It's always nice to see some original anime works in any new season line-up, and this time around we've been served up an intriguing affair for winter 2011 - a SHAFT-produced, Shinbo-directed magical girl affair with character designs by Ume Aoki of Hidamari Sketch fame.
This opening episode sets out its stall in terms of eye-catching backdrops and scenery immediately, dropping us into a world seemingly on the brink of collapse and the show's titular character Madoka watching an unknown girl fighting (and seemingly losing) a battle of some kind while some bizarre (yet cute) creature tells Madoka that she can change her destiny with the powers she possesses if she becomes a magical girl.
Of course, all of this turns out to be a dream, allowing us time to be introduced to Madoka's every day life - a swish, spacious futuristic house, devoted parents and some great friends. Of course, it isn't long before things start to get a little odd for our future magical girl, and this descend into all sorts of insanity begins with the introduction of a mysterious transfer student (aren't they always) named Homura Akemi; a girl who also looks uncannily like the one Madoka saw in her dream. Indeed, Akemi seems to have an interest in Madoka as well, eventually asking her for help finding the nurse's office at school only to deliver a decidedly odd speech on how important it is for Madoka to be herself.
If that wasn't odd enough, things really take a turn for the surreal as a visit by Madoka and her friend Miki Sayaka to a CD store ends up with Madoka finding herself called by the despairing cries of the odd creature from her dream, which in turn sees her coming face to face with Akemi. Throw in a descent into madness (or stepping into a Beatles music video perhaps - it was near a CD shop after all) and an encounter with another magical girl, and you have yourself a thoroughly odd introductory instalment.
Certainly, if there's one thing to be said about Puella Magi Madoka Magica from this first episode it's that it succeeds in catching the eye - we're used to flashes of SHAFT's visual insanity, but it's often relegated to opening or ending credits rather than a pivotal moment of an episode, and its use here is jarring and psychedelic but nonetheless pretty effectively. Similarly, the precise, angular backdrops (a la Bakemonogatari) gives the show a very futuristic aesthetic which doesn't mesh entirely with the slightly sketchy feel of the characters themselves in my head just yet, but again it's an intriguing clash that may well work in the long run.
As for the plot itself, it's really far too early to say where it's heading - for an opening episode it certainly set everything up pretty solidly and gave us a feel for its major characters, but the real key to the show's success is going to be where it goes from here. Either way, this looks likely to be the season's most eye-catching (and arguably its most ambitious) series, so let's hope it has a story, plot and character development to match.