I just realized a major upside to the end of My Little Po-Mo

Namely, I can skip Rainbow Rocks if I want to, without feeling the least bit guilty about it.

This isn’t to say that I necessarily will skip it, just that I can feel free to wait and see what other people think of it. If the divide of people who did and didn’t like it is more or less the same as for Equestria Girls, then I skip it.

Gak (Equestria Girls)

If you average their expressions, you’ll basically
get what I looked like while watching this movie.

It’s June 16, 2013.The top song is the controversial “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell, and the top movie is the dour Superman-as-kaiju flick Man of Steel. In the news, Edward Snowden is revealed as the source of the NSA leaks in the U.S. and defects to Hong Kong (he will ultimately end up living in Russia); Russia bans positive depictions of homosexuality; and it comes out that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against its own citizens in the ongoing civil war there.

Meanwhile, the Friendship Is Magic movie Equestria Girls, written by Meghan McCarthy opens to a limited run of 200 screens. So let’s start with the obvious: This movie isn’t very good. The animation is not as much better than the show as one would expect for a theatrical release, the story is redolent with high-school drama cliches, and the songs are (deliberately, according to composer Daniel Ingram) modeled on contemporary girl-group pop, which is to say simplistic, autotuned to oblivion, and lacking in variety.

So let’s take that as a given, set it aside, and try to find something more interesting to say, because somewhere underneath the “new girl transgresses established high school factions, becomes darling of all” is the potential for a good movie about more interesting topics.

Consider the intense contrast between settings. Ponyville is practically defined by a lack of cliques or classes. Government officials of wildly differing rank, farmers, artists, artisans, and the apparently unemployed are fast and easy friends in this world, while different races of pony live together and interact harmoniously. Certainly there are circles of friends–the Mane Six themselves form one–but they are not as insular or exclusive enough to be cliques. Most of the Mane Six have friendships outside and distinct from the rest of the group, most obviously Pinkie Pie, but in addition Rarity has her friends in high society, Twilight has Cadence and arguably the other princesses as well, and Rainbow Dash’s interactions with the other pegasi in Ponyville are at least readable as implying friendship. The closest things to cliques in the show are, unsurprisingly, among the schoolchildren: the Cutie Mark Crusaders are very nearly one, with the exception that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we can assume Apple Bloom and Twist are still friends. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, on the other hand, are definitely a clique.

By contrast, one of the first things Twilight Sparkle learns about Canterlot High is that it is defined by cliques, which operate as independent factions. Fluttershy outright states this (“Maybe it was different at your old school, but at C.H.S., everybody sticks to their own kind,”) and lists off several such cliques, including “the athletes, the fashionistas, the dramas, the eco-kids, the techies, the rockers…” and notes that Sunset Shimmer dominates over all of them. This is the familiar world of high-school cafeteria politics, but something interesting is very subtly implied later in the movie, when we learn this world’s versions of Fluttershy, Applejack, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie were friends early in high school, before Sunset Shimmer split them up.

Look at that list of cliques again. Athletes? That’s Rainbow Dash. Rarity is definitely a fashionista, and Fluttershy would doubtless fit right in among the eco-kids. Fluttershy’s list doesn’t have a clique for every member of the Mane Five, but it’s not likely to be a complete list of cliques, either; what it does do is establish a pattern. Applejack and Pinkie Pie don’t really fit into any of the cliques she mentioned; it’s possible that they could be in some kind of baking-centric clique together, but the interactions of the Mane Five throughout the film suggest that they haven’t seen each other much in the years since Sunset Shimmer targeted them. More likely is that each of the five are in separate cliques (indeed, Pinkie Pie’s party-planning committee may be one)–which means that they initially had a strong, cross-clique friendship.

The existence of that friendship, in turn, implies that the school’s cliques were much less isolated prior to Sunset Shimmer’s arrival; more like the friendship circles typical of Ponyville, in other words, than the rigid and frequently hostile cliques of high school cliche. It is an outside force, a manipulator seeking control, who drove the Mane Six apart; it seems likely that she has done the same to the school, dividing and conquering.

The cliques, in other words, are artificial. They are constructs created specifically to divide the students, to prevent them from accomplishing what they could if they were united. This exploitation of the instinct for tribalism to divide people against their own interests resonates with many phenomena throughout our culture, particularly in the political arena, but let us follow the movie in keeping the focus on high school: where do cliques come from? They cannot be an instinctive and inevitable part of adolescence, though they are often depicted or implied as such–there’s little trace of such behavior being a particular and peculiar feature of youth in media before the 1950s or so, for instance. This is a recent cliche, which is to say a recent cultural phenomenon.

And as a cultural phenomenon, it is necessarily constructed by its participants. Cliques come from the students within those cliques, from the ways in which they choose to act on their attitudes and biases. For all that the “Help Twilight Win the Crown” sequence seems impossibly utopian even by Friendship Is Magic standards, the film has been quietly building an argument for it throughout: cliques are not inevitable. Students create and enforce them, and can choose to relax them if they wish.

Notably, it is Twilight who persuades–leads–them to do so. The film makes rather a point of contrasting Twilight’s initial discomfort with her wings to the necessity of adapting to bipedal locomotion and hands, with Twilight noting near the end of the film that adjusting to her wings should be much easier now. But those wings are simply a visual marker of her ascension to political authority, and her discomfort with them an echo of her uncertainty about her new role, a major theme of the coming Season Four. Likewise, her assumption of human form is a visual marker of the alien environment into which she is thrust in this film, high school. If she could climb to a leadership role there, and do a good job of uniting the students behind her in pursuit of a positive end, surely she can do it in the more familiar and convivial environment of Equestria.

Next Week: Season Four begins. And as I sometimes like to do, we’ll start with the ending–which is in itself a reflection of the past…

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.

Against Homura (Rebellion)

You’re gonna carry that weight.

There is a recurring image throughout the Madoka Magica movies, one we have briefly mentioned before: a rather sweet tableau of two white chairs on a grassy hill, Madoka and Homura sitting side-by-side in them. In the opening credits of the first two movies, they cuddle, sweet and adorable, and innocent. In the third movie, the image turns rapidly rather less sweet.

As she goes through the process of becoming a witch at the climax of the second arc of Rebellion, Homura returns to the chair scene. But this time, Madoka stands and casts herself sideways off the chair, splattering into a pink stain on the grass while Homura reaches for her helplessly. Homura crouches beside her, eyes wide in shock and horror, while a crowd of tall, attenuated Homuras surround her, gazing down. And then the vast fist of a raging Homura smashes the crouching Homura, railing and weeping beside the remains of Madoka.

Madoka is gone, her coherent identity replaced by a diffuse abstraction. Homura failed. Now Homura stands in judgment over Homura, and finds her wanting. Her rage and grief at last unleashed, she smashes her own identity to become an abstract and esoteric being herself: a witch.

Just like Sayaka, and presumably every other witch, before her, Homura’s witch form is an endless cycle of self-flagellation, a psychodrama in which she acts out the events that brought her to despair and punishes herself for her failures. She tries to shoot herself, and the self she shoots becomes the Madoka she had to mercy-kill. She cannot die, does not deserve to die, the way that Madoka did, because she has failed to save Madoka.

Not only failed to save her; Homura is the reason Madoka is gone. Her looping through time empowered Madoka to become the Law of Cycles, which erased Madoka from reality. Her discussion of Madoka with Kyubey gave the Incubators the information they needed to construct the trap now closing on Madoka–and they used Homura to create that trap. Homura is Madoka’s greatest liability.

Homura’s witch form is among the most literal. She has the peaked black hat, the prominent nose and chin–other than being a skeleton hundreds of feet tall, she looks rather like the standard Halloween costume of a witch. Homura knew about witches and where they come from, and yet she still failed to avoid that trap, even embraced it deliberately in a bid to foil Kyubey. Unlike Sayaka, who believed herself a knight and so still looked like one as a witch, Homura knows what she is choosing to become. Likewise, she is deliberately sacrificing herself, as she tells Kyubey: she trusts Mami and Kyoko to kill her. Thus her familiars lead her to the guillotine, the mechanism of her sacrifice and instrument of judgment for her crime.

At the same time, she is surrounded by imagery related to the nutcracker. One type of her familiars is giant teeth with nutcracker jaws. Another resembles toy soldiers, but with their high fur hats resemble the traditional Christmas nutcracker as well. An image of a grinning mouth clenching a walnut in its teeth appears when she first starts to realize that she is the witch in whose labyrinth the magical girls are trapped. And she loses half her head, leaving only the lower jaw–a mirror of the titular nutcracker of E.T.A. Hoffman’s story and Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet based on it, who lost his lower jaw. The doll-like appearance of many of her familiars and prominence of clockwork also recall the original story of “The Nutcracker,” in which the Nutcracker led an army of dolls from a clockwork castle.

At a basic level, the image of a nutcracker without a jaw is an image of uselessness, an object without purpose. There is a deeper resonance here, however, if one recalls the tale-within-a-tale of the origin of the nutcracker in Hoffman’s story. The nutcracker was once the chosen one, described in prophecy as the only one who could rescue a princess cursed by the Mouse Queen. He had to perform a complex ritual to save her, but just as he completed it, he tripped over the Mouse Queen, and so the curse fell on him instead. This is Homura, relaxing because she believed she had helped Madoka escape her fate, only to discover that she’d failed in the end because of the intervention of that little rat Kyubey. It is, in other words, yet another way to blame and punish herself.

But the magical girls refuse to cooperate. They refuse to join Homura in judging her. They refuse to hate her and refuse to kill her. Instead, they work to free her, break the labyrinth and the Incubators’ trap so that Madoka can take her off to magical girl heaven. Despite her raving and her pleading, they insist on forgiving her. They reject Homura’s judgment, and demand that she reject it as well. They want her to forgive herself and free herself.

But Homura has been fighting Homura from the start of the movie. Throughout the first arc of the film, Homura seeks the mysterious and invisible tyrant who rules the seemingly happy world in which the magical girls find themselves, with the intent of destroying it. It is the discovery that she is that tyrant which leads her to call down a curse on herself and transform fully into a witch; all of this is part of her rebellion against herself.

That rebellion has not ended by the end of the film. Homura describes herself as evil and embraces the role of the scantily clad, black-winged devil-woman. But what difference is there between saying “I am evil” and “I deserve to be punished?” This is simply another expression of her guilt, a new way of tormenting herself.

She has elevated herself to a cosmic being, a demiurgic entity who appears to have near-unlimited powers over material reality and the people in it: she can rewrite Sayaka’s memories, bring back the dead, construct an entire new history for Madoka’s family in order to reverse the first episode. And yet she chooses to make a world where she is alone, isolated from the friendships she was starting to build with the other magical girls. She chooses to let Sayaka tell her off before the memory erasure.

The only real emotion Homura shows in the new reality she created is panic, when Madoka threatens to reconnect with the Law of Cycles. When, in other words, Madoka nearly brings about the return of a cosmic entity of hope and forgiveness, capable of ending Homura’s suffering. Above all, Homura cannot allow that; she must suffer for failing Madoka, making things worse for Madoka. She must preserve Madoka eternally in a state of innocence and safety, cut off from her potential, because protecting Madoka is Homura’s only concept of “good”–and so her failure to do so is her only concept of “evil.”

It could have ended. If the other magical girls had simply killed her, she would be beyond further punishment, and her suffering would have ended. But they, in their cruel mercy, forced her to go on, forced her to find another way to keep protecting Madoka and punishing herself. She hates them for that, for failing to hate her as she hates herself. In her new world, she expresses her hatred by passive-aggressively mocking its targets. She breaks a teacup behind Mami. She taunts Sayaka as her memories decay, mimicking Sayaka’s loss of self when she became a witch. She tricks Kyoko into wasting food.

And, in the stinger, she throws herself off a cliff next to a white chair, mirroring Madoka tipping off of it earlier. Her hatred for herself has not changed. All that has changed is that now she has the power to make the magical girls hate her, to position herself as their enemy in the hopes that they will finish the job.

Ever since the movie aired, there has been debate over Homura’s new status. Is she hero or villain? Here, then, is the answer to that question: Yes. Homura is both the villain of Rebellion and the hero battling that villain.

And here, also, is the answer to that question: No. Homura is the villain’s victim, whom the hero must rescue.

Her witch’s barrier expanded to encompass the universe. She is the entire story, now.

Next week will be the final post of The Very Soil.

Against Analysis (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: Why is it snowing in May?

Madoka the Movie 3: Rebellion is a difficult subject to approach. Like the series, it is semiotically dense (that is, the images and events it contains evoke a relatively high number of readings); however, where the series primarily takes place in fairly stark, sparse, almost sterile environments, to contrast the visual complexity of the witch’s labyrinths, the movie is tremendously visually complex throughout. In other words, not only does each image have as much to unpack as any image in the series, it’s also got quite a bit more imagery than its five-and-a-half episodes’ worth of runtime would suggest!

Analyzing it is thus a potentially overwhelming task. To take the movie as an organic whole is nigh-impossible, at least in anything like essay length; to do it justice, one must either pick a theme and follow its development through the film, missing out on all the other themes except perhaps for how they interact with the chosen theme, or one can pick a scene and examine it in all its complexities, missing out on all other scenes except insofar as they impact the chosen scene.

Consider a relatively straightforward question: What is the titular rebellion? Is it Kyubey against Madoka’s new world? Homura against the world inside the labyrinth, unaware that she herself created it? Is it Homura against Madoka? Or is the film itself an act of rebellion, and if so, who or what is it rebelling against?

Even a question as seemingly simple as “What does the title mean?” leads only to more questions, and there are a multitude of supportable answers to each of them, each of which could fill an essay in its own right. Thus, in the coming weeks I will be posting a series of essays on Rebellion. Some may be analyses of single scenes; others may trace themes or look at the evolution of a character. All, however, will be explorations of a particular answer to the question, “Against what?” Such an approach seems to me the only viable way in which I can approach Rebellion, as this is a film that defies analysis.

And a near-synonym for defiance is… well, you get the idea.

So, then, let us consider a particular short scene that exemplifies how difficult this film is to analyze, specifically, the final post-credits stinger. Immediately prior to the stinger, the credits themselves depict a heavily stylized version of the movie’s plot, with Homura and Madoka divided by the credit scroll itself. At the very end of the credits, however, they hold hands and run off together into the distance, a surprisingly hopeful end to the story given Homura’s posturing in the final scenes before the credits. Is this foreshadowing, or just Homura’s dream? Is the fact that they vanish into the distance evidence that they will escape, or evidence that the possibility of them being together is disappearing?

It doesn’t matter, because the stinger contradicts the image anyway. (Or does it? If the credits are Homura’s dream and the stinger the reality, or the credits are foreshadowing and the stinger her fears…) It’s worth, here, examining the usual function of a stinger. Most commonly found in big blockbuster action franchises (the Marvel Cinematic Universe has raised them to an art form) or comedies, the usual function of a stinger is either to serve as a punchline to a joke set up earlier in the film (possibly the best example of this is the taxi passenger in Airplane!) or to build excitement for and drop hints regarding the plot of the next installment in the franchise (Samuel L. Jackson would like to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative).

Here, however, the stinger’s function appears to be neither. Rather, its main function appears to generate questions and cast doubt on the way Homura chose to present herself in the final scenes. Admittedly, it is a “punchline” in the sense of concluding a repeated motif throughout the Madoka movies, specifically the two chairs in a field. In the opening credits of the two compilation movies, we see Madoka and Homura sitting side-by-side on white chairs in the middle of a field of grass and flowers, cuddling playfully. In the Rebellion stinger, Homura begins sitting in a similar chair, alone, positioned on the edge of a cliff. Chair, cliff, and half moon are lined up to create the effect of a picture sliced in two, as if the other half of the moon and the other half of the world, including Madoka and her chair, have been simply cut away and replaced with empty darkness.

Is this Homura’s decision to make even Madoka her enemy? Her regret? Or just a cruel reminder for the audience of what has been lost?

Homura, in the final scenes of the movie, appears to be in total control. An army of familiars obey her; she can rewrite Sayaka’s memories and cut her off from her Oktavia form; she can block Madoka from her Buddha-nature, the Law of Cycles. She is the creator of this new world, having rewritten reality earlier in the movie; it is not too far-fetched to suggest that she is now the most powerful entity within the confines of the universe (it is up for grabs how she compares to the Law of Cycles).

Why, then, does she appear startled by the approach of Kyubey in the stinger? The expression on her face is readable as either apprehension or hope; given the associations of the chair, does she momentarily believe it’s Madoka? Does she hope it is, or fear that it is? How can she not know that it’s Kyubey?

And then there is Kyubey’s state: disheveled, trembling. Extreme close-ups on Kyubey’s eye were frequently used in the series to remind the viewer that he is watching, and they thus served to make him a more ominous and menacing figure. This close-up, however, shows his fur matted, his eye dulled and darkened and shaking. He is no longer a menacing figure but a pathetic one, beaten and broken by Homura’s display of power in rewriting the universe. This is a worst-case scenario for him and his kind; Madoka came to fear and distrust him, but she has little capacity for hate. Homura is different; full of rage and sorrow, it would not be at all out of character for her to take that out on the Incubators in general and the instance of Kyubey in Mitakihara in specific.

But the logic of the stinger suggests that the extreme close-up of Kyubey’s eye is foreshadowing–it is the most typically stinger-like of any shot in this stinger, reminiscent of horror movies ending with the believed-dead killer’s eyes snapping open. Unfortunately, he is as inscrutable as ever; is he plotting a counterstroke against Homura? Simply observing and biding his time? Or is he truly broken, his pathetic appearance evidence that his role as villain has been stripped from him by Homura?

And then there is the dance. Homura dances with her new Soul Gem, both the style and music reminiscent of her balletic transformation sequence near the beginning of the movie. The gem resembles the chess symbol for a queen; is this Homura imagining herself dancing with her queen, Madoka? This reading is supported by the fact that the Soul Gem was made from the pieces of Homura’s old Soul Gem and a spool of thread the same color as Madoka’s hair, but only if we read that thread as signifying Madoka herself or her connection to Homura, as opposed to the equally likely reading that it represents Madoka-the-incarnate-person’s connection to Madoka-the-omnipresent-intangible-abstraction, in which case Homura is not so much missing her “other half” as reveling in her imprisonment. It is the difference, in other words, between reading Homura as putting on a bold face over confusion and pain, or as a creepy, controlling stalker.

And then Homura tips sideways over the cliff. Her pose as she falls recalls Madoka’s similar sideways tip off her chair when Homura becomes a witch, which seems fairly clearly to be a reference to Madoka’s self-sacrifice and Homura’s growing regret at failing to stop her. So is Homura seeking to join Madoka by replicating her action? Sacrificing herself so that Madoka doesn’t have to? Mocking Madoka’s sacrifice as a signifier that she has descended so far into evil even the love that motivated her no longer matters? Or is it a futile gesture toward an impossible suicide (it is unclear what would happen to the universe if Homura died, but virtually certain that at least Madoka would reconnect with the Buddha-nature Homura is determined to keep her from) by a character in the depths of despair?

We could explore these questions in detail, certainly, along with other questions (for example, the significance of the moon being precisely halfway between the almost-new moon when Sayaka became a witch and the full moon when Homura became one). It would take thousands of words and produce no certain conclusion except that the scene is deliberately ambiguous, but it can be done. That’s not the point. The point is that this is ninety seconds of a two-hour movie, and not even the visually or semiotically densest ninety seconds (those, I suspect, fall somewhere between Homura witching out and she and Madoka shattering the Incubators’ barrier).

No, the point is this: This movie is dense, and it is ambiguous, and it thus poses a challenge to analysis.

Good. Let’s do it anyway.