The Winter 2020 Anime Preview Guide
Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story
How would you rate episode 1 of
Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story ?
What is this?
Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story is based on an mobile game and streams on Funimation at 11:30 a.m. on Sundays.
How was the first episode?
I consider Madoka Magica one of the best anime of all time, an essentially flawless tragedy that accomplishes more in its twelve episodes than most shows do in several times that number. In spite of that, my expectations coming into Madoka spinoff Magia Record were fairly low, for a fair variety of reasons.
First off, I'm not really much of a sequel enthusiast; I'd generally rather see a new work of art than retread the narratives and aesthetics of a finished story, and in Madoka's case in particular, I feel like the original series perfectly captured everything this world was designed to articulate. But beyond personal preference, there were plenty of other reasons to be skeptical; for one, few members of the original Madoka Magica team would be returning for this property. Director Yuki Yase and writer Gen Urobuchi wouldn't be returning, and beyond that, Studio SHAFT has been hemorrhaging talent at a dramatic rate for over half a decade now. On top of all that, rather than constructing a new anime-original narrative, this property would actually be an adaptation of a mobile game. So given all those limitations, is Magia Record able to carry on the Madoka spirit?
Well, yes and no. It was certainly nostalgic to return to Madoka's familiar melodies, as well as the surrealist vistas of her strange world. The background art in this episode was consistently impressive, and the big witch battle at the end was elevated through plenty of inventive Witch World creations (a product of the duo Inu Curry, likely the most important returning creators). I also felt that this episode's promise of Kamihama City offering a way to save magical girls served as a pretty effective initial hook, offering a conflict that emerged naturally from the conditions of the original series, rather than simply introducing some arbitrary new antagonist.
That said, Magia Record can't help but feel somewhat unsatisfying in the context of its predecessor. Magia Record's script and plotting are far less tight than Madoka Magica; this episode often felt somewhat stilted in its pacing, and the heroines we've met feel like simplified echoes of old Madoka characters. While Madoka Magica spaced out the explanation of its mysteries across its entire runtime, Magia Record begins with all this universe's world building truths revealed, meaning it feels significantly more like a conventional magical girl property. And though Inu Curry's contributions are excellent, this episode's other action sequences are significantly less impressive, relying heavily on mediocre CG objects. On the whole, the show feels awkwardly shackled by its need to echo old Madoka Magica ideas - and so far, it hasn't really proposed anything new beyond “more time spent in the Madoka Magica world.”
Which, to be fair, might actually be enough. For me, “more of the thing you love” is rarely what I seek in shows, and while Magia Record reminds me of many of Madoka Magica's strengths, it doesn't actually build on any of them. But if you'd simply like to spend more time watching magical girls fight imaginative witch monsters, Magia Record seems to be offering plenty of that. On the whole, Magia Record feels less like an essential new Madoka Magica property than Madoka Magica bonus DLC, but that's not such a bad thing to be.
A few years ago, I helped a friend of mine develop and expand her homebrew Madoka Magica tabletop RPG rule set. It turned out pretty well, if I do say so my self, and we had a lot of fun running campaigns that mixed the original PPMM lore with our own twists on the setting and subject matter. Watching the premiere of Magia Record felt a lot like playing those homebrewed games, in a mostly positive way. It's very obviously a case of a creative group playing with tools and blueprints that were originally a part of another team's sandbox, but all of the most recognizable parts of the Madoka Magica IP are present and accounted for, and I can't deny that it is fun to experience this world and its aesthetic again.
I will admit, I was originally very skeptical of this project, mostly because I have an inherent distrust of mobile game adaptations, which struggle to overcome the inherently generic and manufactured presentation that is baked in to the very nature of many games of that ilk. Thankfully, the good folks at Shaft have put in the work to make the show look and feel like Madoka Magica right off the bat, which went a long way towards alleviating my initial worries. A lot of this I'm sure can be attributed to the directing of the Gekidan Inu Curry team, who worked on the original series and lent the Witch labyrinth's their haunting, paper-crafted beauty. This is a blockbuster production that lives up to the standards of its predecessor, at least in this first episode, and that alone will likely be enough to draw in new and old fans alike.
The writing from Gekidan Inu Curry doesn't quite hit the same highs that Gen Urobuchi achieved in the first episodes of Madoka Magica, but a lot of that comes down to the burden of being a spinoff to one of the most famous and revered anime of the decade. The show has the burden of fandom and legacy on its shoulders, which means that it both has to operate as a new story with original conflicts and characters, as well as a reliable continuation of a brand. It can't pull any of the tricks the original did, because returning fans should already know the perils of being a Magical Girl, and the true nature of Witches and Wishes, and all of that. Since the beautiful Witch labyrinths and the Magical Girl battles have to be presented as familiar tropes, the plot has to rely on ambiguity and mystery-box presentation to get viewers invested. Tamaki is another pink-haired heroine who is a bit too reserved and nice for her own good, and she and Kyubey don't even remember the wish she made. That selective amnesia seems to be the only tangible driving force behind the plot for now, since the two other new Magical Girls we meet don't make much of an impression as characters, and the setting of Kamihami City is nothing but foreshadowing mystery.
Funnily enough, we basically get the initial answer to the Wish mystery by the end of the episode: Ui, a girl who I presume was Iroha's sister, had a disease in need of curing, and apparently Iroha's wish to cure it went all Monkey's Paw on her and erased Ui from existence, or something like that. Like with those tabletop games I played, the plot feels like little more than an excuse to get a bunch of Magical Girls and Witches together to fuel some fanservice and sweet fight scenes, but I'm okay with that. Magia Record's premiere is much better than I was expecting, and I'm interested to see where it take us this winter season.
Before you jump into this show, be sure that you know the basics of how magical girls function in the world of Puella Magi Madoka Magica. The title means it when it calls this show a side story – it isn't just set in the same world as its source series, it very much relies on things established within it, and if this first episode (and the first volume of the manga) is anything to go off of, it has no interest in re-establishing the world building. For fans of the original show, as well as the game this is based directly on and the various other spin-off manga series, that's a definite plus, because without having to go over things like “why do magical girls need to be saved,” the episode is able to dive right in to the major plot.
It does that in ways that differ from the manga, which was released in English by Yen Press a bit before this show hit the air. This episode takes a much darker, more dramatic turn, featuring two witch fights and more of sense that Iroha, the magical girl we're following, is struggling with something. It also takes the liberty of removing Iroha's parents from the picture via one of those all-too-common “work trips abroad,” making it clear that we're going to be using the Orphan Fantasy trope in this version. (If you're not familiar with it, that's when adults are conveniently removed in order to allow the child protagonist to go on an adventure.) That's not something I'm sure I agree with, at least at this stage, because Iroha's wish is very much tied to ideas of family, as we can infer from her strangely halved bedroom (also a visual unique to this version), and so just getting her parents out of the story feels like it could undermine that. It could also take away from the darkness this episode works really hard to establish, so I'm not sure why the story felt the need to do it.
How this relates to the source video game, I couldn't say; from this episode it feels much more like the show has a vested interest in replicating elements of the original PMMM anime than in anything else. That does work decently well – the psychedelic visuals and dystopian elements (those “no whispering” signs are very creepy in a 1984 kind of way) give a clear sense of having fallen down a rabbit hole. Those also make Iroha's understated transformation more striking, reminding us that magical girls in this franchise's world aren't about the candy-coated dreams of elementary schoolers. It does feel like someone's been hitting the Revolutionary Girl Utena a little too hard, especially with the opening lines that could easily have been spoken by the Shadow Play Girls, but this does have potential to be very interesting as it goes on. I think I prefer the manga's more straightforward approach, if only because it feels like more of its own story, but this should be worth keeping an eye on.
Whether or not Puella Magi Madoka Magica should be considered one of the best titles of the 2010s might be debatable, but that it was one of the most impactful and influential anime titles of the decade is not. In addition to popularizing darker magical girl stories, it has inspired an impressive list of manga, novel, and game spinoffs for a mere 12-episode series. This new “side story” adapts one of the latter, so it does not directly spin off from the original. While it looks so far to be somewhat of a standalone story, the first episode clearly indicates that it is intended for established franchise fans. Newcomers may be able to follow it, but this is a rough entry point.
The most interesting aspect of the first episode is the concerted effort the production team makes to evoke the look, feel, and sound of Madoka Magica. Music director Takumi Ozawa, whose anime credits are otherwise limited, makes a fair enough approximation of Yuki Kajiura's soundtrack for the original that I had to check the credits to be sure that it wasn't her work again. The architectural designs of both Takarazaki and Kamihama (both inside and out) are very similar, and the alternate spaces that the magical girls enter when they battle the Witches have received some distinct updates in their use of CG effects but also use some of the same visual design affectations as seen in the original; this is less of a surprise since the director and writer for this one, Gekidan Inu Curry, was the production designer for the original and is credited for “Alternate Space Design” on the original's movies. Character design style is also in line with the original. However, this is not purely a stylistic recreation, as some of the visual gimmicks used are more reminiscent of the Monogatari franchise titles, especially in the way signs and symbolism are used; definitely pause and take the time to read any translated text even in advertisements, as they are rarely irrelevant. (The one sign indicating that one girl's wish was “I want to become the existence that destroys Kamihama City” seemed particularly ominous but is easy to miss if you're not paying careful attention.)
If this story is taking place in the same world but just different cities than the original (that point is not clear from the first episode) then that would place the events of the story as occurring earlier than or coinciding with the original, as Witches are still the main enemy here. Aside from Kyubey (who retains its original seiyuu), no characters from the original have appeared yet, but the basic situations and themes are the same. This story is also much more up front about stressing the questionable worthiness of some of the wishes that brought magical girls into their current situation, such as one girl's wish to be with “the person she likes” that she's since broken up with; she frankly admits that the person was everything to her at the time, so it's only in retrospect that she realizes how valueless that wish was. Hence whether or not the value of the wish is commensurate with the cost of getting it is more deeply-ingrained into this series, which makes Iroha's situation of not remembering her wish more interesting. Various tidbits clearly suggest that she used it to save the life of a girl name Ui who may have been her sister, but then why does it seem like Ui's been erased from existence?
That's but one of the underlying mysteries that the first episode offers. Others include who is encouraging the magical girls to go to Kamihama and why, and why Kyubey appears in baby form in Kamihama to help Iroha and her compatriot out of a tight spot but otherwise has been absent in that city for some time. Between that, the stylistic elements, and some respectable action scenes, there's a lot here for a viewer at least somewhat familiar with the franchise to sink their teeth into.
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