One of the most fascinating animes of the new season is also one of the most unsettling. Puella Magi Madoka Magica has all the elements of a traditional magical girl show. Ordinary girls (check) make “contracts” with a cute talking animal mascot character (check) which gives them magical powers (check) which they use to fight monsters (check) while wearing cute costumes (check).
But the series doesn’t have quite the usual cute appearance. It’s done by Akiyuki Shinbo and Shaft, which means it has Shinbo’s characteristic avant-garde cut-and-paste style. That’s a matter of taste–I kind of like it.
More importantly, the story isn’t cute. It reminds me of Shakugan no Shana, which is not a conventional magical girl show. In Shana the Flame Hazes pay a terrible price for their powers, involving constant physical danger, isolation from normal humans and the psychological consequences of associating with people who are insane by any reasonable standard.
It’s pretty clear that in PMMM the magical girls pay a similar price. And that’s the optimistic assumption. The little mascot character Kyuubee looks cute enough, but frankly he creeps me out. It wouldn’t surprise me if it turns out that he is actually evil, and the “witches” the girls are fighting are really innocent victims.
Now I’m going to go off on a pedantic translation rant. On the title screen the title is shown in Roman characters as Puella Magi Madoka Magica and in Japanese characters as Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magika. As every true anime fan knows, “mahou shoujo” means “magical girl.” As for “puella magi”, it means the same thing in questionable Latin.
(It seems to me that the feminine of “magus” should be “maga.” Or if you must have it in plural, “magae.” But that’s not what I’m ranting about.)
The thing that bugs me is that the term “puella magi” is not used in the anime, except in the Roman-character version of the title. In the Japanese dialog, “mahou shoujo” is used throughout, so Japanese listeners hear “magical girl” rather than some odd foreign term. But the English translators seem to have accepted that they should not only use PMMM as the title, but they should also translate “mahou shoujo” as “puella magi.”
This violates the principle that a translation should try, to the extent that it is possible, to recreate the experience of the original audience listening in their native language. (Who says so? I do! And this is my blog, so that makes it official.)
This is an example of a more general gripe, that English translators should not rely on the original Japanese writers (or worse, their publishers) to tell them how to translate Japanese terms into English. Why would Japanese writers be considered experts on how things should sound in English? Many of them can barely speak English at all!