This is just focusing on the 12 episode anime series and nothing else, so please keep that in mind while reading.
Here’s a basic pre-reading TL;DR: it was not made to be a ‘deconstruction of an old and tired genre’ but rather a relatively bland and ‘edgy’ idea that magical girls dealing with real-life trauma can’t be happy even if they make sacrifices to try and get it. The lack of themes common in magical girl anime make it an ‘anime with magical girls’ rather than a ‘magical girl anime.’
A summary: Middle school student Madoka Kaname and her friend Sayaka Miki encounter a small mammal-like creature named Kyubey who encourages them to make a contract with it and become a magical girl and fight witches. In exchange, they may have any one wish granted. They meet Mami Tomoe and Kyoko Sakura, veteran magical girls, and their class’ mysterious exchange student, Homura Akemi, as a magical girl, who wants to keep Madoka from accepting the contract at all costs. As they contemplate the exchange, they witness them fighting witches, which is a lot more dangerous than Kyubey had let on.
- THE STORY is decent. It’s interesting compared to a lot of other anime out there, but I find it pretty lacking for a magical girl anime. The idea that a magical girl can become the monster they are trying to defeat is interesting enough, but the way that it goes about it here feels very wrong. Furthermore, all of the girls have their own agenda and it kinda makes things very complicated when shit starts getting real. It also seems to have a weird thing about making the main characters’ lives a living hell from backstory to present, which makes the ending very unsatisfying. Everything just gets undone by the magical girl god and everything is fine. They don’t even get to try to resolve their own issues. Also, the whole ‘can’t have a wish or a dream come true without suffering all of the pain and emotional/mental trauma for it’ is very off-putting, especially for a magical girl anime. Portraying sweet, young girls with hopes and dreams as not interesting enough unless you have something lie and manipulate them to make them mentally unstable is pretty darned messed up, and in some cases really lazy and boring.
- THE ANIMATION is pretty nice, actually. It’s kinda stylized in a consistent way, and the witches’ labyrinths follow up on that style in a very creepy way that sets the mood for those scenes. The fight scenes are interesting to watch, although sometimes a bit hard to follow. The transformations, one of the main sequences that make magical girl anime interesting and draw in viewers, are very dull and don’t flow well here. Furthermore, visual themes and designs common in other magical girl anime aren’t here. Aside from the soul gems, the magical girl outfits have no common elements in their design, and when they are seen together they don’t look like they could even have had the potential to look like a proper team. The witches and their lairs seem to just have random elements that hold no real significance as well.
- THE SOUND is good enough. The characters have decent voices in both the sub and the dub, with nothing over-cutesy and high pitched to milk the moe, or under-emotional to make the dark atmosphere feel flat. The background music is very good, and fits the overall darker themes of the show very well. I don’t remember the opening or ending themes, so that says a bit about that.
- THE CHARACTERS is where things kind start to fall apart in a big way. All of the girls are flawed, which is good, but some of them are more flawed than others, and those really bad flaws are framed in such a way to make them appeal more to audiences. Homura is the biggest example of this. Her dedication to Madoka is commendable, but she loses site of the other people around her and hardly ever acknowledges them. It makes sense after everything she’s been through to try and stop all the bad things from happening, but it honestly makes her come off as very creepy and narrow-minded, compared to Madoka’s open-mindedness. Also, Homura’s ‘love’ for Madoka is never explicitly stated, but very heavily implied, leaving fans looking for that kind of representation disappointed, mostly because of how unhealthy the relationship they would have developed if it did go anywhere. Sayaka’s one-sided crush on her childhood friend and former musician is what sends her spiraling into despair, because she thought if she wished him better he would like her back, which is honestly really immature of a middle school girl as confident and just as her. Mami’s death early into the series that set the tone for the rest of it was due to her being reckless because she was so incredibly happy after Madoka said she would join her; this goes completely against what makes a magical girl anime, as friendship is supposed to make them stronger. This sudden early death at the peak of her happiness really reinforces the idea that these girls can’t and shouldn’t be happy even if they sacrifice so much, even if someone makes the ultimate sacrifice to save them. Demonizing mental illness, and to a larger extent, negative emotions in general, is extremely hurtful. Negative emotions are a part of life, and portraying them as straight up evil and have them taint their Soul Gems (literally their actual souls) really hurts the potential for these girls to actually grow as characters. Like, seriously, the idea that negative emotions like jealousy, anger, sadness, doubt, and frustration actually corrupt someone’s soul is such bullshit. Not only that, but what kind of message does that send to the more impressionable audiences dealing with emotional struggles?
Don’t get me wrong, this anime was pretty decent compared to other, modern magical girl anime, but it’s very hard to call it a deconstruction, and it’s far off from being perfect. A better way to deconstruct the magical girl genre would be something like a magical girl dealing with emotional and mental trauma in a way that doesn’t make a clear ‘good vs. evil’ line between positive and negative emotions, and comes to terms with the negatives in life, and grows as a person because of it. The vilification of negative emotions through the Grief Seeds and the way trauma is piled upon the characters after experiencing a little bit of happiness is very hurtful. The way Homura’s love comes of as crazy obsessive is really creepy, and her emotional trauma doesn’t quite justify it. And it’s really just lazy making characters that have wishes and aspirations, having them make a big sacrifice to have one of their dreams come true, and then breaking them emotionally and mentally because of their wish without making them grow from it in the end.
I guess to conclude, it’s… okay for a magical girl anime, even if it lacks a lot of things magical girl anime have, but it is by no means a deconstruction or as good as it has been hyped up to be, especially if you like more traditional magical girl anime like Sailor Moon, Princess Tutu, or Cardcaptor Sakura. If you’d like to see something that is more of a deconstruction of magical girl anime, I’d recommend Ojamajo Doremi or Revolutionary Girl Utena. Other good magical girl anime include any of the Precure series, Magic Knight Rayearth, Sugar Sugar Rune, and Wish Upon the Pleiades. Furthermore, I have heard about the Rebellion movies (and about what happens in them, and it sounds way worse than the series, honestly), but given how unsatisfying I have found this series to be, I have no desire to continue further with this franchise.