Note: Contains spoilers for the finale of the Puella Magi Madoka Magica anime.
I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in feeling like my thoughts from March onward have been one long, unending scream. Here in the United States, state and federal governments paid the barest of lip service toward suppressing the COVID-19 coronavirus and dealing with the economic fallout. Now, the response seems to have shifted to “pretend it never happened, and it will all go away.”
Only, it won’t all go away. Not until we have a vaccine, or at least enough testing to say who has it and who doesn’t.
When this all started back in the tail end of February and early March, I thought I was prepared. I have a chronic illness, so I already didn’t go out and about very often. And since I work from home, I didn’t have to choose between my economic security and my health, unlike so many people out there. The only question, then, was how to survive the unending numbness and anxiety of knowing the world is dangerous, and having absolutely no protection against it. Of knowing my family and I could be as careful as possible and still get sick. Of knowing so many people were going to lose family members and friends. Of wondering what the world would be like on the other side.
At the time, I thought I could cope. I had to learn to manage my depression and anxiety-ridden brain years ago. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be on this Earth. All the while, my chronic illness has left me in a perpetual state of uncertainty for the last three years, wondering if my symptoms would get worse, if I could ever learn to manage them.
Media has been my only escape this entire time. When I couldn’t sleep because of symptoms, I could put on a favorite TV show or a movie. When my thoughts started racing, I could read a book. When I couldn’t concentrate on reading, I could play a favorite video game.
This time, nothing helped. Old TV shows seemed woefully inadequate in the face of our current crisis, and starting anything new was far too large of an emotional commitment. I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read a book or get through a few worlds in Kingdom Hearts. Instead, I spent all my time scrolling through Twitter and Facebook, lingering over articles about the ever-increasing lists of COVID-19 symptoms or the worsening government response.
In the end, everything came down to mobile games. If I have a game open, I can’t be on Twitter, at least for a few minutes. But even there, nothing grabbed me. I usually enjoy match-three games with cute characters like Frozen Free Fall. Not good enough. Nor was anything else.
In desperation, I turned back to Magia Record, the gacha spinoff game based on Puella Magi Madoka Magica. I had briefly played when it first released, but I lost interest when the time requirements became too onerous. Suddenly, though, keeping up with what Magia Record fans call the “NA Tempo”, a weekly barrage of events and new characters to catch up with Japan’s two-year lead, was no longer an issue.
What was I going to do? Go to the grocery store?
Madoka Magica is supposed to be a really dire, depressing anime. Despite being a big fan of magical girls, I didn’t watch the series upon its initial release, because I heard about the infamous turn in episode three, which leaves two of the adorable leads to grapple with the reality of death and danger.
I got around to the show eventually, since it’s regarded as a genre-defining classic, and yes, it was as depressing as I’d always heard. Somehow, despite waiting almost a decade after its release, I hadn’t been spoiled on the main twist. Sadly, I have to spoil it now to explain the spinoff game, so turn back now if you want to watch it fresh.
Over the course of the series, the main characters have horrifying revelation after horrifying revelation.
Magical girls die in the field.
Magical girls have their souls placed in a gem separate from their bodies, so their bodies are essentially empty shells that will never grow or change.
And, most horrifyingly of all, magical girls are destined to transform into the very witches they fight. The more grief and despair they prevent by defeating witches, the more grief and despair they will eventually cause when they become one themselves. There is no escaping this fate, and there is no way to make it better.
Maybe most awful of all, though, is the truth about resident cool girl Homura Akemi. When Homura first appears in the series, she’s ruthless with the other magical girls and especially cold to Madoka. She seems heartless and horrible.
Then we learn the truth: before becoming a magical girl, Homura witnessed Madoka’s horrific death. Thus, she wished to redo her meeting with Madoka to try and save her, and she was given the power to turn back time to that first meeting. She’s been repeating her few weeks with Madoka over and over and over again. Still, each time results in the same awful fate, played out in new and more horrible ways. Madoka dies in battle. Madoka becomes a witch. Madoka has to fight her friends to protect Homura.
It’s a relentless barrage of horror, and there can never be any light at the end of the tunnel. These characters will suffer time and again, and no one can save them.
Magia Record is a spinoff from Madoka Magica, presented as a mobile game. And though it features cameos by characters from the original show, it mainly focuses on a new team of magical girls. The main character is Iroha Tamaki, who comes to a mysterious city full of magical girls in hopes of finding her missing sister. She befriends a group of other magical girls, and also learns the cruel truth about their ultimate fates. A mysterious group called the Magius may have the solution for this problem, but their cure is as bad as the poison. With this in mind, Iroha must ultimately choose whether to follow Magius and inflict more pain and suffering on the world to save herself, or turn against them, which would mean accepting her fate and resigning herself to becoming a witch.
The Puella Magi Madoka Magica TV series has a very fixed ending, so the idea of a spinoff game seemed a little weird to me at first. That said, things cleared up pretty quickly. The game isn’t a sequel, nor is it set at the same time as the original series. Rather, it’s set during one of Homura’s alternate timelines. She, Madoka, and all their friends from Madoka Magica appear as younger, less damaged versions of themselves, though it’s not clear that any of them will avoid their seemingly inevitable painful ends.
The game is also a natural followup to the show because there’s just so much pain. Every character has a complex backstory revealing why they chose to become a magical girl in the first place. Iroha wanted to save her little sister Ui from dying of a chronic illness. Her friend Sana wished to become invisible because she couldn’t bear the abuse and bullying from her family and classmates. Their initial-rival-turned-friend Yachiyo wished to survive, and blames herself for the subsequent deaths of her initial magical girl team.
It all seems like an awful lot of sadness with no hope, too.
Madoka Magica is not actually a grim anime. Lots of bad things happen, sure, but lots of bad things also happen in life. 2020 has seemed like an endless string of terrible things, with each new event somehow managing to be than the last.
But Madoka Magica does not end in despair. In the final episodes, Madoka figures out how to save her friends and the people she loves. She wishes for the power to destroy all witches before they’re created. In doing so, she becomes a sort of goddess of hope for magical girls, stepping in at the moment before they transform into witches and taking them into a painless afterlife.
It’s not a perfect ending, of course. Madoka essentially erases herself from existence. No one remembers her or the way the world used to be except Homura, and her only vaguely. Madoka gives up her own happiness to keep everyone else in the world safe, and the sacrifice was worth it, but it’s still a sacrifice. That’s not a happy ending, right?
Magia Record is actually a game with a lot of hope. It takes a while to figure this out, but trust me when I say it’s worth the payout.
In the world of Magia Record, girls who should have become witches instead gain Doppels: a controlled, super-powerful form of their witch. They unleash the Doppel in battle, and it essentially resets their hope-and-despair counter, so they can go back to ordinary life with no fear of their ultimate bad ending. An organization known as the Wings of the Magius are behind this, and they are not good people. But, at the same time, they are fixing the problem.
But more important is the friendship that forms between all the characters. Iroha eventually ends up living in a boarding house with Yachiyo and a few other friends they pick up along the way, called Team Mikazuki. They hang out together, cook together, argue and make up. Despite the doom hanging over all their heads, they find a way to make a life together.
Every magical girl in the game is part of a group like this. There’s the apartment complex trio of Mito, Leila, and Seika, three girls who grew up together but get separated when Mito’s family decides to move. Still, they agree to never let go of their friendship.
There’s Nanaka’s team of powerful magical girls, united initially by Nanaka’s quest for revenge and nothing more. In a recent special event, though, Nanaka realizes just how much she cares about her teammates, and that she will choose them over her own safety.
Heck, a recent event even focused on a few members of the Wings of the Magius, who ignored their group’s law of secrecy to befriend each other. By night, they went out to do the Magius’s dark work, and by day, they hung out in maid cafes and took photographs. They knew exactly how dark their world was, and yet they still found happiness with each other.
These characters are living in a dark and troubled world, but they choose to connect with each other again, despite everything. They saw a world that looked hopeless, and yet they found a way to make a life in it. Triumphing through the strength of friendship is a pretty common magical girl theme, and yet it’s never seemed as powerful to me as it does in this one dark universe.
Things are not better now, obviously. The virus is still out there. There’s no popping out for a gallon of milk. No summer vacation. Hell, there aren’t even any backyard pools — they’re all sold out across the country.
But I can endure, and I can keep my head up. I can reach out to my friends. I can take care of my family. I can manage the things I can manage, and I can refuse to let the endless threat of the virus take more of my life than it has.
And when I can’t remember, I can always pick up my phone and turn back to these girls.