How do I love Madoka? Let me count the ways! I love her pastel hair. I love her gentle voice. I love her love for others. I love…well, I think it’s obvious. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is an anime near and dear to my heart. It has all the elements I love in a story: interesting characters, a gripping narrative, and a lot of ideas to chew on. If Madoka were a game, it would be one of those indie RPGs with several endings: a labor of love that hurts to get through, but you love the experience more with each playthrough. It’s soft, yet raw. Tender, and yet deep. There is so much I could cover about Madoka (TBH, it kind of warrants a month-wide blog event…), but today we will be fulfilling old promises and talking about movie 3 in the Madoka series: Rebellion.
For the uninitiated, the main plot of Madoka Magica can be summed up as follows:
- Magical space cat grants wishes in exchange for contracts with young girls.
- In accordance to contract, girls become magical girls and fight witches.
- Defeated witches drop Grief Seeds that purify Soul Gems, the magical girls’ life essence.
- If a magical girl uses too much magic without purifying her Soul Gem, she becomes a witch.
- Thus, magical girls are trapped in a cycle of ‘fight, fight, fight before you drop’, incentivizing them to hunt witches mercilessly in order to continue their existence.
This is all stuff you’d learn in the first two episodes (right before that 3-episode cutoff, eh Arkada?), so you’re mostly safe spoiler-wise. On the surface, this plot doesn’t seem like anything we haven’t seen before, but it’s what the story does with these elements that makes it distinct among the plethora of mahou shoujo anime. Madoka doesn’t rush to the powerup, like most anime in this genre. Rather, it carefully pulls away the veneer of what it means to be a magical girl. Bit by bit, the wrapping paper comes off, asking both the characters and the viewer if this gift is truly worth their wish.
Now, if you haven’t watched this series, I would recommend clicking here to watch it all for free on Crunchyroll, and then watching the movie Rebellion on Netflix here in the U.S. While I will do my best to avoid spoilers, I will be touching on several very core points of both the movie and the series as a whole. You’ve been warned.
~ Rebellion ~
Understanding what Rebellion is requires one to ask what Rebellion does. While it follows the original Madoka series, it’s focus and perspective is very different. Gone is the naivety of Madoka: Homura’s story is one of understanding, not enlightenment. As an experienced magical girl, she doesn’t need to understand what the contract or the Law of Cycles are, because she’s already living it. Rather, Homura’s journey in Rebellion tasks her with understanding her world, her friends, herself, and why each of them are remarkably different from what she once knew. Indeed, the backlight of Rebellion is one of deception: Homura peels away the surface of the world she’s living in, unsteadily looking for a truth she’s not sure exists.
Taking the theme of deception to an extreme, Rebellion’s world doesn’t seem real. Sharply designed buildings and people clash with the trippy, Victorian-style cutouts of the witch dimension. Mami owns a former witch as a pet, and the five girls are all allies rather than uneasy partners. In some ways, a nightmare; in others, a dream too good to be true. Juxtapositions have characterized the series from the beginning, yet this feels different. As if the tragedies of the past world were merely dreams.
Dream becomes reality, and quickly, as Homura finds that her world is a farce. Isolated by Kyubey’s race of Incubators, her very Soul Gem was made a prison in order to study the Law of Cycles. Emotional energy is all the Incubators desire: manipulating Homura’s salvation is nothing more than a means to an end. Succumbing to her emotion, Homura surrenders to a numbing existence as a witch. Kyubey has finally won, it seems. Cold logic does not a victor create, however; Madoka’s power to save breaks through the prison of Homura’s pain, offering her the peace she’s sought for so long.
The thing about peace, though: it has to be accepted. Peace must be desired, and mutually agreed on. Homura, however, has a different plan. Rejecting Madoka’s offer to live in eternity, she rebels against the unfairness of it all. Why did Madoka have to die? Why did Madoka have to give up a happy life? Why couldn’t salvation come from the girls themselves? Homura embraces, even enjoys her darkness. Inspired by the very despair she once feared, Homura’s final wish subverts all that Madoka had desired. Reality itself unravels as Homura recreates the world in her image; a world where Madoka didn’t have to die, the wishes of the girls are made true, and the deceptions of the Incubators are subject to her.
Homura is easily the most human of all the girls we see over the course of Madoka Magica. She starts off afraid and insecure, unsure of her own worth. In both her personal life and as a magical girl, we see her struggle with who she is. Am I good enough? Am I worth loving? Who am I? She longs for purpose. Purpose that arrives in the form of Madoka Kaname. In Madoka she finds not only kinship and acceptance, but a sense of worth and identity. Madoka loves Homura for who she is, not who she was or thinks she should be. This assurance and confidence are what pulls Homura so desperately towards Madoka, as the only person to make her feel necessary.
Acceptance is a natural desire. Humans are creatures of community: we need others in our lives. Knowing who we are often starts with knowing who we are around. Family, friends, schoolmates, co-workers. If love isn’t found there, it’s hard to understand where love could come from. Without assurance of love, we wonder if we’re even worth loving. Yet, basing self-worth entirely in the beliefs of other people brings its’ own set of baggage. People change. Emotions and ideas adapt as we learn and grow. As these develop, so do our relationships. At times for the better, but also for the worse. When those foundations shift, when our ideas of self change because those around us change, where are we left?
Homura chose to reject the change. In her eyes, Madoka’s sacrifice was unfair. Why should my best friend have to suffer? Why should she be erased, while we all live? Why can’t she still be here with me? How can I move forward now? All of these questions are vaild, yet they each have the same core flaw. Each of Homura’s motivations were primarily self-centered. Her actions were guided by how she felt, rather than what Madoka wanted. Madoka’s love saved all the girls, yet Homura’s love saw only one.
In an interesting twist of fate, Homura mirrors the approach many people have towards God. God’s forgiveness seems too good to be true, unfair even. “If only you’d know what I’ve done.” “God could never forgive someone like me.” “I don’t deserve God’s forgiveness.” Finding solace in others just as broken as you seems a lot easier than trying to rely on a God who seems so impossible. How can that kind of love exist when our world is so broken? Hate, rage, discrimination: so many things are wrong with us. With our nations, our people, our systems. We want to know love – a true, lasting love that satisfies our souls – but how can we trust a love that we can’t touch? See with our eyes and feel with our hands?
Pulling back is the natural response. We try to make our little worlds in our own image. What little control we have is easily shaken, and we cling to scraps of courage, hoping that we can make it to the next day without our world falling apart. Life is uncertain. Scary. Dark. Brightened by the little things we put our hope in. But what is hope without future fulfillment?
What defeats Homura’s assumptions is that they are ultimately self-defeating. If God is all-knowing and all-loving, then by definition there is no sin you can commit that He doesn’t understand, and that He cannot forgive. To love God is to recognize who He is. What He’s done. How He expresses love. Love is mutual; it requires an understanding from both sides. To pick and choose how one loves or what one believes is to take advantage of love: throwing away the gift, in order to play with the wrapping paper.
God’s love is special because it isn’t based on our merit. By nature, we don’t deserve God’s love. Like we discussed earlier, the human race is full of bad things. Hurt, pain, darkness: all of this sin is part of us. It stains our very souls, making it impossible for us to truly communicate and understand God (Isa 59:2). Like magical girls, we’re doomed to an existence of fighting. Fighting ourselves, fighting the world around us, looking for something to satisfy us. Even in this, God’s love shines, as He makes free the gift of grace (Eph 2:8). We don’t have to earn His love, it’s free! Through His self-sacrifice, we are able to shed our sin nature (Rom 5:8). He’s willing to accept us, to give us meaning and hope and purpose. Paralleling Madoka, God gives us hope for the world beyond what we can see, and comforts us before we fall into despair. We only need to trust Him.
In essence, Homura’s actions towards Madoka show a lack of trust. In her eyes, Madoka’s sacrifice wasn’t fair. Gaining hope wasn’t enough for her, without the promise of Madoka’s safety and love. Yet, in her sacrifice, Madoka was more safe, secure, and fulfilled than she ever was in her previous life. By establishing the Law of Cycles, Madoka not only redeemed all of the magical girls, she found true peace. She was content with her choice. To Homura, that was foolishness. A world without Madoka was no world at all, and in her pain she dismantled what Madoka had died to achieve. Resigning herself to being Madoka’s enemy as long as it meant she could have her, Homura chose to reject all salvation and love, in her pursuit of self-fulfillment.
What kind of life do you want? All of our choices boil down to this question. Do you want a life of love and fulfillment? Would you rather control your life, moving people and events to your will? Homura chose control, and a life dedicated to herself. Madoka chose to let go, to love, and to give. Likewise, we too have the same set of choices. Do we choose ourselves, or God? Self-fulfillment, or self-sacrifice? Small picture, or larger perspective? The choice is yours.