one’s way to recruit more?  Mami is making this too easy.  She says that this is dangerous work, but she neatly shields the girls from danger when they go on their practice run.  And in any case, all that the girls can think about is the wish that comes with their contract.  Become a magical girl, and you can make any dream come true!  How amazing!

It distracts them.  But of course it does.

Here’s what I think: The tea-sipping, ever-confident Mami is going to use her initial kindness and “you’re making this choice for yourself” sales pitch to lure Madoka into… something.  The girls are rubes, and the other shoe will eventually drop, but how badly off they will be depends on what’s really at stake.  That is, the real resource in this struggle may not be energy as such, but the information about where exactly that energy comes from.

 

She's got friends on the other side.

To put it another way, we need to keep asking: What are grief seeds made of? Because if the answer is “the broken dreams of magical girls,” then this affair takes on a whole new dimension of wrongness.

Further reading

Ten of the most famous confidence games, for your reading pleasure.

A thoughtful post from THAT Anime Blog about how lonely it all is.

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