With its twisted-yet-compelling take on magical girl anime, Madoka Magica is one of the most critically acclaimed series of the past decade. Now, two years after the anime's end, myself and Toshi Nakamura are here to look at the new sequel movie, Madoka Magica: Rebellion.
Richard: Well Toshi, it's been about half-a-year since our last joint review for Steins;Gate: The Burden of Déjà Vu and now we're here for another big-named anime series sequel film.
Toshi: Hoo boy, and what a sequel it was.
Richard: I say for this review we first mention what we can without getting into the spoilers. Then we move on to light spoilers—i.e., the main setup and start of the film. After that, we'll throw up a second big bold spoiler tag and get into the twists and nitty-gritty plot details. Sound good?
Toshi: Speak softly and carry a big spoiler warning sign? Sounds good to me.
Richard: Ain’t that the truth. Alright, before we dive into Rebellion, I think we should quickly go over our histories with the Madoka Magica franchise.
Toshi: So I guess a spoiler warning (for the TV series) might be in order.
Richard: Well, for me, I didn't watch it when it first aired. From what I had heard about the show, I was expecting a non-stop, ultra-violence-filled gore-fest—rather than a genre deconstruction with psychological exploration. Needless to say, when I finally did watch the series the week before the first film remake was released, I was pleasantly surprised. It really is a great anime that gets even better on your second time through—which is rare in any form of fiction.
Toshi: And the series constantly got its animation updated as well in the Blu-rays and film remakes. Likewise, I didn’t know what to expect going in and was immediately captivated by the infamous episode three…
Richard: Sadly, that event had been spoiled for me long before I watched it—though I was led to believe such events were a common occurrence in the series. But the fact that it happened so early on was still more than a little shocking. But anyway, on to our non-spoiler discussion about the movie.
Toshi: However much we CAN talk about without getting into spoilers, because this movie is REALLY easy to spoil.
Richard: Indeed. Like Evangelion 3.0, this is a hard movie to talk about without spoiling anything. The trailers for the film are little more than random—sometimes shocking—clips from the film and make no effort at all to portray the basic shape of (or even setup for) the plot.
Toshi: I’d just like to interject here and say that while the trailer may look random, there is a huge spoiler hidden in there that you won’t realize is a spoiler until a crucial moment in the movie. So in my opinion, if you want the full experience, DO NOT WATCH THE DAMN TRAILER.
Richard: In as non-spoiler terms as I can make it, Rebellion is a great sequel movie—to both the series and the film adaptations of the series. It both follows up on the ideas portrayed in the series and expands upon them in new and interesting directions.
Toshi: And it doesn’t feel like it’s tacked on or that it’s a quick cash-grab by the studio. The movie is a surprisingly organic continuation of the story, even though it has a solid ending.
Richard: Indeed. It feels like the missing movie to a series that you didn’t know was missing a movie. That said, I can't help but feel that a lot of people are going to be upset by this movie. Not because it's badly written or poorly executed, but rather because, after the happy ending of the series, people are not going to like where this story goes. It's a bit of a downer.
Toshi: I dunno. You can never really predict how people are going to respond. Personally, I feel that the emotional flow of the movie is such that people will be able to accept it as it is. They may not love it, but I don’t think they’ll hate it.
Richard: Perhaps... At least I hope so anyway. Outside of the story, though, let me say: The film is visually stunning. The witch-style worlds have their usual paper cutout creepiness; and everything else is just full of high quality animation—be that the characters sitting around talking or the excellent fighting scenes.
Toshi: As if people were expecting anything less from a modern-day anime movie.
Richard: I don’t know Toshi, I’ve seen more than a few low-budget anime in theaters over the past few years. Well, regardless, that's all I have on the non-spoiler front. You have anything else before we really dive into what the movie is about?
Toshi: If I may repeat myself: DO NOT WATCH THE DAMN TRAILER.
[Warning: Moderate spoilers concerning the setup and first act of Madoka Magica: Rebellion appear from this point forward. Skip to “Final Thoughts” for our.. um… final thoughts.]
Richard: Here's a simple setup for the story. The magical girl group, Mami, Sayaka, Kyoko—and yes—Madoka, are fighting witch-like monsters called Nightmares. A shy, bespectacled Homura appears as a transfer student in the usual pattern and joins the group. But it quickly becomes apparent everything is not as it seems.
Toshi: “Quickly?” You mean “right off the bat.” Anyone who’s seen the TV series or the previous two series recap movies is going to start out really confused as to what the devil is going on.
Richard: Yeah, if you are expecting to explore the world seen in the end of the series, prepare to be disappointed. Though, I have to say, I loved this first part of the movie. Rebellion starts as kind of a mystery story built upon the fact that you have already seen the series.
Toshi: And here’s where our opinions first diverge. While I have no problem with it starting out as a mystery, I feel it kind of dragged on. People going to see this movie are already familiar with the series, so I don’t think they needed to spend so much time showing us that things are amiss.
Richard: I think what it does emotionally during this section is what is important. The whole first third of the film is emanating a terrible sense of dread as you, the viewer, know that nothing is as it should be. I mean everything is just so happy and stereotypically “magical girl” that you are always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Toshi: A shoe you kind of see coming early on. For the first part of the movie, I spent a lot of it wishing they would hurry up and drop it.
Richard: I think building tension is important for what is to come. I mean, Charlotte, the witch that killed Mami in the series is now Mami's talking familiar, while Kyubey is now little more than a cat that says “kyu~.” The girls transform, go into a nightmare world, laugh and joke as they fight the Nightmares, and save both the city and the victims: and no one dies. For Madoka Magica, this feels very, very wrong—especially the longer it goes on.
Toshi: Charlotte? You mean “Bebe” now. But yeah, isn’t it twisted how you see five young school girls happy and all you can think is, “This is wrong. Something terrible is going to happen.”
Richard: And, on top of that, this is a world that neither has witches nor the “magical beasts” seen in the final episode of the series. Their soul gems are cleansed by ending the Nightmare and making everything happy, for goodness sake.
Toshi: Cleansed through a really campy ritual. Plus, there’s breakdancing.
Richard: But I like that, if you pay attention to the backgrounds, there are numerous witch-y things. The sky is full of blimps, the background characters look a little odd, and there is witch writing everywhere—though the characters all seem to treat it as normal Japanese.
Toshi: Which is kind of where the movie dragged its feet for me. Because everything is so obviously wrong and the movie wouldn’t just hurry up and admit it. It reminded me of when Hideo Kojima wouldn’t admit that The Phantom Pain was Metal Gear Solid V for the longest time even when it obviously was.
Richard: We shall just have to agree to disagree on that. Alright, unless you can think of anything else, I say we head right into the spoiler-tastic area of the film.
Toshi: Good. Enough beating around the bush.
[Warning: Major spoilers for Madoka Magica: Rebellion from this point forward. Skip to “Final Thoughts” to see our conclusions.]
Richard: Now, let's be clear. This is a Gen Urobuchi penned script; so a few messed up major plot twists were pretty much a given. And I admit, from fairly early on, I saw the first major twist coming. It wasn't too tough to figure out what this world was and who was causing it—though the Charlotte angle was an entertaining red herring.
Toshi: Yeah, the initial mystery on who or what’s behind it all is pretty much a foregone conclusion.
Richard: And before we fly past it, how about that Homura/Mami fight scene? Pretty epic, no?
Toshi: Hell yes. And probably a long time coming if you remember the earlier episodes of the TV series.
Richard: But back to the film, did anyone ever seriously doubt that the Incubators were somehow behind all that was happening?
Toshi: You mean ignoring the fact that they’re IN the movie?
Richard: Bunny-Cat is a dick.
Toshi: But he’s an adorable dick. And he’s (she’s?) got the best interest of the universe at heart. The entropy! Think of the entropy!).
Richard: Well, in so far as they believe their continued existence is what is best for the universe. But yeah, the second act is where everything goes off the rails: city destruction, witch versus witch battles, and the Incubators poised to use the situation to undo Madoka's wish and get back to the old world where gathering energy was so much easier.
Toshi: Not just get back to the old world, but to control God-Madoka herself.
[Seriously, Spoiler Warning: From here on we will spoil everything in Madoka Magica: Rebellion—including the ending. Skip to “Final Thoughts” to see our conclusions.]
Richard: The second twist, however, I did not at all see coming—though it makes perfect sense in hindsight.
Toshi: Oh, you mean where Homura pulls the biggest dick move ever?
Richard: While the series had a happy ending for the most part, the simple fact of the matter is that Homura failed to save Madoka—despite her countless time loops. Then, Madoka leaves Homura as the only person in the world able to remember her. Thus Homura is forced to remember her failure to save Madoka in order to keep her friend’s memory alive. It must have been hell for her. It’s no wonder all this eventually drove Homura insane. I mean, after all the time loops, she was on the edge already.
Toshi: Which is what makes the plot of this entire movie feel so organic. The incubators using Homura as a lab rat, Homura’s own psychological state, and everything that happens as a result could lead to no other ending than the one in the movie.
Richard: And so when God-Madoka finally appears to stop Homura from becoming a witch, Homura captures God-Madoka and uses her god powers to remake reality.
Toshi: All while having the creepiest smile on her face.
Richard: This is a great parallel to the series and shows that, in the end, Madoka and Homura are complete opposites in their ways of thinking. Madoka's wish in the final episode was completely selfless—to negate her own existence so she can save every magical girl for all time from their horrible fate.
Homura's wish is the opposite: a perfectly selfish wish. She wants exactly what she has always wanted: Madoka in a perfect, happy, normal life. And so she remakes all of reality just to give it to her—blatantly disregarding Madoka's own wishes. Effectively she becomes the devil to Madoka's god.
Toshi: And this reveals Homura’s true nature to the audience—which had really been in their faces the whole time. Who was it that said, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions”?
Richard: I think it was Madonna. But let’s look at what we think didn’t work about the movie. Honestly, Toshi, I have very little negative to say about this movie. In the end, I just wanted to know more about Homura's new world. While it's obvious that Sayaka is still a magical girl—not to mention a witch—it’s very unclear if the others (sans Madoka) are or not. More than that, the post credits scene is so ambiguous. I don't know what I am supposed to make of that.
Toshi: I think it is supposed to be ambiguous. More emotional than literal.
Richard: I mean is she supposed to look like she was committing suicide? Because that fall certainly won't kill her given her powers. Or is it just a sign of her giving up, knowing that her new reality could be destroyed at any time? Or is it just showing how removed she feels from this reality she has created and thus can find no place for herself in it. I feel that the symbolism went right over my head.
Toshi: I think it’s as open to interpretation as you think it is. Personally, I feel it symbolized Homura’s realization, or rather her acceptance of what she’s done, the nature of what she’s done, and its futility. Her final “fall from grace” as it were.
Richard: That could very well be. I mean we have seen that Madoka still has her god powers and is capable of breaking this reality—though Homura manages to hold her back. If Madoka ever wants this to end, it will and Homura can do almost nothing to stop her.
Toshi: Technically, Madoka doesn’t “have God powers” per se. She’s a law of reality that Homura’s forcefully overwritten. But I’m splitting hairs here.
Richard: Any problems that bugged you?
Toshi: The fact that Bebe was played as a pivotal character in the trailers (that people shouldn’t watch) when she’s mostly a side character.
Richard: So, in the end, what's your final verdict for Madoka Magica: Rebellion?
Toshi: Aside from my aforementioned problems with the pace of the initial mystery, I loved everything else about the movie. It plays with your emotions like crazy, but at the same time, it’s emotionally fluid. While you might not agree with characters’ choices and actions, they all make sense and are never forced.
Richard: Yeah. I'm impressed with what they did. I'm impressed with how they did it. But I still think that people really invested in these characters are gonna hate this movie.
Toshi: I can only go from my viewpoint, but even though I was invested in all the characters (even Kyubey), my response was overall positive. Yeah, that ending... But I still left the theater satisfied.
Richard: Personally, I loved it. It's a great character piece and a worthy addition to the franchise, but it is far from an uplifting cap to the series.
Toshi: “Uplifting” is definitely not a word I’d use to describe this movie. But then again, I wouldn’t really use it for the TV series either.
Richard: Any other final thoughts?
Toshi: DO NOT WATCH THE DAMN TRAILER.
Richard: Welp, there you have it. So, Toshi, what big-named anime are you looking forward to in the theaters in the next few months?
Toshi: Well, there’s Persona 3, Tiger and Bunny: The Rising, the second Ghost in the Shell: Arise, and the final chapter to Gundam Unicorn...
Richard: Don’t forget the Bayonetta film! So stay tuned to Kotaku East over the coming months for our reviews on those anime and many more. Oh and if you want to help chose which anime I’ll watch on TV this season, head over to TAY and vote!
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Rebellion was released in Japanese theaters on October 26, 2013. It is scheduled for a US release later this year.
Kotaku East is your slice of Asian internet culture, bringing you the latest talking points from Japan, Korea, China and beyond. Tune in every morning from 4am to 8am.