Madoka, Madoka, Madoka, and Me

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When Puella Magi Madoka Magica initially aired in 2011, watching it was an experience. Following up on my experience with Star Driver, Madoka was the second water cooler series that I participated in, eagerly vomiting my thoughts into the ether, and chatting with various people on Twitter about the show. When the final two episodes were released, I was one of the eager fans continuously refreshing their browser while waiting for translations. Watching the finale as soon as I possibly could following the fansubbed releases, I jumped into the fray that was unpacking the entire series with vigor.

In discussing the series with others, I became quickly disillusioned. Common Madoka commentary immediately after the series aired was restricted to one of two schools of thought. The first posited, or vehemently insisted, that Madoka was a deconstruction of the magical girl genre. The second was awestruck by how gritty or, for lack of a better word, dark Madoka was. Needless to say, I disagreed with both of these interpretations.

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For me, Madoka was always a celebration of the magical girl genre. It takes existing tropes from other series of its ilk and revels in them, rather than repositioning them to say something new. The ending of Madoka, where Homura Akemi and Madoka Kaname embrace each other in a galaxy is a fantastic homage to the finale of Sailor Moon SailorStars. Both end on a hopeful note. Sailor Moon‘s Usagi Tsukino asks her adversary Galaxia to believe that the hearts and hopes of humanity will overcome the creeping darkness that can never be eradicated. Madoka Magica‘s Madoka says that whenever someone tells her that hope is pointless, she’ll deny it every single time, believing hope to be the only way to deal with all of the world’s grief and sadness. In the end, what matters to both series is not that bad things are gone from the world – it’s impossible for them to be – but that their respective characters are provided a means to deal with their pain.

I came into watching Sailor Moon, and subsequently picking up every manga volume as soon as it was released, at a time in my life where it was necessary for me to hope. Since then, I have watched countless magical girl series. While others may fixate on the cute outfits, the toy marketing, or overly bubbly transformation sequences, all of these become a vehicle for dispensing an age old truth: being an adolescent girl is a fantastic and horrifying experience to live through.

Being a magical girl gives one an easy target in a world that’s morally grey and tricky to navigate. For better or for worse, a magical girl series tells its audience that the world is awful, but that one can learn to deal with it through hope. When Usagi says that darkness is in the hearts of everyone, it’s not an uplifting ending but rather a shaky instruction manual for how to overcome that darkness: believing in one’s self and others.

puella magi madoka magica ending, madoka magica, madoka kaname, kyoko sakura, mami tomoe, sayaka miki

This is why, when thinking of other magical girl series – specifically Pretty Cure, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Sailor MoonMadoka hardly seemed dark in comparison aside from its visual direction, and even there Kunihiko Ikuhara had something to say about that in his seasons of Sailor Moon. Madoka was more obvious in relaying the hopelessness of its characters’ situations, but no more dismal than its counterparts once one scrapes off the fluffy pink exterior. In trying to discuss this, my voice was quickly drowned out by those singing Madoka‘s praises. I slowly began to despise Madoka because of the never-ending glorification the show received. It went from a series that I had thoroughly enjoyed watching and discussing with others to something I never wanted to talk about again. If someone asked me about it, I would change the subject. If someone mentioned the word deconstruction, I would stop talking altogether. Admittedly, it was my fault for allowing the opinions and reactions of others to taint my perception of the series; however, as my experience with Madoka was intrinsically tied to the virtual water cooler, this meant that the event of watching was a large part of my enjoyment.

Yet, I could never quite abandon the series completely. I still loved it for its celebration of a genre that was so important to me, and after years of putting it off, I finally marathoned all three Madoka Magica movies, including the oft-denigrated Rebellion.

detransformation in madoka rebellion, madoka magica, puella magi madoka magica, the five madoka girls stand on a hill and look out at the city, magical girl detransformation

Knowing a fair amount of other people who watched Puella Magi Madoka Magica as it was airing, the experience of watching and discussing the series cannot be fully removed from many viewers’ perception of the series as a whole. Rebellion revels in this, offering a continuation of the Madoka mythos that reads more like a fanwork than anything else.

“Fighting Nightmares is not supposed to be fun. But I guess it’s true that the way things are now is the kind of life I could only dream about in the old days. To think that I could live so happily, even while shouldering my destiny as a magical girl.”

– Mami Tomoe, Madoka Rebellion

The moment I fell in love with Rebellion was at this dialogue from Mami Tomoe. For me, the crux of a magical girl story is always that in comparison to the world of magic, it’s inevitably the real world – even with all of its despair – that’s worth protecting. This is where the instruction manual for those struggling through adolescence shines through in the narrative. When Mami admits that this is the most fun she’s had, it was genuinely creepy to listen to. Fighting evil, even with the costume changes and magical trappings, is never supposed to be fun. It’s the flawed reality of the world where fun, joy, and love are found in spite of the darkness. Prefacing this line is the dissonant chanting around a table of sweets where a giant cake is born of the five girls’ magical powers. It’s all wonderfully weird and beautiful because everything in these scenes is just off enough to make the viewer uncomfortable.

do you enjoy the movie? madoka rebellion, madoka rebellion, homura akemi

As Homura makes her way through tearing down the dream world that she created for herself, Rebellion winks at us in the image above, asking us if we are entertained. After all, Rebellion is specifically crafted for the Madoka viewer. It’s indulgent, horrifying, and so very pretty to watch. Unable to leave things alone, Homura’s false world crumbles under her own investigation, leading to her eventual transformation into a demon that traps Madoka in another false world that allows Madoka to live a so-called normal life with Homura and company.

It was this insistence on saving Madoka from any sort of suffering that is the most interesting thing about Rebellion as it actively challenges what I came to love about magical girl series and left me personally unsettled at the film’s end. As mentioned previously, magical girl series acknowledge that pain is a necessary part of life, but can be overcome with hope. The magic is a way of protecting this ordinary way of life, not a manner of eradicating pain completely. What Homura does is completely contrary to this, sealing Ultimate Madoka away against her wishes, selfishly ensuring that Madoka lives this life with her. Homura eschews the saccharine dream that she created as a witch only to rewrite the universe as something far more false and horrific.

Completely contrary to the original hopeful message of Puella Magi Madoka Magica the series – and additionally, magical girl series through the ages – Rebellion Homura revises the universe and perhaps discourse on Madoka as a whole. While it doesn’t mesh with the rest of the series, Rebellion certainly invites discussion. For me, it’s this discussion that drew me to Madoka in the first place, and now has renewed my love of the franchise.

9 comments

  1. Thank God I’m not the only one who’s sick about how the series is labeled as a ‘deconstruction’ all the time. In fact, that very label is the one that turn me off about the series in the first place. It kind of give the impression the series is cynical and nihilistic about the world.

    I still can’t get over the fact on Urobuchi being ‘meta’ in this movie though. Seems…..very different from his usual M.O.

    1. Yeah, Madoka is a very hopeful series. I think it was a combination of the fact that Madoka became many viewers’ first magical girl show, and perhaps they were under the assumption that magical girl series are always super sugary-sweet, cute, and abundantly happy, which they are not. As I said in the post, one of the reasons why I enjoyed it so much to begin with was that it celebrated the magical girl series that had come before it.

      Both Urobuchi and Shinbo acknowledged in interviews following Madoka and Madoka Rebellion their awareness of fan reaction, fanworks, and fan characterization. I think Madoka became this ridiculously large franchise that well exceeded their individual expectations for it, and when that happens fans are bound to get involved and create. ^ ^

  2. I’ve practically forgotten about Madoka Magica – having not finished it yet, the show fell off my anime radar. Looking back at my own commentaries for individual episodes of it, I recall the distinct impression that the “contract system” established by Kyuubey makes for a rather sinister aspect; he deliberately withheld the Grief Seed information from the magi, and the magical girls could be killed (something you rarely saw in the genre), so the overall fan reaction you described may be a result of the reverie that the creators introduced to the anime. Madoka Magica simply made the uncomfortable aspects of magical girl genres more pronounced, in order to make the celebratory nature of the show so amazing.

    1. I’m not going to say too much here, in case you continue the show yourself. Kyubey isn’t really sinister, but is genuinely creepy to anyone who is human in the series because he lacks emotion and empathy. If anything, he’s the world, or the universe. We attempt to ascribe characteristics to him, but he’s neither good nor evil. I’d also disagree with magical girls could be killed not appearing in any other series, because people do die in other magical girls series (or suffer consequences more horrifying than death). ^ ^;

      You should finish the series. I think it’s definitely worth watching.

      1. That makes perfect sense – humans ascribe values such as “good” or “evil” to what/who they encounter in their lives, and the idea of an amoral (not immoral, mind) being who represents an emotional enigma challenges us to think about our perspective concerning the universe around us. Since we have a complex terminology for emotional states (thanks to diverse languages and cultures), humans often tried to make sense of a world that, due to it being a celestial body (and thus part of a larger universe), provides no moral compass for us. We develop our own code of conduct, and how we confront someone like Kyubey reflects more on us than him.

  3. It’s good to be back, isn’t it?

    Madoka Magica was the first anime I watched week by week as it was airing. It was also the first anime that had me coming back for more: news, fanart, creator interviews, discussion, discussion, discussion. And because I didn’t have a “falling out” period, I’ve witnessed the evolution of fans’ interpretations over the years along with mine. By now I’ve probably seen as many complaints about people claiming Madoka is a genre deconstruction as I’ve seen the claims themselves. (I blame TvTropes for making that a big thing in the first place.) Then Rebellion Story unleashed a perfect storm of renewed discussion, and it was beautiful.

    Rather than being completely contrary to the original’s message, I see Rebellion Story as a reiteration of it, albeit zoomed in on the proverbial darkest hour (just before the dawn). Whenever I come across critics dismissing the movie for utterly trashing the themes of the TV series, I remind myself that Homura herself knows that she cannot contain Madoka forever. The true end is yet to come. What Rebellion Story acknowledges is that, while through faith we shall overcome, faith is hard, and doubt is a battle we must continue to fight even after being saved. Homura is that relapsed doubter, retreating back to her old, destructive habits of trying to shoulder all the burden and micro-manage things in attempt to gain a semblance of control. And perhaps for good reason! It seems that Homura had made little progress during the interim towards growing out of her myopic worldview that consists of just Madoka and herself, with everything and everyone else either obstacles or means to an end. Who knows? Maybe during the time she runs the world, she’ll be forced to learn how to empathize with others! That’s my little headcanon for a theoretical sequel series. I’ll keep on hoping!

    1. It’s definitely a series that’s rife for discussion, and I really love it for that, even when I say I hate it for the same reason.

      Your point about Rebellion reiterating the original message is interesting. It’s definitely true that Ultimate Madoka cannot be captured by Homura forever. Just like the beginning of the series was a dreamworld that Homura ended up tearing down herself, this world built solely for her and Madoka to be together will not last either.

      More interesting for me are the parallels between Homura and Sayaka. Sayaka is someone who also struggles with crippling self-doubt and self-hatred. She ties up her self-worth in her ability to help others without realizing that her hatred of herself – fully realized in her body’s separation from her soul as a magical girl – is forever going to make truly loving another, namely Kamijou, impossible. The tipping point for Sayaka becoming a witch occurs when she forces herself to watch Kamijou and Hitomi get together. In her mind, even with her stated noble intentions, the fact that Kamijou would be with someone else tears her apart. It also renders her actions meaningless, as her original wish was inherently selfish. Ultimately, she wanted to be the hero, not for Kamijou to be happy (although surely she genuinely wished for this as well).

      Homura’s self worth is similarly tied in Madoka’s survival. Countless time loops come to serve as the justification for her actions, rather than any sort of actual love for Madoka. If she stops protecting Madoka and trying to give her the life that she wants, then Homura’s past actions become meaningless to her. In this manner, I can believe Demon Homura quite easily, as it’s this part of her selfish personality amplified and given free reign. She believes it to be love for Madoka, when really it’s her own lack of self and, as you said, destructive, doubtful habits.

      Thanks for the comment. ^ ^ I really do love discussing these things.

  4. Now I’m no philosopher, nor crafty speaker by any means, but this reflection over the extreme praise to the infamous “deconstruction” magical girl anime really makes me think about your thoughts, in that the series revels in celebration rather than darkness or hopelessness. This reading was not only insightful, but extremely enjoyable – thank you for the great read!

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