A review series requested by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, with thanks for multiple contributions to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The 2012 film titled [deep breath] Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie - Beginnings is not, to begin with, a "movie based on a TV show" in the sense it's generally meant. My readers who are more knowledgeable about anime can tell me if this sort of thing is common, but Beginnings is in fact the feature-length condensation of the first eight episodes of the Urobuchi Gen-written 12-part 2011 series Puella Magi Madoka Magica, with some of the animation touched up and lines re-recorded. The changes its makes to its source material, as I understand it, are largely that of curation and judicious trimming: it presents the story in a steadier flow with some of the sloppiest plot threads removed.

To these wholly virgin eyes, it's a perfect editing job. The narrative flow of Beginnings is perfectly smooth, with its episodic structure disguised through a steady character arc. And while it ends on a cliffhanger, it's otherwise completely self-contained, telling one story and building up to one crescendo that kicks us over to the next movie on a terrific dramatic bottleneck that gathers all of the film's threads into a pair of deeply unsettling climaxes. It's a splendid opening to a trilogy that's also a snappy piece of world-building in its own right

Puella Magi Madoka Etcetera is, in all forms, is a subversion of and philosophical inquiry into the "magic girl" school of Japanese animation, and we should go no further into it before I confess that I don't entirely know what that means; it's a genre I haven't been exposed to in its "pure" form, so I can't entirely appreciate the satire here. But anyway, there are three schoolgirls who are best friends in the town of Mitakihara: Kaname Madoka (Yuki Aoi), Miki Sayaka (Kitamura Eri), and Suzuki Hitomi (Shintani Ryoko), about whom we don't really need to worry too much. Madoka and Sayaka are the truly close ones, and the ones with some unclear potential, that brings them to the attention of a little white rabbit-like animal with pink eyes, Kyubey (Kato Emiri). He - it? - makes an offer to both of the girls: he can grant any wish, no matter how outlandish, to the young women he deems worthy. In exchange, they must form a contract with him to fight the witches that constantly threaten to overtake the human world.

This chance to become a magic girl and have one dream come true would seem to be a slam-dunk - Kyubey is mystified, and increasingly annoyed, at the girls' reluctance to jump at his offer - but there are dark shadings. For one, the new girl at school, Akemi Homura (Saito Chiwa), seems to know all about Kyubey, and she's hellbent on keeping Madoka from taking the creatures offer, going so far as to attempt to kill the little critter. For another, the world of witch-hunting is a terrifying and dangerous one: Madoka and Sayaka are teamed up with chipper magic girl Tomoe Mami (Mizuhashi Kaori), who takes them into the inchoate labyrinths where witches dwell, and what they see there is the stuff of nightmares.

Those nightmare realms are also the stuff of top-level animation. This is a lovely piece of animation in general, but the witch realms, designed by animation team Gekidan INU Curry are as gorgeous and imaginative as animation in the 2010s gets. They're collages, to start with: apparent multi-media universes of scraps taken from dozens of sources, built around rough themes (the animators have identified Czech and Russian animation traditions as their influence - makes perfect sense when you think of where the best witch legends come from). Each of them exists in a different style, from thick swatches of roughly torn paper forming an explosion of textures, to the bright, smudgy poster-paint look of the giant clown-worm that comes along to kick the film's sense of menace and unpredictability into overdrive. The contrast between the backgrounds and the cel-animated characters is a vivid way of showcasing how those characters are terrible visible and out of place; later on, as they character animation starts fade into the backgrounds, it's even more nerve-wracking, since the rules we thought we'd worked out about how the film's aesthetic works have been pulled away from us.

Even in the everyday scenes, PMMM has a lovely, distinctive look, with characters dominated by solitary colors in a way that never feels unnatural, and with textures and shading applied to the characters using pencils over the final coloring, or at least the digital equivalent thereof. Anime, as a rule, owes its style and existence to comics, but this one goes a step farther, by pulling in the specific textural elements of a black-and-white comic book to a digitally-colored 2-D animated film. It probably doesn't actually look like nothing else out there - Japanese animation is a huge world and no one person can see most of it, let alone all of it - but it sure as hell doesn't look conventional, to its immense benefit. The conflict between bright glossiness and rough sketchwork drives the film's mood as much as anything to do with the story or characters.

Nothing against those stories or characters. The film's steadily darkening arc is gripping, as it slowly expands the film's world outwards, making each character seem a little more troubled bit by bit (and letting Kyubey seem more threatening every time his motionless face and staring eyes get a close-up; the only comparable exercise). Each of its main characters finds themselves openly addressing rough questions about how We Are To Behave in a different way: Madoka by questioning how doing good is something that needs a bribe, Sayaka by trying to use sacrifice for another as a way of making people think better of her, Mami by squinting her eyes and refusing to see anything, Homura by attempting to save others from making her own mistakes, and Sakura Kyoko (Nonaka Ai), the last magic girl to enter the picture in the wake of the big mid-film tragedy, by embracing selfish nihilism after trying to do good deeds fails her. It's exactly the opposite of the untroubled wish-fulfillment fantasy promised by its basic scenario, and even without benefit of a completed narrative, it presents a suitably complex moral puzzle to gnaw over alongside Madoka, a most satisfyingly ambivalent protagonist.

Reviews in this series
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie - Beginnings (Shinbo, 2012)
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie - Eternal (Shinbo, 2012)
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie - Rebellion (Miyamoto, 2013)