Wednesday 8 January 2020

First Impressions: Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story

Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story
You can watch Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story on Funimation Now, Crunchyroll & Hi-Dive

Nine years ago Puella Magi Madoka Magica was released, and anime was never really the same again. While it was far from the first magical girl series to put a darker spin on the genre, it’s success has led to more than just a few pale imitations. Madoka Magica also helped put Gen Urobuchi on the map, and arguably he’s gone on to become one of the most well known writers in modern anime fandom. Well it’s the beginning of a new decade and the world of Madoka is back, in the brand new spin-off series Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story. Based on the mobile game of the same name, this series lacks the Urobuchi touch but does feature several familiar names from the original. Shaft are still fronting the series, with Gekidan Inu Curry (the team behind the witches and labyrinths of the original series) are now directing and writing. For worldwide release the series will be made available first on Funimation Now, and then on both Crunchyroll and Hi-Dive a few days after its Japanese broadcast.

Iroha TamakiIroha and Kuroe

Magia Record follows new heroine Iroha Tamaki, a magical girl who cannot remember the wish she made to the creature known as Kyubey. After her parents leave her to go on a business trip overseas, Iroha hears from fellow magical girl Kuroe of a rumour that magical girls who travel to Kamihama City will be saved.

Instead upon arrival in Kamihama they find witches stronger than they’ve ever faced, as well as another magical girl who warns them to stay out of her territory. But Iroha also has a strange encounter with a smaller Kyubey while she’s there, an encounter which leads her to remember her original wish.

Yachiyo NanamiThose familiar witches

Admittedly I'm very sceptical of any more Madoka Magica being unleashed into the world, especially after that less than satisfying (not to mention open-ended) conclusion it had with Rebellion Story. However for the meantime it seems that Magia Record is a spin-off in the truest sense of the word – taking place in the same universe but without any of the original characters. This thankfully is exactly the right way to go about it. The world of Madoka Magica is rich and the twisted mechanics to its magical girls is rife with story potential, but any further expansion on the characters we know and love feels like it's just going to cheapen that original ending even more. Sadly this probably won't last because it's been nearly a decade and Shaft (like any other animation studio) like money and want this to be a success, so I fully expect to see Madoka and Homura turn up at some point. But until then? This is a pretty good start.

Even without Urobuchi at the helm, Magia Record has already done a pretty good job at instilling that same feeling of oncoming dread the same way the original series did once the penny dropped. The main source of this is of course Iroha's forgotten wish, which surprisingly didn't take long to manifest itself as something foreboding. Did Iroha's wish to cure her sister's disease result in her being erased from existence? What's perhaps more concerning is the apparent stipulation that neither she nor Kyubey remember it – or at least that's what Kyubey's saying anyway. Returning complete with its original voice actor, it's so great to see the manipulative little incubator again. As straightforward as ever, seeing its descent into an antagonist role once again is going to be a pleasure regardless of how this series might turn out.

Kyubey returnsA Witch's Labyrinth

Starting the series with Iroha already as a magical girl already puts her in a very different position to Madoka, but they still have a fair bit in common other than just pink hair. As well as wielding an (albeit very different) bow in her magical girl form, Iroha has that same soft-spoken disposition that you just know is going to be brought to the brink of despair. While not the strongest magical girl out there she’s an at least competent fighter, so she’s also in a good position to grow over the coming weeks. While ultimately Madoka would be the one to save magical girls both Iroha and Kuroe seem invested in the same way, though perhaps in a more straightforward way than Madoka’s eventual self-sacrifice. For now at the very least she seems like an interesting character to follow, especially with that next episode hook immediately amping things up.

Just how much stock we should place the other characters that appeared this episode is another matter entirely though, as Kuroe’s minimal appearance in the opening credits suggests she might not be around all that much longer - be it via sinister means or otherwise. It’s isn’t all that surprising as this episode largely relies on her as the expository character - setting up the Kamihama City mystery as well as giving fans a very brief reminder of the setup magical girls have in this universe. Brief being the key word here, because the explanations aren’t especially newcomer-friendly. Rounding off this initial trio is Yachiyo Nanami, who already feels like she’s the Homura parallel to Iroha’s Madoka (the hair colours feel anything but subtle). Perhaps not with such a layered backstory, but her initial abrasiveness certainly has shades of Homura’s own apparent hostilities toward Madoka. It’s also interesting to see all of the girls sporting more uniformed outfits than the original cast, ones which in some way feel a bit more practical as well. Whereas the original cast all sported very ornate and detailed outfits which leant into magical girl cliches, these are far simpler rogue-like outfits whose visual flare mainly comes from a cape and/or hood. It a curious divergence as it really makes the new girls feel lacking when stacked against their predecessors, but a nice distinction that puts the visual focus of Magia Record in a different place.

The one element fans can definitely rely on though is the visuals. While the character designs don’t quite have that same sketched-out look at the original cast it’s a close enough approximation to know what you’re looking at, while the background design is just as varied as ever - constantly switching from detailed cityscapes to sparse, monotone interiors. Gekidan Inu Curry to continue to supply wonderfully abstract labyrinths for the equally bizarre witches to inhabit, with the two that appear in this episode acting as that perfect link to properly reel you back into the Madoka universe. With so much nostalgia invoked its a shame that ClariS aren’t back to do the opening theme, but then again you can’t rely too much on the past. 

A mini Kyubey?The mystery deepens...

So while it probably won’t have the same impact as the original series Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Side Story has already set itself up nicely with an interesting story and that distinct Madoka feel. Most expectations will mean this series has a lot riding against it, but if it’s able to successfully deliver a coherent and conclusive story inside the Madoka universe then I think that’s enough to call it a success. At the very least with Gekidan Inu Curry on board it’ll be visually impressive, but fingers crossed it manages to stick the landing story-wise as well.

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