Kaname Madoka is an ordinary, cheerful 14 year-old who spends her free time with her friends Sayaka and Hitomi. A new student, the cool, dark-haired, seemingly perfect Homura, transfers into their class and warns Madoka to not try to be anything other than what she is. Of course, Madoka doesn't know what she's talking about, and Sayaka and Hitomi dismiss Homura as a weirdo. When Madoka and Sayaka are shopping at the mall, Madoka hears a voice calling for help and follows it (followed later by Sayaka), where it turns out to be an injured, fluffy mascot creature that jumps into her arms. It's being pursued by Homura, now transformed into a magical girl, who is thwarted by a magical girl named Mami. The mascot, Kyuubey, invites Madoka and Sayaka to become magical girls like Mami. All they need to do is make a wish, which Kyuubey will grant no matter what.
I used to think the direction this series takes after episode 3 was already widely known among anime fans, but then I had this conversation with a friend who had only seen two episodes.
Me: So...do you trust that little white...thing? (Imagined response: "Haha, no!" "Right?")
Friend: Am I...not supposed to?
Me: Crap. I'm sorry! But its face doesn't move! Didn't you think that was creepy?
Friend: I thought it was unintentionally creepy!
Me: Everything in this series is intentional.
By sharing this conversation, I'm sure I've spoiled that plot point for someone else, but there's so much more to the story (and the question of exactly how and why Kyuubey isn't really trustworthy), that I felt fine with sharing it. But trust me if you haven't started or finished Madoka; it's definitely worthwhile. Great art, great pacing, great story- although the characterization isn't on the same level as the story. (As much as I like Homura.)
The rest of this review is for people who have watched all of Madoka, rather than those who are considering it.
Before watching this series, I expected what it advertised- Hidamari Sketch with magical girls, pretty much. If I had looked up the person in charge of the script and series composition, I would have found out that he's known for writing violent
As much fun as the Madoka rollercoaster was, I was worried that it would pull a Mai-Hime. That is, that it would build and build and build an increasingly complex, hopeless situation for the characters before poofing it away with a cheap deus ex machina. But it didn't. The ending was excellent- one part Evangelion, one part Sailor Moon, and one part Kannazuki no Miko, with some appropriately tear-jerky moments. (You'll probably be surprised that that I didn't tear up at Madoka and Homura's last conversation together. The parts that got to me were when Madoka started saving magical girls in different countries and time periods, and when Homura met Madoka's mom and Tatsuya.) It was as happy an ending as one could expect from this series, without, again, pulling a deus ex machina. Madoka became a god to stop girls from becoming witches- which doesn't mean that the girls became normal again, only that they disappeared and, apparently, went to Madoka's afterlife after using up their Soul Gems or whatever. While it isn't an ideal fate, it's still better than killing people as a witch. (Good enough to not make Mami go berserk and mercy-kill her comrades, at least.) While there are no more witches, there are still entities to be fought by magical girls, which is apt since the world will never be free from evil things. Madoka got exactly what she wished for- no more, no less.
While the series aired, fans had fun comparing Homura to Chikane, partly because of her character design and partly because of her dedication to protecting Madoka, everything and everyone else be damned. It would have been nice for Homura x Madoka to become canon, but I didn't expect this series to go there. Sayaka and Kyouko also became a popular pairing after their fate in episode 9 was excitedly interpreted as a double suicide by many fans. (But poor Kyouko- even though she cared about Sayaka enough to put her neck on the line for her again and again, Sayaka never really seemed to notice.)
I mentioned before that I didn't think Madoka's characterization was on par with its plot. On March 18, Shinbo Akiyuki said that he would like to do a new Madoka series, focusing on the characters in a slice-of-life setting. I realized that with the plot stripped away (more specifically, the horrible circumstances the characters have to react to and try to dig themselves out of), the characters and their interactions wouldn't, on their own, carry a series for me. (Compared to, say, the characters in Utena, who are still interesting to watch in their "school hijinks" episodes.)
But I liked Kyouko, thought Homura was a bad-ass (granted, she only became that way after repeated trauma; but even before then, I liked how, instead of summoning her own magical weapon, she just stole guns and grenades from the yakuza), and thought Madoka, Sayaka, and Mami were fine.
Despite the above criticisms, Madoka was still a really fun, twisty ride.
Story: I have no criticism for the plot, only the characterization. B+
Overall: Still, haven't had this much fun anticipating "What happens next!" while watching a series since CANAAN. A-