Friday, December 13, 2013

Sympathy For The Devil: PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA ~ REBELLION ~


PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA/魔法少女まどか☆マギカ is one of those rare, beautiful times where popular culture has found a way to transcend itself; it took something unique to its medium, and managed to give its usual audience exactly what they asked for while simultaneously undercutting the very idea of it all. Originally a 12 episode TV series that aired in 2011, written by noted nihilist Gen UROBUCHI, and directed by Studio Shaft's most valuable madman, Akiyuki SHINBOU. The final result was a stunning, even shocking reminder that you can deliver a near-perfect piece of entertainment that finds a way to give audiences exactly what they want, despite also never giving them what they expect, and even reveling in how absurd their taste really might be.

The word "Deconstruction" is a dangerous one to throw around these days, with TV Tropes being able to get all up in your grill about what does and doesn't technically qualify as such, but if Watchmen was a deconstruction of costumed comic book vigilantes, if A Song of Ice and Fire was a deconstruction of impervious heroism in a fictionalized version of Medieval Europe, and if Cabin in the Woods was a deconstruction of the insatiable need for an audience to watch young people die for their own amusement, I think it's safe to call Madoka Magica a deconstruction of the Magical Girl subgenre, one which - alongside piloting giant transforming robots, being surrounded by a harem of partially-clothed beautiful women, and adolescents traveling the world without parental supervision, homework, or part time jobs to partake in fully legal dog fights with total strangers - has remained mostly, if not quite exclusively, within the domain of Japanese animation. For once, comparisons tothe 90s equally popular and upsetting Neon Genesis Evangelion and its brutal, self loathing vivisection of its own anime-infused genre are completely valid, perhaps even unavoidable... but unlike Shinji Ikari's journey of grotesque and traumatic self-discovery, Madoka Kaname's adventure never gets quite so far up its own ass that it ever stops being a show about the thing it was going out of its way to tear down in the first place.


Official Theatrical Trailer

Sure, anime has changed substantially in the last few decades, but these finely honed tropes about adorable little girls getting magical powers and using them to find a way to solve their problems are clearly not going anywhere, and it's been long enough since shows like Creamy Mami, Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon, Card Captor Sakura, Mysterious Thief Saint Tail, Princess Tutu and so on that you can properly use the comfort and familiarity of those shows formulas and expectations to weaponize them against your own audience's apathy. In Puella Magi Madoka Magica's case, part of the game was in making the first two episodes relatively conventional, and then yanking the rug out from under you once you thought you knew exactly where it was going. Madoka's cruel genius was in stringing you along, taking you someplace safe and familiar, just before it dropped you face-first into a pit of rusted nails, pissing in your open wounds, and then telling you that your dog has cancer, and she only knows because she's been plowing your wife for years.

The sudden, unchoreographed death of a main character in episode 3 is but the tip of the iceberg; the eerie secret of how the girls control magic without destroying their bodies, the unsettling indifference that the bestower of their powers have for the mere concept of emotions, and the unbreakable circle that only perpetuates violence and sadness which literally forces the duty of being a Magical Girl on unsuspecting innocent adolescents serve to both try and make sense of magic to an adult world full of tragedy and frustration, and in doing so paints a picture of inevitable destructive brutality. The fact that Madoka's universe pulls these escilatingly grim hat tricks off while still looking like the cast of a cheap Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha knock-off fighting against monsters that somehow escaped from an early Monty Python cartoon somehow give these deeply uncomfortable concepts, and the succession of increasingly bleak twists that bring us there are so well layered and executed that the show is actually even more traumatic the second time through - that is, once you understand the motivations of the shows' more mysterious and scheming characters. No, it's not anime's answer to The Human Centipede 2 or anything quite that grotesque, but the contents being so dark with wrapping paper so damned cheerful is always a uniquely confusing sensation, and the fact that the show happens to pull it off like a goddamn boss and doesn't just end up looking absurd like... I dunno, Baby Metal or something, only makes it that much more impressive.

With the TV series having finished to a thunderous response of fury, adoration, and unfairly cute merchandising potential to spare, it was inevitable that Aniplex would milk the show as hard as it could, and it so happens that the first iteration of a revival was a pair of theatrical movies: PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA ~ BEGINNINGS ~/劇場版 魔法少女まどか☆マギカ 始まりの物語, and PUELLA MADOKA MADOKA MAGICA ~ ETERNAL ~/劇場版 魔法少女まどか☆マギカ永遠の物語. To their credit, Studio Shaft acknowledged that these were a "condensed retelling" of the TV show from the start, which is a nice way of saying that it's literally the 300 minute TV series trimmed down to about 2/3 its original length, but also include a handful of new scenes and some re-done animation that did things like, uh... change the flavor of "Packy" resident snack-fiend Kyoko's munching on. Hey, when you've already attained perfection, you can't ask for much more than that. Simply put, "Beginnings" and "Eternal" are a slightly streamlined equivalent to the entire TV series, and while I almost never do this, I'd actually argue that the films' editing clears up some minor confuion and keeps the pace flowing naturally to the point where - the odd miscalculation of not showing Madoka's recurring dream in the first film aside - the movies might actually be the superior way to experience the whole series. It's a slim margin, make no mistake, but if you haven't watched the TV series, the first two movies might be the ideal way to catch up.


With the simple fact that PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA ~ REBELLION ~/劇場版 魔法少女まどか☆マギカ 叛逆の物語 is a direct sequel to the Madoka TV franchise, even trying to discuss the film in any meaningful context will involve potentially spoiling major, major plot points of the TV series. It's safe to say that the REBELLION movie won't make a lot of sense without a prior working knowledge of the storyline, and that the movies are both a narrative and thematic continuation of the former. It's a pretty damned good continuation too, all things considered, though I think it's safe to say that everything the storyline had to say was covered in the TV series, and while this new chapter has some interesting ideas at play, whether you'll walk away satisfied or just plain angry depends largely on how you feel about the core relationship that drives the story along.

SO WE ARE CLEAR, I AM NOT KIDDING: SPOILERS FOR THE MADOKA TV SERIES, AND THE ~ REBELLION ~ FILM, ARE GOING TO FOLLOW. Yes, I know, even the most passively curious otaku had at least half of this shit spoiled a year and change ago whether they wanted it to be spoiled or not, but... hey, I'm trying to be nice here. After I told someone I figured was one step ahead of me that Gollum betrays Dumbledore at the Red Wedding, I never heard the goddamn end of it. Still, if there's one thing about this film that might benefit its full impact it's going in cold without knowing anything beyond the previous iterations, so...

So... run away screaming, all of you, lest you have an inkling - if not a full blow by blow account - of what's to come? Damn, maybe I should wait until it's actually out of limited release...


Fuck it. We're doing this.

The first act of  REBELLION makes the curious decision to open not with Homura AKEMI off hunting Wraiths as the TV series had left her, but instead begins with the Magical Girl Holy Quintet reunited to take down a destructive magical being, with both the amoral alien "Magic Mascot" Cubey, and even Charlotte the Sweets Witch (here known as "Bebe" for... some reason?) working together to trap, console, and inevitably destroy the being they call a Nightmare. It suddenly ends, and as expected it seems this was all a dream... except it wasn't a flight of fancy by Homura. Nope, the film's real open is Madoka Kaname recanting her first appearance after her own nightmare in the first episode, but this time with one obvious difference; she's wearing a Soul Gem ring, and Cubey's already sitting on her shelf like a faithful pet. That's right, continuity whores; the film is barely 5 minutes in, and already it's taken a giant dump on any reasonable expectation the TV series left us for a feature length version of what seemed like the inevitable spinoff, HOMURA AKEMI: WRAITH SLAYER CHRONICLES.

Cut to Madoka meeting up with her classmates, Sayaka and Kyoko - and yes, Kyoko's finally wearing the requisite school uniform, an act you can practically hear Good Smile Company lubing up at the excise to release entirely new variants in their many, many PVC toy lines. Mami's even wearing the evidently "invisible" Bebe on her shoulder as she passes through the school yard, and the new transfer student interrupting the regularly scheduled freakout by one of anime's most underrated teachers is none other than... wait for it... Homura Akemi, complete with her glasses and pigtails from her inevitably traumatizing appearance in the 10th episode! D'aw!

So who else wants to slit their own wrists every time they see her like this?

Goddamn, this movie's packing in as much sweetness as it possibly can, and I can confirm that an entire theater full of invested fans cooed like happy grandmothers the moment Madoka reached out and touched Homura's hands and says they're going to do just fine together. The first reel or so of the film is little more than glorified, beautifully rendered fanservice, which even goes as far as building to a brilliantly staged transformation sequence vis a vis, I shit you know, interpretive dance. In all sincerity watching Sayaka get all boogolo'd with her electric shrimp was the kind of stuff you should be excited for  - it's so absurd it just works. The five girls work side by side, hand in hand, and take down the sorta' cute monstrous paper cutout foe without a single life being interrupted. Things are great in this topsy turvy ~Rebellious~ world, aren't they!

...and as soon as this scene ends, even Homura herself realizes things are a little too great. She meets with Kyoko to discuss some things that just don't add up - feelings that don't make sense, memories she can't place - and spends the entire day looking through the veneer of her perfect life, seeing all the people who's faces don't line up, and all the "Magical" artifice that makes up the world around her she seemed capable of blocking out up until the culmination of their first battle. Homura suggests that they go back to Kyoko's home town and just make sure things are all right, only to find that what should be a road out of town is a nightmarish Möbius Loop that goes nowhere, locking them in a perfectly crafted lie that seems to be obsessed with literally producing a never ending chain of... well, let's be honest, fanservice for every Madoka fan out there. Homura realizes that they're caught in the handiwork of a Witch, and true to her "real" self we already know - the jaded tough as nails Time Lord who spent countless attempts reliving a tragic month on repeat, just so that she might someday undo fate for the only person she ever cared for - tries to beat answers out of little Bebe, only to find that Mami doesn't take too kindly to her sidekick being threatened. An epic, bloody battle between Magical Girls with no reasons to wear gloves ensures, and when all is said and done Homura learns that Sayaka, too, knows they're trapped in a non-reality. Homura, however, is convinced that the version of Madoka she's seeing is the real deal, not just a copy made to trick her, so Homura continues on this journey of dark discovery to learn of the plot that's trapped the Magical Quintet in the grip of the last Witch.

I guess I'm just going to be "that guy" and say that if you remember how the rules of the TV series work, the actual mystery isn't all that complicated. Hell, when we got to the opening sequence I saw exactly what seeds they were planting, and that was a bit of a surprise; one thing Madoka as a series had never been was particularly obvious, but here it was, plain as day, showing us a motif that's all too familiar in the context of Madoka's world. It's still devastating to watch Homura struggle against what most of the viewers will probably have figured out long before she has, but I suppose that's really the point: It's just stoking the fires for the inevitable reveal, the tragic fallout that implies, and both are tied into the dramatic plot twists that make it possible and the inevitable Hollywood level showdown that it instigates (one I, in all honesty, saw coming in one form or another straight from the TV series' epilogue).

As a lengthy, gloriously crafted piece of "Welp, that was inevitable... but fun!" entertainment, it delivers everything a fan of the TV series could have asked for. It leaves the villain's plan in shambles, the heroine of the film is redeemed, Madokami is in Heaven all is right with the world, and then we get to the moment of culmination, everything the entire film's runtime has been building towards, resulting in not a goddamned dry eye in the house...

...and then the film still finds a way to leave you cold, alone, angry and absolutely shocked. Yes, this is a franchise that's built around shocking and upsetting the audience, and even knowing that in advance the film creates a third act that left the entire audience stunned. Once again the genre norms have been used against us, crafting a nasty sucker punch that was on par with Mami's sudden, almost inexplicable death over two years ago. Tragedy is, after all, Madoka's stock and trade, and they've found a way to upset and anger audiences that, while completely out of left field in the way it comes to life kicking and screaming amidst exactly what we had expected, doesmake a certain level of sense when you factor in who made it happen, and more importantly, why.

Pictured: Mrs. Kentai's reaction to PMMM ~ Rebellion~.

Without completely ruining all the surprises it has with it, the short version is that this was a series that always came down to the relationship between Homura and Madoka. The show's creators were clever (or perhaps just market savvy?) enough to keep the nature of the actual relationship between the two just vague enough that it could be an overly protective innocent childhood friendship taken to its most extreme form, or the frustrated culminations of an unrequited homosexual passion; REBELLION doesn't explicitly change the vague-but-passionate idealism of the connection these two girls share, but it does exploit it, and how you'll react to this sudden turn will largely depend on how you feel about the connection these two girls share: Is Homura's repetition to save Madoka ultimately an act of selfless love for her friend, or a selfish desire for Homura to not lose the one person she's been able to connect with? Is it a little of both - or are they the same thing? Ultimately, how you view that distinction will color how you feel about the twisted dramatic turn the film unfolds in the final stretch; I thought it was brilliant. My wife absolutely hated it, and a friend of mine who adored the TV ending has already sworn she'll never even watch it based on how under-minding it felt to the "origina'l" ending. I can't see most fans of these two characters having a middle of the road reaction, either.

While the emotional core of PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA ~ REBELLION ~ is absolutely its biggest draw, it's nice to see that Studio Shaft hasn't half-assed any part of the production, wrapping impressive technical chocolate around a gooey girl-love center; while character designs and musical elements have been re-used from previous TV installments all but for verbatim, the film has a polished look that's no less impressive than the home video version of the original franchise, and unlike the compilation footage double feature there's nothing in the way of aliasing or banding to be found through the exquisite art design, which has far more of the crinkly, hand-crafted "Witch" aesthetic than most of the TV series had the luxury to wallow in. The opening battle sequence in particular feels especially reminiscent of the more outre sequences of the Revolutionary Girl Utena TV series, and when the second act begins and Homura begins searching for answers, the film shifts gears into a darker, more surreal aesthetic that reminds me of old Rintarou feature films more than anything remotely contemporary. It's a decent and well-crafted production, but it's never so dramatically different looking from the TV series that preceedes it that it screams  theatricality, like the aforementioned Adolescence of Utena, or even The End of Evangelion. This is perhaps closer to Blood C: The Last Blood, or even Fullmetal Alchemist: The Conqueror of Shamballa, effectively an expanded to a TV series that grew too big for the small screen... though I suppose that's a dangerous comparison, as neither of those movies were near as good as REBELLION. Also, those shows desperately needed "real" endings, which is a charge I don't think anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together has ever leveled against Madoka.

One thing that did seem slightly lacking - though not to the films particular detriment - was a distinct lack of "Shinbouisms", by which I mean the bizarre, non sequitur moments focusing on out-of-context visuals or uncomfortable, fourth-wall breaking film editing tricks that punctuate literally everything he's ever directed. To put this another way, every single episode of Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei is a 20 minute long Shinbouism - now go watch Bakemonogatari, Dance in the Vampire Bund, Maria+Holic or literally anything else he's ever made and try not to see them. The Madoka TV series was responsible, and mostly saved them as a clever misdirection for Homura and Cubey; here the mystery has already been solved, and perhaps with co-director Yukihiro Miyamoto shouldering more responsibility, the REBELLION feature feels cohesive and complex without needing to continually break the fourth wall and do weird shit just to leave the audience on their toes.

Don't get me wrong - his willingness to break with typical editing, pacing and storytelling convention was one of the things that drew me to Shinbou as a director in the first place, despite his tendency to find new and exciting ways to fuck it all up in the end - but in the same way that, for instance, Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino's best qualities (witty dialogue, cathartic violence, stunt casting that actually works) without his usual selfish, nerdy pleasures overpowering the rest of the story (overlong pop-cultural references, obviously important scenes left off-screen, violently masturbating to bare feet) . In that sense, REBELLION might be, intentionally divisive or not, one of Akiyuki Shinbou's most confident and polished projects to date. I've been fascinated by this guy ever since he pretended not to direct the clearly Dario Argento inspired octopus-and-shit-eating porn epic Blood Royal, and it's been so satisfying to see him finally craft something that makes use of his inherent insanity, rather than just piling it on top of something that'd have worked without it.

If there's only one thing that detracts from the narrative slightly, it might be the presence of... well, again, without spoiling anything you might not already know, there is one new Magical Girl in the film,  Nagisa Momoe. She doesn't actually get that much screen time and her personality isn't particularly grating or anything... it's just weird, in proper context, that she exists at all. Once they've established how the Magical Girl Quintet got trapped in the maze it makes sense enough, but having Nagisa show up in the first place feels a bit off, considering who's ultimately pulling the strings. I guess the whole thing is just there to play as fourth-wall breaking fanservice to all the traumatized fans who decided that Mami and Charlotte had to be BFF's... since that's the only way to make everything that happened between them in the TV series even remotely digestible. While a minor complaint in and of itself, it suggests - if just implicitly - how much this film feels that it was made because fans of these characters wanted one, rather than because the story itself had any obvious areas of the concept left to explore.

And that's where I'm left just a bit nervous; while "Finale" movies for popular anime TV series aren't at all uncommon, this one is just "big" enough to have effectively setup an entirely new storyline. I'm okay with the idea presented as the big twist in this film, but if everything was just there to find a new way to keep a franchise that had a satisfying level of closure... well, whether or not this film is literally the start of something wicked we don't yet know, but with the overwhelming popularity of the Holy Quintet, I certainly wouldn't put it past them to have concieved this as a going away present to fans, only for it to have been revamped mid-way through production to be the start of something larger. Then again, maybe it will end and pass on into the night after its "Finale" theatrical run, just like its spiritual predecessor--

Goddamn it, capitalism!

Fans of the PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA TV series who want one last brilliantly realized Witch Fighting Adventure should feel confident plunking down the requisite $70~100 on the inevitably English subtitled import Blu-ray release. Those who thought the TV series ended exactly where it should have, and feel a certain connection with the terms that Homura and Madoka themselves ended on, might be better off pretending that's as far as this story goes. Madokami rewriting history and Homura taking on the role of a Magical Girl who's path wasn't doomed to end in tragedy was the perfect way to end this story, and the fact that they were "forced" to find a way to continue on from here to reunite the shows two leads can only cheapen the promises and sacrifices made in the bittersweet final episode.

I don't dislike the film, and I can't imagine most of the target audience will either - I just admit that the only way to continue the world of Incubators and Walpurgisnacht was to un-do a lot of the things that the TV series' ending did so perfectly... and thats a dangerous game they're playing. If the goal is to get one last gasp out of the audience who've stuck with it from the start, I say well played, REBELLION. If, however, this is the start of a 'Rebuild of Madoka' - as I fear it might well be - I have a feeling we'll reach the point of diminishing returns far too soon.

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