Against Ourselves (Rebellion)


The precise moment at which Rebellion turns us against ourselves is about a fourth of the way through the film. Up until that point, it has depicted the happy world that, as any viewer with a trace of empathy must concede, the characters have more than earned. Throughout the series, we followed these young women, suffered with them, hoped against hope that they would be able to find some form of happiness.

In the end of the series, arguably, they did, but there is little denying that the ending to the series is bittersweet. Homura is alone, the only one who remembers Madoka. Madoka is gone forever, never born to begin with. The rest of the magical girls still fight, still suffer, still sink into the uttermost depths of despair to become witches–but are mercy-killed by Madoka just as they do. 
Sayaka still died for a boy who barely noticed she was there. Mami and Kyoko are active as magical girls, so we can presum Mami’s parents are still dead and Kyoko’s family still perished in a murder-suicide. 
The end of the series was an honest ending, not a happy one. It depicted the creation of a new, better world, but far from a flawless one. 
That flawless world is what we see in the first segment of Rebellion. All five magical girls are alive and working as a team. Their interpersonal difficulties are reduced to flirtatious teasing between Sayaka and Kyoko. The psychic damage of Homura’s time-travel shenanigans seems healed: Homura is back to her shyer, less confident, but more pleasant and cheerful glasses-wearing pigtailed self, and Madoka is both more cheerful and more confident, more like the version Homura first met at the beginning of Episode 10. 
The Nightmares are almost laughable as a threat. If Hitomi’s Nightmare is anything to go by, they pose no physical threat to the girls, don’t torture them psychologically, and can be reduced to literal moe-blobs. What’s more, they release a massive abundance of Soul Gem-cleansing light when killed, which as I’ve noted before not only permits, but encourages, the girls to work together, and in addition provides more than enough energy to keep them from blackening their Soul Gems and dying. Instead, the girls get to be magically powerful and visually impressive, fighting as a team against jus enough difficulty to feel useful without ever experiencing the horrors of the series. 
This is what we, collectively, as an audience, wanted. Oh, most of us understood that the ending as it stood was probably aesthetically better, but enough fanfiction by those too inexperienced to know better or too invested to care exists to make it clear: we wanted better for these girls. And here the movie comes, and gives us exactly what we asked for–until Homura starts to figure it out. 
Like Paradise Lost before it, the show tricks us into rooting for someone who is trying to destroy our paradise. Homura knows this happy world is untrue, and therefore we know that by investigating it she will destroy it. From her initial conversation with Kyoko, the world becomes less and less realistic, until by the time the two realize they are trapped in the city the world is an abstraction of red field and white lines, the bus the only recognizable object. Soon after, Homura becomes the familiar glasses-less, straight-haired, darkly stoic girl we remember from the series, and the familiar site excites us even as it means the happy world is deteriorating still faster. 
Soon after, we see the battle teased throughout the first three episodes of the series, as Mami and Homura come to blows. The resulting battle is visually stunning, as Homura and Mami both employ their respective powers and extensive arsenals to the fullest. It is exciting, dramatic, well-animated and scored–and horribly, horribly wrong. As a set piece, it is a long sequence that advances the plot little, the characters and themes not at all; it is exciting, but blatantly gratuitous, a pure piece of audience pandering of the sort the show deliberately shied away from most of the time. And then Homura shoots herself in the head, and Mami dissolves into ribbons, the pandering turned suddenly to horror. 
Getting what we want is a disappointment and leads to horror. Nowhere is this as clear as in the film’s climax, when Homura and Madoka are reunited and it all goes horribly wrong, resulting in a world where all the girls are free and alive and Madoka doesn’t have to be a magical girl–a corrupt world ruled by a demonic demiurgic Homura who is holding Madoka prisoner. 
We bought our tickets, sealed our contracts, and got our wishes, and they turned to ashes around us. Desire leads inevitably to suffering. 
Why? Because we might wish for happiness, but we need truth. This is not to say that despair is truer than happiness, but rather that the truth of Madoka is entropy and the inevitability of decay, and the series ha consistently equated physical entropy and decay to the feelings of depression and despair. To end straightforwardly, uncomplicatedly happily, to give us what we wish for without corrupting it or snatching it away is to deny itself. 
So the film forces us to reject our own desires for the series. Those who revel in its darkness and spiky difficulty must endure being pandered to with fanservice, pushing them to deny their own fandom. Those who embrace the fanservice must face where it leads. Both must deal with the deeply ambiguous final arc of the film, as Homura creates a world simultaneously darker and brighter than the world of the series, yet more coherent than the dream-world of the film.

Thus, the series places the viewer into the position of the magical girls. Pursuing our desires for the series leads to it becoming tragic. Our wishes transform into curses as down the spiral we go, until we find ourselves, at the climax of the film, wishing for Homura the witch to tear apart the world–and then when she does, we must live with the reality created by that wish.

By turning us against ourselves, and showing how our wishes for the series betray us, the film makes one last effort to push empathy onto us. Like the series in its first few episodes, it offers spectacle and fanservice to draw us in, and then, once the trap is baited, it makes us feel for the characters. Even more so, however, it makes us feel as the characters–empathy as opposed to sympathy–by placing us into a situation analogous to theirs. That moment of confusion, of alienation, of wrongness when Homura pulls Madoka apart? That is a small taste of what it feels like to be a magical girl.

I said above that this is a series about entropy and decay, depression and despair, and it is. But it’s easy to forget that it’s about other things, too, and by turning us against ourselves it reminds us of those other things.

This isn’t just about Buddhism, or German literature, or the magical girl genre. It isn’t just about entropy and suffering, or just about thematic complexity or the possible psychological issues of its implied, gestalt author. It isn’t even just about characters, blobs of light and color created by animators and voiced by actors. It’s also about us.

In the end, as in the beginning, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a story about people.

7 thoughts on “Against Ourselves (Rebellion)

  1. Well done. Very well done. Though I must admit, I was not one of the ones who wanted Rebellion Story. To me, the show had its run and it ended how it ended. It wasn't perfect, but everything has its time and everything ends. Then I watched Rebellion Story, because… well, it existed. It turned everything against me and showed my favorite character's fall from grace and eventual rise as a goddess of destruction, a Nightmare to match the Dream Lord Madoka. To imprison her in a world of darkness, from which there may be no escape.

    Well done, Akemi Homura. All praises to our Dark Goddess Of Destruction.

  2. *bows* Thank you!

    And yes, I think my statement regarding fanfiction replies to sequels as well–but even your statement that the ending “wasn't perfect” shows that there were things you wanted and didn't get, right?

    And yeah, as I mentioned in comments on a previous post, this movie elevated Homura from my favorite character in the series to one of my favorite characters in anything, ever.

  3. To put it another way, Rebellion trolls the entire audience, especially the fanbase.

    The part with Mami makes me thing of something you didn't bring up: the structure of Homura's encounters with each magical girl. She meets them in order from least to most hostile. So first there's Kyoko, where they show some kind of friendship, then Mami which eventually leads into a battle, and then Sayaka where Homura just tries to run away the first chance she gets. So when Homura runs into Madoka after seeing Sayaka, is she going from worst enemy to best friend, or from worse enemy to worst enemy? Because in a way, Madoka has always been Homura's enemy. (And to cap it all off, Homura talks to Kyoko after the flower field scene, because all of Homura's life is a loop).

  4. I actually think the Mami-Homura fight has real significance to the film's narrative and themes, and largely because of something you said about the first few episodes. In the series, Mami is the representative and guardian of the magical girl narrative, whose death was necessary for the series to take its darker turn. In the first quarter of Rebellion, she again takes that role, as the girls' leader and even Homura's recruiter – Homura has finally been integrated into the narrative, and Mami is the one responsible.

    Mami and Homura didn't fight in the series because, for the most part, Homura never really opposed that narrative. She lurks around the sidelines, trying to keep Madoka out of it and making halfhearted attempts to keep Mami, Kyoko, and Sayaka alive and functional. But while she criticizes the magical girl narrative, she nonetheless accepts some form of it as inevitable and even necessary, embracing the task of destroying witches and making plans with Kyoko for who will protect the city if she ever succeeds in her struggle.

    In Rebellion, on the other hand, Homura's first act of rebellion is against the magical girl narrative itself. It just seems too good to be true to her, and as she investigates she becomes increasingly certain that she will – and must – destroy it. Which means when it's time for the curtain to rise and the film's true nature to be revealed, Mami is once again the false narrative's guardian – only this time, Homura is taking her on directly. Their conflict is the natural step for the story to take, with Mami as defender of the status quo and Homura as one who would force a change, for better or for worse.

    Of course, Homura loses that battle. And that, too, has thematic significance. The reason Homura loses is that she misidentifies identify her opponent – the Mami in front of her is a fake. But more importantly, Mami (let alone Bebe) isn't even the one she's truly opposing. Before Homura can ever win, she needs to know her enemy – the enemy she's been struggling against since she made her wish in the first place.

  5. One of the things the audience really wanted was to see Kyubey punished, and Rebellion gave that to us straight up. They got dunked and then they got owned, it was great.

    The fact that the movie ends more or less immediately after Kyubey's unambiguous defeat is highly significant in my Nutcracker reading.

    It's also a contrast between Madoka and Homura – Madoka approached the Incubator as a problem to be solved, Homura treated Kyubey as an enemy to be conquered. I believe the former reflects a more accurate understanding of the Incubator. It's my interpretation that it is a synthetic life designed by its society, given a single externally determined purpose which it pursues by any and every means available to it, and constrained by rules which it cannot break.

  6. An excellent thematic read of the movie. I plainly wasn't the one targeted for this film, since my read of Homura's was less ideal than a lot of people's at the end of the TV series, which, to me, was enough to justify a substantive sequel throughout as opposed to the subversive pandering that dominated a substantial portion of the movie.

    I still have some personal gripes, but these blog posts have come a long way in letting me appreciate Rebellion in what it was trying to do.

  7. Thank you!

    And I feel that means I've done my job. I don't feel it's my place to tell you whether a work is good or bad or worth your time (though I don't shy from stating my opinion on these matters); my job is to provoke thought and discussion and reevaluation. So again, thank you.

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