A unique and decent alternative universe: a review of 'Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story'
See the Chinese rewrite here.
I was deeply moved and overwhelmed at the same time by Puella Magi Madoka Magica after watching it last year. It’s definitely a masterpiece, and so is the third movie, Rebellion. Before that only Clannad gave me a similar shock among the anime I’ve watched (a lot of them being CGDCTs and Slice of Lifes), and it’s only natural that I fell in love with it afterward.
Like many other fans, I was hyped up hearing that they announced the fourth movie not so long ago, with the return of the original staff team including Gen Urobuchi. It was also around that time that I learned about Magia Record, the mobile gacha game in the PMMM franchise. Out of curiosity, I watched the whole three seasons (actually two in length) of Magia Record the anime after the final season’s four episodes went on air. Turns out that it weaved for us a decent and surprisingly pleasant alternative universe - though definitely nowhere near the original.
Disclaimer: I haven’t played the game, so this review will be entirely about the MagiReco anime and my thoughts on it. This is my first formal anime review so feel free to leave suggestions. Minor spoilers alert BTW.
It seems to me at first that this anime isn’t well received. A bunch of reviews on AniList insists that at least S1 is awful, and there’s a backlash among Chinese fans on Bilibili against S3. Though being an Arknights & Girl’s Frontline player for years, I don’t really like mobile gacha games (especially those derived from existing titles like Date A Live, for it would be very odd to see your anime waifus reappearing as playable characters), so I personally don’t hold a high expectation towards it as well.
However, this show is actually out of my expectation - from the animation quality and music to the characters and the plot itself - as a gacha game adaptation. It seems that the staffs are serious about turning it into a good standalone anime series instead of a cash-grabbing advertisement for the game. Overall, MagiReco is a surprisingly decent spinoff of the original series, but only decent enough though, with some parts being nice and the rest mediocre.
MagiReco basically maintained the nice original art style of PMMM, including the surreal aesthetics shown in the Witchs/Uwasas’ Labyrinths. There’s still that familiar feeling, though with a more modern flavor. The animation quality seems to have downgraded a bit starting from Season 2, but it’s still okay.
Regarding music, I’d say that S1’s OP (“ごまかし”) and S2’s ED (“Lapis”, both by TrySail) are splendid: they both have very good sound designs and are smooth to listen to. I especially love the latter, which has a chilling and saddening groove when associated with the very ending of the show. Like the animation style, the OSTs are also nostalgic and modern at the same time, though it often seems like I’ve already heard them somewhere in PMMM.
tl;dr: It’s a shame that MagiReco isn’t written by Urobuchi.
The majority of Season 1 falls in the cycle of “Cast investigates Uwasa -> Fights Uwasa -> Meets new members”. It is mostly a Slice-of-Life style warm-up of the upcoming story with a one-by-one introduction of the characters, so nothing really worth mentioning here except Sana’s arc in Ep. 9 and Ep. 13. The latter suddenly breaks this cycle with Iroha’s temporary disappearance, and the tense atmosphere in the end syncs well with Season 2 which makes it one of the best episodes in the series in my opinion.
Season 2 is my favorite. It has apparently picked up the pace of storytelling - well, I could say that they crammed the actual main story into the second half of the anime. Apart from the tense storyline, there are also some pleasant character builds in this season, notably Iroha & Yachiyo’s tearful reunion in Ep. 3, as well as some decent fighting scenes with a one-of-a-kind art style and some fluent animation.
The last four episodes (Season 3) mainly serve the purpose of finishing off the story in quite a heroic manner while filling up some necessary background with Ep.1. They seem to be rushed in production compared to the previous two seasons, but I think S3 is still adequate enough.
MagiReco has presented us with an interesting alternative universe, where Magical Girls appear in large numbers in a joint attempt to stand up against their ultimate fate, thus we have the Hospital Trio (Touka/Nemu/Ui) & Iroha’s backstory and Magius. The two game mechanisms - Doppel and Connect are also introduced in the anime in a way that’s quite compatible with the original setting. Many of those supporting characters are lovely too, like Momoko, Rena, and the Amane sisters.
I tend to compare Magius to Arknights’s Reunion. These two organizations share a lot of similarities: Black Feathers (or Magical Girls in general) could be mapped to the Infected, Mifuyu to Frostnova (you know why), Alina to Mephisto (or W?), Touka to Talulah… This is also proven by the Hospital Trio’s backstory. Magius and their insane plan are the direct results of a mutated will of liberating all Magical Girls from their fate and Touka diverging from her original path while losing her mind, just like Talulah and her Reunion in Arknights’s main story.
The final ending to S3 is very controversial for various reasons. Some fans argue that it’s a meaningless Bad Ending which killed off a majority of the cast while nothing changed at all in the end. Since the Automatic Purification System - an imperfect but possible hope for all Magical Girls - was destroyed, everyone continued to live aimlessly in the hopeless reality. This timeline has also been modified to fit in the original universe as one of Homura’s failed attempts of saving Madoka, which frustrated some too. Others argue that this is a void ending that contradicts the main idea carried out by the original series.
Quite the contrary, I think it’s acceptable under the scope of PMMM. The recurring theme of helplessness appears again: The Trio came up with a pure and naive plan to free Iroha and all other Magical Girls from their fate, but they failed as Ui became Embryo Eve (while her soul was containerized and preserved) and Touka’s mutated belief drove her into insanity. After everyone else united to right their wrongs, they failed as well to eventually break free from their destiny, just like how Homura is still unable to save Madoka from her fate after countless loops. (Although Madoka sacrificed herself in exchange for the Law of Cycles in the original’s ending, her effort is still partly in vain, and the same is true even in Rebellion.)
We could say that the series is a documentary of the majority of Magical Girls in the PMMM universe who are weaker and more hopeless compared to the Holy Quintet; a “record” of their own problems and struggle. Therefore, the ending is actually not as awful as you may think: when you come to think about it, that lonely and uneasy mood it illustrates has its own vibe which differs from that of the original, and that’s why I mentioned S2’s ED previously.
I think the real problem behind MagiReco is that it lacks in-depth content despite being very amusing and exciting to watch. Stories like Tsuruno’s arc do contain some discussions on topics like friendship and emotions, but these just remained on the surface without going deeper, thus the series falls drastically behind Urobuchi’s original masterpiece. In other words, it really is just another Magical Girl show; even Yuki Yuna is a Hero is better in this aspect. Given that it’s only a gacha game adaptation, I don’t really mind since I didn’t have high hopes for it from the beginning, but I still believe that it would be much better if it’s a full-length three-season show, say 36 episodes.
Thanks to the game, the anime owns an enormous, almost quadrupled cast compared to the original series, all with unique and vivid character designs and personalities. Some may argue that the “Mikazuki Quintet” (Iroha, Yachiyo, Tsuruno, Felicia, and Sana) is just a ripoff from the original Holy Quintet. I admit that Yachiyo is a bit like Homura (I don’t really see how people compare her to Mami) and Felicia a bit like Kyoko, but their personalities and style are actually quite different from that of the latter.
Most of the cast have good character builds. For example, Yachiyo revealed her inner self in front of Iroha and Mifuyu through her story with the two despite being an isolated Homura-like character at first (similar to Moemura?). That’s why Yachiyo is my favorite in the series: her character build, personality
and outfit are so wholesome and gorgeous that…… I simply love her.
I also like Mifuyu because of this,
well partly because I just can’t resist silver-haired characters. She has a consistent image and a special relationship with Yachiyo, and she’s that adorable type of antagonist as a righteous and kind commander of Magius. Though she sacrificed herself in S3 along with Momoko, I wasn’t really bothered by this ending. Instead, we could treat it as the salvation she sought.
Tsuruno’s arc in S02E08 is also awesome, for we got to see what’s behind her genki figure after her unexpected re-appearance as Uwasa Tsuruno in S2. It comes with a progressive emotional build-up and then a concentrated release that would touch you to an extent:
The entire arc is surely meant to be an emotional rollercoaster in a way that we could relate to ourselves. Tsuruno’s constant behavior of pushing herself beyond her limit, her mental breakdown and Yachiyo’s resolution of embracing Tsuruno’s real self - all of this left a vivid impression in my mind.
But the best of the best is Kuroe’s arc in S03E03 (S02E11). Being an anime-original character in MagiReco, some may say that she’s only a plot pusher, like how Mami was said to be in the original series. Even so, she managed to get a very nice character build while being absent in at least the first half of the story. Kuroe’s figure is portrayed in a quite realistic manner. As a general representative of those unknown and weak Magical Girls, she treated Iroha as her role model and strived to keep up with her. Meanwhile, in her backstory, she couldn’t help feeling guilty about leaving a comrade to die instead of giving her some Grief Seeds. The behavior itself isn’t wrong, since the utmost responsibility of the Magical Girls in the PMMM universe, in my opinion, is not to maintain peace but to survive. (This could possibly explain why Kyoko first appeared to be a bit selfish and cold-blooded in the original series.) However, Kuroe is simply unable to forgive herself as it challenges her belief and, eventually, her meaning of existence. Thus we got perhaps the most iconic yet heartbreaking scene in the entire MagiReco series:
Sadly, Iroha’s character build is the worst. As the main protagonist, her figure in the anime has a strong sense of falsity; in other words, she’s just acting like a generic, hollow protagonist that ends up being a terrible imitation of Madoka. Her personality is very inconsistent throughout the anime; sometimes she’s brave and determined like Yachiyo, but sometimes weak and shy like Sana. Her behavior is also portrayed in quite an awkward way that just seems off to us. Take the beginning of S03E04 for example: stricken with grief over Kuroe’s death, Iroha doubted her choice of stopping Magius’s plan and fell into despair. Her consciousness was just about to be taken over by her Doppel when Yachiyo and others arrive, and then she immediately went back to normal in her “determined” state. What the hell is that??? It’s okay to have the protagonist be redirected back on the “right track”, but this transition happens to be unreasonably fast, further ravaging Iroha’s character build. We spent half an episode going through Tsuruno’s backstory, which is great, but this time Iroha got “recuperated” within a minute. Is it a sign that this anime was being rushed in production? Also, Iroha’s relationship with Ui seems vague, and so is her determination of finding Ui, partially because the latter just appeared briefly a few times like a mascot. (Speaking of Ui, I’m still not sure what kind of role she plays in the show until now.)
I like Iroha’s outfit and character design nevertheless.
The Holy Quintet’s cameo is okay but I don’t really like it myself, for I still prefer the way the Holy Quintet was portrayed in the original show. I also don’t get why they would dedicate an entire episode (S02E01) to Madoka and Moemura. And for Holy Mami…… man, I just can’t stand that. Really.
I still like MagiReco the anime with all its weaknesses. For the characters, I like Yachiyo, Iroha & Mifuyu most, and for the rest, it’s actually quite enjoyable though not on a par with the original PMMM and with major flaws.
For some reason, I even became a bit obsessed with the Magical Girl genre after watching this and Season 2 of Machikado Mazoku! Even so, I won’t be playing the game at least for now since I still dislike gachas.
MagiReco is surely an adequate spinoff to PMMM, and as an anime (yes, anime), I like this plain yet inspiring story of another group of Magical Girls in an alternative universe. As said in the epilogue: “This is our record, a record that no one knows.”
Well, I’ll just wait for PMMM’s fourth movie then.