I watched this partly because I thought it was a prequel to Magical Girl Apocalypse, a super-gory horror manga about magical girls killing the human race to bring about the end of civilisation. This is something similar, by the same author. Admittedly the apocalypse hasn't yet happened, but it has a promised date (19:23 on 31st August), a name (the Tempest) and a ticking countdown. When the latter reaches zero, billions of people will die. This story is about unfortunate schoolgirls being invited by creepy doll-like "site administrators" to become magical girls, only to discover that...
1. Your magical stick is drinking your life energy. Every time you use it, you'll drain years from your lifespan. Do that too often and you'll collapse, with the innards of an eighty-year-old. This never stopped disturbing me. Oh, and you'll also bleed, possibly from your eyes.
2. ...and yet, despite all that, going magic-happy might still be the rational choice. This is not a series that measures your life expectancy in years.
3. The other magical girls include psychos, killers, emotionless lunatics, etc. They've been selected for "misfortune", which often means a backstory of rape, suicide, criminal extortion, etc. There's a Magical Hunter, for instance, with a murder book.
It's horrific... but, that said, the show has an upward trajectory. Ep.1 is the most gruelling, with a timid heroine (Aya Asagiri) who considers suicide every day and says she's still alive only because she lacks courage. At school, she's being bullied, for a definition of "bullying" that starts with razor blades and goes up to "arranging rape". At home, she's the designated punchbag of her perfect, universally loved brother, Kaname. (In a show full of vile people, Kaname is among the vilest.)
Gradually, though, Aya finds more courage. She makes a friend. She's no longer alone. Loyalty and compassion give her determination. It makes sense to me that this series got an anime adaptation when Magical Girl Apocalypse didn't, since that's a no-holds-barred gorefest where anyone can die and the characters are secondary to the splatter conveyor belt. It's proud to be trashy. (I haven't finished it yet, though.)
This story, on the other hand, is about girls rediscovering their inner strength and emotion. It has more heart, while its world, while unspeakable and horrific, isn't yet an abattoir. (The two series, despite appearances, seem unlikely to be set in the same universe. Zero day for Magical Girl Apocalypse was on 20th May.)
The big question, of course, is whether all this is watchable. Is it for masochists only? Is it hard work to slog through the show, or does it make you want to watch the next episode? Mileage will certainly vary, but personally I quite liked it. Most important, obviously, was my engagement with the characters and their emotional trajectory. Furthermore, though, I think the logic holds together. The mysteries are intricate and I was convinced by both the layers of secrets and the surprises. The set-up isn't annoyingly arbitrary (e.g. Magical Girl Raising Project), or stacking the deck against its heroines so much that fighting on is irrational (e.g. Puella Magi Madoka Magica). Characters act sensibly (except for Aya in ep.8 and she's got an excuse).
I liked it. I'd watch a second season. (Apart from anything else, there's clearly still a lot of story untold and secrets still hidden.) Occasionally it even made me laugh, e.g. the anti-Nijimin measures in ep.7. It can be horrifying or disturbing, not excluding lesser things like idol-obsessed otaku and the pop groups that pander to them. Dog Play call themselves pet idols. "Our fans who support us are our owners." It's definitely not a light watch, but I wouldn't call it gruelling either.
"Luckily I was already practising self-harm, so using the stick isn't hard."