The Madoka Project: The Neverending Spin-Off Story

Puella Magi Madoka Magica was a brilliant, groundbreaking anime series. It was also incredibly popular. Inevitably, it spawned mountains of merchandise, official art, video games, stage musicals, public service announcements, art exhibits, pachinko machines and a seemingly endless ream of manga. For several years it even inspired a semi-official fanzine, Manga Time Kirara Magica, which serialized comics, interviews with the show’s creators and teased developments in the franchise. At its best, this cashing in led to some fun, creative spin-offs, cute art and a thriving international fan base that remains active a decade after the show’s premiere. At worst, it led to crass bastardization of the source material.

Which is inevitable, of course, in all commercial media and especially with anime. No one should begrudge SHAFT and Aniplex for making money off their product. But it’s still a little disheartening to see the show’s complex cast reduced to broad archetypes or running gags (see how much merchandise references Mami losing her head) by officially sanctioned merch. While the show admirably downplays the fanservice endemic to the Magical Girl genre, authorized art depicting the girls in swimsuits and cheerleader outfits rather undercuts that strength. Madoka‘s rich storytelling and characters were dumbed down in service of making a buck: what remained was a surefire premise with cute designs that studios exploited in every conceivable way.

Yes, you can own an official Homura Akemi BB gun

Many anime series followed in Madoka‘s footsteps, which often had the opposite problem: embracing the show’s “darkness” without the material that enriched it. Shows like Granbelm, Magical Girl Raising Project, Wonder Egg Priority and others ape Madoka‘s surface details (“dark” tone and “shocking” plot twists) and exaggerate them with graphic violence and nihilistic despair; the worst, especially Magical Girl Site, live down to the “misery porn” charge thrown at Madoka. Other series, like Yuki Yuna is a Hero, have their cake and eat it too: a decent if unremarkable Mahou shoujo for most of its length (with likable Every Girl characters, inevitable beach and party episodes and leering close-ups of characters’ breasts and butts) Yuki introduces a “shocking” twist eight episodes into the first season so it can fulfill its “darkness” quota.1

For the sake of space we’ll focus on the manga spin-offs and Magia Record anime. Most of the Kirara Magica serials never received official English translations, though that’s largely for the best. Stories like The Veranda of Madoka, Welcome to Café Grief Seed! and Mami Tomoe’s Everyday Life are semi-official fanfiction, imagining the Puella Magi living happy, mundane lives with in-jokes and moe silliness best taken in small doses. We’ll restrict ourselves to the manga which have received translations, whose quality ranges from “pretty good” to “why was this published?” It offers a good case study in the best and worst of exploiting a franchise for spin-off material.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Manga (illustrated by Hanokage, who became the series’ most frequent mangaka) closely follows the script and storyline of the show, though the narrative is compressed at points (less time with side characters like non-magical friend Hitomi and Madoka’s family, for instance). And since Hanokage only had Ume Aoki’s basic designs to work from, her takes on the characters are often jarringly off-model: most notably Kyubey, who very much is the cutesy mascot character he’s pretending to be in the series (well, until he turns into a leering demon). Probably the biggest disappointment is that the unforgettable imagery of the series – Inu Curry’s surreal Witches’ labyrinths and the Urobuchian juxtaposition of everyday life with philosophic horror – can’t easily be replicated in comic form; Hanokage mostly opts for a dark monochrome palette that ranges from fine to one-note.

The two faces of Manga Kyubey

Nonetheless, the manga format allows her to explore the personalities of the main girls in more detail: for instance, we better understand Mami’s motivations, Kyoko’s feelings about Sayaka (the subject of much ship-teasing among fans) and get a more grounded sense of Madoka’s inner debate about whether or not to make a wish. And Hanokage inserts a few welcome character epilogues, including a final meeting of Madoka and Homura which provides a heart-wrenching coda. Overall, it’s not a perfect rendering of the show but does a fine job capturing its important points while illuminating a few more. Hanokage recently published a tenth anniversary edition with redrawn art closer to the style of the original anime.

The first official spin-off, Kazumi Magica is also the weakest and least connected with the original series – both in story and in spirit. A young girl named Kazumi wakes up in a box after being kidnapped, with no memory of what happened to her. She’s rescued by a team of Magical Girls who reveal that Kazumi is one of them – but she needs to relearn her own powers (including an ability to detect Witches) in order to fight a new, dangerous form of Witches that manifest from seemingly ordinary people. With only fleeting cameos by the original Madoka cast, the story relies on its new characters and art living up to the series brand. Unfortunately the principal cast is, at most, blandly likable and their various misadventures aren’t compelling or amusing enough to warrant much attention.

As for the art? Well, the character designs and general imagery are fine, if unremarkable. But it’s little surprise that mangaka Takashi Tensuga was a hentai artist, which shows in the egregious fanservice: Kazumi is introduced in an extended nude scene and her sheer, breast-hugging Magical Girl outfit seems fit for something like Kill la Kill rather than Madoka. In fairness, the story contains a clever take on Witches which could well have supported a decent story, and the skeevier elements fade as the plot slowly develops – although that modest praise is balanced out by a distasteful handling of a character’s multiple personality disorder. The balance of Kazumi Magica is an unmemorable, unappealing slog that offers Madoka fans little of value.

Oriko Magica manages, somehow, to be even more dark and grim than your average Madoka Magica story. In this arc, the Puella Magi face off against a duo of evil Magical Girls: Oriko, the daughter of a disgraced politician who’s gifted with the power of foresight, and Kirika, a former wallflower whose wish transformed her into a serial killer. Our principal cast is on the case, with particular focus on Kyoko, who becomes mentor and guardian to Yuma, one of Kirika’s victims, and Mami, who struggles to outsmart her extremely clever, preternaturally tough opponents. Even more than other works in the franchise, Oriko Magica stresses how the Magical Girls are the creations of broken homes; how their adult supports and friendship networks are torn from them and they’re forced to form relationships with each other, despite Kyubey’s plotting and the constant threat of Witches and other menaces.

Kuroe Mura’s art style is drastically different either from Aoki’s original designs or Hanokage’s standard manga, which takes some getting used to. Besides the odd-looking character models, the violence is far more graphic than anything else in the series; this and other elements (like Kirika, who uses Crime and Punishment as a how-to guide) read like a lost Magical Girl season of Psycho-Pass. Nor are the protagonists safe from harm, as the gruesome finale proves. But Mura more than makes up for it with her thrilling action scenes (Mami’s big showdown with Kirkia is one of the best fights in the whole series) and strikingly rendered backstories – Oriko in particular becomes a convincingly tragic villain. A respectable addition to the franchise, with its own sublore explored in sequels Extra Story and Sadness Prayer which many fans prefer to the original manga. 

Easily the best manga spin-off, The Different Story revisits the series through the eyes of supporting players Mami Tomoe and Kyoko Sakura. Part prequel (based on the drama CD Farewell Story, included with Madoka‘s video release) and part alternate universe, Different Story shows that Mami and Kyoko were friends before the series: Mami was senpai to the eager Kyoko, grateful for her companionship, until Kyoko’s family tragedy and differing views on how to fight witches drove them apart. Mami survives her encounter with Charlotte in this manga, but mourns over her fractured relationship with Kyoko, which provides the story’s backbone. The result, as expected from the Madokaverse, can only be tragic.

Mami and Kyoko are fan favorites despite having the least screen time among the main cast, and readers will find it delightful to learn more about them. Kyoko’s endearingly cute and friendly, vowing to “for fight everyone’s happiness”…until her family discovers her secret, which (understandably) turns her into the sour, cynical girl we all know and love. The manga heartbreakingly explores her relationship with her Father and sister Momo, which reinforces how her abrasive personality is bluster covering up a wounded heart. Even as she turns away from Mami, it’s largely out of self-loathing – a feeling that she’s not worthy of Mami’s friendship. Even so, she retains an affection for her senpai and (with Madoka’s help) tries to reconnect with her.

Mami cast a huge shadow over the events of the series, as the mentor Madoka and Sayaka idolized, but we only received glimpses of her personality. Here, while her sweet, outgoing persona remains intact, we see that she’s deeply lonely and desperate for affection. With Mami’s parents dead and her schoolmates unable to comprehend her exploits, she grasps eagerly onto Kyoko as a potential partner. Theirs, unfortunately, is never a relationship of equals, and it’s predestined to fall apart as Kyoko comes into her own and experiences her inevitable tragedy. Mami only realizes this when it’s too late to do anything about it, a failure reinforced when her mentorship of Sayaka turns similarly sour. Only the encouragement of her fellow Puella Magi (including, surprisingly, Homura) keeps her going; she cherishes her friends to the last, even as she nurses her internal weakness.

Artist Hanokage returns from the series’ manga adaptation and this time, her art style is much more dynamic and in-line with the show; the action scenes pop and the character drawings seem more consistent (no more cutesy Kyubey here). But about halfway through, the story slides inexorably towards the status quo; the creators evidently resolved that these characters can’t fight fate in any timeline and it eventually feels like so much wheel-spinning. For Madoka fans, The Different Story is worthwhile, but mostly for shining a light on two of the anime’s secondary characters. On a thematic and narrative level, it’s more of the same; whether that’s good or bad depends on the reader’s tastes.

Puella Magi Tart Magica runs a close second behind Different Story, despite having only a loose connection to the series. Building off the tidbit about historical Magical Girls from the series, this five-part manga re-imagines the Hundred Years’ War between England and France as a proxy feud between competing Puella Magi, with young Joan of Arc (or Tart as she’s called here) taking center stage. A young peasant girl, Tart watches her sister’s murder by freebooters and afterwards contracts with Kyubey (Cube in this telling) to “bring light to France.” As an extraordinarily powerful Magical Girl, she liberates large parts of France from the English with the help of an equally magical entourage: Riz Visconti, an Italian girl who becomes devoted to Tart; Melissa, Tart’s feisty servant with a hair-trigger temper; and Elisa, a German noblewoman with powers as big as her ego.

Dubbed La Pucelle (The Maid), Tart becomes a national hero after liberating Orleans and restoring Charles VII to the throne. But Tart and friends find themselves opposed by a trio of evil Puella Magi: Corbin, Lapin and Minou, animal-coded sisters of unfathomable power who’ve sided with the English for reasons of their own. Their battle leads Tart and friends to an evil bigger villain, who combines otherworldly witchcraft with earthly dynastic politics that put all of Europe in peril.

Credit the creators of this manga (artists Kawazu-ku and Masugitsune) for going far beyond what’s strictly necessary for a spin-off. The book is extremely well-researched, as evinced by detailed historical asides, complicated court politics and a lengthy bibliography; only the costumes feel anachronistic, seeming more Victorian than Medieval, but hey, these are Magical Girls. The protagonists are compelling, even if they sometimes feel like remixes of the Madoka cast (Riz, in particular, is an even more intense Homura); the villains, especially the wicked sisters, are a fun brood of baddies and even the historical cameos (Charles VII, Gilles de Rais, John Talbot, etc.) are convincingly sketched. There’s also a fresh take on Kyubey, who is more helpful than usual…although the main villain, interestingly, is a contractee who managed to turn the tables on the incubator system.

Interestingly, Tart isn’t the first manga to explore Joan of Arc’s story; clearly, a real-world teenaged girl-warrior is too tempting for mangaka to resist. But if the premise isn’t wholly original, Tart Magica more than justifies its existence. It’s well-paced, populated with fun characters, with well-drawn action scenes and imaginative witches even more horrific than anything encountered in the main series. It’s the rare spin-off that can hold its own without reference to the original work, while maintaining its tone of hopeful tragedy.

Those desiring a Madoka story without the angst should enjoy Homura Tamura, an absurd gag manga from the creator of Yuru Camp. Illustrated by Afro and originally serialized in Kirara Magica, Tamura provides a goofy acid trip, charting the long-suffering Homura’s course through dozens of shifting timelines, each kookier than the last. In various chapters, Homura becomes a master chef, a maximum security prisoner and a reckless motorcycle vigilante; battles mecha-piloting Sayaka and a chocolate-devouring Kyoko; forms a comedy team with Mami and tries to restrain a bomb-obsessed Madoka; discovers a universe full of Mamis and (a lovely running gag) a wayside planet where dozens of Homuras drink, commiserate about their misadventures and perform groan-inducing comedy skits.

Each of these scenarios develops a lively mini-universe that plays with the tropes and characterizations we all know from Madoka and its sequels. Naturally, the characters are flanderized to hell and back: Madoka is a naïve dope who keeps fudging Homura’s name and, in one timeline, resets events because Homura’s rescue isn’t “Magical Girly enough”; Sayaka is violent and impulsive, once contracting with Kyubey to obtain sugar for her tea; Kyoko loves snacks; Mami dies gruesomely (or loses her driver’s license!) at the drop of a hat when she’s not complaining about being lonely. At three volumes (360-ish pages) the joke eventually starts to wear thin, but there’s enough variation and cleverness in the stories themselves that all but the most humorless Madoka fans should come away satisfied.

Suzune Magica focuses on a group of Puella Magi facing their most dangerous opponent of all: a Magical Girl serial killer. The villain protagonist, Suzune Amano, is a Magical Girl who despaired upon learning that Magical Girls will become Witches and decided to kill them first. A decent enough pitch for a graphic novel, even if Oriko Magica did something similar, and the manga is best when it focuses on the duality of Suzune’s life: friendly, helpful honor student by day, misguided mass murderer by night. Unfortunately, the story never achieves its full potential: Suzune’s opponents are a generic coterie of Magical Girls with the usual bubbly personalities and fan-servicey outfits (one wears a dress with pink targets painted over her breasts – yikes!), which does little to endear us to them. Worse, there’s a forced third act twist to explain Suzune’s killing spree which undoes her character development, allowing us to root for her in the climax without guilt. Disposable work that never lives up to its premise.

There isn’t much revenge in Homura’s Revenge! even if it offers a (somewhat) fresh take on familiar characters. In this story arc (created by Tart Magica‘s Kawazu-ku and Masugitsune), Homura manages to pull Madoka back into her time loop with memories intact, making it easier (both hope) to avoid repeating past mistakes. Unfortunately, Kyubey also retains his memories this time around, and immediately starts playing the Magical Girls against each other. Homura and Madoka try their best to navigate existing pitfalls, new conflicts and the demon cat’s scheming, all of which prove far easier said than done.  

Those craving more Madoka content will probably be satisfied by Homura’s Revenge, and there are new tidbits here to justify the manga’s existence. This story does a better job elucidating Homura’s powers and the degree of actual control she can exercise with them. The first volume, however, fumbles the premise by enforcing the status quo (poor Mami never gets a break!); eventually things get more interesting when Homura and Madoka come into conflict with Kyoko and Sayaka, allowing for some fresh dynamics and divergence from the story we’ve all experienced multiple times by now. It’s better than your average cash cow cash-in, but it feels like another superfluous addition to the Madokaverse.  

The most recent manga series translated into English, The Wraith Arc roughly spans the period between the main series and Rebellion. It follows Homura, Mami, Kyoko and Sayaka as they try to navigate a Madoka-less world, battling Wraiths who feast on human emotions rather than the Witches of the series. It’s slighter than the original story, and the Wraiths aren’t terribly compelling antagonists, at least until they start impersonating humans. But artist Hanokage’s return is welcome and the dread atmosphere is as good as anything in the original series. The main reason to read this, as usual, is for the further adventures of our protagonists: Homura is the emotionally fragile keeper of Madoka’s legacy (the others having no memory of her), with Kyoko and Sayaka constantly fighting and Mami acting as their exasperated senpai. The series grows darker as the manga explores the ramifications of Madoka’s decisions and particularly its effects on Homura, who is revealed to have gained powers she doesn’t entirely welcome from Madoka’s decision and eventually reaches an existential crisis. Not essential, but useful for filling in gaps in the show’s lore.

This brings us to Magia Record, which manages to be the most cynical spin-off of all. It debuted in 2017 as a popular, modestly diverting gacha game; its main appeal for Madoka fans is an expanded universe pairing the Holy Quintet with dozens of new Magical Girls. The game’s popularity led to an anime adaptation by SHAFT, though Madoka fans likely spotted warning signs even before it aired. Of the original “Magica Quartet” only Ume Aoki was involved, and she’d already designed the characters for the game; Inu Curry replaced Akiyuki Shinbou as the animation directors, ensuring neat visuals but not a firm hand at the helm. Because Magia Record, despite flashes of creativity, ranges in quality from mediocre to dire.

Loosely following the game, Magia Record features Iroha Tamaki,2 a young Puella Magi who can’t remember why she made her contract with Kyubey…except a dim sense that it relates to her missing sister Ui. Hoping to find her sister, Iroha relocates to Kamihama City, which is drawing Magical Girls from all over Japan in search of “hope” that they can be “saved.” That “hope” is offered by The Wings of the Magius, a secret society led by sickly sisters Touka3 and Nemu4 and psycho artist Alina Gray,5 which releases Magical Girls from their destiny to become Witches; instead, they can summon their Witches as “Doppels” at will. This comes at price, however, and Iroha, older Magical Girl Yachiyo6 and a daunting ensemble of allies seek to foil their plans.

Yachiyo, for whom Homura wasn’t emo enough

Magia Record‘s first, and biggest shortcoming is too many characters with too little development. Iroha is a one-note Anime Protagonist, but she at least has bland likability and a cute design.7 But Yachiyo is the poor man’s Homura, all brooding and no depth, while her being a college age Magical Girl raises questions the series doesn’t bother answering. To maximize synergy with the game, the series shuffles through a dozen characters in its first few episodes; the story clogs itself trying to keep everyone straight, only for most of them to disappear soon after anyway. Only cheerful cook Tsuruno,8 lonely Sana 9 and snaggle-toothed orphan Felicia10 become regulars, and even then they don’t do much after their introductions, many lacking any hint of the backstories explored in the game.11

Tsuruno: her own biggest fan

Fearing that viewers wouldn’t embrace these characters, Magia Record shoehorns in appearances by the original Madoka cast. At first, they’re merely pointless fan service: Mami shows up to blast a Doppel-fied Iroha in one episode, while Kyoko briefly considers the Magius’s offer of alliance. But eventually their role becomes more substantial, and deviations from character harder to ignore. Mami is brainwashed by the Magius into becoming a villain dubbed “Holy Mami,” while Sayaka spits on her entire arc by declaring her own emotional turmoil “stupid.” Then there’s the obnoxious “Little Kyubey,” who acts exactly like Rebellion‘s Fantasy Kyubey down to chirping his name like a Pokémon, even as the real Kyubey lurks in the background for exposition drops. This thing ultimately has a purpose but clearly exists to placate fans upset that the original wasn’t what he seemed.

Go away

Inu Curry’s work is an erratic mixture of the brilliant and risible. Their Witches’ labyrinths and the Uwasas (rumors) – faux-Labyrinths created by the Magius to trap Magical Girls – contain all the expected surreal imagery. If key scenes in Madoka paid homage to Revolutionary Girl Utena, Magia Record insists on the comparison with unseen narrators introducing the Uwasas with “have you heard…?” like the Shadow Girls. Some of the Uwasas, like the AI that entraps Sana in one episode, are as inventive visually as anything in Madoka. But the gonzo imagery isn’t backed up by substance; the main animation and character designs are generally underwhelming, while the overcooked action scenes (let down by dodgy backgrounds and static details)12 fizzle rather than excite.

Mami Tomoe and Her Killer Brood

In the back half of Season One the story starts making sense, as the Magius’s plot becomes (somewhat) clear. Whenever Alina Gray, a mad artist with habits of speaking English (or Italian in the dub)13 and murdering Magical Girls shows up Magia Record springs to life, but her appearances are fleeting and rarely substantial enough to seem a real threat. An entire episode is devoted to a literal lecture explaining the Magical Girl system, beating into the audience’s heads something they already knew for the sake of characters evidently too dumb to understand. The season climaxes with an endless battle royale between “Holy Mami” and Sayaka which blows through the animation budget without persuading the audience they should care. Still, the finale ends on a last second hook (with some of our heroes joining the Magius out of guilt or desperation) offering hope that Magia Record might actually get on track.

Alina Gray: a psychotic ray of sunshine

No such luck. COVID crunched the budget and production schedule of the second season, leading to an eight episode cour that proves completely incoherent. The season wastes several episodes on Iroha’s descent into a Labyrinth, while Iroha’s friend Kuroe 14 and Yachiyo search for her, and others brood, scheme and change sides as the plot demands. The Magius’s plot unravels in a vague scheme of drawing Witches to Kamihama, but the finale shows our protagonists battling Holy Mami and a similarly possessed Tsuruno15 while ignoring this perplexing development. The show insults both its characters, and the audience, by having Yachiyo brand the Magical Girls as stupid for wanting to resist their fate as Witches, while the Doppel system is revealed to work drastically different from the game, where it at least offered hope.16 Compared to such blunders, even substantial appearances by the Madoka cast fail to generate more than momentary fanservice.

Don’t want to bungle or bobble the Magia Doppel

This muddled farrago is a masterpiece compared to the abbreviated third season, which tries to cram a massive amount of plot into just four misbegotten episodes. One episode presents the Magius’s backstory for some momentary interest, with Touka and Nemu conjuring a clever way to subvert Kyubey, but interjected into the narrative so late this causes confusion rather than clarity. The last few episodes see the Magius unleashing a jerry-rigged Witch named Embryo Eve17 to conquer the world, which Iroha and Co. easily vanquish before an Evangelion-lite non-climax of Iroha debating with herself whether there’s reason to hope in this abysmal world. This, along with several characters dying pointless, agonizing deaths in the final arc 18 and lectures from Kyubey about the futility of Iroha’s battle, ends Magia Record on such a frustrating, inconclusive note19 that it seems like a calculated insult to all three fans who sat through this mess.

The Magius go full tilt!

If Magia Record were just another Madoka pastiche in the Grandbelm/Yuki Yuna vein, it would be easier to ignore. But since it’s an officially sanctioned “side story,” it’s hard to pretend it doesn’t exist. Because no amount of surreal SHAFT-ian backgrounds and head tilts or “Credens Justitiam” queuing on the soundtrack can cover Magia Record‘s emptiness. The original Madoka was certainly commercial, but it also had points to make, ideas to consider and compelling reasons to watch. Meanwhile, Magia Record exists solely to sell a product.

We can regard these spin-offs of varying degrees of distaste or indifference. But Puella Magi Madoka Magica remains one of the best anime series of all time, more than deserving of its praise, plaudits and passionate fanbase. That’s something that all the chintzy merchandise, slot machines and decapitation jokes can’t take away from it.

And that concludes The Madoka Project! I’ve been working on this series more or less continuously since last October, and I can’t thank you all enough for reading, commenting and supporting these articles. Until next time!