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Andrew Osmond referees witches against penguins

Imagine the situation: a mother with her little girl, going to a Tokyo cinema to see if there’s a film to amuse her daughter. Mum picks a promising movie. The poster (see above) shows a set of cute cartoon girls in bright billowy costumes, like the Precure show her daughter watches. She pays and takes the girl into the cinema. She’s surprised to see nearly all the audience is adult, and largely male. When the film starts, she drifts into a doze… to be woken by her child, tugging on her sleeve. “Mum,” she whispers, “I don’t understand this film, it’s scary…

Both Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Mawaru Penguindrum are strange, subversive creatures. They’re anime that borrow the ideas and imagery of cartoons for young children, but they’re aimed at much older viewers. The above story is based on the account of a person who saw Rebellion, a cinema sequel to Madoka Magica in Japan.

Specifically, Madoka and Penguindrum borrow from the ‘magic girl’ anime genre that’s almost sixty years old, about ordinary-seeming girls concealing magical powers. In the kid’s shows, that’s a pretext for funny hijinks and exciting adventures. In Madoka and Penguindrum, the stories get dark and nasty, bringing in sex, violence, madness and other horrors. The BBFC rated one portion of Penguindrum “18.” The website doesn’t go into details, but we can testify the episodes include a teenager’s seduction by an adult, non-consensual bondage – yes, that kind of bondage – and a subplot with traumatic child abuse. (The latter is shown through surreal metaphor, non-pornographic but oh so disturbing.) Hardly teatime tot viewing!

In Madoka Magica, the title schoolgirl Madoka dreams of a city-destroying apocalypse, and meets a cute, cat-like fantasy creature called Kyubey. It tells her she can become a magic girl, to grant wishes and save people from demonic witches. Madoka’s best friend is thrilled by the offer, but a forbidding new transfer student is hellbent on stopping Madoka’s magic. Why? Something is terribly wrong with this fairy tale. There are shocks, twists and deconstructions, doing for the children’s hero’s journey what Cabin in the Woods did for horror. Only Madoka Magica takes its heroines far further than Cabin, on reality-bending quests reaching for heaven and falling to hell… Believe us, the cute trailer below is fiendishly misleading!

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Penguindrum starts with a beautiful girl called Himari seemingly dying, devastating her devoted brothers Shoma and Kanba. Then she’s revived by a kitsch ‘penguin’ novelty hat, which turns her into a sexy slave-driving goddess. It’s a psychedelic sequence which homages the extended transformations that are a fixture of magic girl shows (and yes, it gets repeated a lot!) The bonkers Himari dominatrix commands her siblings to track down the enigmatic “Penguin Drum.”

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The ensuing adventure swings from whimsy to farce to melodrama to… the stuff we mentioned earlier. There are bumbling, scene-stealing magic penguins. There’s a bunny-boiling stalker schoolgirl. There’s a magic library – and that’s all in the first half. A shocking mid-point reveal brings in recent Japanese history; we’ve discussed the history here , but click only if you’ve seen the show, or don’t mind spoilers.

Whereas Madoka Magica is a magic girl show through and through, Penguindrum is a hybrid with other ingredients. For example, there are references to the author Kenji Miyazawa and his fantasy Night on the Galactic Railroad, animated by Gisaburo Sugii. There are echoes of Hans Christian Andersen stories like “The Snow Queen” and “The Brave Tin Solder.” Heroine Himari (in her non-transformed state) becomes a brave Alice in Wonderland. For variety (and laughs), there are cheesy spoof references to The Rose of Versailles, a classic manga and anime about a cross-dressing swordswoman.

Penguindrum is written by Kunihiko Ikuhara, who created Revolutionary Girl Utena, another highly surreal anime with magic girl trappings. Penguindrum grows close to Utena in later episodes, with heavy symbolism and surrealism which practically swallow everything; the end leaves the whole story open to multiple readings. But you could equally compare Penguindrum to Welcome to the NHK or Paranoia Agent for black farce; to Angel Beats for its extreme swings from comedy to tragedy; or to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic for its lyrical, albeit dark, fantasy, intermixed with reality at its scuzziest.

As cartoons, Penguindrum and Magica Madoka boast extremely odd looks. Madoka Magica is full of fabulously unreal décor and weird buildings, like a cute Caligari. Heck, just look at Madoka’s house and school (those glass classrooms!) That’s before you reach the handmade monster meanies, which were apparently bred from Yellow Submarine and some of the weirder classic Czech cartoons. For its part, Penguindrum’s psychedelic magic girl sequence feels almost mundane in a show where background characters are faceless stick figures, and subway stations (a key to the series) are reduced to signboards and ticket barriers. And that’s just the straightforward episodes.

These series are ‘new’ kinds of magic girl anime, but with antecedents decades earlier. As a kids’ genre, magic girls go back to the 1966 Toei cartoon Little Witch Sally, influenced by the US comedy import Bewitched (which was live-action with cartoon credits). But take a look at the 1951 short story “Witch War” by the American horror author Richard Matheson, online here. Doesn’t it feel like a dark magic girl anime?

Penguindrum and Madoka take elements from kid’s media for adult shows. However, ‘magic girl’ anime still thrives as a children’s genre as well. In that way, it’s doing better than US superhero comics, attacked by Watchmen’s Alan Moore for abandoning their original audience. Toei Animation, makers of Little Witch Sally and Sailor Moon, is ten years into its epic Precure franchise (a taste here), for three to eight year-olds. Precure also spun off fourteen cinema movies. And there’s magic girl family fare by other hands; for example, Magical Sisters Yoyo and Nene, which premiered at Scotland Loves Anime.

Now, if that Japanese mother at the beginning of the article had gone to one of those films, she could have avoided a whole lot of grief…

Puella Magi Madoka Magica, the complete series, is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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