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.
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.
This is why, when thinking of other magical girl series – specifically Pretty Cure, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Sailor Moon – Madoka 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.
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.
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.