Note: Some Madoka Magica and Magia Record spoilers ahead.

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The first season of Puella Magi Madoka Magica spin-off Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story ends with some promise. In the final episode, a familiar face appears to do battle with a former ally, implying larger involvement from the original cast. Meanwhile, the show’s antagonistic faction announces their grand plan, a likely sign of an increase in the story’s pace and urgency, and the most interesting villain of Magia Record is hinted to be a major player in future events.

Then there’s that name drop before the credits drop: Walpurgis Night. Madoka Magica fans will be familiar with that entity, but how will it factor into Magia Record‘s story, which offers significant divergences from the original’s? Those who’ve played the mobile game will know already, but for anime-only viewers, this is an intriguing mention.

These new developments offer me hope of a more exciting second season, which has already been announced. But it’s just a small glimmer of hope. While the season finale was one of Magia Record‘s stronger episodes, it far from absolves the show’s issues, and I’m not sure if the second season will be a marked improvement.

A Tale Of Despair

The original Madoka Magica was released in 2011 as a dark take on the Magical Girl genre. I’m not sure if it was the first to explore darker themes with the genre, but it does feel like the reason “dark magical girl anime” is somewhat of a label now. After its release, we’ve had shows like Day Break Illusion, Yuki Yuna Is a Hero, Magical Girl Raising Project, Magical Girl Site, and Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka offering different takes on the dark magical girl concept, with varying degrees of success.

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While I didn’t devour every one of those shows, just hearing about them was enough to make the subgenre feel tired and saturated to me. My initial worry that Magia Record would fail to match its predecessor largely stemmed from this. But now that I’ve watched the show, it’s clear that even in a non-saturated environment, this would have still been a lacklustre dark magical girl anime and a disappointing entry in the Madoka Magica series.

First, let’s delve a bit into Madoka Magica. The series stood out not because of gore, but for its psychological horror. After meeting an experienced Magical Girl called Mami Tomoe, our heroine Madoka and her friend Sayaka develop an interest in becoming one themselves, but they soon discover that it is not a rosy experience when what seemed to be a major character is killed in just the third episode.

More troubling revelations follow. It turns out that Magical Girls unknowingly have their souls separated from their bodies and placed into containers called Soul Gems, with the girls losing consciousness if there’s too much distance between their bodies and the Soul Gems. And when the Soul Gems are fully corrupted by darkness, an inevitable process that can only be slowed by using Grief Seeds dropped by creatures called Witches, the Magical Girls turn into Witches themselves.

Kyubey, the being that grants girls wishes and turns them into Magical Girls, explains that all this serves to save the universe, but its words aren’t exactly soothing. As part of a race called the Incubators, Kyubey cannot fathom human emotion, and so it looks upon the Magical Girls’ psychological suffering and emotional strain with apathy. There’s also the issue with it keeping mum about what’s really in store for the girls when they sign their contract.

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The Old And The New

The last thing I’d want is for Magia Record to copy its predecessor’s story, and that’s fortunately not the case. In fact, the spin-off’s approach is great, in theory. The plot is brand-new but is still influenced by the original series’ elements; for example, the main antagonistic faction called the Wings of Magius is driven by a desire to save Magical Girls from being transformed into Witches.

Unfortunately, while Magia Record makes use of the original’s dark aspects, it doesn’t use them well. Although the very first episode mentions a rumour about how Magical Girls can be saved in Kamihama City, the truth of the Magical Girls’ fate and what the Wings of Magius’ plans are is only revealed in the penultimate episode.

It’s a revelation that has absolutely no impact for those who’ve already watched Madoka Magica, and unlike Madoka Magica, which explored the psychological impact of its revelations on its characters, Magia Record uses this mainly as plot development.

It’s possible that the second season will feature more of the cast’s reactions to this news, especially when there are signs that some supporting characters have been swayed by the Wings of Magius’ promise of salvation. In terms of this first season, however, there’s not much of a psychological aspect, meaning that Magia Record lacks the very thing that made Madoka Magica so great.

Magia Record isn’t as dark either. It’s still largely serious business (although with more room for humour and relaxation) since battling Witches is no joke. There are also Uwasa (Japanese for rumour), which are Witch-like entities that have been popping up around Kamihama City and who draw people to them through the spread of rumours (appropriately enough).

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Investigating these Uwasa forms a big part of the show, but it’s hardly as interesting as it sounds. Madoka Magica wasn’t a fast-paced show, but it had a tight focus. Magia Record’s pacing feels unhurried and lacking in urgency instead, and at times it even feels like a slice-of-life anime in comparison.

At other times, Magia Record resembles more of a conventional action series, as there seems to be a larger number of battles here compared to its predecessor. But while the action here offers spectacle and lots of surreal imagery, they fall short of Madoka Magica‘s which were more subdued but had greater style, better choreography, and were often underpinned by strong emotion.

The one exception is an epic clash between two Madoka Magica characters during the final episode’s battle. Aside from these moments being well-animated and just generally awesome, it was the reasons for the duelists’ clash that elevated their fight scene beyond its peers in Magia Record.

Most of the time though, I struggled to stay engaged with the show even when its Magical Girls were engaging in battle.

When Magical Girls Get Boring

The loose plotting and underwhelming action would’ve been less of an issue if Magia Record‘s characters made up for it, but they don’t. Many characters either look too bland or are too similar to the Madoka Magica cast; main hero Iroha Tamaki has pink hair like Madoka, while veteran Magical Girl Yachiyo Nanami resembles Homura Akemi with her facial features, stern demeanour, and hairstyle. Magia Record has a number of shots that immediately grab the eye, but it’s harder to say the same for its characters.

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Their personalities aren’t standouts either, with only a couple of the main supporting characters being fairly memorable simply because they are livelier and thus provide more entertaining company. I may struggle to remember the name of Chinese restaurant worker Tsuruno Yui, and the mercenary Felicia Mitsuki may only be supporting girl material, but I sometimes wish they were the stars of the show instead.

The largely uninteresting characters are an issue because the show often requires investment in them. A couple of early episodes sees the friendship between two Magical Girls being tested, but I couldn’t bring myself to care.

One of the central mysteries of Magia Record is the whereabouts of Iroha’s younger sister Ui, but aside from that plot thread being uninteresting in general, I struggled to empathize because Iroha is so bland and seems to be nothing more than a nice girl.

The second half of the show introduces a Magical Girl called Sana Futaba who wished to become “invisible” due to her family circumstances, and who ends up befriending an AI-like Uwasa. Sana’s backstory and friendship with the Uwasa are meant to result in an emotional episode, but the issue is that we have no prior investment in Sana, who’s also pretty dull outside of her backstory. Madoka Magica‘s feisty Kyoko Sakura had a tragic backstory too, but it was only revealed after we’d spent a couple of episodes with her, and there was more to Kyoko than just her past.

I preferred the original characters so much that all it took was cameos from familiar faces like Mami and Kyoko to stop me from dropping the show (which I considered several times). Although Mami is sent to investigate Kamihama City by Kyubey, she ends up joining the Wings of Magius. A brief scene where she expresses her despair and anger about the fate of Magical Girls is easily more compelling than anything involving the main characters.

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It’s generally not good if a show has to rely on fanservice to be engaging, especially when it doesn’t seem necessary for Mami and Kyoko to be present so far (plus their presence might be a little confusing to newcomers). That said, I honestly wouldn’t have minded more fanservice here. I found out that the Magia Record anime deviates from the mobile game by leaving out the involvement of Madoka and Homura in the events of the first season’s second half, and I wished that it didn’t.

I can see why the anime left them out, given the first season’s length and how it’d be more impactful if they only showed up later. Still, including them in the first season would’ve made the show much more interesting, at least for those familiar with the original.

The main saving grace among the new cast is Alina Gray, a green-haired member of the Wings of Magius who boasts an instantly eye-catching design, oozes danger, and might be slightly deranged. While I usually have to exert effort to pay attention to the show, every scene with Alina in it (which isn’t a lot overall) kept me glued to the screen. Although I listed several reasons as to why Magia Record‘s first season ends with promise, Alina’s involvement is the main reason I’m entertaining the possibility of watching the second season.

Whether Magia Record‘s faults are purely because of the adaptation, or whether the mobile game deserves some blame too, I can’t say. Nevertheless, Magia Record‘s first season shows how having the Madoka Magica name doesn’t automatically result in a good dark magical girl anime.

Right now, simply watching clips of Madoka Magica on YouTube offers a far better dark magical girl experience.

FINAL SCORE: 60/100

 

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