Magica Quartet (w), Mura Kuroe (a, Oriko), Masugitsune/Kawazu-Ku (a, Tart)
March 24, 2015 (Oriko)/April 21, 2015 (Tart)
Spoiler Warning for the anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica
When Puella Magi Madoka Magica aired in 2011 it was sold as a sweet, cute, typical magical girl show, complete with a pastel-colored opening theme song featuring its titular heroine in goofy pratfalls. Yet the actual show was a dark deconstruction of the genre, featuring the death of one of its major characters in episode three and the eventual revelation that all magical girls, no matter how well-intentioned, are destined to become the monstrous “witches” that future magical girls will fight. The bait and switch and the dark themes worked wonders with audiences, garnering it high ratings and reviews across the globe, but, personally, I’ve always been kind of cynical about its success.
There’s a lot I like about Madoka. The witch fight scenes are animated through the use of gorgeous collages unlike anything I’ve ever seen in any anime before or since. The music, which uses J-Pop in some pieces but operatic singing and string instruments in others, is arresting and memorable. Homura Akemi, the second or even the true first lead depending on how you look at the show, is a character that I would rank among the best female anime characters of all time due to her character growth both within the show and in her unique backstory in Episode 10, which involves her re-living the time period of the main story again and again.
Yet I don’t think the story is as revolutionary or original as it thinks it is. “Power used for just purposes may have negative consequences” is pretty well-trodden ground for the genre. It’s well known that if Sailor Moon uses all of the power of the Millennium Silver Crystal that she’ll die, and she and her cast members died many times over throughout the anime and manga. Fushigi Yugi, which came out the same year and had a heroine who recalled Usagi Tsukino so much that her voice actress was the same person who played Chibiusa, also heavily involved a Faustian bargain and mowed down 75 percent of its cast by the end of the series (including the 10 year old boy!). Revolutionary Girl Utena was specifically written as a deconstruction of the magical girl genre with themes of the folly of idealism, and that show is now old enough to drive the car its heroine turned into in its movie adaptation.
I also don’t care for the show’s constant gloominess and pessimism. I understand that it’s supposed to be to Sailor Moon what Neon Genesis Evangelion was to Gundam, but Evangelion still had adorable pet penguins and responsible adult figures getting silly drunk and two characters trying to synchronize their movements for an angel battle through a proto-Dance Dance Revolution game. Madoka, on the other hand, always seemed to take place in sad, sterile sunset land devoid of any humor and joy.
Still, despite my bones to pick with the show, I was always intrigued by Madoka’s spin-off manga. In its last episode, the show suggested a long history of magical girls being created across multiple times and histories, so why not capitalize on it?
Puella Magi Oriko Magica has the best hook of the spinoffs. Set in one of the timelines in which Homura attempted to re-write history and prevent Madoka from becoming a magical girl, Oriko, a magical girl with the ability to see the future, makes her own plans to stop Madoka. These plans involve directing Kyubey, the “cute animal” companion/unfeeling monster who gives the magical girls their wishes and powers, to turn a young child named Yuma into a magical girl, as well as working with another magical girl, Kirika, to murder other heroines as a distraction. The two-volume spinoff manga is a dark, entertaining tale for fans of the original anime. It’s story is occasionally hard to follow, but it’s nevertheless compelling and I liked how the close, almost-romantic relationship between Oriko and Kirika served as a dark mirror to the relationship between Madoka and Homura that anchored the original series.
Puella Magi Oriko Magica: Extra Story puts those original characters – without the characters from the original anime – in a tale of their own, and unfortunately it doesn’t have the compelling story or the bite of the initial volumes. I feel like I forgot about Kirika’s dull story about her former best friend Erika as soon as I read it, just because it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. The second story in the volume is a little bit better, featuring Oriko bonding with Yuma and Kirika battling a magical girl with brainwashing powers. It reads a lot like Magica Quartet (the core creators of the original series: producer Iwakami Atsuhiro, director Akiyuki Shinbo, writer Gen Urobuchi, and character designer Ume Aoki) is fanficing their own work with this volume, making their former anti-heroines/villainesses more loveable by contrasting them with someone even worse. If you like that sort of thing and enjoyed Oriko and Kirika’s relationship enough to want to see it in a “fluffier” context I’d recommend this volume, but otherwise I’d just stick with the first two.
In contrast, I thought the latest ongoing spinoff to hit the United States, Puella Magi Tart Magica, had an incredibly uncomfortable hook. In the original anime’s last episode, Madoka uses her wish to create no more witches, thus restoring the souls of magical girls throughout history — including real-life figures like Joan of Arc, Cleopatra and a girl who I’m 90% certain was a Holocaust victim. Tart is the story of Joan of Arc as a magical girl. Given that Urobochi once compared his heroines to Al-Qaeda, I expected this to be a tone-deaf, tasteless exercise. Instead, I ended up loving it.
For one, Tart’s art is much better than Oriko’s. From the liner notes it seems like Oriko artist Mura Kuroe had a lot of fun drawing the manga, and I like how her jagged, pointy art looked unique and yet the characters from the original anime were still recognizable as themselves. Unfortunately, a lot of the panels are cramped and the action is difficult to follow in Oriko. I felt like I didn’t get a good look at the new characters’ outfits until the cover of Extra Story and the new, monstrous witches seemed obscured too often by action lines or word balloons.
Tart stays more on-model, but Masugitsune/Kawazu-Ku are also far better at storytelling through art. The characters and what they’re doing are always clear, and they use panel space a lot better. There are a lot of detailed backgrounds of castle battlements, churches and forests. It’s just more pleasant to look at overall, making for a better reading experience.
Furthermore, as goofy as “Joan of Arc as a magical girl” sounds, the creators are clearly committing to the concept. Several of the chapters feature maps of the French Dauphin vs. English vs. Burgandian-controlled areas of France, and the liner notes and captions add a lot of context about historical events and French royalty. The volume also includes a short but thorough explanation of the dynastic struggles in France and England that led to the Hundred Years War, which was actually really helpful because most of what I’ve read about this conflict in the past was solely on England’s side (usually in the context of helping the reader understand the War of the Roses or William Shakespeare plays).
And I just like the story of Jeanne d’Arc, or “Tart” (what Kyubey calls her based on an alternate spelling of “D’Arc” in one of her real-life signatures), as portrayed in this manga. The creators’ portrayals of her and her family life are informed by the historical record (they even mention that her mother was known for her religious pilgrimages) but with a twist. Sure, it’s weird to have her younger sister die of a witch’s attack, but the best alternative history fills in the gaps in this way. Tart seeing Kyubey as an angel is pretty clever, too, if creepy.
And I also love the concept of England having its own set of magical girls who fight against Tart and her partner, Riz. I can’t wait to see how this develops in future volumes. England’s magical girl seems a bit too much the cackling villainess now, but I’m hoping that will change. If not, at least I love her cat-mask.
The one thing that struck me as “off,” even for an alternate history, was I didn’t buy that Tart would accept that being a magical girl and using her powers would result in her soul corrupting. She basically reacts to this knowledge by shrugging it off and saying, “Well, it’s for France so I guess it’s okay.” Not being Catholic, I asked my friend Lea – a Catholic and literature professor who has some expertise in Shakespeare’s history plays – for her take. After kindly assuring me that this wasn’t the weirdest question she’d ever been asked, she told me that while Catholicism doesn’t have a hard-and-set ruling on “greater good” scenarios, she doubted a medieval Catholic would accept Kyubey as divine if the powers were corrupting, given that divine powers are treated as unambiguously good. I guess this is a cultural difference that just doesn’t translate.
Still, I’m looking forward to the next volume of Tart and even more Puella Magi spinoffs to come. I don’t know how long Magica Quartet prepares to make these, but I do like how both Oriko and Tart expand what was a pretty interesting if imperfect story in different ways. And, hey, if they keep up this level of historical research, I — and I say this as a Jewish woman — would totally be down for Puella Magi Holocaust Survivor Magica. I mean, at the very least it won’t be as bad as telling the story of World War II through goofy bishonen and leaving out the Jewish people entirely, but who would be that insensitive, right?