When the original Puella Magi Madoka Magica premiered in 2011 it took the anime world by storm with its relentless assault on the magical girl genre encapsulated in the avant-garde presentation Studio Shaft is widely known for. So when a follow-up based on a mobile game was announced it’s safe to say that I and the community at large were a little trepidatious. It’s certainly not the blunt force lesson on trauma that is the original, but Magia Record: Side Story succeeds by focusing on other aspects of being a magical girl in this universe. Namely, how it systematically details the wear and tear on the minds of these unfortunate girls and how that weakness can be funneled into a cult mentality.
Straining the Psyche
The girls in Magia Record are the boots on the ground, veterans who have been at the frontline fighting Witches in a repeating cycle with no end in sight. Sure they got a wish out of the deal but whether that wish was worth a literal eternity of servitude vastly differed between each individual.
Fight. Purify. Fight. Purify. Fight. Purify. The process is endless and for what purpose? All to simply continue existing? Being continually exposed to such unforgiving conditions like Witch labyrinths and the chaos they wrought is going to take its toll on anyone’s mind. It’s not surprising then that so many of the girls in Magia Record seek release from the hell they trapped themselves in, and that’s where the Wings of Magius group comes into play.
As part of the season finale it was revealed how the Doppel system developed by Touka of the Wings of Magius is meant to spare the magical girls from their fate of turning into Witches. This “half-transformation” prevents the girls from fulling turning into Witches while simultaneously returning the gleam of their previously muddied Soul Gems.
The question becomes then, where do the negative emotions that triggered the process go? With no energy harvesting “Incubators” around in Magia Record do the feelings just dissipate into the air? Or perhaps, the feelings are sucked back inside, compressed, condensed, and shoved into a corner of the mind to not think about. There’s a word for that; it’s called “avoidance” and it’s one of the many destructive defense mechanisms humans turn to in times of coping.
Choosing to not dwell on unpleasant thoughts or to distance oneself from the source of a stressor is the basis of avoidance coping. It doesn’t make those feelings go away, just repackages them to be out of the way and that manifests as a seemingly pure Soul Gem for these magical girls. The murkiness is still there, just shrunk so as to not be visible like gas in a canister. But a container can only hold so much without relief and eventually cracks will begin to form. It’s those cracks that The Wings of Magius prey upon and how its cult is formed.
The Makings of a Cult
There are many definitions for what a cult is, but they all more or less have to do with a group of people that share an unorthodox ideology under a charismatic leader, often with the intention of transcending the limits of life. The Wings of Magius in Magia Record exhibits almost every single hallmark of a cult organization, both in appeal and function.
An article by The New York Times, while old, is still relevant today and covers the destructive trappings of cult mentality. It starts with recruitment, and cult recruiters, unsurprisingly, target the mentally vulnerable. Those under stress from looming exams, recently losing a job, or perhaps girls forced to fight Witches for eternity. The recruiters entice the prospect with the promise of some sort of benefit and for the magical girls whose minds had long been worn away, nothing sounds more enticing than the rumors spreading of being freed from that fate.
The recruit is then encouraged to attend a lesson or seminar of some sort a la Iroha and co in Magia Record. Once in the cult environment, the prospect is made sure to always be in the presence of other cult members at all times, much like how Mifuyu monitors Iroha the entirety of her visit. The goal of this visit is to confuse and disorient the prospect so that they are put in an even more vulnerable state than when they entered, and that’s exactly what the truth of the Witches does to the girls.
It’s during this “emotional crisis” that the recruit recapitulates their faith and beliefs to align with those of the cult’s; they see that as their only way of survival. At that point, it’s no longer a choice of believing in the cult or not; the recruit has to believe in it at the risk of losing all sense of being and purpose. Tsuruno, Felicia, and Kaede all seem to have fallen victim to this scheme in the show.
From that point on the cult leader instills a “we-they philosophy” into all of their members. “We” have the truth while “they” are ignorant and wrong in everything they do. We, the magical girls, deserve to be freed from our suffering while they, the humans, don’t deserve the ignorant bliss they live on in. It’s by this unification through manipulation that the cult leader, or Touka in this case, can maintain a vice-grip on their followers. What she will wield her followers for will have to wait until Magia Record’s next season.
The Wings of Magius may be a group of young girls wearing frilly looking clothes, but it’s almost terrifying just how much it mirrors that of real-life cult recruitment and mentality. When you consider the fact that there were real-life cults that promised to take its members to Venus or caused the mass suicide of 900 youths, Touka’s doesn’t seem so crazy anymore. It follows the established playbook down to a T and that makes it all the more bone-chilling to see how many girls caught up in this tangled web in the final moments of Magia Record’s first season.
Regardless of whether she really does have the solution or not to the Witch problem, Touka’s methods that approach downright brainwashing will result in severe aftereffects akin to PTSD that will linger long after her cult’s influence wanes, if ever. The Wings of Magius may be a fictional group based on a made-up magical system, and Magia Record may very well find a magical solution in line with the Madoka universe, but its principles and methodology are grounded in reality and that just makes the season’s conclusion all the more disturbing.