Currently in competition with the Kingdom Hearts series for longest, most convoluted installment title.
You may be familiar with the 2011 anime series, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, in which teenage girls are convinced to essentially sell their lives into magical girl servitude in exchange for a single wish granted by an extraplanetary cat-like creature named Kyubey. In case you haven’t (please, please go watch it) and this brief synopsis wasn’t sufficient, the first episode of Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story makes sure to jam that entire setup into its first three minutes. And so begins another spiral into despair.
It all starts with Sis Puella Magica and the return of the series’ iconic Witch battle art direction. Within only those first few minutes, I found myself ready for the next wave of grim fantasy. This excellent little hook of an introduction feels like it was designed to help Madoka Magica veterans drop their guard and have hope that this new series might hold up to the harsh scrutiny that comes with following up the 2011 classic. And it worked on me.
SPOILER WARNING: There are some spoilers for Episode 1 of the Magia Record anime series ahead. However, plot points explored by the Magia Record mobile game that have not yet been reached by the anime will not be spoiled here.
We find a pink-haired magical girl protagonist (who is definitely not Madoka Kaname) who seems to be dealing with some severe separation anxiety and/or memory loss. Iroha Tamaki can’t shake the feeling that something or someone is missing from her life, and over the course of this first episode, some clues surface to suggest this amnesia could be the result of the wish she made, ultimately granting her magical girl status.
The original Madoka Magica series had a pinpoint focus on just how oppressive it was for these girls to face down death and despair every single day. In many ways, the Magia Record mobile game, which this new series is based on, deviates from the dark tones set forth by its predecessor. While the game’s plot maintains how becoming a magical girl isn’t at all the lifestyle Sailor Moon promised, it doesn’t reach the depths of suffering the original series nearly reveled in. However, there do already seem to be some hints that this anime series will follow in the tonal footsteps of the original.
Following the episode’s opening, Iroha has a conversation with Kyubey about her wish. Kyubey claims the subject is a mystery and likely impossible to know for certain. But during this discussion, something strange is happening. Iroha’s classroom takes the form of a Witch’s labyrinth made to look like a carnival tent. At the center of the tent, Familiars are absently throwing people into sacks, making for a bizarre and morbid backdrop. And the two of them are just watching it happen, either unable to stop it or unwilling to. The dark suggestions of this scene are coupled with the fact that Iroha’s real-world school is truly massive and her classroom is nearly empty, begging the question: where are all the kids in Takarazaki city?
Iroha eventually gets a call from Kuroe, her fellow magical girl, and they agree to meet after school. While on the train, Kuroe tells her of a message she and many other magical girls heard in a dream, stating that “in Kamihama City, magical girls can be saved.” Things once again get trippy as the two girls are bombarded by fellow train commuters who are then flushed out through the exits, leaving Iroha and Kuroe alone in the same labyrinth from the beginning of the episode.
Iroha and Kuroe are suddenly transported by the Witch to Kamihama, Out of nowhere, there’s a Baby Kyubey (now rivaling Baby Yoda for fandom’s favorite baby character). This smoller, cuter version of Kyubey sings a creepy little song and then jumps into Iroha’s arms, echoing an earlier scene when a white cat leapt to her. It’s not entirely clear how the initial cat scene and this mini Kyubey interaction are related, but I suspect it’s meant to signify the progression of Iroha’s mental barriers breaking down. Something about her arrival in Kamihama has changed her perception of the cat, forcing her to see it as this Kyubaby, and revealing multiple memories of a young girl that had apparently been locked away by her wish.
When another Witch appears and destroys the one that brought Iroha and Kuroe here, Iroha attempts to defeat it only to find herself severely under-equipped to do so. Fortunately, a mysterious badass of a magical girl rescues them, then proceeds to tell the duo to get the hell out of her Kamihama territory because they can’t handle just how many powerful Witches there are in this city. She emphasizes that the level of danger in the city is reason enough to forget about the “rumor” that magical girls can come here to be saved. With that, Iroha and Kuroe depart for home, both apparently demoralized by the evening’s salvation-less outcome.
The episode concludes with a revelatory dream. Iroha sees legions of girls flocking to Kamihama to “be saved,” possibly answering why there are so few left in her hometown. Among them is the mysterious girl that has continuously popped up throughout the episode. Then we see a glimpse of the moment Iroha made her wish, asking that “Ui” be cured of some disease. When Iroha wakes up, she seems to know who Ui is.
One of the clearer themes being established by this first episode revolves around Iroha’s isolation. For much of the episode, Iroha is almost constantly alone. By the setup of her bedroom, she’s either subconsciously or passively mourning the loss of a sibling she can’t remember. Her parents have left for an extended trip abroad. On the train and in class, no one sits next to her. She eats alone at lunch, and her classmates talk about how she never spends time with friends after school. The only person she has any meaningful conversations with (besides Kyubey – not exactly a good companion) is Kuroe, but even their relationship feels distant. The subject of their conversations never deviates from their lives as magical girls. While a small detail, a billboard that Iroha passes along the way to meeting with Kuroe reads “partners,” suggesting that they’re merely professional acquaintances. Along with the apparent mass exodus of Takarazaki, Iroha is incredibly alone.
Worth mentioning are also Iroha’s parallels to Madoka. At one point, Iroha says “I’m glad that even someone like me can be of use in some way” when speaking to Kuroe, a self-depricating line and sentiment that I found very reminiscent of Madoka’s “I might not be good at anything, but if I could help out people like you, I could be proud of the way I live.” Iroha also wields a crossbow that fires light bolts, similar to Madoka’s bow. That’s of course without mentioning they both have pink hair and roughly the same temperament. How exactly that all will come to fruition, I really have no idea, but the similarities are uncanny.
The episode is also setting up some significant shifts in the universe’s mechanics. Witches are mysteriously disappearing from Takarazaki city and are on the rise in Kamihama. Kyubey has supposedly been absent from Kamihama despite this increase of activity, but the magical girls here have some other way to dispose of Grief Seeds.
There seem to be various small details at play in these background narratives, giving me faith in how carefully this plot is being crafted. Already, in the first episode, we have such a degree of subtlety, complexity, and mystery. Although it’s still largely following the same plot as the mobile game, it feels to have already surpassed the source material in drawing deeper emotional ties to its characters and setting. That’s not so much a dig at the mobile game’s writing as it is praise for how faithful this series already promises to be to the quality of the original Madoka Magica.
Although I can’t beam enough about the plot of this first episode and my excitement for the rest of this series, I should point out that the animation is stellar. Iroha’s visions of Ui are creepy, the Witches and their labyrinths are frantic, and there were countless shots that I found really heightened my engagement. All in all, it was a real treat to watch. If you need any further proof, just look at the number of screenshots I couldn’t help myself from including in this post.
As an evangelist for the original series, fellow fans will understand that it may yet be too early to judge Magia Record. After all, it wasn’t until the third of that 12 episode arc when the real gist of the series was established. But if you enjoyed the original Madoka Magica, and you were on the fence about this next installment, I hope you’ve found it’s worth giving this first episode a shot. If you’re entirely new to the series and this all sounds intriguing, welcome! But also, go watch Puella Magi Madoka Magica before heading into this season.
I look forward to sharing more of my thoughts on Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story as this series continues.