It’s been almost ten years since Puella Magi Madoka Magica punched through the placid atmosphere of magical girl anime as we once knew it, scorching a still-expanding crater into the landscape from which all manner of twisted life has emerged. Legions of imitators like Yuki Yuna is a Hero and Day Break Illusion have blazed forth from that explosion, each striving to marry Precure and Faust in their own way for just a taste of Dokes’ roaring success. Naturally, the Madoka comet at the center of this subgenre continued to burn bright alongside its imitations. From movies to manga to mobile games, there was too much money to be made for even a powerfully conclusive TV series ending to stop Madoka from spinning off into the present day. Most of these releases have spun right past me, but I perked up when it was announced that Madoka would make its triumphant return to the small screen last year, with an anime adaptation of the midquel-based mobile game, Magia Record. It would be the first time I engaged with Madoka’s world since the Rebellion movie in 2013, and by the end, I was left with mixed feelings.
Since Madoka Magica joined the pantheon of the most famous and popular anime ever made almost overnight, it’s fair to say that fans of all stripes have been drawn to the franchise for completely different reasons as the years have gone by. I can only speak for myself as a “Madoka Deist”, when I say that I don’t care much about this universe without the presence of the writer who first gave it life, Gen Urobuchi. For other Dokes fans, it may be the nightmarish cut-out art of Gekidan Inu Curry that captures their imagination. Cosplayers may be thrilled with the endless array of new costumes to recreate, and SHAFT fans are bound to enjoy the idiosyncratic direction of Akiyuki Shinbo, drawing them to the equally blockbusting Monogatari series or the experimental Kagerou Project. But I’ve never cared too much about Madoka’s pretty face—my heart was captured by its spirit, and Gen Urobuchi’s passionate core argument that hope can triumph even against inescapable entropy, and that even the smallest acts of defiance and perseverance can build into something that will change people enough to transform the world around us. My relationship with Madoka Magica is defined by how it started my relationship with Boochi’s writing, and even a decade later, it remains one of the strongest stories in his staggering career.
As a Madoka Deist, what would something like Magia Record even be to me without Gen Urobuchi in it? Is it just all costumes and tea parties interrupted by scrapbook nightmares and crying girls? Could new writers, tasked with building a plot complex enough to carry an online RPG for years, possibly add anything to the seamless mystery box its creator closed (and briefly cracked open again with Rebellion) years ago? Well, even if they could, I wouldn’t know who to thank for such an incredible feat. The Magia Record mobile game’s story is attributed vaguely to the “f4samurai scenario team”, and the animator duo known as Gekidan Inu Curry have graduated to both heads of story and chief directors of the anime adaptation. People already joke about highly commercial anime series—particularly mobile game anime—being written by committee, but Magia Record’s story is literally credited to a committee. All I can do is examine this record on face value, and try to find some meaning in its music beyond the need to encourage regular in-game purchases.
Right away, Magia Record faces unique challenges as a midquel written to slot into a story that must follow a concentric pattern of soul-crushing twists to move every character forward to the same conclusion, in a vicious cycle of despair and annihilation. Madoka Magica’s very premise, the system that defines its world, is the true villain, and it cannot be defeated until Madoka Kaname’s sacrifice at the end of the original story. Before that happens, without exception or escape, all magical girls must fight until they either die in battle or live long enough to become Witches. This pattern can’t be rewritten by any specific choices made by different characters in a different plot—replacing Madoka and Homura with new faces like Iroha and Yachiyo will not change the dead end of their fates. Their record must follow the same spiral pattern across the same grooves toward the silence of entropy. The only solution left for Magia Record’s writers is to hold the needle in the air, as the table turns gently in place to nowhere in particular for a while.
Magia Record takes place in a city cut off from the Incubators’ influence, where Witches run rampant and Grief Seeds are never in short supply. A mysterious cabal known as the “Wings of Magius” has been calling magical girls from across Japan to this Kamihama City, promising salvation from the cycle—even Kyubey has been replaced with a teensier and more marketable version of himself that prefers to squeak rather than speak. While a life spent fighting Witches could never be considered paradise, Kamihama City is about as good as it gets for magical girls in search of mutual support. With such bottomless resources to mine from increasingly powerful opponents, magical girls are encouraged to rely on one another instead of competing for once. They even have the solace of a safe home base watched over by the Coordinator, a magical girl who uses her powers not to fight, but to strengthen others’ Soul Gems in exchange for surplus Grief Seeds. (To Magia Record’s credit, there aren’t many times when obvious game mechanics leak into the linear televised version of its story, but the Coordinator does stand out as a former Shopkeeper NPC of some kind.)
While every character still gets her own sad backstory and passel of personality problems—some (Sana) more compelling to watch than others (Felicia)—this new robust magical girl economy is mostly reminiscent of the carefree first act of the Rebellion movie, right down to its silenced Kyubey. Over the course of 10+ episodes, each character’s plotline weaves pretty neatly into the others, as they build a network of friendship together in a dangerous but not hopeless world. Witches are defeated in batches without much fanfare, while new foes called Uwasa drive the greater mystery forward. Uwasa are experimental monsters created by the Wings of Magius that operate on specific rules and conditions, unlike the senselessly nuclear Witches, which means there are ways to “solve” their interference with humanity beyond simply pushing forward with magical power until one side breaks. At the center of it all, our new Madoka, named Iroha, searches for her forgotten little sister, but she secretly fears that other lost ghosts from her past will meet her along the way with answers she can’t handle. Classic Madoka characters like Mami and Kyoko pop up to make largely fruitless cameos. There are Uwasa to solve and clues to gather and lots of cute new friends to be made, but no matter how fervently the record spins on its table, the needle stays in the air.
Just like the first act of Rebellion, this relative peace cannot last. No matter how funny or heartwarming their antics, all these new magical girls are destined to evaporate by record’s end. Once the needle starts passing through those necessary grooves—the reveal that magical girls’ bodies are zombie shells, that destroying their Soul Gems will kill them, and that continuing to fight will eventually make them into Witches—all of their relationships are doomed to end tragically. Magia Record’s replacement for Homura, named Yachiyo, already knows this terrible truth, so she’s reticent to form relationships with other girls. Despite Iroha’s persistence eventually pushing her into a new found family, Yachiyo’s already started back-pedaling by the time the needle finally descends in this first season’s last few episodes—but not for the reasons we think. At last, the fine print of Kyubey’s contract is blown up for all our new characters to see, but before any of them have time to process this life-changing new information, a surprising solution is offered—the needle may be down, but records can still skip.
Yes, the Wings of Magius have found a way to twist the system by trapping magical girls in a cycle within the cycle, allowing them to flirt with Witchification by shifting into a “Doppel” state that trades their sanity for raw magical power in short bursts. Yachiyo has known this all along, so she’s been desperately hiding the “monster” inside of her from her new friends. They didn’t bother to explain exactly how this works as of season one, but given that the mad scientist behind Doppel-ing is a stereotypical child genius, I have to assume it’s a technological breakthrough rather than a loophole in Kyubey’s own magic. Anyway, the “how” doesn’t matter. By forcing a repetitive skip in magical girl playback, Magia Record is trying to offer a contextual solution to what was originally a cosmic problem, revising the original story’s bigger ideas into much smaller ones.
Magia Record plants plenty of seeds in its dialogue comparing Witchification to a seductive kind of power to prepare us to accept this reveal—but that’s not what the Witch state represented in the original Madoka Magica. Becoming a Witch meant being crushed by the cruelty of the world, falling into absolute despair and therefore emotional powerlessness, regardless of how much havoc your soul’s lethal fallout wreaked after your death. Witchery was not a powerful state to be in, because it was devoid of consciousness or control—becoming a Witch is akin to straddling an atomic bomb as it crashes to earth. At most, you could maniacally embrace your dead-end despair and die laughing instead of screaming. (Most Witches laugh and scream simultaneously, in a nice touch of horror.) My point is, becoming a Witch never represented being tempted to acquire greater power, not before Magia Record asked us to reconsider by skipping in place.
Transforming Kyubey’s one-way escalator to oblivion into a balancing act where magical girls can just Jekyll and Hyde the nuke inside them was probably one of the only solutions available to Magia Record’s writers room, but that still doesn’t make it thematically interesting to me. It’s gotta be a risk/reward-based battle mechanic from the original game, because that’s exactly how it comes across in the anime, right down to the dark upgrade’s seemingly minor and reversible consequences. Nothing about this Doppel twist approaches the unforgettably desperate emotional stakes that drive Madoka’s world outside of Kamihama City—in fact, it just made the Magia Record cast’s already rosier situation that much cooler. Having a Doppel is badass enough to be a common foundation for no end of superhero stories where the good guy wrestles with his more powerful dark side, like The Hulk or Spider-Man’s Symbiote. It feels like a climactic turn this story just needed so that it would have one at all; otherwise, this would just be a plot about friendly magical girls who whittle their time away on Witches and Uwasa until Madoka Kaname’s sacrifice makes things slightly better for them without their knowledge.
Although we get a hint of the darker consequences to Doppel-ing after seeing Mami’s powers go out of control (poor Mami, it’s always Mami), becoming a Doppel is so obviously preferable to becoming a Witch that the story has to introduce another twist for us to feel like our heroes are facing any kind of greater threat instead of a relative victory against entropy. Not content just to save magical girls from their hellish fate, the Wings of Magius are planning to conquer humanity itself in some kind of Magical Girl Supremacist assault around Walpurgisnacht—you know, the day when Madoka Kaname’s sacrifice will nullify all of this completely. The oppressed somehow becoming the oppressors to start a war we already know they will lose—you hate to see it.
Look, the committee did their best here, but Madoka Magica is such a closed circuit of ideas that spinning it off was bound to be a thankless task. Some of this side story’s side stories do shine—Sana Futaba’s arc almost brought me to tears—and the others are at least competent in structure and tone, if uninspired in content. As an eternal middle state, a broken record, Magia Record could probably have played around with new character arcs and mini-mysteries forever, and I would have been content to watch it—slice-of-life comfort food in the Madoka universe, made just for die-hard fans, isn’t a bad idea. But somebody at corporate decided they couldn’t just keep spinning a record where the needle never dropped. In terms of generating revenue, going bigger was probably the right call, even if the writers’ only options for escalation were doomed to pale in comparison to the source material. So, now we get a Doppel War against Mahou Shojo Nazis, I guess.
Like so many stories, your investment in Magia Record will probably come down to how compelling you find its individual characters, and I personally found them too numerous and slight to draw me into their internal lives beneath the show’s greater focus on plot twists and new lore. Maybe future seasons will see Iroha facing her past as a stronger person and Yachiyo accepting the true meaning of friendship, but no matter how loudly this record skips in place, I already know how this story must end, and it has nothing to do with pedestrian platitudes about how power corrupts or whatever Magia Record is trying to say by gamifying its Witch imagery. It wouldn’t generate as many downloads on the App Store, but for the sake of this story and characters, maybe it would have been okay to write a midquel that remained forever in the middle. Maybe it would have been better to leave the needle in the air.
Thanks to leafbladie for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤