Spoiler-Filled Review: Madoka Magica 3: Rebellion

This is a spoiler-laden review and initial analysis for a movie that so far has had only a limited theatrical release in English, and as such I am operating on the assumption that someone reading this both wants to see it and has not. As such, the actual review is behind a cut. As I said, it is spoilertastic. Consider yourself warned.

In Gnostic myth, the demiurge Ialdabaoth traps its creator, the divine spirit of wisdom Sophia, in the prison we know as material existence.

In Buddhist myth, the demon Mara uses the illusions and temptations of material existence to try to ensnare the would-be Buddha, and prevent the attainment of enlightenment.

Why do they do this? Normally it is assume d that they are simply evil (or in the case of Ialdabaoth, so wildly incompetent as to amount to the same thing). But maybe they have motivations, one that we might find sympathetic if only we could understand the feelings of such vast, cosmic beings. Maybe their motivations are even something we smaller creatures can understand, feelings we ourselves share.

In short, maybe they’re in love.

Throughout the first half of Rebellion, the main characters and their supporting cast are in what seems to be a far better world, for them. They are all happier than they were in the series: all five magical girls are alive and working together to easily take down Nightmares, Mami and Kyouko are no longer alone, Madoka and Homura are able to be friends as they were in the first timeline, and Sayaka is at peace with not getting the boy.

The downside is that no one outside this group is real, which makes sense for a world created by Homura; as I’ve argued before, she is the representative of in-group care ethics in the series, so of course her world only contains her in-group and a bunch of ciphers. Since the series is, arguably, Homura’s story, her in-group neatly maps on to the main and supporting characters from the series (though admittedly, she probably only drew in Madoka’s family, Hitomi, and Kyousuke because of their importance to Madoka and Sayaka).

The movie thus functions as a critique of that care ethos, balancing the critique of consequentialism in the series. Just as, in the series, Kyubey’s excessive consequentialism led him to be willing to torture and sacrifice young girls to stave off the heat-death of the universe, so is Homura willing to ignore the entire rest of the population of Mitadake City to make her friends happy–and that’s only in the first part. Depending on how one reads the remainder of the film after the battle with Homura’s witch form (apparently named Homulilly in supplementary materials), she may be risking the entire universe and overriding Madoka’s own choices in order to keep Madoka in the world she cherishes.
Put another way, Homura’s actions and descent into becoming a “demon” by the end of the film are based entirely on love. She takes care to craft the new world into one where the five magical girls can be happy, and in particular making it match as closely as possible the world Madoka treasures. She is acting entirely in accordance with her care ethos–but in the process is willing to become the living incarnation of evil, destroy the universe, and override Madoka’s preferences and choices for what Homura sees as Madoka’s own good. Just as Kyubey’s actions were correct from a consequentialist perspective and utterly monstrous from a care ethics, virtue ethics, or deontological perspective, Homura is acting correctly from a care ethics perspective and committing the worst possible violation of the others: risking universal catastrophe (consequentialism), becoming evil (virtue), and violating Madoka’s right to self-determination and agency (deontology).

This counterbalances the villainization of consequentialism in the series, because it is not that consequentialism is inherently wrong; rather, it’s that no meta-ethical approach is complete in itself. Excessive adherence to any one leads inevitably to becoming a moral monster in the eyes of the others; balancing them is the key to true morality.

This concept of balance is, of course, yet another way in which the series is intensely Buddhist. In the series, the Buddhist symbolism was mostly given to Madoka, whose story is that of the Bodhisattva Guan-yin (Japanese Kwannon (archaic) or Kanon) even as Homura’s story follows Goethe’s Faust (hence Homura being a transfer from a Christian school at the story’s beginning). In the movie, however, it is Homura’s turn to stand in for a Buddhist figure. As a weaver of illusions who creates a world to trap the Bodhisattva and make her forget her Buddhist nature, Homura is quite clearly the demon Mara, who attempts to do exactly that to the Buddha.

Like Mara, Homura fails; Madoka and the other magical girls ultimately break free of her barrier and return to reality, where Madoka reconnects to her ascended self. Here the series turns away from Buddhism and back to Christianity, and more specifically to the (now regarded as heretical) mystical system known as Gnosticism. Madoka now becomes identified with Sophia, stripped of her power and trapped within the material world by her own creation Ialdabaoth (admittedly, Demon Homura self-created, but used power stolen from Madoka to do it). As Ialdabaoth, Homura has taken up the role of guarding and sustaining the material universe by becoming the mistress of the Incubators.
But is Homura truly villainous now? Ialdabaoth certainly is, being ultimately responsible for all evil and suffering in Gnostic mythology. Gnosticism, however, is firmly world-denying; it opposes Ialdabaoth to Christ, who in Gnosticism is a purely non-human entity from outside material reality who enters it with the goal of liberating Sophia and all human souls from Ialdabaoth’s trap. Or, looking at it another way, he’s an inhuman alien being from an incomprehensible plane outside our universe that wants to destroy the world, rip out all our souls, and carry them back to his realm. In other words, if one regards the material universe as completely corrupt and worthless, Ialdabaoth is a cosmic evil; if one regards the material universe as being good, Christ is a Lovecraftian horror and Ialdabaoth our only protection from it.

Is there any hint that the movie might lean toward the latter perspective? To an extent there is. First, there’s the fact that the new reality is just that, a reality. The series has habitually used changes in art style to denote the illusory realms of the witch’s barriers, and the first half of the movie is no exception–even before Homura begins to figure out that the city is a fake, there are quite a few intrusions of other art into the false city. Despite that the new reality is shown as forming when Homura’s witch’s barrier expands to cover the entire cosmos, it is depicted consistently in the art style of the characters, with the few appearances of witch’s familiars only appearing at Homura’s command and self-erasing almost immediately. It is thus a real thing that Ialdabaoth/Homura is working to protect.

Second, Homura has had extensive character development by this point. Despite her declarations that she is now alone and taking on the role of everyone’s enemy, it is clearly just a role–she still arranges the new reality to be kinder and better for them than any previous universe. She worked alone throughout the series, but at the climax of the movie she demonstrates that she has learned to trust others–she knows that becoming a witch in close proximity to a depowered Madoka will not put Madoka at risk, because she trusts Mami and Kyouko to kill her. This is a Homura who can trust and work with others, who tries to bring some happiness, who has even managed to expand her in-group beyond Madoka to include other friends and allies–she is neither a monster nor a mindless gibbering incompetent, the two traditional depictions of Ialdabaoth. She is, in her interactions with Madoka, once again much closer to Mara, deliberately acting to keep Madoka focused on the world and away from connecting with her Buddha-nature.

Homura, in other words, has not fallen. She is not Lucifer, trying to usurp the power of God and as a result transforming into a creature of pure evil. Homura is a complex character, not a cosmic force such as Madoka became at the end of the series; she is not the incarnation of Love or Evil or anything else, but a person, who has made choices good, bad, and arguable, and now must live and work with the consequences of those choices.

Despite that she has done everything wrong from the perspective of most moral systems, she has also done everything right. From a consequentialist perspective, yes, she destroyed the universe, but now she is the universe’s protector. From a deontological perspective, yes, she overrode Madoka’s choices from the end of the series, but at the same time she has kept the goal Madoka sought intact while allowing Madoka to continue to exist as an incarnate person–she has, in other words, enabled Madoka (and Sayaka and Nagisa, for that matter) to regain their lost agency and capacity for self-determination. In terms of virtue ethics, yes, she embodies Evil now–but also she embodies Love, which most systems regard as being a virtue worth cultivating. And finally, from a universal care ethics perspective, she is helping to maintain the system Madoka established and holds the Incubators in check.

Devil and saint, good and evil, concept and character, demiurge and struggling young woman; Homura is an embodiment of contradictions and opposites, proving ultimately that all these seemingly disparate concepts are really one.  It’s hard to get more Buddhist (or, for that matter, postmodern) than that.

30 thoughts on “Spoiler-Filled Review: Madoka Magica 3: Rebellion

  1. I was wondering if yoh were going to do one of these for Rebellion. It was your previous Madoka Magica essays that helped me recognize the Homura=Mara connection right away.

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  2. ah, it just occured to me, Madoka DID create demon homura, if you pay attention to the talks between them homura encouraged her to become this way for nearly the whole movie up until the very last moment.

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  3. Hmmmm, well, Homura's familiar's can be heard chanting “Gott ist tot” (A quote by Nietzsche, saying Humanity killed god, and has became god), While I agree, Homura draws more parrels to Mara from Buddhism, I think you can still draw parallels to Paradise lost. “Better to rule in Hell, then serve in heaven.” Homura wants to be Madoka's protector, not the other way around, so I still think you can compare her to Lucifrer. (Though not to the extent some people say.)

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  4. It might be best to think of Rebellion as a Magical Girl Buddhist version of Paradise Lost, the same way the original anime was a Magical Girl Buddhist version of Faust. Homura deciding it's “Better to rule in hell” is accurate, but only in the sense that “hell” is the material world. (Then again, one might say Homura is in her own hell right now).

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  5. Well, her own familiars are throwing tomatoes at her, she's a self-confessed “demon”, she basically weeps when she gives Madoka her ribbons back (Kinda of saying “I dont deserve you). She has a huge amount of self-loathing currently , so yeah, she's in her own hell.

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  6. It's worth noting also that, in Paradise Lost, Lucifer's claim that it's better to rule in Hell is pretty clearly depicted as being bullshit–Hell SUCKS and Lucifer spends the entire non-flashback portion of Paradise Lost trying to spend as much time as possible everywhere else (to no avail, because he carries Hell within himself now).

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  7. But it's Lucies Pride that stops him from asking for forgiveness from god, so he can leave. I really think that's the big difference between Homura and Lucifer, Lucifer's fatal flaw is pride, while Homura's is love.

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  8. It's fairly strongly implied in Paradise Lost that Lucifer is also motivated by an unwillingness to look weak or foolish in front of his followers–which of course is also pride.

    Thinking about it, much as the series is Buddhist Faust, but the main character of the Buddhist story (Madoka) is not the stand-in for Faust himself (that's Homura), the same could be said of this as Buddhist Paradise Lost. Homura is the main character of the Buddhist story, but she's not the Lucifer analogue.

    Think about it–who, in an act of utter hubris, rebels against and tries to overthrow God, then gets pulverized by overwhelming force and cast into a personal hell? Why, the same person who fulfilled the Satan-figure role in the series–Kyubey!

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  9. Hmmm, I always thought Homura was supposed to be Faust's lover.

    That's an excellent point. QB was the Satan figure in the original series, and he wanted to usurp (in a way) Madoka in Rebellion. (And ends up getting torn up because of it.)

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  10. Nah, Madoka is definitely Gretchen, Homura is Faust. Homura is the one that wishes to turn back the clock (literally in her case, where Faust just became young again–on the other hand, in Goethe's deeply weird second volume, Faust becomes a time traveler), Homura is the one who brings suffering to the object of her love, and Homura is much older than she looks. Madoka, meanwhile, is the one with the connection to the Virgin Mary, the sweet, innocent, loving girl.

    If you haven't read/seen it before, my first panel on Madoka covers the Faust parallels in more detail.

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  11. I'm simply in awe of the depth and breadth on your reading of Rebellion. You truly can find gems in the most unexpected places. The only thing of note I might add is you're spot on the “Madoka… Virgin Mary” connection, her very embem (Witch's Kiss) in the movie was labeled as “Das ewig-Weibliche” in Witch Runes. Check out the puella-magi wiki for details.

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  12. Thank you so much for your kind comment!

    That's very interesting about the runes, since if Madokami is being identified with the patriarchal ideal of the eternal feminine, we can read Homura's actions as being partially an attempt to break free of gender essentialist roles and become an active principle in the world, as opposed to Madoka's more passive and otherworldly solution.

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  13. Wow. Okay, I officially love you. Thank you so much for unpacking this complex character and film. In the theater, I had felt hopelessly trolled. Thanks to your analysis, I realize I had felt most offended at the deontological aspect of Homura's actions and thought she had some nerve to override Madoka's choices and insist she did it out of love, since love seeks the good of the other. Considering that Homura actually restored some of Madoka's capacity for self-determination helped soothe my feelings. Seriously, this movie's like a steak and I'm still chewing on it. Thanks again!

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  14. I would say that do not too trapped in the specific definition of certain roles in these myth. As far as I consider, these stories are all metaphorical of certain concept, it's the destination that matters, not the signposts. the core concept of buddhism is attachment/deattached. Since anything in life is meaninglesss, and any meaning inherently is made by mankind, attachment to anything will distract you from your real goal. Like Archery, if you attach yourself to certain outcome, or even identify yourself with certain outcome, you will be nerves, you can't calm the fuck down. When you pull the string, you can only have one thing in mind: the place your arrow is aiming at.
    So, the devil/demon is anything that distact you from your real goal. It's reallity, It's anything that you attached to, it's your loved one. it's not supposed to be evil by any moral standard(which is bullshit in itself), only human society tend to paint all sorts of color on it.
    So,Kyubey actually more stands for the society/world itself, it's cold, it's unbeatable(hence the beatened Kyubey after credit is just fan service), it's rational, it will progress like wheels of history and crash any individual's wish.
    And Madoka/Homura, just like God/Devil or Buddha/not enlightened normal people(yes, not mara, just normal people), stands for the two states of a person.

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  15. I'd actually say the battle scene is more important, because it is there that madoka reminds homura that she wont abandon her no matter what, and to not give up.

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  16. I have read your review seriously, and I found it excellent. I've rarely seen someone who analyses Madoka Movie 3 in the Buddhist aspect. May I translate this review and Latin Latin Madoka More Latin into Chinese and share them with others? I will credit you fully and send you a link.

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  17. I really enjoyed this review. The funny thing is that buddhist parallels, seems to be in vogue in media. I was Reading about Kill la Kill and it also has a post-modern theme with buddhist references.

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  18. Thanks!

    I don't know if it's that Buddhist themes are becoming more common, or that Westerners are getting better at spotting them. I mean, Tezuka's work is loaded with Buddhist themes. It's one of the two main religions of Japan, so it permeates their culture to a degree similar to how the main American religions, capitalism and vaguely remembered Sunday School, influence our culture.

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  19. Just thought you'd like to know that there are still people reading this review and loving it : ) Very interesting perspectives, well supported with evidence from the series and movie, and you get your ideas across concisely and clearly (considering the subject matter at least!). Great job

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  20. I'm curious where you got the notion that Homura went to a Christian school. Where is that referenced in the series or franchise as a whole?

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  21. Series. IIRC it's her response in the first episode when one of the girls in the class asks her where she went to school previously. It might have been episode 10, however.

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  22. Alright, thanks a bunch. It is indeed there. Been about three years now since I watched it, so memories get a little foggy!

    Nonetheless, great stuff here. I've been putting together an article (mostly working with the music at the moment since I'm a composer myself and I've yet to see a soundtrack reviews tackle the Wagnerian tonality of the score) and this is all very interesting since it reflects a lot of the symbolism I've been noticing in Rebellion. I need to go back and watch the series again.

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  23. Thanks! If you liked this, I suggest looking at my in-depth Madoka coverage (series and Rebellion), which you can find here. And let me know when you finish that article, it sounds very interesting!

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