Saturday, January 8, 2022

Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie: Rebellion

Note: This review contains spoilers for Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie: Rebellion.

When the Puella Magi Madoka Magica (PMMM) anime first aired in 2011, its dark take on the magical girl genre made a big splash and received critical acclaim for its deep storytelling and discussions of the concepts of selflessness and hope vs despair, among other topics. The following year, animation studio Shaft would follow up their big hit with two recap films, subtitled Beginnings and Eternal, and then a third film in 2013, a sequel story subtitled Rebellion. For one reason or another, it would be about a decade before I finally watched PMMM, which I did through a cheaper UK Blu-ray set to avoid paying Aniplex’s notoriously sky-high US Blu-ray prices. After finishing the series, which I enjoyed but didn’t think was a flawless 10/10 masterpiece as some might be led to believe (I personally enjoyed works like Paranoia Agent and The Big O more), I grew curious about the Rebellion film and how it would continue the story. However, I had to wait until the release of a pricey 10th Anniversary movie trilogy Blu-ray set to watch the English dub, for lack of another legal option. Sadly, as much I liked a lot of the film, I wasn’t sure that it was entirely worth the money and effort required to watch it.

In the city of Mitakihara, Homura Akemi (Cristina Vee) transfers into school, where she joins Madoka Kaname (Christine Marie Cabanos), Sayaka Miki (Sarah Williams), Mami Tomoe (Carrie Keranen), and Kyoko Sakura (Lauren Landa), along with Mami's familiar, Bebe, as they fight as magical girls against “Nightmares”, creatures born from negative emotions. After fighting one such creature, Homura slowly realizes that something is off about the city. After some investigation, she realizes that she and the others are trapped inside a Witch barrier and searches for the Witch responsible.

Rebellion continues sometime after the ending of PMMM, or alternatively Beginnings and Eternal, either of which are required viewing for the film, as Rebellion assumes you already know the original story. Right away, the film gets off to a slow start, with about half an hour of the nearly two-hour runtime dedicated to showing the girls fighting a Nightmare while once again putting up the façade of a normal, if surreal, magical girl story and providing a lot of fanservice. Going on for this long is arguably pointless, as fans would already expect some dark twist and there’s a certain point, around the “Cake Song”, where it feels like this front has gone on too long. While this opening half-hour does provide some significance in establishing that something is very off and may have some further symbolic purpose, the film could have arguably tightened the pace and still have gotten the same point across.

It's around here that the fanservice has gone on a bit long.

Beyond this point, however, the plot really kicks in and the story really opens up. As Homura regains her memories of the old universe, we witness her increasing sense of desperation as she tries to figure out the boundaries of the world that she’s in and the identity of the Witch involved, followed by her gradually increasing despair once she realizes the truth. Homura’s complex emotions from the ending of the main series, as well as the idea that only she has memories of the old universe, are explored fairly well and the concept of living out a false reality, while not wholly original, is executed in a way that generally fits the expected tone of PMMM. There’s also a new character introduced, Nagisa Momoe (Xanthe Huynh), and while she doesn’t have much development, she at least provides a unique glimpse into the wider world of PMMM and actually contributes to the story, if only a little.

Rebellion’s biggest strengths go beyond the meat of the story, however, and include the spectacular animation that now has the proper budget to really go all out with PMMM’s own brand of surreal and psychedelic multimedia imagery. Both the subtle and more overt applications of this style are great at unsettling the audience while also adding additional layers of symbolic meaning that can enhance the experience once someone is aware of it. This bigger budget also adds more fluidity and complexity to the film’s few fight scenes, including one between Homura and Mami, which also lets the girls show off more of their full power (though Mami does demonstrate an ability that was never hinted at in PMMM).

The animation and fight scenes are a real highlight of Rebellion.

Yuki Kajiura’s score also continues the highs from the original anime and both the opening theme, “Colorful” by ClariS, and the ending theme, “Kimi no Gin no Niwa” (“Your Silver Garden”) by Kalafna, suit the differing tones at both ends of the film. Since this review is based on the English dub by Aniplex, the voice actors are still great in their respective roles, as they were in the show. Cristina Vee, who has more lines than anyone else, is a perfect match for Homura and does an amazing job with capturing her more nuanced emotions. Cassandra Lee’s voice for Kyubey also perfectly captures his cold and unfeeling approach to the universe and lack of understanding of human emotion.

Unfortunately, as much as there is to love about Rebellion, there are some narrative issues that are hard to ignore, especially given its status as a continuation of PMMM. For one thing, Kyubey may not have enacted his plan in the film had Homura not told him about the Witch system that existed before Madoka rewrote it into the Law of Cycles. While this decision on her part from the original ending of the series, or Eternal if you watch the films instead, felt pretty innocuous, the fact that it comes back and bites Homura hard here gives the impression that at least some of her suffering is her own fault. Even ignoring this, the film also misses the opportunity to explore the Wraiths introduced at the end of PMMM, instead introducing Nightmares as part of the false reality.

There’s also the big issue of the last-minute twist that leads into the final 20 minutes of the movie. While there’s arguably some foreshadowing throughout the film, the exact nature of the twist permanently darkens the relationship between Homura and Madoka and paints Homura as closer to a creepy stalker than how she was portrayed originally. Not only that, it also requires going against how Soul Gem corruption works, somehow equating desperation and despair with one another. One could argue that Homura’s actions reinforce that even selfless wishes have some degree of selfishness to them, though the end result can still leave a bitter taste in the viewer’s mouth.

Photos taken moments before disaster.

From doing research for this review, I’m aware of the existence of Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Wraith Arc, a manga that bridges the gap between PMMM and Rebellion and tries to offer some sort of explanation for certain aspects of the film, like how Soul Gem corruption suddenly acts differently for Homura, while also showing the girls actually fighting Wraiths. I’m also aware that there are production notes and interviews that also explain certain things, like character motivations or the fact that Gen Urobuchi’s originally planned ending changed very early in production, before he started writing the script. However, I would argue that reading supplementary material shouldn’t be viewed as necessary for fully understanding what happens in a film. If that information was that crucial, they should have worked it into the actual film in some way.

With this in mind, the twist ending comes off as more of a ploy to continue the franchise with the sole intent of making more money (ironically, an interview even confirmed that director Akiyuki Shinbo suggested the new ending early in development for that reason). Homura’s new relationship with Madoka at the end of the film, as well as her more obsessive and controlling personality, certainly open the door for a sequel to help explain things. However, for whatever reason, nothing would come of this for over eight years, leaving the story on an indefinite cliffhanger until the formal announcement of a fourth movie, subtitled Walpurgisnacht: Rising, in 2021. While I’m sure Walpurgisnacht: Rising could be a fine film, Rebellion’s unnecessarily bleak ending doesn’t really inspire confidence.

For about an hour and change, Rebellion serves as a great follow-up to PMMM and capitalizes on the series’ greatest strengths in its writing and animation. The rest of the runtime, however, either comes off as total fanservice or makes a poor attempt at hyping a sequel. Diehard fans may find the greatest enjoyment in Rebellion, warts and all, but for everyone else, you might be better off sticking with just the twelve episodes of PMMM or Beginnings and Eternal.

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