Dismantling Hope in Madoka Magica: Rebellion
This article contains spoilers for the anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica and its movie sequel, Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie: Rebellion.
I may have previously alluded to the fact that while I love Madoka Magica, I hate its sequel, Rebellion. In my experience, it's not a popular opinion to have. I've come across a number of Madoka fans who insist that Rebellion is brilliant and anyone who doesn't like it just needs to rewatch it in order to understand what's going on, and that with enough repeated viewings anyone can come around to liking it. There's also an unusually persistent movement that continues to insist that "Homura did nothing wrong" to anyone who mentions the movie. I would like to make clear, first and foremost, that this is by no means indicative of the entire Madoka Magica fandom, at all. I've seen plenty of online reviews that share my dislike for the movie. I do, however, have to say that it has made up a lot of my personal experience with others who enjoy the show, with very few exceptions. It overall feels like a situation where a lot of critics hated the movie and a lot of fans loved it, and the two sides are of course at odds with each other by definition.
Madoka Magica is often called a deconstruction of the magical girl genre, and it was definitely central in starting a trend of darker magical girl shows like Yuki Yuna, Daybreak Illusion, and Magical Girl Raising Project. But something that those shows ultimately miss is that Madoka Magica isn't solely a deconstruction, nor is it dark for the sake of being dark. At its heart, it is a true magical girl story.
The more typical magical girl shows of the 90's, like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, are heavily fueled by the power of love and its ability to save the day no matter how bad things get. Even more subversive entries to the genre, like Princess Tutu, retain an undercurrent of hope that is central to the main conflict and that eventually does end up winning out. But while these shows have uplifting messages, they aren't completely made of sugar and spice and whatnot; they contain plenty of dark moments and plenty of adversity for their leads to overcome. I wouldn't say that Madoka Magica is necessarily a darker anime than other magical girl shows, but it does put a much heavier focus on the ocean of misery that its cast has to wade through. Despite this, the show does ultimately have a hopeful ending. The main character, Madoka, steadfastly refuses to give up hope and is rewarded with the power to save all the magical girls in the universe. It isn't by any means a perfect ending, least of all for Madoka herself, but it does complete the overall message that continuing to fight until the very end grants its own reward, and that message isn't at all different from most of the more "standard" magical girl shows that predated it.
Again, I don't think that the finale of Madoka Magica is the best ending in the world for its characters; it's definitely one of the most bittersweet paths they could have taken. I agree that Homura probably never would have been truly happy with Madoka's decision, and I agree that Madoka herself might regret her own decision at times. But the thing is, she owned that decision anyway. After a series of everyone trying to sway her opinion, it was her choice to make and she made it. As a result, she ended up saving the world. For what it is, the show's ending does a good job of bringing things full circle and reinforcing that despite its emphasis on darker themes, it isn't so different from its predecessors.
And then you have Rebellion, which by contrast spends a lot of its runtime with the facade that it will again reconstruct a positive and hopeful message, and then at the last moment it yanks that facade away in a rather mean-spirited way. Putting aside the fact that the plot twist doesn't really make sense on a logical level, it actively goes against everything its parent series stood for, and overall it comes across as though it was done purely for shock value.
Putting aside the lack of in-universe or out-of-universe explanation for the plot twist at the end of Rebellion, I can accept that Homura's actions were in character. Her entire identity is centered around protecting Madoka, and without that she has no idea what to do with herself, so when she sees an opportunity to bring Madoka back under her protection, she takes it. But in doing so, she takes what hope we were first left with and systematically destroys it. More importantly, she defeats all of the characterization that Madoka went through during the original show.
Madoka spent the entire series being pressured by everyone around her in regards to whether or not she should make a contract. Her decision to wish for the erasure of all witches in the final episode is such a powerful decision because it is completely and totally hers. Rather than committing to anything prematurely, she thought and observed and sometimes she freaked out, and when she was ready, she made the choice that she wanted to make. In Rebellion, Homura comes along and basically decides that she and she alone knows what's best for Madoka and how to make her happy. She doesn't just take away Madoka's godhood and freedom; she takes away her autonomy, her ability to make her own choices. It's hard to swallow, after watching an entire show that went out of its way to show its main character deciding her fate for herself.
The strange thing is, Homura isn't completely happy with what she does. Her character redesign is explicit about painting her as a devil acting against God, and she herself makes that comparison. But the film spends so much of its time wrapped up in trying to appeal to the fans that it doesn't fully commit to Homura's belief that she deserves to suffer for what she did, and her resulting internal conflict ends up overshadowed by the revival of the rest of the cast, by the punishment given to Kyubey, and by the "perfect" world that Madoka now inhabits. In a way, it feels like a lot of fans are under the same sort of illusion as the one seen in the film's ending. There's a voice insisting that everything is fine, that this was the right way for things to end, yet some people can't help but wonder...
Now, a valid point to bring up here is that this film wasn't really made to further the show's original themes. It was made as fanservice. It was made for fans, with a lot of ideas that fans wanted to see, like Mami and Nagisa/Charlotte being together. And I feel like, as a fan, I'm expected to just happily accept Rebellion as the gift it was meant to be. But I just don't. Despite what multiple people have tried to tell me, it isn't that I don't understand the movie. I understand what happened in the movie. I just don't like what happened in the movie.
Ultimately, though, creators are not beholden to the fans, even when making something just for them, and they of course had the right to make the story go any way they wanted. I can't really be angry at them for it. I'm just disappointed. Madoka Magica on its own was a complete work with a powerful message behind it, and to me it feels like Rebellion just threw all of that away for the sake of a dark ending and a shameless cliffhanger. It doesn't help that after almost four years, the much-needed follow-up to Rebellion is nowhere to be seen. (There was a concept movie released in 2015, but as far as I can tell it was never explicitly confirmed that said concept trailer was going to become a sequel to Rebellion; it was just confirmed to be a new Madoka project.) Madoka Magica stands up well on its own with no need for a sequel; Rebellion, on the other hand, ends in such a way that one is virtually required.
I don't think that Homura's actions had evil intentions behind them, nor do I think that the writers wanted it to come off that way. But over the years, I've become well aware that you can't stop people from making their own choices, nor can you save them from the consequences of that choice, no matter how much you might want to. Even if you think you know what someone needs, they have a right to make their own decisions. This was the message at the core of Madoka Magica, and it's a shame that Rebellion decided to ignore that.
Edited by Daniel Cuturrufo.
Screenshots from puellamagiprettymagica.tumblr.com.