In 2011, Puella Magi Madoka Magica took the world by surprise. It wasn’t the first magical girl anime to tackle dark themes or to be aimed primarily at a teen/adult audience, but its unique blend of purposeful storytelling and artful aesthetics was captivating on a broader level than anyone could have anticipated.
A big part of what made the TV series so memorable was its script, written by Gen Urobuchi. At the time, Urobuchi had a reputation as a visual novel writer for creating dark and unsettling works like Kikokugai and The Song of Saya. The story he wrote for Madoka was a natural extension of his existing output: it was blunt and provocative, while also offering some interesting philosophical quandaries and science fiction concepts to chew on.
In short, Madoka was a good anime. Perhaps the biggest problem that it has faced as a franchise is that the original story may have been too good. The conflict is resolved by the end of the initial 12-episode run, and all the major themes are explored succinctly within the scope of the series. Urobuchi himself has said in interviews that he never conceived of Madoka having a sequel. Even when he was approached to write one in the form of the 2013 Rebellion film, he thought it was a joke at first.
In a media mix environment where most TV anime are adaptations of long-running manga or novel serializations, and even original anime projects are often planned in coordination with things like games, toys, and idol performances, stories with a distinct endgame like Madoka are somewhat rare. So when the anime became a monster hit, the struggle was in figuring out how to please the content-hungry fans. How do you continue a story that has ended? What do you do when you’ve already played all the cards in your hand?
Madoka‘s clumsy, faltering attempts at expanding its characters and universe – both with and without the hand of Gen Urobuchi – are fascinating in their own ways, because they reveal a conflicting image of the franchise among the very people who created it. In certain ways, Rebellion felt like an abortive sequel, because it retconned the ending of the original series, presented a new open-ended conclusion, and yet never received a follow-up for years. Then Urobuchi stopped working on Madoka to focus on new stories and media; the Magia Record spinoff mobile game was created without his involvement.
In the 10 years since Madoka first aired, the series has diversified a lot. It’s not necessarily the story of Madoka, Homura, and the magical girls around them anymore. The various spinoff manga titles, like Puella Magi Oriko Magica and Puella Magi Tart Magica, introduced different magical girls and their stories, while Magia Record brings all the various threads together to tell a new story about the fate of all magical girls.
Yet despite the efforts of the IP holders to branch out and tell new stories, the original tale is still the face of the franchise. Even if we do technically see more of Madoka et al. in the spinoffs, it wasn’t necessarily their personalities or character types that haunted viewers and made them crave more in the first place – it was what the story made them do. In other words, it was Urobuchi’s Madoka that drew people to the series, and without him it just wasn’t the same.
With the announcement of a sequel film to Rebellion with the key members of the original staff on board – including Urobuchi – now’s as good a time as any to reflect on how Madoka has changed in those 10 years. Has the series already transformed too much for its “original quality” to be found again through Urobuchi’s writing? Probably so. But that was an unrealistic expectation anyway. As far as I’m concerned, the original series didn’t need a continuation, but if it was going to get one, I didn’t necessarily want to see more of Urobuchi’s Madoka.
I’ll come right out and say it: I’m one of those people who honestly liked Magia Record. Yeah, yeah, it’s one of those dreaded gacha games with a mediocre anime adaptation, but you know what – screw the haters. It’s a genuinely creative spinoff considering the circumstances that spawned it.
An Interlude Where I Talk About the Greatest Madoka Fanfiction
In September 2011, mere months after Madoka Magica finished airing, a FanFiction.net user started posting their magnum opus. To the Stars by Hieronym tells the story of magical girls in space, hundreds of years after the end of the TV series. In this futuristic, post-capitalist world, magical girls are public knowledge and openly aligned with the military, thanks to a cataclysmic alien invasion that forced magical girls to reveal their existence to the world.
To the Stars is an absolute monster of a fanfiction. It was last updated in June, and currently totals 806,316 words in length. Although it’s still ongoing, at this point you could describe it as a full-fledged saga in its own right, with a setting much more detailed and elaborate than the anime that inspired it.
Why did I bring up a fanfic? Because it’s proof that the original story of Madoka actually did leave quite a lot of room for authors to exert their own creative spin on it. Even after the ending of the TV anime, in a landscape changed irrevocably by Madoka’s wish, there were still stories to tell with those old characters, new conflicts, and themes that could have been explored. And it didn’t take a Gen Urobuchi to do it.
Back to Magia Record
As an officially sanctioned spinoff, Magia Record was never going to have the room to take liberties with the setting like a fanfic would. Because it’s a mobile game, it needs to have loads of characters, many of whom inevitably drift in and out of the plot with flimsy narrative justification. For the sake of marketing and the gacha, it also needed to represent all the old characters in the forms that fans were most familiar with. But the writers of the game did understand one thing: There’s no point trying to compete with Urobuchi’s Madoka.
So Magia Record became a mystery story instead.
The plot takes place in an alternate universe from the original series. Witches disappear around Japan, and a plot stirs in the city of Kamihama to liberate magical girls from their inevitable fate of becoming Witches. It’s a slow burn at first, but all the plot threads eventually come together in a very deliberate way. There’s an implicit assumption right from the start that the players are familiar with the original series; when the worldbuilding twists of the original anime are presented in Magia Record, it’s so that they can get recontextualized entirely.
Magia Record also has a bigger focus on character drama and found family dynamics. Unlike the magical girls of Urobuchi’s Madoka, who are territorial in nature and come into conflict over the right to hunt Witches, the magical girls of Magia Record have an incentive to team up because Kamihama has a surplus of Witches, who are all stronger than average. Because of the bigger emphasis on friendship and the fact that the mobile game format gives you more time with these characters, the tone of the narrative ends up coming across as more relaxed. It feels a little bit more like your “typical” magical girl series in this sense.
Due to its more conventional themes and the fact that the source material has been out there for years, it only makes sense that Magia Record‘s anime lacked the impact of the original Madoka. Even the producers admit that it “doesn’t have any big surprises like episode 3.” (You know, the Mami one.) But the series ended up surprising me overall in how it got me to care about the new characters in a way that I didn’t feel about the original cast. In fact, seeing characters like Madoka and Homura in Magia Record made me realize how flat their personalities are when they’re separated from their larger roles in their original narrative. Ultimately, I think it’s better to see Magia Record as its own thing, with its own particular appeal.
A big factor of what makes the game work is the involvement of both the original character designer Ume Aoki and Witch designer Gekidan Inu Curry. Their work was instrumental in shaping the aesthetic of Madoka, and for Magia Record they’ve gone above and beyond to create designs that are even more striking. Gekidan Inu Curry was also heavily involved with the storytelling, at first as a consultant, although over time they took on bigger writing and supervision roles. The story and gameplay are defined by the duo’s eerie new creations: the Uwasa, the Doppels, and (in Part 2) the Kimochi. They feel like natural extensions of the Madoka world and lore, and the anime version is worth it just to see them in action on the bigger screen.
It feels bittersweet to write an article like this after Magia Record‘s North America server got discontinued. It’s easy to criticize the distributors for the weak marketing and lack of confidence in the product by pulling the plug only a year after launch. But it also goes to show that Magia Record underperformed, and that it didn’t get enough appreciation when it was around. Only the highly-abridged anime and manga adaptations remain as avenues to experience the story in English, and that’s a deep shame. It also means that even if you were to watch archived cutscenes from the NA version, there’s currently no way to experience Part 2 of the story in English. At this rate, the game may end up getting forgotten entirely in the minds of English-speaking anime fans, even as the franchise moves forward.
As for me, I’m still playing Magia Record in Japanese. The very fact that it’s no longer available in English anymore is what inspires me to write about it in a positive light, in the wake of the news about the Rebellion sequel. As much as I’m looking forward to seeing what else Gen Urobuchi has up his sleeve (or rather had, since he says he wrote the script in between his jobs on Kamen Rider Gaim and Thunderbolt Fantasy), I don’t think Urobuchi’s Madoka was the only interesting part of the franchise.
How do you continue a story that’s over? When capitalism demands that you keep going, how do you create something that can still surprise and delight audiences? The story of the Madoka franchise represents one possible answer – not a perfect one by any means, but it’s one that I respect. Even after the return of Urobuchi, I hope we can still remember what Madoka was without him.
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