“And I / I disowned my / own family
All for love / All for love.”
The Lake – Typhoon
I’ve been planning on writing about Madoka Rebellion for a long time now, but Rebellion really hasn’t made it easy for me. It’s a strange beast – both reflective of Madoka Magica and totally apart from it, a continuation in some ways, a betrayal in others. Though you can certainly critique it as a film in its own right, it only really unfolds when you put it in context – and when a film’s context is “an emerging sea change in the process of media engagement,” it can be kinda hard to sum up the film as Good or Bad! If you’re looking for a simple takeaway, I believe Rebellion is a beautiful film and a terrible sequel – but why that is, and what its existence actually reflects, will take a little unpacking to explain. To understand Rebellion, you really have to understand Madoka Magica – so let’s begin there, with the series that started it all.
An Ever-Present Hope
“Me and the director, we’re always thinking ‘what should we do next with this?’ If you guys have any ideas, let us know.”
Madoka Magica is a beautiful show. Not just in an aesthetic sense, although it does have gorgeous aesthetic sensibilities. From its crayon-eye characters to its witch-world mixed-media nightmares to its dramatic flourishes, it is certainly a visually impressive thing. But to me, Madoka’s beauty is most strongly expressed in its holism – its absolute structural integrity as a story and message. I’ve expressed how it articulates many of Gen Urobuchi’s common points before, but the story those points are framed in is itself a bulletproof narrative construction, finely paced and rife with self-reflections.
The story of Madoka Magica is a continuous cycle, which reflects on both the twists of the narrative (such as the fact that the current plot is secretly just one more articulation of Homura’s story), as well as its thematic resolution (where the suffering of humankind and our attempts to rise above it chase each others’ tails in a tragic, beautiful arc for all eternity). The characters seem “doomed” in a way more fundamental than “bad things will happen” – the cycles of our nature and our fate are imbued in both the narrative and their individual arcs. Kyouko initially hates and then comes to sympathize with Sayaka because Sayaka is her – because Kyouko sees in her a reflection of her old self, a version of her at an earlier point in that tragic cycle. And Kyouko attempts to break that cycle, to save her, and she fails, but her failure is still a beautiful, heartrending thing.
In the show’s second half, we learn that Kyouko and Sayaka are actually themselves another reflection, a mirror of the relationship Homura and Madoka share. The initial Homura is the Madoka we know – timid, self-effacing, desperate to please. Like Kyouko, our current Homura has been beaten down by the nature of the world, and she wishes to save Madoka from that fate. She can’t, ultimately – Madoka cannot be saved, because none of us can be rescued from the world itself. Kyuubey is an antagonistic force, but not a “villain” to be defeated – he represents the universe itself, and you can’t cheat death, can’t make the universe kind.
But in the end, Madoka makes of herself an undying representation of what all the series’ brightest moments point to – the fact that, in spite of our world being a cruel, inescapable one, a world constructed of cycles we cannot escape, we will always try. We will always struggle, for others if not for ourselves. We give of ourselves, lend our empathy to the world. Kyouko thinks she is happy to exist in the system, but Sayaka gives her something to save. Homura is tormented by the trials of a thousand past selves, but Madoka is her reason to hope. The world beats us down, but we raise each other up. If anyone says there’s no reason to hope, we’ll tell them they’re wrong every single time.
An Ill-Remembered Dream
“Puella Magi Madoka Magica leaves a lot of room for fanfiction and fan interpretations, and we want all of those to be made. We don’t think there’s any need to close off the gaps fans have to create those kinds of works. Actually, we decided to continue the story specifically to make this world bigger and more fun to play with.”
– Akiyuki Shinbou
Madoka Rebellion is a beautiful film – and this time, I do mean it aesthetically. Whatever else you say of it, that fact cannot be denied. It features stunning, otherworldly cityscapes, tremendous feats of animation, lights and colors to dazzle the senses, mixed media battles and sequences designed purely to instill a sense of aesthetic awe. Rebellion is a gorgeous thing.
It’s also a broken thing. A messy, disjointed thing. A combination of many things assembled, some of them perfectly designed, others simply conjured from nothing. It is not a perfect cycle, not a clean articulation of the human spirit. Its narrative wanders, it contains many loose ends. It is as imperfect as we ourselves are, and through that it reflects us in more ways than you might have guessed. On some levels, it works magnificently. On others, it’s a total failure. But it’s certainly interesting, and it’s certainly beautiful. And as its own story, it very nearly works.
Rebellion is a very different kind of story from Madoka Magica. It’s not tightly paced, it’s not full of reflections on humanity versus the universe. It’s a mood piece, largely, and it is very good at being that. Its languid first act builds a strange, indulgent world, Madoka Magica re-envisioned as a traditional, almost unnervingly upbeat magical girl narrative. Instead of efficiently landing plot beats and emphasizing Madoka’s feelings of worthlessness, the narrative is filled with smiling faces, and the camera pans slowly and lovingly over its world, its theatrics, its characters. Instead of fights being briefly beautiful and horrifically sudden affairs, they’re drawn out, featuring extended dance sequences and ending in cake-song non sequiturs. The film goes a full half hour before anything really happens, building a hazy, dreamlike mood and reveling in all the indulgences the original series was too focused to allow.
When the shift comes, it comes like everything else in the film – slowly, beautifully, and strangely out of step with the original. Homura begins to realize something is not right – she feels what we feel, what our conditioning of the original has taught us to feel, what the camera laughingly portrays through its brilliant framing and constant visual flourishes. She interrogates Kyouko, who now exists in a form completely unrecognizable from the original (as do all the characters, to greater and lesser extents). They discover things are not right. They realize their world is a lie.
As a mood piece and puzzle box, Rebellion is more or less a success, as rewarding as it is indulgent (I keep coming back to that word, but it’s inescapable – there is no economy of storytelling either visually or narratively in Rebellion. Everything is huge, extended, taken to its furthest limit and held there for as long as the producers presumably tolerated. The film is in love with itself). It abuses both Homura’s time travel powers and Madoka Magica’s universe-altering finale to set up a world where characters are not what they seem, all versions of themselves scattered across multiple timelines, and it’s up to Homura to gather the clues and break the veil. On an aesthetic level, it creates a powerful sense of atmosphere, and rewards the viewer with constant visual delights. On a narrative level, it generally entertains, letting itself go with extended shootouts and dances and visual flourishes, but only really sagging in its twist-for-its-own-sake final act.
That twist – Homura’s betrayal – is foreshadowed by the narrative, but that foreshadowing is contained to one isolated scene and various visual hints. Unlike Madoka Magica, it does not come as a summation of all that has passed – the movie builds to a finale, and then something else happens. It’s a failure of the film, almost certainly – it involves rewriting characters, displays none of the narrative grace of the original series, and outright betrays the message of the original. But in a way, I’m actually thankful for Homura’s betrayal – because otherwise, my review would probably end here. Hopefully you’ve noticed that I’ve actually reviewed this film, as in “outlined its component parts,” which is something I pride myself on very rarely doing. Standard, evaluative reviews imply a film is a simple, surface-level narrative, not to be engaged with – and if Rebellion didn’t betray its maker, it would be that. A superfluous but visually engaging adventure that makes use of the tools of the original without adding anything truly poignant of its own. That’s what Rebellion is, by and large – it’s not a great film, but it’s beautiful and entertaining enough to certainly be worth a watch. But in its betrayals of the original series, Rebellion manages to reveal itself as both less and more than a simple sequel.
A Beautiful City of Ash and Bone
Question: What was your impression when you saw the approved screenplay for Rebellion?
“I thought it was really great as a work of fiction. But I didn’t know if it would be a good way to end the movies.”
– Miyamoto Yukihiro
So far, I haven’t really dug into the characters and themes of Rebellion, which is mainly because Rebellion destroys Madoka’s characters and desecrates its themes. Madoka Magica was a story about struggle, hope, and consequences. It was a story about the distance our individual empathy can go in a pitiless larger world. Rebellion abandons that larger, implacable context and thematic frame, that overarching message of optimistic realism, and replaces it with a narrative that’s… well, pretty much purely a narrative. A narrative that makes use of the overt trappings of the original – its characters and worldbuilding mechanics – but applies them to something that’s more or less just a shocking sequence of events. A beautiful spectacle.
When the story begins, you barely recognize these characters. They are significantly altered versions of themselves, with different personalities, different priorities. Eventually, you learn this is allegedly because the world of the film is Homura’s dream reality – a fantasy she conjured, an idealized life. Kyouko is no longer a resolute survivor – she’s just a snarky girl, one who seems to be already in some kind of relationship with Sayaka, who actually returns her affection. Madoka has none of the personal strength she gained in the previous series. Mami is her falsely confident self. In spite of this, the plot assumes you’re actually still identifying with these characters, these facsimiles of the people you knew. They are never fully articulated within this film, so engagement requires believing in these characters as you once believed in them, even though they are no longer the people they once were. Their altered selves generally make narrative sense (well, some do), if you follow the logic knots of which reality each of these various characters come from, but is that supposed to result in empathizing with them in a human sense? Are you supposed to identify with these altered characters even through the esoteric excuses for their behavior offered by the narrative? Are you supposed to say, “ah, I see, this is the Kyouko I’ve learned to respect if she’d never undergone any of the experiences that defined her as a human being”?
Not really, no – that seems impossible to me. The film’s restructuring of its characters damages it irreparably on an emotional level, with the twists of the narrative itself ultimately taking precedence over emotional engagement or thematic power. The story explains that these characters have “had their memories altered and personalities changed” – but that choice being “forgiven” by the narrative does not make the film a success as a sequel. It makes Rebellion a new story acted out with Madoka-character action figures. Homura requires a reason to believe Madoka regrets her actions from the series, and so Madoka is rewritten to regret those actions. Sayaka is needed to provide cryptic clues and make Homura question her own actions, and so the story decides she is no longer blunt, headstrong, or overly concerned with “what is right.” The story’s blatant revisions makes identifying with these characters impossible, because they are not the characters we knew.
And yet, in spite of all this, the audience does identify with them. How is that even possible?
Because once the initial dream fades away, and the narrative begins to investigate what it’s really about, it becomes clear this isn’t really Homura’s dream. Homura never dreamt of herself and Mami having an indulgent, ten-minute magical girl battle. Homura never wished Sayaka, who never really understood Kyouko in the initial story, would come back in order to give her a love confession. Homura demonstrated no interest in having her friends play out a textbook magical girl fantasy, complete with tag-team attacks for all the favorite pairings. Homura didn’t – but someone else certainly did.
This is the dream of the fandom.
A Mirror Dimly Lit
“Sayaka is yet another character who’s been rounded out by the fans after the TV show ended. I think that we all created her character together.”
– Akiyuki Shinbou
Rebellion is very clearly an act of “communal creation” – most of the things it does, most of the turns it indulges in, are reflective of what the audience wanted it to be. It was actually a brilliant stroke of Rebellion’s creators to frame the story as an actual dream world, because little else could have justified the indulgences Rebellion wallows in. The entire first act is a kind of fanservice, offering the audience the happy dream of these characters it feels they’ve “earned.” The relationship between Sayaka and Kyouko was never truly pushed into the romantic in the original series – it could have gone there, certainly, but their original link was that Sayaka reminded Kyouko of herself. Here, what subtext the audience made real is now assumed by the narrative itself – Sayaka and Kyouko are the Sayaka and Kyouko the audience wanted them to be, destined lovers parted by fate. Madoka betraying her original sacrifice may directly contradict the character and message of the original, sure, but it lets us justify a Devil Homura, something the fans were surely thrilled to see. Rebellion isn’t about the irrepressible nature of the human spirit – Rebellion is about making the audience happy.
This may seem like a harsh condemnation of Rebellion. That’s partially true – I do think Rebellion is less of a work because it fails to make true use of the tools of the original to make a unified thematic statement, and I do think its betrayal of the original characters robs it of emotional impact. Fanservice isn’t bad because it’s fanservice – it’s bad because it is not the best tool for the story being told. It’s bad because it’s not meaningful (in fact, it often robs a story of meaning), it’s just fan-pleasing. Works that are simply reflective of their audience’s desires tend to contain little inner spark – you can end up with works like Chuunibyou Ren, which are no longer reflective of any central insight or true life experience, and are now simply about themselves, and what audiences want them to be.
Art is generally the act of an artist taking something that is true for them, something they find meaningful or poignant or important or even just entertaining, and attempting to convey it in a universal way. Attempting to make it true to human experience. And when artists do strike at things that come across as “true,” they provide stories from which people can take back their own interpretations – if the fundamental core of what is being expressed parses as true, the audience will be able to relate it to their own experiences and desires, personalize it, make it true for them. But when these personal interpretations are plugged back in to the original work, the universality is often lost – what was originally something everyone could relate to is now only true in the way some particular audience desired it to be, robbing it of the ambiguity that fostered that original, broader engagement.
And beyond that, directly indulging fans often just leads to, unsurprisingly, indulgent works. Works that make the audience happy, but do not challenge them. Imagine if End of Evangelion had been two hours of Shinji kissing girls, beating up angels, and telling his dad to go screw. Yes, that would certainly have made some fans happy – but the ambiguity of the original ending, the harshness of it, is what gave it its power. It’s what makes a work stay with you, change you, invite you to engage with it and possibly extend the narrative in your own way. I’ve written before about how what a character wants is generally not what a character needs – well, that’s true of fans as well as characters. And letting your work be dictated by fan desires generally ends up running into the issue of fans not being particularly great writers. Artists willing to challenge audiences, to make people unhappy with their work, will always, always, always be necessary.
A Rising Tide
“A cynic might argue that the Vocaloid phenomenon of Hatsune Miku in the twenty-first century, along with the continuing subgenre of how-to manuals, software, and education, is yet another level of attrition, with some anime viewers now being asked to provide their own content. But this is not necessarily a bad thing.”
– Jonathan Clements, Anime: A History
But as I said initially, defining Rebellion as a reflective work is only partially a condemnation. Because Rebellion isn’t just some isolated case. Rebellion is reflective of what all art is becoming, of shifts in media and communication that are changing the fundamental relationship between creator and consumer. Twenty years ago, creators created things and audiences consumed them. There were critics and public backlash and fandoms, but there was still a distance between creator and consumer. Today, fans talk to their favorite creators on twitter. Creators share things they’re working on as they’re working on them. Fans directly decide what they want to support, through vocal campaigns or fandom organizations or crowdsourcing. Ten years ago, you could just get away with being a creator of specific works. Today, creators are themselves brands, and their own platforms are critical. Creators are a component of their own fandom communities.
And this doesn’t only go one way – this doesn’t just mean creators are moving closer to fans. It also means fans are becoming creators. It’s a trend reflective of web culture at large – people want to be validated, want to feel like they are contributing to something larger than themselves. As our relationship with media changes, the ways we reflect that relationship change as well – culture democratizes itself, and fandom shifts from a passive group of appreciators to a group of active creators, who recontextualize the things they love through community and the self-expression of fan art, fan fiction, fan theorizing. In the age of internet communities, media engagement is becoming a fundamentally performative experience.
It should be obvious, but this is far from an anime-specific thing – it’s a media culture thing, reflected in everything from Sherlock fandoms to RWBY. As media appreciation becomes an active component of identity and social engagement, we consume each other’s media, and a common mythology builds on itself, leading to “conventional wisdom” and accepted elements of artistic objects that weren’t even necessarily present in the original. Sayaka and Kyouko’s relationship may be an interpretation of the text, but it is given life through that constant reinterpretation – meaning is now a communal creation. When this reflects back in the source works themselves, it may lead to indulgent work, yes – but at this point, there is no alternative. For better or for worse, the new media paradigm is both empowering and irreversible.
Granted, anime has essentially always been reflective of its audience, as much of media is. Part of the power of media is that it can capture the sentiments of a historic moment or cultural movement, and as a commercial medium, anime is largely designed to please. Anime’s “media mix” of various commercial objects that all add up to a larger “truth” of what a given property entails has existed for a long, long time. Anime might be somewhat ahead of the curve in directly processing shows as reframings of communal fan touchstones, but that’s both not a recent phenomenon and doesn’t make it unique. If the process of communal creation signified by works like Rebellion simply implies the removal of a middleman, a committee convened to figure out what fans want and give it to them, then nothing is truly lost here. And if this has always been the case, then another truth of anime’s history is equally relevant – fan desires and commercial needs aside, art always finds a way. Great creators will make great works. Rebellion is more reflective than meaningful, but that does not mean all such works must be. The new normal has perhaps not yet yielded masterpieces of communal creation, but the future is wide open.
A Reason to Hope
“It’s impossible to stop change; there will always be new experiences going on in the world. I don’t think it’s possible to say change is bad or can be avoided. Trying to not change, to stay stagnant, is not good.”
– Hiroshi Nagahama
When I saw Dai Sato earlier this year, he spoke at length on this topic – on the new world of community-defined properties, and the new creator-consumer paradigm. But he didn’t express fear at this change, and didn’t seem concerned that this would result in a world of indulgent, meaningless retreads. He was excited – excited at the possibilities it offered, excited at the thought of fans pushing artists forward and challenging them to find new answers. He wasn’t worried fans would be content with empty fanservice – he assumed they would demand more than that.
Perhaps that can even be considered the final message of Rebellion. Even if creators give us exactly what they think we want, we are smarter than that – we’ll demand the harshness of reality, the bracing wind of truth. Ultimately, art will win through – not just because artists are passionate individuals who will never give up its pursuit, but also because something inside us demands art, demands scathing reflection, and can see when the happiness we are offered is a lie. Just like Homura in Rebellion, who is given everything she thinks she wants, and yet tears it all down anyways. Just like Sayaka and Madoka at its end, who struggle against the pacifying influence of Homura’s selfish personal world. We rally against simplistic happiness. We cannot be contained.
Do I think this message was intended by the text? Maybe, I guess? The film certainly does play in some interesting space with Homura’s desires, and her ultimate choices could easily be framed as the selfish, nearsighted desires of a jealous fandom. But in the context of everything I’ve just discussed, does that really matter? What we take from the text is our own – if a work is rich and strange and full of personality, we can construct our own meaning.
In the end, the fact of this somewhat counters my own initial complaint. Yes, Rebellion doesn’t feel like a coherent sequel to me – and that saddens me, and I wish it were greater than it is. But as a child of the internet age, I can still find something worth taking in it, and share that meaning with others. We need passionate artists, desperately – they provide an immeasurable service to the world. And we need works like Eva Rebuild, angry at complacency, demanding better of us. But we also should be open to exploring the gifts of this new communal world of creation, and seeing what new meanings this strange evolution in media can provide. Creators should never stop bleeding themselves in the pursuit of truth and beauty, but consumers should also never stop constructing their own beautiful truths.
“Personally, I feel like I wrote all there is to Madoka in the TV series, and now I’ve written all there is to Homura in this movie. I feel like I’ve had both of them graduate. Anyway, I think that a school where a god and a devil are in the same class is pretty funny. If people use that to make new stories, I’ll be happy. I want this to be the kind of story where everyone will want to imagine their own sequel.”
– Gen Urobuchi