The Madoka Project: The Rebellion Story

Inevitably, a series as popular as Madoka Magica inspires film adaptations. In October 2012, SHAFT released two theatrical compilation films, Beginnings and Eternal. These movies do a creditable job paring the twelve episode series into a four hour narrative, but it’s hard for Madoka fans not to notice the changes.1 Particularly since the first film covers the first eight episodes and the second the last four, leading to awkward pacing and focus. The narrative is reshaped to center Madoka and Homura’s relationship, meaning that Mami and Kyoko each lose several scenes,2 while Madoka’s family and other side characters barely appear at all.

These movies aren’t without merit: SHAFT takes advantage of an expanded budget to polish the animation, leading to a major visual upgrade from the series. The action scenes in particular sparkle with enhanced backgrounds and fluid movements; Inu Curry’s spellbinding Witches’ labyrinths become even more engrossing. The voice cast for both versions recorded their dialogue, leading to more polished performances, especially in the English dub.3 But storywise, one won’t gain anything watching them that they wouldn’t by rewatching the show.

Rebellion (formally The Rebellion Story) is a different kettle of fish. Released a year after Beginnings and Eternal, Rebellion originated as a pitch for a second season which Akiyuki Shinbou suggested would work better as a feature. The resulting film was a huge box office smash in Japan, becoming the highest grossing TV-to-film anime adaptation ever; Aniplex and distributor Warner Bros. even submitted Rebellion for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.4 The movie received a limited release in the United States, where it baffled critics (Variety opined that viewers would “struggle…to make heads or tails of anything that’s happening” and referred to Curry’s animation as “a distraction”) and divided fans, many of whom remain furious about its handling of the show’s beloved characters.5

Behind-the-scenes arguments escaped to the internet, many inevitably exaggerated in the telling. Claims that Shinbou rejected Gen Urobuchi’s original, less ambiguous ending aren’t strictly accurate; their disagreement occurred before Urobuchi wrote a word of the script, and Urobuchi pronounced himself satisfied with the movie (though he predicted that fans would hate it). Other disagreements came later in production: Shinbou and co-director Hiroki Yamamura clashed over the tone of the opening scenes,6 and Homura’s seiyuu, Chiwa Saito, objected to the original ending and insisted on rerecording several of Homura’s scenes. Despite Rebellion‘s focus on Homura, Saito remained ambivalent, warning that Rebellion would “cause people to have mixed reactions.”7

Nearly a decade later, it’s still hard to make heads or tails of Rebellion. The series ended on such a perfect note that it’s hard to imagine any continuation satisfying everyone, but Urobuchi, Shinbou and Co. seem determined to frustrate them instead. It’s easy to enjoy the film’s craft and visuals; it’s possible to appreciate what it’s trying to say about its characters and the nature of love, obsession and fighting fate. Whether it pulls it off, or whether the destination is worth the journey, remains an exercise for the viewer.

After foreboding narration from Homura, we’re thrust into a world both familiar and distinct from the series. Clearly, Rebellion isn’t a mere sequel. Sayaka is alive; Kyoko attends school with her and Madoka (and, not incidentally, living with Sayaka). Mami lives with a curious, cheese-craving creature called Bebe who is a benign reincarnation of the Witch Charlotte. And glasses-wearing, braided Homura makes her first appearance at school, already contracted. This time, she immediately befriends her fellow Puella Magi and joins their missions fighting “Nightmares” – including one spawned from Hitomi’s stress over her relationship with Kyousuke.

The first half hour plays like fan service, as if the Magica Quartet decided to make Madoka into a classic mahou shojo after all.8 The self-proclaimed “Holy Quintet” receive elaborate transformation scenes, something which barely featured in the original; they call out their attacks like Sailor Moon, previously only Mami’s habit.9Besides Bebe, who can transform into Charlotte at will, Kyubey becomes a cute mascot who can only chirp his name, Pokémon-style. The Quintet easily vanquish the harmless “Nightmare” and subject it to a whimsical chant about cakes and fruits (“When you slice the melon, it will bring you sweet dreams!”)10 which restores Hitomi to sanity. What’s going on?

Certainly, an unwary viewer might suspect Rebellion is like the Neon Genesis Evangelion Rebuild films or Revolutionary Girl Utena‘s gonzo movie:11 an alternate universe reimagining of the series, parallel to but distinct from its source material. But undercurrents of menace and uncertainty soon bleed into this “sweet dream.” Homura suspects something is amiss: their teacher rants about the end of the world, Mitakihara’s skyscape is inexplicably filled with zeppelins and other portents. And why are her classmates’ features becoming indistinct?

Homura’s suspicions are stoked for the same reason ours should be: everything is too perfect. Her friends have all the rough edges sanded off, like characters in a fanfic: Madoka lacks her usual self-consciousness and doubt, Sayaka jokes about her (former) feelings towards Kyousuke, Mami is strong and self-confident and Kyoko is much nicer and openly flirtatious with Sayaka, though still eager to shovel French fries into her mouth. Life has no conflict that a heartfelt conversation can’t solve; battles are more like fun romps than life-threatening situations.

The movie shifts into noir mode, with Homura adopting the hardboiled patter of Philip Marlowe as she traces her suspicions. She and Kyoko12 make an ill-fated bus journey to Kyoko’s hometown of Kazamino, discovering that they’re trapped in Mitakihara. Background figures become menacing rather than passive; the gentle visuals become more grim and surreal, tainted with stark colors and abstract symbols. As Homura undoes her braids for the most dramatic hair flip in history, she spells out what audience already suspect: they’re trapped in a Labyrinth. Which means that Witches exist in this idyllic world, even though they shouldn’t.

This leads to Rebellion‘s centerpiece: Homura kidnaps Bebe, suspecting that she has reverted to her Witchy ways. Mami interrupts the interrogation with her ribbon powers, demanding that Homura explain herself. As Homura doesn’t trust Mami not to repeat her breakdown in the series, she snarls defiance instead of answers. The result is a mind-blowing gunfight, with Mami and Homura blasting thousands of slow motion bullets, using wits, speed and their powers to outmaneuver each other. Words can’t do this high-adrenaline set piece justice: it’s at once both the movie’s most conventional sequence and its most extraordinary, a mélange of sparking guns, flashing ribbons and Wachowski-style gravity defiance that leaves viewers breathless.13

Homura finally concludes their duel by shooting herself in the head. That we know Homura can’t be hurt by this faux-suicide makes it no less shocking. Certainly it throws Mami for a loop, allowing Homura to snap free of her ribbons and send a crippling bullet into Mami’s leg. This unravels, literally, when the Mami Homura’s been fighting is revealed as a ribbon clone herself,14 with the real Mami making short work of Homura while chiding her for “assuming you always have the upper hand.” This Mami isn’t the fractured shell from the series; she’s motherly, stern and tough as nails. But her attitude slips when she remembers that they shouldn’t be fighting Nightmares, but Wraiths…and when Bebe turns into Nagisa Momoe,15 a pint-sized Puella Magi who apologies to Mami for hiding her identity.

The scene’s interrupted by Sayaka, who reveals to Homura that she too remembers their past and prompts Homura to really think through what’s going on. Like Mami, this is a very different Sayaka than we’re used to: she teases Homura as a “transfer student” and executes a “Shaft head tilt” to intimidate her, but she’s also much more self-confident, strong and empathetic. She asks Homura to consider whether a Witch who would create such a benign Labyrinth was really so dangerous, trying to soothe her into empathizing with the Witch rather than seeking to destroy it. The point’s further emphasized when Oktavia von Seckendorff materializes in the shadows, sending Homura into a panic and ending their discussion on a hostile note.

It’s striking how measured and understanding Sayaka is – both towards Homura and the hypothesized Witch. She is calm, in control and at peace with herself – the complete opposite of her series personality. Which serves only to throw Homura’s fractured mental state into stark relief: if even Sayaka’s got it together in this world, what’s wrong with Homura? Rather than finding comfort in Sayaka’s words, they only drive Homura further into despair.16 Because now she’s starting to grasp the true implications of what’s happening…and they aren’t pretty.

Still processing what’shappened, Homura bumps into Madoka and takes her to a field of flowers overlooking Mitakihara. The conversation that follows makes sense of everything to come. Naturally, Madoka expresses her concern about Homura: she can sense that her friend is suffering even if she has no idea why. She, at least, seems to be normal. When Homura refers, in cryptic terms, to the ending of the main series, Madoka assures her that it’s nothing more than a “bad dream.” Crucially, she also tells Homura that she would never abandon her friends, and that doing so would cause her too much pain to even consider.

So much of Madoka hinges on characters talking past each other, hiding their emotions or not being honest with themselves. The irony here is that Madoka is being honest: she can’t imagine a situation where she’d ever hurt her friends. Homura, in her confused mental state, sees this as a moment of clarity: Madoka must be suffering immensely from her ascension to Godhood. It doesn’t matter that this Madoka isn’t the “real” Madoka, as she lacks her God powers and even memories of what’s happened. Homura doesn’t draw this distinction, though, and the scene adds to her guilt…and provides motivation for her actions later on.

From there Homura spirals into despair, and it isn’t pretty.17 Just as Homura guesses out what’s happening, Kyubey breaks his uncharacteristic silence to confirm. Having been intrigued by Homura’s explanation of Witches at the end of the series, the Incubators wondered if there was a way to create this “efficient” system instead of relying on the Law of Cycles to generate energy. A corporate cost-cutter if ever there was one, Kyubey decided that the easiest route was to trap Homura into a Labyrinth and experiment on her, driving her mad until she becomes a Witch.

Homura isn’t surprised in the least by this, even as she realizes the implications (and transforms into a snazzy ruffled outfit). What does set her off is Kyubey’s admission that they plan to coopt the Law of Cycles by controlling Madoka. Thus rendering her friend’s sacrifice, which she already thinks isn’t something Madoka wanted, in vain. That inspires Homura to unleash her familiars on the Incubators, resulting in a satisfying if futile round of Kyubey murders. And Homura finally transforms (after a fleeting vision of her and Madoka together) into Homulilly, the “Nutcracker Witch,” a mouthless horror consumed by despair.

Homura provides us a horrifying glimpse into what it’s like to be a Witch. She is a sentient creature fully aware of what’s going on around her, but isn’t able to control herself or to remember her identity. Her emotions have taken over; she has only dim memories of what it’s like to be a human, her friends an indistinct blur of regret and sadness and rage. Homura’s last human thought is lamenting that she didn’t get to say goodbye to Madoka; then Homulilly takes over, and the climax unspools in a flash of nightmare imagery and rousing action.

For Madoka and the rest of the team (including Nagisa) arrive, hoping to arrest Homulilly’s transformation and bring Homura back to the Law of Cycles. They ignore Kyubey’s wheedling (Kyoko nonchalantly mocks his ability to speak) and launch into. It’s not an easy task, fighting against Homulilly’s horde of Familiars (soldiers named Lotte, a hat-wearing tooth named Lilia and spooky Clara Dolls, all allusions to The Nutcracker). It’s an uplifting scene in its way: the Holy Quintet is operating at full power (Mami’s Tiro Finale is now the size of a railgun) to save rather than destroy their friend.

In a beautiful moment Sayaka and Nagisa (who proclaim themselves “Madoka’s private secretaries”) summon their Witches, enlisting Oktavia and Charlotte in a battle royale with Homulilly’s Familiars to immobilize her. No longer trapped by their emotional turmoil, they harness it to reclaim their own agency. For Sayaka, she’s finally reached the point where she’s at peace with herself, willing to put aside her past grudge against Homura for a greater good. Her only regret, she admits in a heartfelt confession, is that she’d had to leave Kyoko behind. Kyoko, still not fully understanding what’s going on, grasps Sayaka’s hand tenderly amidst the chaos. 18

All goes as planned, at first. But as Madoka, her Godhood now reawakened, moves to claim Homura for the Law of Cycles…Homura snaps awake and pulls the Goddess off her throne. In doing so she rewires the Universe, transforming herself into neither a Magical Girl nor a Witch, but a Demon. After devouring her Soul Gem, transforming into a slinky black dress and trapping Kyubey in her clutches, Homura proclaims that she’s motivated by something “more passionate than hope, far deeper than despair…Love.” She turns that nominally selfless emotion into something deeply egocentric, vowing never to let Madoka escape.

Naturally, this twist didn’t sit well with most fans. It’s easy to understand why viewers found it distasteful: it seems to undo Homura’s painstaking character arc, while also framing love and hope (emotions that the series, despite its outwardly dark nature, ultimately affirmed) as destructive and selfish. Some commentators, in turn, defend or praise this twist on the grounds that Homura was never a good person or that her “rebellion” is actually an act of liberation. Never mind that Homura herself admits that the Law of Cycles remains in place, just replacing herself with Madoka.

Neither defense strikes the present writer as persuasive. Homura acting selfishly doesn’t make her a “bad person,” and claiming it does reduces a complex series to a cockeyed morality tale. And whether Homura, by “reclaiming her agency” in this manner, “liberates” anyone but herself is doubtful. Even if her own rescue from Madoka was unsought, how does that justify Homura entrapping other victims of the Incubator system? In this strained analogy, she’s no more a “liberator” than any ideologue who overthrows one oppressive system to replace it with another.

Undoubtedly, Homura’s action disrupts a flawed but benign Law of Cycles for a selfish, impulsive reason. But without defending her actions, it’s hard not to sympathize. After years of sacrificing herself for Madoka, she felt betrayed by Madoka’s own sacrifice. Madoka’s claim earlier in the film that she would hate to lose her friends provided the final straw. Ultimately, her actions are motivated as much by despair as her descent into Witchdom: as in the main series, right or wrong, she sees no way forward than the action she takes.

But Homura isn’t merely “evil,” even if she proclaims herself so. Indeed, her actions later in the film suggests this is self-deception as much as her stoicism in the series. She creates the best existence for her friends that she can imagine; rather than punish Sayaka for her continued insolence, she pairs her with Kyoko and restores her friendship with Hitomi and Kyousuke.19 A gilded cage is still a cage, but her concern for the other Magical Girls shows that she’s not motivated by malice. Even so, she can’t square performing an evil action through her worldview of herself as Madoka’s savior. The answer must be that she’s Evil.

So Homura plays the Devil, even if she’s not very good at it. She wears lizard earrings, taunts Sayaka and sips a beverage as she surveys her dominion, which features Clara dolls running about in plain sight. We briefly hate her when she taunts Sayaka and obliterates her memories, her most evil action in the new world. But she’s clearly straining under the pressure of holding the new Universe together, as evidenced by her freak out when Madoka seems about to remember her powers. Homura takes no pleasure from her “victory”; indeed, she appears to be suffering more than ever.

So, Rebellion‘s twist is roughly consistent with earlier scenes, the show’s questioning of sacrifice’s value and Homura’s character. Whether the twist works is another question. The big problem is that it’s placed too late for the movie to properly deal with it. We see a brief epilogue of Homura’s new world, which resets Mitakihara to old patterns. She disarms Sayaka by wiping her memory20 and returns her red ribbon to Madoka, even as she admits that one day they’re likely to become enemies. This seems like the set-up for a third act rather than the third act itself, ending the film on a sour note.

In 2021 SHAFT announced a fourth Madoka film, Walpurgisnacht Rising, which appears to continue from Rebellion and bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. Until then, our last image of Homura is her dancing madly in a field,21 with a crumpled Kyubey (who’s been assigned the burden of absorbing curses) twitching traumatically at her feet. No surprise that fans didn’t go for this. No surprise that, even today, Rebellion is more likely to excite argument than admiration.