Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story
Episodes 1-3

by James Beckett,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story ?

How would you rate episode 3 of
Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story ?

The title Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story evokes the baggage that this series has entered the year 2020 with already in tow: It goes out of its way to remind you of its connection to one of the most beloved anime of the last decade, while at the same time making it clear that it is going to have a very different focus in terms of plot, characters, and theme. It is also less concerned with hiding its status as a product in a franchise, rather than the organic necessary next chapter in an artistically driven saga – this is, after all, a story that started its life as a free-to-play mobile game. By virtue of its very existence, the first and most substantial obstacle Magia Record will have to overcome in order to win over an audience that is filled with plenty of skeptics is the fact that it is a thing that exists primarily to revive and maintain interest in an intellectual property. This is Puella Magi Madoka Magica as a franchise; as a brand. For a lot of folks, myself included, this idea alone is enough to warrant a healthy dose of suspicion.

Magia Record is going to be thirteen episodes long, and as of these first three episodoes the plot is still taking shape. The good news is that the good artists at Studio Shaft don't seem content to coast on the success of the show's predecessor, at least in terms of providing pure visual entertainment. The series premiere may have relied a little too much on setting up mystery boxes for our heroine Iroha to puzzle through, but is absolutely nailed the Madoka Magica aesthetic. This shouldn't be surprising, given that the show is chiefly being directed by Gekidan Inu Curry, the team responsible for the franchise's gorgeous Witch Labyrinths, with original series director Yukihiro Miyamoto running support. Even with the notable absence of Gen Urobuchi's writing panache, the fact that so much of the original creative team is back to tell this new story is very promising.

As for the story they're telling, I must admit that I'm still ambivalent about Iroha's search for her magically disappeared sister Ui. It feels too straightforward for a Madoka Magica story, but without any signs of an interesting wrinkle or twist, Ui is basically a human MacGuffin, a vague objective that can drive the plot forward without having to be too defined itself. This means that Iroha herself is something of a cipher as a protagonist. She is defined as our main character not so much by her internal conflict and personality as she is by the Big Mystery she has to solve, not to mention her pink hair. The writing improves in the second and third episodes, too, which give us a two-part Witch hunt that introduces us to the other members of this new cast of Magical Girls.

Iroha's dream-memories of Ui lead her to the Satomi Medical Center, which is in Kamihama, the city that the premiere already established as being a very ominous place, and lately overrun with Witches. An encounter with one such Witch introduces her to the series' new team, who all conveniently have a similar hair color scheme to the original Madoka Magica girls (I guess the Magical Girls really do operate under Super Sentai logic). Momoko Togame is the blonde-haired leader of the group, Rena is the standoffish girl with sky-blue locks, and Kaede is the well-meaning but unreliable red-head. There's also Yachiyo, the lone-wolf with the dark blue hair, though she remains off to the side for a majority of these episodes. Magia Record is smart enough to avoid having the new girls' personalities line up completely with the classic team's, but the echoes are obvious. Whether this is simply an archetypal callback to the first show, or foreshadowing for more meaningful developments further down the line, we do not yet know.

In keeping with franchise traditions, Magia Record uses the central Witch of the episodes, the Chain Witch, as a catalyst and pressure cooker for the conflicts brewing between and within the Magical Girls themselves. In the case of “It's Proof of the End of Friendship” and “I'm Sorry for Making You My Friend”, the targets of the Chain Witch are Rena and Kaede. The two are close but volatile friends, constantly caught in a cycle of Rena being overwhelmed by Kaede and lashing out at her, and Kaede apologizing profusely and inadvertently causing Rena to feel guilt; this invariably leads to them breaking off and mending their friendship over and over again, until a blow-up after the Satomi Medical Center investigation leads Rena to their school's rumored Friendship Ending Staircase. This eerie piece of architecture looks ripped straight from a German Expressionist fever dream, and the story goes that if you write the name of yourself and the offending friend, your relationship will be severed for good.

Naturally, this leads the team to the Chain Witch, and the encounters with her are par-for-the-course excellence as far as the action and visuals are concerned. The final form of her Labyrinth is a creatively vertical space, and the eerie psychological sequence inside of Rena's mind gave the whole third-act of the episode a real sense of dread and drama. The Bus Witch's Labyrinth from the second episode is also a visual standout, even if the scene suffers from feeling like a rather arbitrary random encounter from, well, a video-game. If nothing else, Magia Record is giving GIC and Shaft an opportunity to get even more playful and wild with the artistry of the PPMM franchise, and I'm honestly in favor of this series existing if only for the chance to get a whole mess of new Witch Labyrinths.

But was that Chain Witch even a Witch? That is the question that we're left with at the end of the third episode, and it's much more compelling to me than whatever is going on with Iroha and Ui. Rena and Kaede might have defeated the entity and repaired their friendship, but The Chain Witch didn't drop a grief seed, and it's peculiar to have such a being connected to a mundane high-school urban legend. The third episode's post-credits scene makes the mystery even more tantalizing, when none other than Mami herself shows up, lurking outside of Kamihami City limits with Kyubey in tow. Kyubey warns Mami of a rumor that there is an overabundance of powerful Witches being drawn to the city, almost as if on purpose.

Perhaps someone is trying to harness all the seeds for themselves, Kyubey muses, though the audience has even more questions, especially since Magia Record is assuming a fairly up-to-date understanding of the whole franchise. Exactly when in the timeline does Magia Record take place, and is it even meant to be apart of the same universe of the original show and its controversial finale film? Magia Record may have had some hurdles to leap over given the shadow of its pedigree, but the show is off to a very fine start if I do say so myself. The entertainment and spectacle is as good as its ever been, and with three episodes under its belt, it finally seems to be shaping together a mystery that just might be able to live up to the Madoka Magica name.


Odds and Ends

• As tempted as I am to dig into the mobile game upon which this series is based, I will be avoiding it in order to keep away from spoilers as best I can, so I won't have anything to say going forward regarding comparisons between the two versions of the story. If game spoilers happen to come up in the comments, please make sure to mark them appropriately.

• Speaking of spoilers, given that Magia Record assumes a certain familiarity with the original Madoka Magica, I will be doing the same in these reviews, especially if/when the show starts digging into the lore of the Witches, wonky timeline stuff, and so on. I'll be digging back into the series and Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Rebellion, as well, so I can have a better chance at catching more obscure connections or callbacks.

Artistry Alley: This is where I will shout out the show's most eye-searingly gorgeous visuals, when the occasion calls for it. I already mentioned the unreasonable amount of love I have for the Chain Witches' creepy stop motion golem things, and I would be remiss if I didn't shout out the series' commitment to being as extra as it possibly can be with the design of its backgrounds and buildings. That Friendship Ending Staircase is a nightmare of dream-space and absent light, like something ripped straight out of House of Leaves.

• The one moment that felt off to me, as far as the artwork goes, was the dream sequence in episode 3, where Iroha sees a vision of Ui and her two friends playing with a big pile of books and a toy vehicle with a steam engine. The 3D animation is noticeably shoddy looking here, and I don't think it was for stylistic effect. Hopefully Magia Record won't rely on such CG too much in the future, unless SHAFT figures out a less intrusive way to implement it.

• Since I don't know when else I will have the need to mention them, I should note that all of the girls get killer transformation sequences, especially Momoko, who kicks a chunk out of her steel blade to create a kind of longsword and scimitar hybrid. We also learn that Rena's special ability is shapeshifting, which is both handy and metaphorical, in true Madoka Magica fashion.

Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story is currently streaming on FUNimation.

James is a writer with many thoughts and feelings about anime and other pop-culture, which can also be found on Twitter, his blog, and his podcast.

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