Puella Magi Madoka Magica hit the world of anime like a meteor. While magical girl series had never shied away from dark storylines, as Princess Tutu and Sailor Moon S illustrate, the most popular series by 2013 were mostly targeted toward young girls and hardcore franchise fans. Madoka reframed its narrative with the trappings of grand tragedy, capturing its heroines in a cycle where gaining the power to fight monsters would eventually turn them into one. It hit big with older male fans, birthing a whole new subgenre of grimdark magical girl stories aimed at male audiences.
Echoing the juggernaut success of Neon Genesis Evangelion back in the 1990s, the market soon became cluttered with also-rans attempting to copy the surface elements of what made Madoka so successful. Often, this meant amping the level of tragedy to near-comical levels or descending into the realm of torture porn to wring out the last drops of “cute things suffering” pathos from the concept. Almost every single one of them forgot that Madoka, cash-grab films notwithstanding, ended on a hopeful and restorative note.
That long-missing piece is what made this season’s GRANBELM such a pleasant surprise. The plot centered on magical girls fighting it out, Grail War-style, for all the world’s magical power — using not just regular spells but giant robots. The hook of “magical girls in mecha” got people in the door, and those who stayed were rewarded with a dark magical girl show that finally recaptured the sense of bittersweet beauty and iron determination that gave Madoka such staying power.
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GRANBELM doesn’t shy away from that connection, either. The show’s pastel color palette directly evokes the pink-and-purple leading romance of its predecessor, and it even snagged Madoka herself, Aoi Yuki, to voice the show’s major antagonist. But while the inspiration might be obvious, GRANBELM also has its own voice.
The show’s greatest moments of success aren’t its melodramatic moments in which characters reveal dastardly plans or enact sudden violence. They’re the quiet character-driven scenes where the leads hang out outside a convenience store or go camping with friends. Its characters are at their most human off the battlefield, their most well-developed when they’re actually talking rather than waiting for the next ominous full moon.
It’s a fascinating balancing act, not always successful but constantly engrossing. With well-earned twists, gorgeous production values, a refreshing dearth of fanservice, and an ending that felt genuinely daring and unique for its genre, GRANBELM is a sleeper hit that I look forward to seeing others discover.