It’s never wrong to hope! - Madoka Magica TV
Well then you’d better start hoping some more. - Rebellion Story
Gen Urobuchi is a little bit like Homura, and not only because they both look like they could fuck up your day, hardcore. See, he too had to find a way to bring Madoka back, and he had to break his world to do so. I’ve thought of a bunch of different silly readings you could make of the movie, but by far my favorite is the one where the movie is a metaphor for itself. All the characters live on in doujinshiland doing happy things, but no mere contrivance could make things like that. A disinterested race has put Homura in limbo and are trying to recapture Madoka’s power - bring back the old days for their own benefit. Homura doesn’t want a reset though: she wants to write her own ending. So she does something dramatic: breaks the Law of Cycles and undeifies Madoka.
The Kyuubeys on the production committee started this cynical enterprise, but Urobuchi, like Homura, aims higher. Urobuchi tries to make it have impact, have it make sense thematically. Certainly it’s better than what would have happened if the Kyuubeys had control of Madoka’s power themselves, but does that mean the movie succeeds at what it’s trying to do?
If we take the movie as pure connective tissue from one season to another, then sure. It’s all in place. Homura’s arc is shocking, but she was never a hero, and divorced of the movie’s actual execution, it fits her character. Unfortunately, you have to be in Earth orbit to be so detached as to see why. We have to take it on good faith that Homura has been so desperate to see Madoka again all this time - that her pure love has driven her into impure obsession. There are some good visual hints, but they only make sense in retrospect. The movie simply does not stop to take breaths often enough to drive home the character beats it needed to have driven home.
Part of this is the fault of the movie having to do all this in 115 minutes while also setting up its byzantine plot and finding time for a song about cake. Clearly this movie had priorities, and when you’ve got only so long to work with, and a theatrical budget that was likely twice as much as the entire TV show ever had, you want to use it on scenes where stuff is happening.
But another important cause is also maybe the movie’s greatest strength: the visual style. You thought the series had a really far-out aesthetic? That’s cute. Wait until you see this one. Almost all of the movie takes place in a labyrinth, and it’s clear from almost scene one, because there are little pieces of Inu Curry’s influence in almost every shot, and I don’t just mean because of the pervasive presence of the familiars. I mean the unnatural lighting and color palette, the bizarre mise-en-scene, and all the visual details that make the sense of foreboding leading up to Homura’s revelation so very heavy. Inu Curry put a lot of work into this one, and it looks both otherworldly and completely amazing.
It’s not just the visual aesthetic though. Shinbou did a really good job of making the little things just slightly off. The fanservice fluff is clearly fanservice, but it serves a dual purpose. It’s inconsistent with the established visual language - with the very foundation of Dokes’ world. The cake song isn’t just fanservice - it’s something that should never happen in Dokes as we know it. Shinbou knows what he’s doing alright. He’s not Ikuhara, but he knows how to do expressionism.
But back to the point, because it’s focusing so much on the foreboding atmosphere and fanservice scenes, it’s very hard to focus on what the characters are actually doing. It’s sensory overload. We can’t get close to Homura because between her mind and the audience is the phantasmagoria of an uncanny city.
The other characters get even less room to breathe than Homura. Kyoko and Sayaka get to fight a little, say some lines, eat some cake, and really don’t do anything else. Madoka continues to be a complete non-entity, but at least that’s consistent with the series. Mami just up and disappears from the movie entirely around the middle of the second act. You might be able to write them all out of the movie entirely and replace them with characters from a different show, and except for the fanservice, the movie would be about the same.
Lacking any real emotional impact, the characters actions feel hollow, but that’s not all the movie has to offer. It’s a worthwhile film if only because the imagery is just that good. Mitakihara burning is one of the best things to come out of the franchise. The bus feels almost like it came out of Rintaro’s body of work. Even the ridiculously long transformation sequences are beautiful and completely worth the five minutes the film devotes to them. I was never bored during the entire runtime (though I was beginning to get a headache).
Rebellion Story doesn’t really work as a narrative in and of itself, but maybe that’s not what we should be asking. Clearly there’s going to be more; a movie, a TV series, OVAs, who knows? And clearly this movie is only there to make it possible to use more already existing characters than just Homura, Kyoko, and Mami, because they want to aim for that otaku money. The movie did its job, and now we are only left to ask “where are we now?”
It’d be easy to paint things in a pessimistic light. In a single empty gesture, Homura and the rest of the Puella Magi are enemies, and it’s hard to see past the cynicism. But I’m not a cynic, and I’m not a pessimist. What I am is a fan of the work that results when Urobuchi, Shinbou, and Inu Curry collaborate. Surely they have not run out of interesting places to go - interesting things to say. The movie didn’t work as drama because it had to balance the demands of reviving a franchise, having the characters make sense, and finding the time for a five minute transformation sequence and cake song. But now that it’s over and done with, they’re in open water. They can give that characterization which the movie sorely missed. If they couldn’t make the decisions feel weighty, they can certainly make their upshots hit home.
The original TV show will always be there, a perfect little 12 episode story that wraps up and subsists on its own. It will always be a favorite anime of mine, in isolation from all else. Whatever comes next will be completely different - a new story to tell. And I refuse to believe that just because it’s a cynical endeavor that nothing good can possibly come of it.
Because it’s never wrong to hope.