I’ve heard about this anime for a couple of years now, but only recently got around to watching it.
Dude. It’s amazing.
The name in Japanese translates to “Magical Girl Madoka Magica”; I’m not sure why they decided to translate the title to Latin* for the English release. It probably works best if you have at least a basic awareness of the “magical girl” genre, as exemplified by things like Sailor Moon: young girls get supernatural powers so they can fight evil. Usually this involves some kind of flashy “by the power of Greyskull”-type transformation from their ordinary, unassuming persona to their more wondrous selves. Madoka is a deconstruction of the genre, one where being a magical girl is not all it’s cracked up to be — but I think it would be good even if you don’t have any familiarity with specific genre under discussion. “You get magic powers to fight evil” is a broad enough concept that anything problematizing it will still be comprehensible.
It’s hard to say much about the show without giving stuff away. Madoka and her friend Sayaka encounter a creature called Kyubey, which offers to make them magical girls: if they make a wish, Kyubey will grant it, and that creates a contract wherein they get powers but have to fight witches to protect the people around them. But right from the start, a magical girl named Akemi Homura is trying to prevent them from signing up; eventually, of course, you find out why. It probably isn’t what you expect, though.
Right from the start, I liked the way the show approached the whole “witches” concept. Apparently the original plan was to make them basically kaiju, but instead they’re much more abstract: a witch is basically a hidden pocket realm a magical girl must enter, and only by defeating what she finds in there can she destroy the witch. The realms are surreal, trippy places, each one usually on a theme (one looked like “craving” or “addiction” to me), and so the battles proceed along less-predictable lines.
One of the nice things about the series is that it’s short and self-contained: twelve episodes and you’re done, though the franchise as a whole contains other components. This isn’t the kind of story that could support a much larger structure. Before long everything is spiraling wildly out of control for the characters; if the tale kept going, you’d lose that sense of genuine desperation.
I won’t call it a happy show. But if you’re looking for something dramatic, I highly recommend it.
*I bought the soundtrack, and discovered that most of the song titles are in Latin. One of them caught my eye: “Numquam vincar.” Hmmm,, I thought to myself, that’s an odd form. They’re probably just making up dog Latin, like most people do. But wait a sec — “vincere” is a third-conjugation verb, so the A would make that subjunctive. Why an R, though? That’s an bizarre ending. <a wind stirs, shifting the dust that has accumulated atop my knowledge of Latin grammar> Hang on. “Loquor.” That’s an R ending. What the heck is that? It’s, uh. Passive? Passive. First person singular passive. “Vincar” is first person singular present subjunctive passive. HOLY SHIT IT’S ACTUAL GRAMMATICALLY CORRECT LATIN. Yayyyyyyy!
For those who never studied Latin, if I’ve blown enough dust off my Latin knowledge to translate it correctly, “Numquam vincar” means “May I never be defeated.” EDIT: Sovay reminds me in LJ comments that the tense marker falls out of third conjugation verbs in the future tense, so while I could be correct in my translation — the two forms are the same — it probably means “I will never be defeated” instead.