Against Madoka (Rebellion)

Spoilers! Rebellion has still not had a wide theatrical or home-video release in the U.S., so I will continue to put all Rebellion-related content behind a cut as a courtesy to those who read my site through feeds and don’t want to be spoiled.

Also, sorry for being a bit late on this.

The enemy. Obviously.

Names have power. 

There is an interesting pattern to the people Homura draws into her labyrinth: the magical girls make sense, as the main figures in her life and, at least in the most recent timeline, her teammates. Madoka’s family are slightly more of a stretch, but they are people important to Madoka and therefore to Homura. Still more of a stretch are Hitomi and Kyosuke, but again, Hitomi is important to Madoka and Kyosuke is important to Hitomi, so it’s not entirely unreasonable. But what possible reason could she have to bring in Kazuko (the homeroom teacher) and Nakazawa (an apparently random classmate)? And she does draw them both in–Nakazawa and the other magical girls are the only people seen to have normal faces when Homura begins doubting the reality of the people around her in math class, and both Nakazawa and Kazuko are shown unconscious on couches when the labyrinth is finally broken.

The answer lies in folklore: a witch who knows a person’s name can use it in workings of magic against that person. Consider again who Homura brings into the labyrinth, and then consider the series a a whole; setting aside witches, does any other character even have a name? Homura has drawn in everyone who can be drawn in, everyone who was a name. (Admittedly, Madoka’s father’s name is not spoken onscreen, but Madoka calls him Papa, and as there is no other living father in the series, “Papa” functions well enough as a name.) 

Names have power because, in magical logic (which is, by and large, narrative logic), there is no signifier-signified distinction. The name is, in some sense, the thing named, and so to manipulate the name is to manipulate the thing. It follows, then, that if two things have the same name they must therefore be in some sense the same, that one can stand in for the other.

All I which is a roundabout way of saying that, when Homura grabs Madoka’s arms and tears Madoka-the-girl out of Madoka-the-abstraction, it is an act of rebellion not just of Homura against Madoka, but of Rebellion against Madoka Magica.

And why shouldn’t the film rebel against the series? Once, if a person wished to tell stories, they got up and told stories. Spoken aloud, these stories were ephemeral, changing with every telling. There were traditions, to be sure, but storytellers could be confident that their creative departures would not be seen as errors or betrayals but as the embellishments of a virtuoso performance.

Mass literacy struck a mortal blow against this form of storytelling, and radio, film, and television finished the job. This kind of storytelling lives on (as no art form ever really dies), but only as a curiosity, something to gawk at at a Renaissance festival or take your children to at the public library. Mostly, when we want a story, we reach for a packaged one, a book or a DVD.

This creates a challenge when an author wants to tell a cycle or series of stories, reusing the same characters or setting. The author wishes to explore and create, and in the age of oral tales was free to do so–no one particularly expected that the  tales of Renard the Fox must be consistent with one another or complained, “Hey, when he seduced Leda, Zeus was a swan, how come he’s a golden shower now?” After all, if the story of Leda can change with every telling, why expect it to still be the same when you hear a completely different story? 

Oral tales are living, growing, changing things. By contrast, a written or filmed tale is dead, nailed to the page or screen, unable to change or grow, fixed permanently as it was in a single telling. The audience is permitted to change and grow, so that their perspective on the tale can alter with time, but the actual creator of the tale is denied that. Even when it comes to crafting a sequel, audiences–“geek” or “cult” audiences notoriously so–demand continuity, which is to say they demand fealty to the tyrannical reign of dead stories. It is a wonder that more creators don’t rebel! 

So Rebellion pays lip service to the series. All the events of the series clearly happened here and are given what the continuity-obsessed consider “respect,” which is to say the letter of the law “Thou shalt not contradict the events of earlier entries” is slavishly obeyed. Even the structure of the film apes the structure of the show: it splits neatly into three parts, the first of which establishes a pretense of being a “normal” magical girl show that abruptly falls apart in a violent confrontation with Mami. The second (which, admittedly, has a stronger overlap with the first than in the series) then follows a magical girl as she slowly comes to the realization that she is what she fights against, and has been a witch from the start. Finally the third involves a tremendous battle against a city-scale witch, after which reality is rewritten and a new order established.

However, where the series followed Madoka, the film follows Homura, and therein all the difference lies. Madoka is a patient, careful, but very optimistic character–she waits until the very end of the series to act, but when she does so, it is decisively, and with every intent of ending what she sees as the primary problem of her universe absolutely and with finality. Homura is cynical, headstrong, and confrontational; she flings herself into conflict after conflict, until finally her own mirror of Madoka’s actions is to create a world in which Homura’s primary problem–Madoka’s penchant for self-sacrifice–must be dealt with continually and continuously.

This does not necessarily imply that, for most of the film, Homura is in conscious rebellion against Madoka’s order. Homura is initially positioned, just as in the series, as the one questioning and disrupting the status quo, true, but that status quo (as always, represented and defended by Mami) is Homura’s own dream-realm. Homura is trying to return the state of the world to what she remembers, which is to say the world of the series. She only begins to rebel intentionally after Madoka tells her that, to her, being separated from her loved ones is tremendously painful–in other words, after Homura realizes that Madoka’s self-sacrifice entailed actual sacrifice. To Homura, of course, the sacrifice of Madoka is unthinkable and unforgivable, even if it is Madoka herself performing the sacrifice.

Even then, however, Homura does not act on her desire to undo Madoka’s sacrifice until very late in the movie, because up until that point she has no opportunity to do so. The character who is actually in rebellion against Madoka, and therefore against Madoka, for the majority of the film is Kyubey, who has orchestrated the entire situation in an attempt to usurp control of the Law of Cycles and bring back witches. It is worth remembering here that in many respects Kyubey is an (unusually unflattering) authorial stand-in, and as such it makes sense that his rebellion against Madoka is the creators’ Rebellion against Madoka.

Kyubey’s rebellion, however, is unsurprising–he is, after all, the villain of the series, and an unrepentant villain who is still around in the sequel can be assumed to at least try to resume their villainous role. Homura, by contrast, is spectacularly, obsessively loyal to Madoka, and so the film takes pains to meticulously lay out all the elements of her rebellion: She has motivation, in the form of her conversation among the flowers with Madoka and realization that she “never should have allowed” Madoka to sacrifice herself. She has inspiration, when Kyubey reveals that Madoka can choose to re-enter the world after all, and Sayaka reveals that Madoka’s Buddha-nature, her memories and powers as the Law of Cycles can be held in storage by another. And she has opportunity, when Madoka descends to take her life and prevent her from becoming a witch in the “real world”–as Kyubey says, that which can be perceived can be interfered with.

And so Homura rises as a devil-figure, tearing “God” from her heaven and bringing her down into the world. She is the ultimate bad girl, identified by Paradise Lost-quoting graffiti and Nietzsche-chanting, tomato-throwing familiars as Satan herself. She has claimed the labels “demon,” “evil,” and “enemy” for herself, and made clear that she plans to act them out–which brings us to yet another rebellion. But that’s another article for another time…

25 thoughts on “Against Madoka (Rebellion)

  1. In some of my debates with people who hate the ending, I bring up this idea of Rebellion literally rebelling against the show. We all assumed based on episode 12 that Homura was going to eventually succumb to the Law of Cycles and be with Madoka. Had Rebellion ended that way, what would've been the point of making a third movie? Then it really would be the cash grab some people accuse it of being, a film where Kyubey's machinations were nothing more than an inconvenience on the road to the inevitable conclusion. With that ending there's no change.

    I think Shinbo and Urobuchi viewed the film as a rebellion as well, given that Urobuchi said, “Ending the story with Madoka and Homura being reunited wasn't really the best outcome. After all, the instant Homura encounter her, she'll be guided by the Law of Cycles, and disappear. Would that make her happy? It was also the director, Mr. Shimbou's opinion that the outcome of the TV series, 'a human being becoming a god' might be too heavy a fate for a girl in middle school to bear.”

  2. “and Sayaka reveals that Madoka's Buddha-nature, her memories and powers as the Law of Cycles can be held in storage by another”

    *headesks* Can't believe I missed that.

    I wouldn't say the the flower field is Homura's only motivation. The fact is Homura's barrier is her ideal world, something she realizes when she learns she is the witch. Also, pretty much everyone else says that they're happier in Homura's barrier, giving Homura more of a reason to do what she did.

    There's also something else. Homura can interfere with Madoka because she can see her – but when she does, Homura does not become a witch. This seems to contradict canon…

    Except that I feel the writers are being exceptionally clever here. Rebellion implicitly relies on a loophole in Madoka's wish, which is the fact that while witches can't be born, they can still exist. Homulilly exists because she is an unborn witch, still in her Soul Gem. Oktavia and Charlotte exist because they were never born – they were taken into the Law of Cycles. Taking this logic to it's conclusion, if Homura became a witch, then Madoka's wish would not come true. So Homura becomes a demon instead. This is the “third option” I talked about in your Episode 12 post.

    If Kyubey is an authorial stand-in, wouldn't Homura be a stand-in for the fanbase? The opening of the movie has been decried as pure fanservice, but they miss the subversive detail of the whole thing being an illusion created by a witch. This means, in the postmodern sense, that either the audience is trapped in Homura's barrier themselves, or that Homura is the fanbase and the barrier is her AU fanfic.

  3. “Consider again who Homura brings into the labyrinth, and then consider the series a a whole; setting aside witches, does any other character even have a name?”

    One of the Train Misogynists is named Shou, spoken by the other Train Misogynist. But only Sayaka hears that, therefore Homulilly cannot find him.

    I wonder what would have become of that dude if she had?

  4. If the first third of the movie, and I'm not saying that it wasn't, then it was rather on the nose about it, to the point it where it was trying to get its cake and eat it too, enough to break a lot of people's suspension of disbelief, evidently, to miss that part of that point. There were certainly ways to make that segment contain the same meaning while remaining narratively resonant, like dialing down the fan service to make it noticeable without being distracting.

  5. “If the first third of the movie…” what? There seems to be something missing here, and I can't understand your comment without it.

  6. Ah, okay.

    Well, I'm going to address that point in a later article, but mainly my response is that you're wrong. The opening segment could not possibly have worked if it were any less over the top in its fanservice. It needed to be pure, unadulterated wish-fulfillment, precisely so that the rest of the movie could destroy it.

  7. Well, presumably he's already dead? The law of conservation of death suggests that he still dies in the new timeline, most likely at the hands of the Wraith Sayaka sacrifices herself to defeat.

  8. I'll wait for your later article then for fuller articulation, but bear in mind the TV series was a subversion of a lot of things. A lot of things, and a lot of people picked up on a lot of them, but none of it felt close to obnoxious enough to supersede the show's natural narrative flow.

  9. I think it really began getting to me was when Mami began humming her own theme song. I could provide other examples, but it sort of fell apart from there. That portion of the movie so blatantly breaking the fourth wall that it took me aback. I mean, yeah, subversion of wish-fulfillment and whatnot, but why that direct? Why to that extent? Is the fan base dumb and shallow enough not to know they are being pandered to that they have to make it that mean-spiritedly, spit in the face, obvious? Then again, I'm not really the intended audience since I'm already biased against fan service in general. I don't… It could made its point once, twice, or a few times even, and then gone into something else that sorely needed it, like making Homura's flaws as character in relation to Madoka more clear, but it kept beating it over and over incessantly.

  10. Well, it's not like the original show didn't do that as well – once in the very first episode with Madoka listening to Connect in the music store, and once later on (ep. 8?) with Kyouko dancing to the remixed version.

  11. But that's slight and subtle, and the characters don't directly acknowledge it. You could substitute Connect with another selection, and it wouldn't have added or subtracted anything substantial from the narrative experience. Mami does, and worst of all, it's her own theme song.

  12. “Law of conservation of death” is a new one on me. What are you referring to? The intuitive meaning – that Death, like Energy or Momentum, is neither created nor destroyed, doesn't appear to be true in Madoka Magica.

  13. Ah, yes, sorry. Conservation of death is a principle of most, but not all, speculative fiction (it is notably absent in superhero comics, for instance). It's really closer to entropy than a conservation law, that death can be created but never destroyed. So, for example, the immortality serum will end up requiring the death of a living person to make, or turn the person who takes it into a vampire. Traveling back in time to undo your loved one's untimely death will result in some other innocent person dying instead. And so on. It's a way of speculating about concepts like resurrection and immortality while still treating death with the seriousness it deserves.

    Madoka demonstrates it is following this principle with Sayaka, whose death in the main timeline of the show is still preserved in the new timeline Madoka creates; we see Madoka explain why to Sayaka, and Sayaka accepts. It's subtly confirmed by the fact that Homura never actually succeeds in creating a timeline where Madoka survives until the very end of Rebellion, at which point she has arguably sacrificed herself to do it. (I am treating both the transformation into a witch and the erasure of Madoka from history as forms of death.)

    So, based on that, it's safe to assume until we see evidence otherwise that the victims of witches in the show ended up dead in the new timeline, and the most likely way for that to happen is as victims of wraiths.

  14. Personally, I don't see any Paradise Lost in Rebellion Homura, unless one mistakes Milton's particular account of The Fall for the original or only telling of that legend. And as a retelling of The Fall, it's very loose – Homura isn't acting out of Pride, acts alone instead of recruiting other Magical Girls to her cause, and most crucially appears to have won, rather than being defeated and cast down.

    Neither does The Incubator fit the Lucifer of Paradise Lost role; It does not relate to Madoka as Lucifer relates to God. The Incubator has never been Madoka's servant, favored or otherwise, it owes her no loyalty and has no place in her Pure Land / Heaven. The Incubator is instead loyal to, more accurately incapable of betraying or neglecting, its designated purpose.

    I think it's much easier to read Rebellion as a retelling of The Nutcracker, which also recontextualizes Madoka Magica as The Tale of the Hard Nut. Incubator takes the roles of the various mice, Madoka is Marie (Clara), but also Pirlipat. Homura, of course, is the Nutcracker.

  15. I think that the reason the opening sequence was so obnoxious, as you put it, is that it's supposed to be obnoxious. I mean, the characters beat monsters by feeding them food and singing. Hitomi is purified by becoming a literal moeblob (and this basically parodies Sayaka's arc in the anime). It's silly and ridiculous…and that's the point. The perfect world that Homura has created (and the one that the fans wanted) is ultimately a childish fantasy.

    One of my interpretations of Rebellion is that if the original series picks at (I hesitate to use the word “deconstruction”) elements of magical girl shows, then rebellion picks at the fans of the original series. So of course there's all this obvious fourth wall breaking – the movie is, to some extent, about the audience. And the ending is a “happy ending” fancomic gone horribly wrong – because in Madoka Magica, everything has a price.

  16. I can see two ways in which the ending of Madoka Magica appears to violate Conservation of Death. First, Homura had created a situation in which every human on earth was about to die, and Madoka reversed that. Second, all three of the other magical girls were already dead, but in the World of Wraiths, Kyouko and Mami survive. Mami died on or before Walpurgisnacht in all of Homura's loops, and in some (if not all) loops Sayaka contracts, leading to both her death and Kyouko's death.

    We observe that in at least one timeline after the third, in which we first see Sayaka and Kyouko get involved and killed, Madoka makes it to Walpurgisnacht without encountering Kyubey, and I doubt that would have been possible if Sayaka had become a magical girl. By Conservation of Death, we should expect that once Homura has caused a loop in which Sayaka & Kyouko die, it should be impossible for her to prevent that from happening in all subsequent loops.

    My read was that Sayaka's death was to show that Madoka's accomplishment was limited (solving the big thing doesn't solve every thing) and to give an example of what happens to magical girls under the new system. Note that when Madoka is explaining to Sayaka, she claims that she could have saved her at the expense of preventing the restoration of Kamijo's hand – not at the expense of his or someone else's life.

  17. I think most of the paragraphs at the top of the page are bunched together a little too closely. Could they maybe get more spacing?

  18. going back up to my usual clash against I'll ring this time with universal in saying that yes. it is very likely that homura can be viewed as a stand in for humanity rather than say, a devil like satan. for a start, Homura's actions in the film are paralleled by the Nietzsche references. and in Neitzsche's view, it is humanity that kills god. or in this case, it's homura who drags down the kannon from her enlightenment. It also parallels the author story interpretation, in which kyuubei must relinquish that aspect to madoka, the chaste soul who could save a story. but now, after apperantly washing his hands of the thing and talking about how Gen'd love to see what the fans and others do from here on out in this new beginning, we also Homura in control, symbolized with the fool and other new beginning type symbolism, and homura is the stand in for everyone else.

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