The Very Book Launch!

The wraparound cover to the book The Very Soil.

I’m pleased to announce that The Very Soil: An Unauthorized Critical Study of Puella Magi Madoka Magica is now on sale! It is available on Smashwords (all major ebook formats), CreateSpace (dead tree), and (a first for one of my books, though the others will be following shortly) Kindle store right now; over the next few days it should show up on Amazon, B&N, iTunes, and so on.

This is a thoroughly revised and expanded version of my blog series of the same name, including four entirely new chapters (three on spinoff comics, plus “Against Kyubey” in the Rebellion section), and extensive updates, corrections, and alterations throughout the rest.

Also one hell of a spectacular wraparound cover by Viga, as you can see at the top of this post.

Thanks to Kit Paige for her excellent job editing! Go back her Patreon or Kickstarter, she’s good people and creates good stuff!

Assorted factoids:

  • The e-book MSRP is $3.99, while the print version is $9.49. (Prices may vary depending on where you buy it.)
  • The print version is 144 pages. My favorite is 38, because it has the best sequence of citations: The Golden Bough, the D&D Monster Manual, Harry Potter, and Addressing Rape Reform in Law and Practice.
  • The e-book shows up as 494 pages on my phone, but that means little. It’s the same text as the print version, anyway.
  • If you are receiving this book through my just-completed Kickstarter, I’ll be sending that out tonight. (Please allow shipping time for print copies, e-books I’ll be e-mailing you a 100% off coupon.)
  • I’ll also be adding the e-book of this to the list of reward options for the $10 tier of my Patreon.

Against Ourselves (Rebellion)

This.

The precise moment at which Rebellion turns us against ourselves is about a fourth of the way through the film. Up until that point, it has depicted the happy world that, as any viewer with a trace of empathy must concede, the characters have more than earned. Throughout the series, we followed these young women, suffered with them, hoped against hope that they would be able to find some form of happiness.

In the end of the series, arguably, they did, but there is little denying that the ending to the series is bittersweet. Homura is alone, the only one who remembers Madoka. Madoka is gone forever, never born to begin with. The rest of the magical girls still fight, still suffer, still sink into the uttermost depths of despair to become witches–but are mercy-killed by Madoka just as they do. 
Sayaka still died for a boy who barely noticed she was there. Mami and Kyoko are active as magical girls, so we can presum Mami’s parents are still dead and Kyoko’s family still perished in a murder-suicide. 
The end of the series was an honest ending, not a happy one. It depicted the creation of a new, better world, but far from a flawless one. 
That flawless world is what we see in the first segment of Rebellion. All five magical girls are alive and working as a team. Their interpersonal difficulties are reduced to flirtatious teasing between Sayaka and Kyoko. The psychic damage of Homura’s time-travel shenanigans seems healed: Homura is back to her shyer, less confident, but more pleasant and cheerful glasses-wearing pigtailed self, and Madoka is both more cheerful and more confident, more like the version Homura first met at the beginning of Episode 10. 
The Nightmares are almost laughable as a threat. If Hitomi’s Nightmare is anything to go by, they pose no physical threat to the girls, don’t torture them psychologically, and can be reduced to literal moe-blobs. What’s more, they release a massive abundance of Soul Gem-cleansing light when killed, which as I’ve noted before not only permits, but encourages, the girls to work together, and in addition provides more than enough energy to keep them from blackening their Soul Gems and dying. Instead, the girls get to be magically powerful and visually impressive, fighting as a team against jus enough difficulty to feel useful without ever experiencing the horrors of the series. 
This is what we, collectively, as an audience, wanted. Oh, most of us understood that the ending as it stood was probably aesthetically better, but enough fanfiction by those too inexperienced to know better or too invested to care exists to make it clear: we wanted better for these girls. And here the movie comes, and gives us exactly what we asked for–until Homura starts to figure it out. 
Like Paradise Lost before it, the show tricks us into rooting for someone who is trying to destroy our paradise. Homura knows this happy world is untrue, and therefore we know that by investigating it she will destroy it. From her initial conversation with Kyoko, the world becomes less and less realistic, until by the time the two realize they are trapped in the city the world is an abstraction of red field and white lines, the bus the only recognizable object. Soon after, Homura becomes the familiar glasses-less, straight-haired, darkly stoic girl we remember from the series, and the familiar site excites us even as it means the happy world is deteriorating still faster. 
Soon after, we see the battle teased throughout the first three episodes of the series, as Mami and Homura come to blows. The resulting battle is visually stunning, as Homura and Mami both employ their respective powers and extensive arsenals to the fullest. It is exciting, dramatic, well-animated and scored–and horribly, horribly wrong. As a set piece, it is a long sequence that advances the plot little, the characters and themes not at all; it is exciting, but blatantly gratuitous, a pure piece of audience pandering of the sort the show deliberately shied away from most of the time. And then Homura shoots herself in the head, and Mami dissolves into ribbons, the pandering turned suddenly to horror. 
Getting what we want is a disappointment and leads to horror. Nowhere is this as clear as in the film’s climax, when Homura and Madoka are reunited and it all goes horribly wrong, resulting in a world where all the girls are free and alive and Madoka doesn’t have to be a magical girl–a corrupt world ruled by a demonic demiurgic Homura who is holding Madoka prisoner. 
We bought our tickets, sealed our contracts, and got our wishes, and they turned to ashes around us. Desire leads inevitably to suffering. 
Why? Because we might wish for happiness, but we need truth. This is not to say that despair is truer than happiness, but rather that the truth of Madoka is entropy and the inevitability of decay, and the series ha consistently equated physical entropy and decay to the feelings of depression and despair. To end straightforwardly, uncomplicatedly happily, to give us what we wish for without corrupting it or snatching it away is to deny itself. 
So the film forces us to reject our own desires for the series. Those who revel in its darkness and spiky difficulty must endure being pandered to with fanservice, pushing them to deny their own fandom. Those who embrace the fanservice must face where it leads. Both must deal with the deeply ambiguous final arc of the film, as Homura creates a world simultaneously darker and brighter than the world of the series, yet more coherent than the dream-world of the film.

Thus, the series places the viewer into the position of the magical girls. Pursuing our desires for the series leads to it becoming tragic. Our wishes transform into curses as down the spiral we go, until we find ourselves, at the climax of the film, wishing for Homura the witch to tear apart the world–and then when she does, we must live with the reality created by that wish.

By turning us against ourselves, and showing how our wishes for the series betray us, the film makes one last effort to push empathy onto us. Like the series in its first few episodes, it offers spectacle and fanservice to draw us in, and then, once the trap is baited, it makes us feel for the characters. Even more so, however, it makes us feel as the characters–empathy as opposed to sympathy–by placing us into a situation analogous to theirs. That moment of confusion, of alienation, of wrongness when Homura pulls Madoka apart? That is a small taste of what it feels like to be a magical girl.

I said above that this is a series about entropy and decay, depression and despair, and it is. But it’s easy to forget that it’s about other things, too, and by turning us against ourselves it reminds us of those other things.

This isn’t just about Buddhism, or German literature, or the magical girl genre. It isn’t just about entropy and suffering, or just about thematic complexity or the possible psychological issues of its implied, gestalt author. It isn’t even just about characters, blobs of light and color created by animators and voiced by actors. It’s also about us.

In the end, as in the beginning, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a story about people.

Against Homura (Rebellion)

“Bang.”
You’re gonna carry that weight.

There is a recurring image throughout the Madoka Magica movies, one we have briefly mentioned before: a rather sweet tableau of two white chairs on a grassy hill, Madoka and Homura sitting side-by-side in them. In the opening credits of the first two movies, they cuddle, sweet and adorable, and innocent. In the third movie, the image turns rapidly rather less sweet.

As she goes through the process of becoming a witch at the climax of the second arc of Rebellion, Homura returns to the chair scene. But this time, Madoka stands and casts herself sideways off the chair, splattering into a pink stain on the grass while Homura reaches for her helplessly. Homura crouches beside her, eyes wide in shock and horror, while a crowd of tall, attenuated Homuras surround her, gazing down. And then the vast fist of a raging Homura smashes the crouching Homura, railing and weeping beside the remains of Madoka.

Madoka is gone, her coherent identity replaced by a diffuse abstraction. Homura failed. Now Homura stands in judgment over Homura, and finds her wanting. Her rage and grief at last unleashed, she smashes her own identity to become an abstract and esoteric being herself: a witch.

Just like Sayaka, and presumably every other witch, before her, Homura’s witch form is an endless cycle of self-flagellation, a psychodrama in which she acts out the events that brought her to despair and punishes herself for her failures. She tries to shoot herself, and the self she shoots becomes the Madoka she had to mercy-kill. She cannot die, does not deserve to die, the way that Madoka did, because she has failed to save Madoka.

Not only failed to save her; Homura is the reason Madoka is gone. Her looping through time empowered Madoka to become the Law of Cycles, which erased Madoka from reality. Her discussion of Madoka with Kyubey gave the Incubators the information they needed to construct the trap now closing on Madoka–and they used Homura to create that trap. Homura is Madoka’s greatest liability.

Homura’s witch form is among the most literal. She has the peaked black hat, the prominent nose and chin–other than being a skeleton hundreds of feet tall, she looks rather like the standard Halloween costume of a witch. Homura knew about witches and where they come from, and yet she still failed to avoid that trap, even embraced it deliberately in a bid to foil Kyubey. Unlike Sayaka, who believed herself a knight and so still looked like one as a witch, Homura knows what she is choosing to become. Likewise, she is deliberately sacrificing herself, as she tells Kyubey: she trusts Mami and Kyoko to kill her. Thus her familiars lead her to the guillotine, the mechanism of her sacrifice and instrument of judgment for her crime.

At the same time, she is surrounded by imagery related to the nutcracker. One type of her familiars is giant teeth with nutcracker jaws. Another resembles toy soldiers, but with their high fur hats resemble the traditional Christmas nutcracker as well. An image of a grinning mouth clenching a walnut in its teeth appears when she first starts to realize that she is the witch in whose labyrinth the magical girls are trapped. And she loses half her head, leaving only the lower jaw–a mirror of the titular nutcracker of E.T.A. Hoffman’s story and Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet based on it, who lost his lower jaw. The doll-like appearance of many of her familiars and prominence of clockwork also recall the original story of “The Nutcracker,” in which the Nutcracker led an army of dolls from a clockwork castle.

At a basic level, the image of a nutcracker without a jaw is an image of uselessness, an object without purpose. There is a deeper resonance here, however, if one recalls the tale-within-a-tale of the origin of the nutcracker in Hoffman’s story. The nutcracker was once the chosen one, described in prophecy as the only one who could rescue a princess cursed by the Mouse Queen. He had to perform a complex ritual to save her, but just as he completed it, he tripped over the Mouse Queen, and so the curse fell on him instead. This is Homura, relaxing because she believed she had helped Madoka escape her fate, only to discover that she’d failed in the end because of the intervention of that little rat Kyubey. It is, in other words, yet another way to blame and punish herself.

But the magical girls refuse to cooperate. They refuse to join Homura in judging her. They refuse to hate her and refuse to kill her. Instead, they work to free her, break the labyrinth and the Incubators’ trap so that Madoka can take her off to magical girl heaven. Despite her raving and her pleading, they insist on forgiving her. They reject Homura’s judgment, and demand that she reject it as well. They want her to forgive herself and free herself.

But Homura has been fighting Homura from the start of the movie. Throughout the first arc of the film, Homura seeks the mysterious and invisible tyrant who rules the seemingly happy world in which the magical girls find themselves, with the intent of destroying it. It is the discovery that she is that tyrant which leads her to call down a curse on herself and transform fully into a witch; all of this is part of her rebellion against herself.

That rebellion has not ended by the end of the film. Homura describes herself as evil and embraces the role of the scantily clad, black-winged devil-woman. But what difference is there between saying “I am evil” and “I deserve to be punished?” This is simply another expression of her guilt, a new way of tormenting herself.

She has elevated herself to a cosmic being, a demiurgic entity who appears to have near-unlimited powers over material reality and the people in it: she can rewrite Sayaka’s memories, bring back the dead, construct an entire new history for Madoka’s family in order to reverse the first episode. And yet she chooses to make a world where she is alone, isolated from the friendships she was starting to build with the other magical girls. She chooses to let Sayaka tell her off before the memory erasure.

The only real emotion Homura shows in the new reality she created is panic, when Madoka threatens to reconnect with the Law of Cycles. When, in other words, Madoka nearly brings about the return of a cosmic entity of hope and forgiveness, capable of ending Homura’s suffering. Above all, Homura cannot allow that; she must suffer for failing Madoka, making things worse for Madoka. She must preserve Madoka eternally in a state of innocence and safety, cut off from her potential, because protecting Madoka is Homura’s only concept of “good”–and so her failure to do so is her only concept of “evil.”

It could have ended. If the other magical girls had simply killed her, she would be beyond further punishment, and her suffering would have ended. But they, in their cruel mercy, forced her to go on, forced her to find another way to keep protecting Madoka and punishing herself. She hates them for that, for failing to hate her as she hates herself. In her new world, she expresses her hatred by passive-aggressively mocking its targets. She breaks a teacup behind Mami. She taunts Sayaka as her memories decay, mimicking Sayaka’s loss of self when she became a witch. She tricks Kyoko into wasting food.

And, in the stinger, she throws herself off a cliff next to a white chair, mirroring Madoka tipping off of it earlier. Her hatred for herself has not changed. All that has changed is that now she has the power to make the magical girls hate her, to position herself as their enemy in the hopes that they will finish the job.

Ever since the movie aired, there has been debate over Homura’s new status. Is she hero or villain? Here, then, is the answer to that question: Yes. Homura is both the villain of Rebellion and the hero battling that villain.

And here, also, is the answer to that question: No. Homura is the villain’s victim, whom the hero must rescue.

Her witch’s barrier expanded to encompass the universe. She is the entire story, now.

Next week will be the final post of The Very Soil.

Against God (Rebellion)

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of a Hell, a Hell of Heav’n
There is a recurring myth in the ancient Mediterranean. In it, the Shining One (Hebrew: Helel, Greek: Phaethon) tries to usurp the Sun or the supreme deity, and is cast down or punished for his presumption. This is a familiar myth in our culture, due mostly to the Greek version. The Semitic version is less well known, in large part because one of the few written references we have to it has been lost in translation, Isaiah 14:12-15 (NIV version):

How you have fallen<sup class="crossreference" value="(A)”> from heaven, morning star,<sup class="crossreference" value="(B)”> son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, “I will ascend<sup class="crossreference" value="(AK)”> to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights<sup class="crossreference" value="(AN)”> of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”  But you are brought down<sup class="crossreference" value="(AQ)”> to the realm of the dead, to the depths<sup class="crossreference" value="(AS)”> of the pit.<sup class="crossreference" value="(AT)”> 

The English term “morning star” is being used to translate the Hebrew Helel. We can imagine the mythology here fairly easily–the brightest star in the sky, refusing to share its place with the other stars, and instead jumping up into the sky at dawn, ahead of the sun. Then at sunrise it is wiped away, only for the story to repeat the next day, an endless cycle of celestial hubris.

Of course, most of us are more familiar with another translation, the King James, and another variant of the myth, which uses the Latin name for the morning star: Lucifer.

And that’s it. That is the entirety of the Biblical story of Lucifer. Everything else is folklore and tradition, which is to say, fanfiction: that Lucifer was an angel, that he is the entity referred to as Satan in the book of Job, that he is the serpent in Genesis, that he is the Beast or the Dragon in Revelation, none of this is actually stated in the Bible itself, which just gives the story of a proud figure who rises up and is cast down. (There is nothing wrong with this, of course. Sacred texts are just one element in the complex of ideas, behaviors, and institutions that is a religion.)

If we are to look for such a figure of hubris in Rebellion, Kyubey is pretty clearly that figure. He explicitly states that his goal in placing Homura within the barrier is to “interfere with”–that is, control and usurp–Madoka, who created the present universe, and as a result he is furiously punished by Madoka’s herald Homura for his crimes. The result is a new universe in which, the stinger seems to imply, Kyubey’s power has been almost completely stripped by the presence of Homura as an active and engaged demiurge.

There is another read available, however, if we look at one of the most famous “fanfiction” versions of Lucifer, Paradise Lost. In discussing Milton’s epic poem, however, it is important first to understand what an epic poem is. Understood cladistically, we can view the epic as a genre mostly descended from the works of Homer; the usual definition provides a list of common generic traits in terms of subject matter and structure, of which the most important for our purposes are that it involves events occurring on a national, cosmic, or global scale; follows the exploits of a larger-than-life, often supernaturally empowered hero; and utilizes a distinctive style that elevates it above normal discourse. In addition, epics usually start with an invocation and declaration of theme, begin in medias res, and contain lengthy monologues, often at least one flashing back to describe events prior to the opening.

Part of what makes Paradise Lost such a fascinating read is that Satan is consistently an incredibly vile character, a lying, cheating, self-serving manipulator–but he is also the epic hero upon whose adventures the story focuses. He is capable of being extremely charming and persuasive, to the point of convincing some very important critics (most famously Blake, who opined that Milton’s was “of the devil’s party and didn’t know it”) that his cause is actually right. Keep in mind, said cause is the conquest of the world and enslavement and extermination of humanity! (All of which he succeeds at. Satan’s son-grandson Death and daughter-bride Sin create a bridge from Hell to Earth at the end of the story, the Fall subjects humanity to Sin, and Adam and Eve are punished with mortality, which they pass on to their descendants, killing them all.)

These contradictions have the effect of making Satan a morally ambiguous figure in a sense–he is structurally heroic but diegetically villainous, essentially. But what does this have to do with Rebellion?
Well, consider: Rebellion opens with an invocation of the Law of Cycles and a statement of theme, the cycle of despair in an irredeemable world and the escape into oblivion. We are then dropped into the middle of a situation that does not follow from the end of the series at all, forced to wait until some lengthy exposition by Kyubey much later in the movie to find out what happened to create this circumstance. That our heroine is supernaturally empowered goes almost without saying, as she is a magical girl–but she is empowered beyond that by her status as the witch in whose labyrinth the action of the series takes place, and then later by her love, which transforms her into a demon. In the process, she expands the story to be cosmic in scope. And as for a distinctive style that elevates it above the normal discourse of film, well, see my first post on Rebellion. 

So Rebellion is an epic. But more than that, it is the epic of how Homura went from being Madoka’s “very best friend” in Episode 12 to calling her an enemy at the end of this movie. It is the epic, in other words, about how the closest and most loyal follower of the closest thing Madoka has to a goddess fell to become a demon, and at the same time conquered the material universe with the stated intent of shepherding it to its destruction–yet throughout, remains a morally ambiguous figure, such that debates still rage across Internet fora as to her moral status. 

Just as the series is not merely about a Faustian bargain, but actually in many ways retraces the story of Goethe’s Faust, including some fairly obscure elements such as time travel, so too is Rebellion more than just a hubristic fall; structurally and in its juxtaposition of the epic hero with the moral fall, it resembles Paradise Lost.

Against Madoka (Rebellion)

Spoilers! Rebellion has still not had a wide theatrical or home-video release in the U.S., so I will continue to put all Rebellion-related content behind a cut as a courtesy to those who read my site through feeds and don’t want to be spoiled.


Also, sorry for being a bit late on this.

The enemy. Obviously.

Names have power. 

There is an interesting pattern to the people Homura draws into her labyrinth: the magical girls make sense, as the main figures in her life and, at least in the most recent timeline, her teammates. Madoka’s family are slightly more of a stretch, but they are people important to Madoka and therefore to Homura. Still more of a stretch are Hitomi and Kyosuke, but again, Hitomi is important to Madoka and Kyosuke is important to Hitomi, so it’s not entirely unreasonable. But what possible reason could she have to bring in Kazuko (the homeroom teacher) and Nakazawa (an apparently random classmate)? And she does draw them both in–Nakazawa and the other magical girls are the only people seen to have normal faces when Homura begins doubting the reality of the people around her in math class, and both Nakazawa and Kazuko are shown unconscious on couches when the labyrinth is finally broken.

The answer lies in folklore: a witch who knows a person’s name can use it in workings of magic against that person. Consider again who Homura brings into the labyrinth, and then consider the series a a whole; setting aside witches, does any other character even have a name? Homura has drawn in everyone who can be drawn in, everyone who was a name. (Admittedly, Madoka’s father’s name is not spoken onscreen, but Madoka calls him Papa, and as there is no other living father in the series, “Papa” functions well enough as a name.) 

Names have power because, in magical logic (which is, by and large, narrative logic), there is no signifier-signified distinction. The name is, in some sense, the thing named, and so to manipulate the name is to manipulate the thing. It follows, then, that if two things have the same name they must therefore be in some sense the same, that one can stand in for the other.

All I which is a roundabout way of saying that, when Homura grabs Madoka’s arms and tears Madoka-the-girl out of Madoka-the-abstraction, it is an act of rebellion not just of Homura against Madoka, but of Rebellion against Madoka Magica.

And why shouldn’t the film rebel against the series? Once, if a person wished to tell stories, they got up and told stories. Spoken aloud, these stories were ephemeral, changing with every telling. There were traditions, to be sure, but storytellers could be confident that their creative departures would not be seen as errors or betrayals but as the embellishments of a virtuoso performance.

Mass literacy struck a mortal blow against this form of storytelling, and radio, film, and television finished the job. This kind of storytelling lives on (as no art form ever really dies), but only as a curiosity, something to gawk at at a Renaissance festival or take your children to at the public library. Mostly, when we want a story, we reach for a packaged one, a book or a DVD.

This creates a challenge when an author wants to tell a cycle or series of stories, reusing the same characters or setting. The author wishes to explore and create, and in the age of oral tales was free to do so–no one particularly expected that the  tales of Renard the Fox must be consistent with one another or complained, “Hey, when he seduced Leda, Zeus was a swan, how come he’s a golden shower now?” After all, if the story of Leda can change with every telling, why expect it to still be the same when you hear a completely different story? 

Oral tales are living, growing, changing things. By contrast, a written or filmed tale is dead, nailed to the page or screen, unable to change or grow, fixed permanently as it was in a single telling. The audience is permitted to change and grow, so that their perspective on the tale can alter with time, but the actual creator of the tale is denied that. Even when it comes to crafting a sequel, audiences–“geek” or “cult” audiences notoriously so–demand continuity, which is to say they demand fealty to the tyrannical reign of dead stories. It is a wonder that more creators don’t rebel! 

So Rebellion pays lip service to the series. All the events of the series clearly happened here and are given what the continuity-obsessed consider “respect,” which is to say the letter of the law “Thou shalt not contradict the events of earlier entries” is slavishly obeyed. Even the structure of the film apes the structure of the show: it splits neatly into three parts, the first of which establishes a pretense of being a “normal” magical girl show that abruptly falls apart in a violent confrontation with Mami. The second (which, admittedly, has a stronger overlap with the first than in the series) then follows a magical girl as she slowly comes to the realization that she is what she fights against, and has been a witch from the start. Finally the third involves a tremendous battle against a city-scale witch, after which reality is rewritten and a new order established.

However, where the series followed Madoka, the film follows Homura, and therein all the difference lies. Madoka is a patient, careful, but very optimistic character–she waits until the very end of the series to act, but when she does so, it is decisively, and with every intent of ending what she sees as the primary problem of her universe absolutely and with finality. Homura is cynical, headstrong, and confrontational; she flings herself into conflict after conflict, until finally her own mirror of Madoka’s actions is to create a world in which Homura’s primary problem–Madoka’s penchant for self-sacrifice–must be dealt with continually and continuously.

This does not necessarily imply that, for most of the film, Homura is in conscious rebellion against Madoka’s order. Homura is initially positioned, just as in the series, as the one questioning and disrupting the status quo, true, but that status quo (as always, represented and defended by Mami) is Homura’s own dream-realm. Homura is trying to return the state of the world to what she remembers, which is to say the world of the series. She only begins to rebel intentionally after Madoka tells her that, to her, being separated from her loved ones is tremendously painful–in other words, after Homura realizes that Madoka’s self-sacrifice entailed actual sacrifice. To Homura, of course, the sacrifice of Madoka is unthinkable and unforgivable, even if it is Madoka herself performing the sacrifice.

Even then, however, Homura does not act on her desire to undo Madoka’s sacrifice until very late in the movie, because up until that point she has no opportunity to do so. The character who is actually in rebellion against Madoka, and therefore against Madoka, for the majority of the film is Kyubey, who has orchestrated the entire situation in an attempt to usurp control of the Law of Cycles and bring back witches. It is worth remembering here that in many respects Kyubey is an (unusually unflattering) authorial stand-in, and as such it makes sense that his rebellion against Madoka is the creators’ Rebellion against Madoka.

Kyubey’s rebellion, however, is unsurprising–he is, after all, the villain of the series, and an unrepentant villain who is still around in the sequel can be assumed to at least try to resume their villainous role. Homura, by contrast, is spectacularly, obsessively loyal to Madoka, and so the film takes pains to meticulously lay out all the elements of her rebellion: She has motivation, in the form of her conversation among the flowers with Madoka and realization that she “never should have allowed” Madoka to sacrifice herself. She has inspiration, when Kyubey reveals that Madoka can choose to re-enter the world after all, and Sayaka reveals that Madoka’s Buddha-nature, her memories and powers as the Law of Cycles can be held in storage by another. And she has opportunity, when Madoka descends to take her life and prevent her from becoming a witch in the “real world”–as Kyubey says, that which can be perceived can be interfered with.

And so Homura rises as a devil-figure, tearing “God” from her heaven and bringing her down into the world. She is the ultimate bad girl, identified by Paradise Lost-quoting graffiti and Nietzsche-chanting, tomato-throwing familiars as Satan herself. She has claimed the labels “demon,” “evil,” and “enemy” for herself, and made clear that she plans to act them out–which brings us to yet another rebellion. But that’s another article for another time…

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.

Against Analysis (Rebellion)

Spoilers! Rebellion has still not had a wide theatrical or home-video release in the U.S., so I will continue to put all Rebellion-related content behind a cut as a courtesy to those who read my site through feeds and don’t want to be spoiled.


Also: Why is it snowing in May?

Madoka the Movie 3: Rebellion is a difficult subject to approach. Like the series, it is semiotically dense (that is, the images and events it contains evoke a relatively high number of readings); however, where the series primarily takes place in fairly stark, sparse, almost sterile environments, to contrast the visual complexity of the witch’s labyrinths, the movie is tremendously visually complex throughout. In other words, not only does each image have as much to unpack as any image in the series, it’s also got quite a bit more imagery than its five-and-a-half episodes’ worth of runtime would suggest!

Analyzing it is thus a potentially overwhelming task. To take the movie as an organic whole is nigh-impossible, at least in anything like essay length; to do it justice, one must either pick a theme and follow its development through the film, missing out on all the other themes except perhaps for how they interact with the chosen theme, or one can pick a scene and examine it in all its complexities, missing out on all other scenes except insofar as they impact the chosen scene.

Consider a relatively straightforward question: What is the titular rebellion? Is it Kyubey against Madoka’s new world? Homura against the world inside the labyrinth, unaware that she herself created it? Is it Homura against Madoka? Or is the film itself an act of rebellion, and if so, who or what is it rebelling against?

Even a question as seemingly simple as “What does the title mean?” leads only to more questions, and there are a multitude of supportable answers to each of them, each of which could fill an essay in its own right. Thus, in the coming weeks I will be posting a series of essays on Rebellion. Some may be analyses of single scenes; others may trace themes or look at the evolution of a character. All, however, will be explorations of a particular answer to the question, “Against what?” Such an approach seems to me the only viable way in which I can approach Rebellion, as this is a film that defies analysis.

And a near-synonym for defiance is… well, you get the idea.

So, then, let us consider a particular short scene that exemplifies how difficult this film is to analyze, specifically, the final post-credits stinger. Immediately prior to the stinger, the credits themselves depict a heavily stylized version of the movie’s plot, with Homura and Madoka divided by the credit scroll itself. At the very end of the credits, however, they hold hands and run off together into the distance, a surprisingly hopeful end to the story given Homura’s posturing in the final scenes before the credits. Is this foreshadowing, or just Homura’s dream? Is the fact that they vanish into the distance evidence that they will escape, or evidence that the possibility of them being together is disappearing?

It doesn’t matter, because the stinger contradicts the image anyway. (Or does it? If the credits are Homura’s dream and the stinger the reality, or the credits are foreshadowing and the stinger her fears…) It’s worth, here, examining the usual function of a stinger. Most commonly found in big blockbuster action franchises (the Marvel Cinematic Universe has raised them to an art form) or comedies, the usual function of a stinger is either to serve as a punchline to a joke set up earlier in the film (possibly the best example of this is the taxi passenger in Airplane!) or to build excitement for and drop hints regarding the plot of the next installment in the franchise (Samuel L. Jackson would like to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative).

Here, however, the stinger’s function appears to be neither. Rather, its main function appears to generate questions and cast doubt on the way Homura chose to present herself in the final scenes. Admittedly, it is a “punchline” in the sense of concluding a repeated motif throughout the Madoka movies, specifically the two chairs in a field. In the opening credits of the two compilation movies, we see Madoka and Homura sitting side-by-side on white chairs in the middle of a field of grass and flowers, cuddling playfully. In the Rebellion stinger, Homura begins sitting in a similar chair, alone, positioned on the edge of a cliff. Chair, cliff, and half moon are lined up to create the effect of a picture sliced in two, as if the other half of the moon and the other half of the world, including Madoka and her chair, have been simply cut away and replaced with empty darkness.

Is this Homura’s decision to make even Madoka her enemy? Her regret? Or just a cruel reminder for the audience of what has been lost?

Homura, in the final scenes of the movie, appears to be in total control. An army of familiars obey her; she can rewrite Sayaka’s memories and cut her off from her Oktavia form; she can block Madoka from her Buddha-nature, the Law of Cycles. She is the creator of this new world, having rewritten reality earlier in the movie; it is not too far-fetched to suggest that she is now the most powerful entity within the confines of the universe (it is up for grabs how she compares to the Law of Cycles).

Why, then, does she appear startled by the approach of Kyubey in the stinger? The expression on her face is readable as either apprehension or hope; given the associations of the chair, does she momentarily believe it’s Madoka? Does she hope it is, or fear that it is? How can she not know that it’s Kyubey?

And then there is Kyubey’s state: disheveled, trembling. Extreme close-ups on Kyubey’s eye were frequently used in the series to remind the viewer that he is watching, and they thus served to make him a more ominous and menacing figure. This close-up, however, shows his fur matted, his eye dulled and darkened and shaking. He is no longer a menacing figure but a pathetic one, beaten and broken by Homura’s display of power in rewriting the universe. This is a worst-case scenario for him and his kind; Madoka came to fear and distrust him, but she has little capacity for hate. Homura is different; full of rage and sorrow, it would not be at all out of character for her to take that out on the Incubators in general and the instance of Kyubey in Mitakihara in specific.

But the logic of the stinger suggests that the extreme close-up of Kyubey’s eye is foreshadowing–it is the most typically stinger-like of any shot in this stinger, reminiscent of horror movies ending with the believed-dead killer’s eyes snapping open. Unfortunately, he is as inscrutable as ever; is he plotting a counterstroke against Homura? Simply observing and biding his time? Or is he truly broken, his pathetic appearance evidence that his role as villain has been stripped from him by Homura?

And then there is the dance. Homura dances with her new Soul Gem, both the style and music reminiscent of her balletic transformation sequence near the beginning of the movie. The gem resembles the chess symbol for a queen; is this Homura imagining herself dancing with her queen, Madoka? This reading is supported by the fact that the Soul Gem was made from the pieces of Homura’s old Soul Gem and a spool of thread the same color as Madoka’s hair, but only if we read that thread as signifying Madoka herself or her connection to Homura, as opposed to the equally likely reading that it represents Madoka-the-incarnate-person’s connection to Madoka-the-omnipresent-intangible-abstraction, in which case Homura is not so much missing her “other half” as reveling in her imprisonment. It is the difference, in other words, between reading Homura as putting on a bold face over confusion and pain, or as a creepy, controlling stalker.

And then Homura tips sideways over the cliff. Her pose as she falls recalls Madoka’s similar sideways tip off her chair when Homura becomes a witch, which seems fairly clearly to be a reference to Madoka’s self-sacrifice and Homura’s growing regret at failing to stop her. So is Homura seeking to join Madoka by replicating her action? Sacrificing herself so that Madoka doesn’t have to? Mocking Madoka’s sacrifice as a signifier that she has descended so far into evil even the love that motivated her no longer matters? Or is it a futile gesture toward an impossible suicide (it is unclear what would happen to the universe if Homura died, but virtually certain that at least Madoka would reconnect with the Buddha-nature Homura is determined to keep her from) by a character in the depths of despair?

We could explore these questions in detail, certainly, along with other questions (for example, the significance of the moon being precisely halfway between the almost-new moon when Sayaka became a witch and the full moon when Homura became one). It would take thousands of words and produce no certain conclusion except that the scene is deliberately ambiguous, but it can be done. That’s not the point. The point is that this is ninety seconds of a two-hour movie, and not even the visually or semiotically densest ninety seconds (those, I suspect, fall somewhere between Homura witching out and she and Madoka shattering the Incubators’ barrier).

No, the point is this: This movie is dense, and it is ambiguous, and it thus poses a challenge to analysis.

Good. Let’s do it anyway.