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.
An underappreciated factor when looking at any individual anime series is the nature of its source material, provided it has one. Original anime (like the original Madoka series) are practically guaranteed to have a beginning, middle and end, but when based on a source, there’s certain elements that become byproduct by the source’s nature.
When anime are produced based on ongoing manga, one can exact lingering focus on iconic shots and a tendency to go on and on as long as it takes. Light Novel adaptations tend to feature basic protagonists bereft of the thought focused complexity their written works offer. Videogame based anime often have very specific factors emblematic of their origin, and of those adaptations, an increasingly common source of anime recently are gatcha games: free to play games tailored to get people to dump money to gamble for character growth and collection. For the sake of providing business revenue, these work fine, however scummy they are, but what happens when transferring that mentality to a non-interactive medium where quick story is the most important?
That‘s the main issue with Magia Record. Despite the admirable effort from the artists and Yūki Kajira, Magia Record’s characters and plot structure are held back very far, likely by how a TV series must accept its mobile game design mentality. Rather than be allowed to freely express like its main series counterpart, it winds up feeling substance-less, focus-less and ironically, far closer to a traditional Magic Girl series.
Because of the nature of this show, I’ll judge the series by two angles, one as its own story, and one as a companion to the Madoka franchise it proclaims itself a side story of:
As its own story:
The first episode seems to establish the plot focus about this girl named Iroha Tamaki, who happens to have Madoka’s color palette. As a magical girl fighting mysterious creatures, she’s trying to find her sister named Ui: supposedly the reason why she became a magical girl in the first place, but whom no one else remembers. It also introduces a girl named Kuroe, seemingly a friend of Iroha’s who already made her wish to become a magical girl, but the circumstances didn’t last. Strong start, but rather than go any further with Kuroe, she is quickly removed from the series to spend the next two episodes on a hastily rushed conflict between two new characters the audience is given no time to care about.
This leads to Magia Record’s greatest sin as its own plot: focus. This is probably the least focused non-episodic anime series I’ve ever seen. Rather than having a central drive that every element works towards, the series instead focuses on several smaller stories that are both underdeveloped and have little to no lasting payoff. Top this off with an overabundance of character designs, likely present to convince players of the gatcha game to grind for them, and you have a series with only the thinnest connective tissue.
See, Episodes 2-3 start and resolve the conflict of two characters. Episodes 4-5 introduce another character in a place that seems relevant but is quickly forgotten after. Episodes 6-7 focus on yet another character’s conflict to create and resolve. Episodes 8 to about halfway through Episode 10 do the same for another character who becomes irrelevant immediately following. During this time, over 10 other supposedly significant characters are introduced claiming to have a reason for existing and not getting to do anything beyond stating exposition. Episode 11 is purely an excuse to bring characters to a location, while Episode 12 explains the magical girl system of the series. Not showing by example, telling how the magical girl system works.
In all this time, there is zero progression on Iroha’s goal to find her sister, which keeps her as a one-note character who has nothing else to define her or drive her drama: a puppet to tour through various disconnected plots without anything interesting learnt about her in the slightest. Heck, we don’t even get to know what her relationship to Ui WAS like in order to flesh her out some. This causes the series as a whole to effectively have a non-plot: with no active villain, clear solution or ticking clock.
Suppose you could argue the Wings of Magius fills the villain role, essentially a magical girl Illuminati, but they function more as a recurrent obstacle than an active villainous force, with new members being introduced left and right, a confusing morality position and no real intricate planning. In episode 11, one of its members even cutely panics when questioned.
To make matters worse is the effect on the pacing and character interactions this non-urgency has. The arcs don’t have enough time to simmer before the next one immediately follows, and more characters bloat the cast. Even if characters like Sana and Felicia had any interesting character moments or traits during their arcs, they are quickly forgotten by the time their arc ends with no further advancement, which leads to very boring character interactions between Iroha and her friend group separating the arcs. The only recurring character who acts consistently different enough from the rest is Yachiyo as the group’s senior. She has her own conflict regarding a friend that joined the Wings of Magius but it’s forcibly restrained by the show’s lack of focus. I never got the sense that her plot had development or follow-through when it’s scattered in bits and pieces across other soon to be irrelevant plots.
Going into the series as its own thing, the first cour presents it as a visually-stylized and musically strong, but basic, segmented, plotless and unfocused series where nothing is given the impact it deserves. Then there’s how it compares to the original show.
As a spinoff of Madoka Magica:
When it comes to how it compares to the near decade old series it spun off from, it’s even less effective. On a positive note, it does retain a lot of the artistry from the original. The characters all look cute and have colorful outfits with several nice little details. Certain episodes have the occasional cool cinematic shot, Kamihama City is often painted orange by the sunset and while the Witch Realms aren’t as specially themed as those presented in the original, the otherworldly stylization around them is retained, particularly in episodes 5 and 7. Similarly, Yuki Kajira does a competent job with the soundtrack. It again, isn’t nearly as memorable as that of the original series for me, but it did a good job adding epicness to certain combat encounters when the writing can’t.
Other than that though, the similarities feel skin deep. While Madoka Magica felt like a harrowing character story told through the lens of the common magical girl setup, Magia Record IS the common magical girl setup with only the occasional lasting dark drama moment.
While the original show avoided the chance to make the common Magical Girl squad by creating personal conflict rifts between prospective members that grew and changed, this show forms its core team almost immediately and forms it arc by arc in a similar way to any standard Magical Girl show, but without the standout traits for each member. Light conflicts never affect the ties that bind. Hell, Magia Record’s introduction of Dopples muddies the well-established nature of the Witches, since Iroha’s soul gem goes dark to become one, only to have the process quickly reversed.
There are a lot of things you can say about how well the original show pulled off what it did, but one element that can’t be denied was its focus. In its 12-episode run, it was able to properly pace itself so that the storyline and theme evolution moved along at a steady clip. The main cast was kept small; characters only got focus when it was important in the long-term and character action correlated with the show’s themes. When Sayaka’s arc took focus, it had significant focus over several episodes with a resolution that filtered out several dramatic twists by showing them to us by Episode 8. These same twists are shown in Magia Record Episode 12, with the panache of an elementary school lecture divorced from any and all interesting drama. Almost appropriate that the episode was titled “Why is this so unbearable?”
Somehow, Magia Record even managed to bungle some of the elements I took issue with in the original series. To some, Madoka was a bland character without much personality or presence herself. But you could argue the simpleness of Madoka’s character was intentional, since the plot challenged her all loving heroine ideals. There was a clear sense that all the conflicts and gut punches shaped her decision making as the “main” character up until the story’s conclusion. She could’ve been uncertain or insecure or “whiny” but those played off of her established character.
Iroha has none of those things. She’s a bit more assertive than Madoka was but nothing about her character or way of thinking changes in the series. She maintains the same sense of non-personality the entire series, never having any interesting character development, never changing her goal, never making meaningful choices, etc. Madoka carries herself in the story because of her flaws; Iroha is purely carried by separated scenarios.
Then there’s the worldbuilding. The small scope of the original series was something I was initially critical of since it implied the Magical Girl system was a constant worldwide, but we only saw one city. Magia Record does conceptually improve with new worldbuilding points, like a Magical Girl Hall of Justice of sorts in Kamihama and the Wings of Magius, but even then, they’re not really fleshed out beyond existing. Characters from this secret base get the paltriest amount of screen time and character depth in the series.
Last but not least, the original Madoka series was 12 episodes and it managed to tell a complete story within that time. This show ends desperate for a second season even while spending ¾ of this season on events that don’t matter to anything in the long run besides showing off blandly undeveloped character designs. The final episode tops it out by desperately overloading itself with fanservice that'll only make sense with the original in mind in a desperate plee to get OG series fans to stick around.
While flaws in the actual narrative could fall on the video game’s writers, the way it’s presented makes it feel like it was limited by being a mobile game in ways not adaptable for its strengths. Go full stop quantity over quality with the characters, since they’re just ways for people to sink money into upgrading and collecting them. Make the plot scenarios separated so they can support short-burst gameplay with grinds in between. And throw in characters from the original series like Mami and Kyoko regardless of how well they actually fit to heighten appeal.
I’m tempted to give the show a higher score on the basis of its animation talent (maybe so without Episode 12). Shaft’s directors are likely trying the best they can, but you can get the animation experience by watching good AMVs on the series. And honestly, out of other shows where the stellar animation quality far, far outweighs the writing on display, like Guilty Crown and Demon Slayer, at least those had consistent story tracks to make the animation highs meaningful in context despite their narrative fumbles. This didn’t have that. All it had to do was bank off the goodwill of the franchise’s prior success and put talented artists on the project to be a success, regardless of how much effort actually went into this being a TV series. Magia Record on its own is a bland and very unfocused Magical Girl series and practically a lesser knockoff of the original Madoka Magica. I am very disappointed with how this series turned out, there’s so little to it.