Against Love and Salvation (Rebellion)

Ah, young love. Isn’t it a beautiful thing?

At the end of Madoka Magica, Madoka ascends to a higher plane of being, sacrificing not only her life but her entire existence to save the other magical girls from becoming witches. As becomes clear from both Homura’s explanation to Kyubey in the final episode of the series and comments by Nagisa and Sayaka in Rebellion, the magical girls so rescued continue existing in some form outside the universe, with Madoka. Whatever form they are in, we know they are in some sense aware and able to make decisions, and it appears are simultaneously magical girls and witches (which, of course, they always were).

That this is presented, within the series and initially within Rebellion, as a positive development and more-or-less happy ending is perhaps puzzling. Arguably the entire point of Sayaka’s character arc was coming to realize that it was a mistake to try to sacrifice herself to save another, while Homura’s attempts to save Madoka were similarly depicted as making things continually worse for them both. It is not particularly surprising, then, that Rebellion calls that salvation into question.

The first segment of the movie, in which the magical girls are happy and get along, and the opponents they face are challenging but conquerable, serves as a parody of both worlds that can be understood as “Madoka’s world.” As a new enemy representing human misery, the Nightmares are a twisted reflection of the Wraiths. Like the Wraiths, the Nightmares are oddly similar to one another, but where the Wraiths are fairly creepy, attenuated humanoid giants, the Nightmares wear bear suits and fire stuffed animals from their arms. Defeating a Wraith earned many small rewards for cleaning the magical girls, Soul Gems, making magical girl teams viable, unlike in the prior, witch-infested timelines). But in Homura’s fantasy world, defeating a Nightmare creates a diffuse glow that  purifies the Soul Gems, making magical girl teams actively preferable to intercept more of that light. In addition, where the first we see of the Wraith world created by Madoka is the death of Sayaka and mourning of her teammates, Homura’s dream world preserves both Sayaka’s life and her wish, by pairing (or at least heavily implying a pairing) her with Kyoko to allow Hitomi and Kyosuke to be together. Homura’s fantasy world is, simply, happier than the one Madoka created!

It is also sillier, and not just because of the bear suits. The juxtaposition of the mundane and the eerie is the province of surrealist art, and it is here that the Wraiths, and by extension the city they haunt, largely fall. Faceless men are, for instance, a favored subject of Magritte. Likewise, the witches, though more playful, are juxtaposed with extreme violence, both by the witches against humans and magical girls, and by magical girls against the witches. This combination of playful, often childish, imagery and violence forms a sort of brutalist surrealism. 
There is, however, no violence against the Nightmares. They destroy property, seemingly, but there is no trace of damage when the magical girls are done, and against them the magical girls will deploy traps and bindings or fire weapons to drive the Nightmare into a trap, but never attack the Nightmare directly. The actual defeat of the Nightmare seems to involve actions that are at once highly ritualized, yet seemingly arbitrary–a banquet catered by the magical girls in the cold open, and a nursery rhyme-like chant or game about food against Hitomi’s Nightmare. 
Meals, food, nursery rhymes, games, the nursery–these are all common features of nonsense literature, most famously the Alice books. At the core of nonsense is an interest in alternative logics, in circumstances (such as games, meals, etiquette) where ultimately arbitrary, yet internally consistent, rules guide behavior; like a dream, nonsense substitutes one set of arbitrary rules for another, and lets the consequences play out logically. And yet within this nonsense, all five magical girls are alive and happy and thriving; it seems, a world of nonsense is better than the world of Wraiths Madoka created. 
Madoka’s “pure land,” her heaven, is also depicted inferior. As I have argued at length elsewhere, Madoka’s “afterlife” is inferior to even Homura’s dream world because it is a deathless world that contains no decay, no suffering, no putrefaction; both Sayaka and Nagisa chose to reify themselves alongside Madoka because they sought something that only existed as a consequence of decay and death, namely Sayaka’s relationship with Kyoko and, for Nagisa, cheese. 
Homura’s dream world is also more directly a parody of Madoka’s “heaven,” in the sense that Homura snatched magical girls (as well as at least five, possibly six ordinary humans) into her world without their consent and now keeps them there, trapped and cut off from the universe, but artificially happy. She has “saved” them because she has grown to care about them by extension, as the people Madoka loved–and at least in the case of Kyoko and Mami, whom she ultimately trusts to kill Homulilly, come to respect and possibly even like, as well.
To want to save someone is necessarily to want power over that someone. By becoming a knight protector, Sayaka made herself a judge (and in the case of those two misogynists on the train, likely executioner as well). By wishing to be the one to protect Madoka, Homura ultimately put herself I a position to repeatedly try to take the choice of becoming a magical girl away from Madoka. And by wishing to save all magical girls from their destiny of becoming what they fight, Madoka set herself up as a goddess. 
To be a savior (as always, as opposed to helping, which involves the consent of the one helped and places the helper in a temporarily subordinate, rather than dominant, position), in other words, necessarily entails being a little bit of the tyrant. Since the savior is acting without the consent of the saved, they are very likely to get it wrong, as Madoka does with Homura. Look at the opening credits: Homura is depicted as a grey, troll-like figure lurking while the magical girls dance. She is not capable of joining their happiness; the closest she is able to come is as the weak and shy “pigtails” version of her character during the first segment of the movie, and even then she is able to sense that something is deeply wrong. Once her hair is again loose, she is never genuinely happy again for the rest of the movie, for the simple reason that her untold ages of suffering, and the fact that she and she alone remembers them, have warped her emotionally to the point that she very possibly cannot be saved. 
Instead, she acts in parody of Madoka, snatching people up and placing them in her labyrinth. But is it really any different from what Madoka did? Is Madoka’s sacrifice an act of selfless love while Homura’s is selfish? And which is the greater sacrifice–your existence or your soul? Is it worse to never have existed, or to become the enemy of all you once held dear?
The answer, of course, is that it’s a silly question. All value is relative, so it is entirely a matter of perspective which is worse; very likely, each of the two girls feels their own sacrifice is the greatest they could make, since Madoka cares deeply about her connections to others, while Homura is more focused on her cause. 
But, seeing in Homura’s actions a twisted reflection of Madoka’s, we see Madoka’s in a new way as well. Can an act truly be considered selfless if it gets you everything you ever wanted? Madoka gets to be with, in her own words, “everyone”; all her loved ones are safe; she gets to defeat all the witches; she gets to become a magical girl; she gets to matter, quite possibly more than anyone else who ever lived. By contrast, Homura’s choice to become a “demon” devoted to keeping Madoka in the world costs her the only thing she values, the chance to be together with Madoka in the end; now they must eventually be enemies. Isn’t it therefore Homura who is selfless?
Of course not, because selfless love is an oxymoron. That is the point in depicting Homura’s possessiveness, and through it revealing Madoka’s selfishness. To love someone is to want to protect that person, possibly from themselves. It is to want to spend time with that person. It is to want that person to want you. Expressed in a healthy way and reciprocated equally, of course, love can be a wonderful thing; romantic or otherwise, it is the ultimate bond between two people. But like any bond, it can be use to entrap, to control, to assert dominance. It is no accident that the people most likely to claim that “pure,” “selfless,” “giving” love is better than the messy, reciprocated, collaborative love of an actual relationship are such upstanding members of society as moe fanboys, people with Nice Guy Syndrome, and authors of “Christian” purity-culture marriage handbooks that read like guides to creating an abusive relationship.

Throughout the series, we saw magical girls torn between acknowledging what they genuinely wanted and what they believed they should want. Mami tortured herself for wishing to live, rather than wishing to save  her parents. Sayaka and Kyoko wished for others’ benefit, rather than wishing for those others to appreciate the help, and suffered tremendously as a result. This is why Kyubey targets girls, because from the moment they are given their first doll they are indoctrinated to take care of others, socialized to think of themselves as caretakers, responsible for the wellbeing of others. Society has done Kyubey’s work for him, creating girls who will wish for what social pressure tells them they want instead of truly wishing for what they desire. (Not that it matters in the end, of course; the wish alone damns the magical girl to become a witch or die, though a poorly chosen wish makes the hope-despair cycle faster.)

So, of course, Homura sees no way to wish for what she truly desires, to be with Madoka. She wishes instead to take care of Madoka, first in the series at the end of the “original” timeline shown in the first part of Episode 10, and then in Rebellion when she becomes a “demon.” In both cases, she ultimately sees no hope but to become “evil.” Rebellion thus closes the largest cycle in a series full of cycles: the evolution of Homura Akemi from a dark, seemingly villainous character who disrupts the status quo to a dark, seemingly villainous character who maintains the status quo. More than ever, she is now Mami’s dark mirror.

18 thoughts on “Against Love and Salvation (Rebellion)

  1. One of the interesting things about the Nightmares is that although the characters talk about being careful while fighting them, they're clearly meant to be harmless.

    And that's the point, because they were deliberately created to be harmless. By fighting the Nightmares, the magical girls feel like they're doing something important…but in fact, they aren't doing anything important. The Nightmares are a puppet show, meant to entertain the magical girls and make them feel useful (which is particularly important for both Madoka and Mami.) The whole thing is just part of the illusion.

    It amuses me that Homura's ideal world is an “ordinary” magical girl show where the monsters are basically harmless and defeated by the magical girls working together.

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  2. “as well as at least five, possibly six ordinary humans”

    Kyosuke, Hitomi, Junko, Tomohisa, Tatsuya, Kazuko, Nakazawa… Which of them are secretly not-so-ordinary? :)

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  3. WTH is Nakazawa? I counted Madoka's family (3), Hitomi and Kyosuke (4 and 5), and possibly the homeroom teacher (6, but I don't recall ever getting confirmation that she's a real person).

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  4. Yep! Very much this… and I will be talking about it more in future essays. Possibly the next one? But so far every time I've sat down to write one of these I've gotten halfway through and then decided I actually want to write about something different…

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  5. Thought provoking as always. Though one critique, I don't believe Homura just brought those people from her soul gem world to her new universe. It was shown that her witches barrier and the barrier made by her love expanded over the whole universe. I think everyone on earth is trapped in her paradise world until Madoka breaks free.

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  6. Hmm, the way I read it:

    1. Homura starts to become a witch, gets sealed by Incubators.
    2. Homura pulls a very small number of people into her barrier (that's why, when she first started to realize that Something Is Wrong, people's faces started going wonky–those are the false people she “invented” as part of the dream).
    3. The Incubators' field is destroyed, and the people Homura snatched (the people on the couches) go free, though most of them are unconscious and have no idea any of this happened.
    4. Homura becomes a demon, her barrier engulfs the entire universe and everyone in it.

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  7. No I agree with you. I think I got confused and thought when you mentioned 6 people you were referring to Homura new universe rather than her dream world.

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  8. Nakazawa is actually one of the few students to keep their face in the classroom scene where Homura notices something is wrong.

    I don't think anyone's quite sure why Nakazawa is there. Since you'll only notice if you're paying attention, maybe it's just a joke.

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  9. Homura (like the audience) knows Nakazawa's name because Kazuko calls him by it just before she is introduced to the class.

    The only plausible reason for Nakazawa to be invited into the barrier is the fact that Homura knows his name.

    I infer that the people we see in the barrier are exactly the residents of Mitakihara whose names Homura remembers.

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  10. That is fascinating,, considering folklore that suggests a witch needs a piece of you (hair, toenails, YOUR TRUE NAME) to work magic on you.

    I therefore endorse this theory.

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  11. >>Homura is depicted as a grey, troll-like figure lurking while the magical girls dance.

    I thought this too, but homura is actually kneeling

    >>Of course not, because selfless love is an oxymoron. That is the point in depicting Homura's possessiveness, and through it revealing Madoka's selfishness. To love someone is to want to protect that person, possibly from themselves.

    this is a nice thought experiment, but at the end of the day, taking this point of view removes the distinction alltogether, because hence forth no act can be selfless. everyone is selfish. Homura I think is very much like madoka, in becoming the opposite of those things tomoe mami, kyouko, and sayaka had become; Homura and Madoka both have revelations that in effect, save them from the trap of hoping for something more than they will get. Homura's love is genuine, she would like more, but she is consistently shown to think of herself as nothing more than a tool to achieve her ends. a monster, a non person. to her, she does not wish to become madoka's protector to recieve her affection. she wishes to become her protector so she can protect her.

    Control and the ramifications of madoka and homura's saving eachother fight really is a major theme of course. and Homura _does_ WANT to be with madoka, even maybe needs to in order to go on as she is. but unlike sayaka and mami, kyouko, I think Homura is true in what she wishes. she isn't hoping for something more.

    Ultimately, homura has set herself up though as madoka's opposite. one who embraces karma instead of avoiding it all together. I don't think its any accident that kyuubei refered to homura as a witch trapped inside her egg. Something else has hatched though. That is also why I belive the stinger is the fool. Rebellion can be interpreted as the story of new beginnings.

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  12. Huh, she is kneeling! Interesting–implication that her isolation is from her own actions, maybe?

    Indeed, no act is purely selfless. Everyone is selfish. The question is *how* selfish–there is a big difference between an act done entirely to please oneself and one done for the pleasure that comes from pleasing others.

    I never said Homura's love wasn't genuine. All love contains an element of selfishness. Homura did wish for what she truly wanted, unlike the others, but like them she didn't necessarily think it through. What she truly wishes is to be forever saving Madoka, and that requires Madoka to forever need saving. That's not a healthy situation for either of them.

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  13. I finished both watching Madoka and reading The Very Soil and I have to say, “credit/blame” is very apt. I remember thinking “Well, this isn’t as upsetting as I thought it would be” once I got over the eerieness of witches (very strongly reminiscent to me of Morrison’s Doom Patrol which utilized similar techniques of transposing something silly, usually from children’s rhymes, into a new, sometimes violent context, thus making it unnerving). Then, of course, episode three happened, Madoka showed its true face and took me completely by surprise. And then it kept finding new ways of becoming more and more devastating. I loved it.

    And then came the ending of Rebellion. It’s been some time seen I’ve seen something that affected and upset me this strongly, although the finale of Hannibal came pretty close (I seem to have a thing about not-quite-healthy love stories featuring attempts at redemption that ultimately lead to damnation).

    One of the themes of the series that spoke to me particularly strongly was dealing with the unexpected consequences of your choices (particularly those that you were manipulated/tricked into making). Sayaka and Homura stand out, of course, because there is a very strong focus in the narrative on the choices that they made, and because their situations are quite similar up to a point. Sayaka’s sacrifice for Kyosuke leads to her suffering in the short term, true, but ultimately it allows her to become a better person and ascend to a higher state of being – becoming an angel to Madoka’s goddess.

    Homura also suffers as a consequence of her choice – she loses Madoka again and again, no matter how hard she tries to save her – but that choice is also what allows Madoka to create a better world for all magical girls. But she refuses to let go and grow, instead clinging to her desire of saving Madoka and opting, at the end of Rebellion, to once again undo the consequences of her choice (this time without the help of time travel) and drag Madoka down to her. And to make matters worse, she does that with complete disregard to what Madoka wants. Her love becomes a selfish and objectifying force (much more so than Madoka’s sacrifice, although I loved your observation, that saving someone is also objectifying), to the point that it stopes being love and makes Homura – for me – comparable to Kyubey.

    I feel like I’m skirting pretty close to the Christian view that suffering purifies and makes people better, because they become similar to Christ, so I’ll just note that for me it’s less about suffering and more about consequences of your choices – not all the choices you make will be fully informed or absolutely free, and of course this unfairness is worth fighting. But once the choice is made, you can either dwell on it (as Homura does, giving in to the temptation inherent in all time travel stories), or, well, move forward. Which is very often painful and not easy at all.

    As a person with a rather spiritual bend, I was also saddened by the way in which Homura’s creation of a new world meant rejecting transcendence, even becoming a sort of Demiurge in order to keep others – Madoka especially – from reaching it.

    I suppose there is still hope that Homura will learn, in time, but the ending of Rebellion was really downbeat for me, especially coming after the ending of the series proper, which provided me with all the closure I wanted.

    Let me end this by thanking you for The Very Soil – although, as you can see above, we probably differ slightly in our perception of Madoka’s sacrifice, I loved every part of your analysis and it really helped me in working through my thoughts and feelings on Madoka, of which there were plenty. Man, what a series that was.

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  14. Yeah, Madoka is firmly entrenched in my favorite/best anime lists.

    I’m very glad you enjoyed the show, the movie, and the book! If it helped you work through your feelings about the show, then I regard my mission as accomplished. ;)

    “Demiurgic” is a great word for Homura’s final state, and I’m actually planning to talk about Gnostic themes in Rebellion in a panel I’m doing at Anime Boston next month. Within Homura’s dream world, she has elements of both Sophia and Ialdabaoth, while Madoka is very much like the Gnostic Jesus (with Godoka as the independent entity Christ); then in the new world Homura creates Madoka is Sophia and Homura Ialdabaoth. The question then becomes, will someone come from outside to rescue Madoka? Or rise up from within? (Either one would answer once and for all whether this is a more Buddhist or Christian story, albeit in opposite directions.)

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  15. That sounds cool! I know enough about the gnostic tradition to get a feeling that there might be something of that in Rebellion, but not enough to actually analyze it. Any chance of the panel being recorded and showing up here?

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