I don’t think there was ever really a chance that Magia Record was going to outdo, or even fully live up to, the impossibly gargantuan reputation of Puella Magi Madoka Magica. That said, while the first two seasons of Magia Record were wildly uneven and overstuffed, the show was always this close to successfully making a case for its own existence. The universe of PMMM was always big, but its core story was a very personal one, and Magia Record offered us a welcome glimpse of the larger world of Magical Girls and Witches that Madoka and Co. always existed in, but rarely got to explore.
Sure, the plot relied way too much on dragged-out mysteries and featured a cast of characters multiple times larger than the original series’, but there was always a lot of promise to the story of Iroha, Ui, and the Wings of Magius, even if that promise capped out at being “pretty decently okay” compared to its legendary older sibling. The real question going into this final “season” of Magia Record, titled “Dawn of a Shallow Dream”, was whether or not the series could live up to that potential at last. What is perhaps the most striking about “Dawn of a Fragile Dream”, then, is how successfully it is able to provide a conclusion to this series that genuinely works in the span of only four episodes.
“We Failed”, for instance, is one of those story-critical lore dumps that somehow manages to deliver answers to questions that we’ve been asking for years without disappointing entirely. Sure, the tragic backstory of Ui, Touka, and Nemu isn’t especially surprising or shocking, but the arc of their fall from grace is very satisfying, and it successfully puts the previous two seasons into a more meaningful perspective. You understand why the trio would be willing to take on the burden of being Magical Girls to save Iroha and the others from their fates to become witches, and it’s honestly awesome to see them not only figure out the truth of Kyubey’s trick so quickly, but to come up with a solution that actually sounds like it might succeed, even though we all know that it can’t.
It’s too bad that the girls are characters in a Madoka Magica spinoff. Like so many other heroines of this franchiseUi and her friends merely wanted to use the power of the Magical Girl to do good and protect the people they love, and all they got for it was the honor of dooming everybody to a different manner of existential hell. None of that is new or fresh for this franchisebut it sure does feel right. Plus, I’m just happy that ultimate explanation of Baby Kyubey is that it was the last remnant of Ui’s soul left from the girls’ failed attempt to harness Kyubey’s powers. I was so sure that the Baby Kyubey gimmick would end up being stupid and/or disappointing, and I ended up being pleasantly surprised.
With most of the lingering lore questions resolved, the remaining trio of episodes have the unenviable job of bringing the present day plot to a close, and you know what? I think they get the job done. It’s not perfect, by any means; there was no way that every single girl was going to get the opportunity to have a neatly concluded character arc or emotional journey, but Magia Record makes its final hour count by eschewing the individual characters’ stories in favor of giving its thematic concerns the attention they deserve (not to mention a bunch of gorgeously animated magical girl battles, naturally). Outside of Iroha, the Hospital Gang, and Kuroe, there is neither the time nor the space for the other girls to get more than one or two big moments, but in the cacophony of the final battle, those moments feel a lot more meaningful than they really should.
The sacrifice of Mifuyu and Momoko; the Doppel-fiction of dozens of other girls; the grand spectacle of the final battle. None of these beats have had the buildup that they each deserve, but the supremely confident direction of Gekidan Inu Curry means that these episodes are still supremely engaging on an individual level in spite of the larger pacing problems that have plagued Magia Record on a big-picture level since Season 1. In these final episodes, Magia Record devotes itself entirely to serving as a meditation on the core ideas and emotions that swirl around in the bloody, beating heart of the franchiseand in that sense, Magia Record functions less as a fully-fledged companion piece to Madoka Magica and more like a bizarre piece of tone-poem fan-fiction. This is a complement, by the way.
It’s why I can have a genuine emotional reaction to Kuroe’s fall to despair in “How Long Do We Continue Being Magical Girls”, even though the character only accept just barely began making an impression in the back half of Season 2. It’s why I can Alina’s presence as the more straightforwardly destructive “villain” of the story, even though she barely exists as a character. It’s why I can accept that this tonally confused adaptation of a failed mobile game decides to end in such an unrelentingly bleak fashion, where our heroes desperately fight for the opportunity to fail at everything they set out to do. Sure, Alina didn’t turn literally every human on earth into a doomed Magical Girl, but the Magical Girls that already exist are still doomed. When Homura blips off to a new timeline in the ending montage, it might as well be her admission that this entire universe is a lost cause. The three “sisters” that Iroha fought so hard to protect are gone, the survivors of the Magius conflict are left with little more than a broken city and a million pieces to pick up, and absolutely no one else in the world will ever even know what they suffered for. What they will suffer for.
Well, almost nobody. Madoka Magica is fundamentally a story about hope, and in that final shot of the celestial Madoka taking the Magia Record in her arms, we’re reminded that it wasn’t for nothing, not really. Every single moment that Iroha and the others spent fighting was worthwhile, because they matter. If there’s any moral to take from this story, it’s that every single Magical Girl matters, no matter how cliché or rushed or inconsistent their stories might be. There might be one particular girl who gets to have her name on the marquee, but there are hundreds of others just like her, fighting and failing and trying again, all of the time, even when they know that the best case scenario is only one or two degrees removed from complete despair.
So, at the end, Magia Record was sometimes just as disappointing and unfulfilling as we all feared it would be, and it was sometimes a beautiful little thing in spite of itself. It stumbled many times in its attempts to justify itself as a successor to one of the most popular and influential anime ever made, and while I would never argue that it surpasses Madoka MagicaI can tell you now that I am glad that Magia Record exists. It made its case, and it told its story. These girls can rest, for now, and maybe dream of something better that could be waiting for them, in another life. They’ve done enough.
Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story is currently streaming on FUNimation.
James is a writer with many thoughts and feelings about anime and other pop-culture, which can also be found on Twitterhis blog, and his podcast.