I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Los Angeles since I moved out here a few years ago. You’ve got to love it as a hotbed of opportunity, but I come from a quiet suburb, and LA can be a little overwhelming to me at times. However, there have been few times that I’ve treasured the opportunity to live in Los Angeles more than I do now, and that’s because the new Madoka movie is in town. Not just as a “one-night-only” special billing sort of thing like most other cities, either; at the Downtown Independent theater on Third and Los Angeles, Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magika: Hangyaku no Monogatari is getting a classy, week-long engagement. Which means that, by now, I have seen this movie many, many times.
Before going any further, I’ll clarify that I’m writing this piece in two parts. The first part will be a spoiler-free review in which I’ll give an overall impression of the film. The second part, however, will be my own musings and analysis on the film, in which discussion of spoilers is unavoidable. I’ll remind you again when the spoilers are coming up!
As I mentioned, I have seen this movie quite a few times now (4 times, as of this writing; it’s likely that that count will go up by the time this is published), and that’s because the film is mesmerizing in more ways than one. It’s starts off innocuously enough; the heroines from the original series now live in a reality that much more closely aligns with the stock magical girl fantasy that the original series ruthlessly deconstructed. However, devout viewers of the series will understand that something is very wrong right off the bat, as the creatures that the Magical Girls do battle with aren’t the “Wraiths” that they were left with at the end of the series, but a new enemy that they refer to as “Nightmares.”
The first act is a long, plodding affair that endeavors to strike a balance between establishing a sense of dread and “wrongness,” while at the same time serving a set of deliciously pandering battle scenes to keep fans awake and alert. These fight scenes are among the highlights of the film; as lovely as the original series is, it rarely (if ever) takes time to have any good, plain fun. These early scenes are a refreshing change of pace for the series, and are all the more potent considering the arcs these characters have traced over the course of the series and previous movies. They feel like a reward for not only the audience, but the characters themselves.
The reason that Madoka was so successful in the first place, though, was that it was a simultaneous embrace and rejection of common magical girl tropes. The film wobbles between satisfying these two expectations. There’s a sense of misdirection at work, in lulling the audience into a false sense of security with whimsical battles and fan service moments. However, Madoka fans are a jaded bunch, and are used to having their hearts trampled on by the cruel pen of screenwriter Gen Urobuchi. If the theater is filled predominantly with existing fans of the series (which, shockingly enough, is a high possibility), I have to wonder if anyone was fooled. The film spends an awful long time trying to subvert the expectations of an audience that is used to having their expectations subverted, and as such, the early portions of Hangyaku no Monogatari end up feeling like the beginning (and middle) of an entirely seperate film.
Eventually however, a central mystery emerges, and the film is able to begin exercising some of the tight plotting and world building that was a hallmark of the original series. The film is finally able to begin building it’s own identity. One worry that I always carry into anime films is that the film itself will have no weight or bearing on the series – they’re just an excuse to throw a budget at some cool, inconsequential eye candy that happens to star familiar characters. Though it takes a discouragingly long time to get there, Hangyaku no Monogatari manages to find a loose plot thread left over from the end of the original series, one that neither cheapens the original ending nor requires a significant amount of screenwriting gymnastics to arrive at. Like the original series, the film settles into an elegant (though fairly expositional) rhythm that steadily escalates as more information about the film’s world is revealed.
Just as with the original Madoka Magika, animation troupe Gekidan Inu Curry is back to design the otherworldly landscapes that the magical girls to do battle in. Though the group provides a lot of new visuals to feast your eyes on (a new transformation sequence featuring all of the magical girls is particularly spectacular), it’s striking how much the visuals endeavor to remind one of the original show. This is particularly evident in the earlier scenes, and it’s as if the visuals are saying, “things may seem light and fun right now, but do you remember this?” A similar pattern of repetition occurs later on, almost bookending the film. It stimulates the memory, yes, but it’s also a form of fan service for sharper-eyed viewers who remember some of the iconic images from the original anime.
The callback to old motifs is excessive and even a bit indulgent, which is unfortunate considering that, from a visual standpoint, the film is more than strong enough to stand on it’s own two feet. I mentioned it before, but I’ll say again that the magical girl transformation sequence makes me giddy just thinking about it. Furthermore, there’s an Act 2 fight sequence between two of the main characters that indicates to us that the film has well and truly begun, and it’s as mesmerizing as a fireworks display.
Yuki Kajiura’s score also returns for the new film, which is a mix between new pieces and new arrangements of old themes. Carrying the film is one very strong new motif that follows a specific character’s arc throughout the film, though besides another powerful piece set against the film’s climactic final battle sequence, the film relies on old themes as a sort of musical shorthand to sting specific scenes, character developments, and character relationships. Kalafina and Claris also have new pieces that appear throughout the film, though they’re not going to make anybody forget the hauntingly gorgeous “Magia.”
Despite a very strong arc with a clear-cut beginning, middle and end, the film has one final rug to pull out from underneath our feet, and it changes the dynamic of the series so thoroughly that the film needs to take what feels like an extra half-hour at the end to explain it to me. These final scenes ooze with the promise of more Madoka, but sadly, they also portend a Madoka that is very different, and ultimately, very unfamiliar to me. It almost makes me wish I could have it all back – the pandering, the recurring imagery, and the scenes of triumph that characterize the early scenes of the film. However, the Madoka experience is oddly reflective of it’s own mythology. Hope gives rise to an equal amount of despair and zeroes out to nothing.
While I can appreciate the poetry of it, and the poetry of the entire film, I can’t help but long for a time in which the balance was tipped, ever so slightly, towards hope.
And with that, it’s now time to issue the SPOILER ADVISORY WARNING.
I’m going to be going into some deeper musings about the film, and it’ll be unavoidable to talk about very specific scenes and character developments. If you plan on seeing the film, or if you want to see it completely fresh (which you should, on both counts), then please close your window and come back once you’ve seen for yourself!
SPOILERS BEGIN BELOW
Life Experience, the Preservation of Innocence, and a Defense of the Ending
Towards the beginning of the film, Sayaka (my Madoka waifu, on an unrelated note) delivers a very poignant line that made me think a lot about the way the relationships change in this film.
She and Kyouko are having a conversation amidst a battle with one of their Nightmare foes; when Sayaka expresses understanding and compassion for the creature, Kyouko calls her out on it, to which she responds “Maybe I’ve gained some ‘life experience!’”
Taken by itself, it’s something of a throwaway line, meant to be a wink and a nudge to those who remember Sayaka’s arc from the show. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the accumulation of life experience and the way that it effects one’s decisions are an extremely crucial factor to take into consideration when thinking about the film and how it ends.
There’s a turning point in the film; bearing the weight of her own memories becomes too much, and Homura expresses to Madoka her doubts, fears, and anxieties about the end of the original series – namely, Madoka sacrificing her corporeal existence in order to change the laws of nature and prevent Magical Girls from becoming witches. Madoka’s response is fairly disheartening for those who were so moved by her sacrifice at the end of the series: she says that she would never make a decision that would take her to a place so far from Homura and all of her friends.
This conversation sets the film’s end game into motion. Homura decides that it was a mistake to let Madoka make her sacrifice, and she resolves to destroy her divinity and preserve her innocence forever, becoming Madoka’s polar opposite in the process; an opposite that’s as inseparable from Madoka as Good is from Evil.
The ultimate selfishness is not in possessing Madoka, however; it’s in keeping her in stasis. It’s in keeping her from the precious “life experience” that Sayaka is so proud of. It’s in forbidding Madoka to grow into the kind of person who would make such a selfless wish.
A number of people left the theater upset with this ending; I was among them the first time I watched it. I thought Homura’s actions were inorganic, and completely motivated by the desire of the creators to keep the franchise open to further exploitation.
While I wouldn’t completely rule that out as a possibility (the film made big bucks in Japan, after all), I was wrong to assume that Homura’s actions were unmotivated. It all returns to this concept of preservation of innocence.
Think about the nature of Homura’s powers (pre-demigoddess, if you will). Time manipulation, developed out of a desire to prevent Madoka from making a contract that would eventually lead her to a fate worse than death. If you really think about it though, there are a number of wishes Homura could have made that would have made Madoka permanently immune to Kyubey’s temptations. The most fool-proof: wishing Madoka was a boy (I feel a great disturbance in the Force… as if millions of yuri fans suddenly cried out in terror and were silenced…). However, Homura made the deliberate choice to obtain a power that, instead of saving Madoka, would preserve her.
With this in mind, it doesn’t seem so out-of-left-field for Homura’s selfish love to evolve to the degree that it did in the film. However, this only speaks to evidence that was presented in the series; are there any breadcrumbs in the new film itself that lead to these ideas of preservation and stasis? Certainly. The entire plot of the film is driven by the fact that Homura’s Soul Gem is being held in stasis by Kyubey in order to artificially evolve her in a witch.
That idea alone offers some tantalizingly juicy ideas for the future of the franchise. The film’s existence alone has shown that witches are far from gone from the Madoka universe; just as Homura was transformed into a witch by forcing her into stasis and isolating her Soul Gem from Madoka’s love, perhaps Madoka herself is doomed to become a witch, driven into ultimate despair by her inability to break out of the stasis that Homura has exerted over her life.
Even the end of the film eases the series into a form of narrative stasis. There are no longer any moving parts. Godoka seems to be out of the picture, and Nagisa and Sayaka’s memories have been wiped, leaving Homura largely unopposed. However, a thread of plot remains in the form of Kyubey.
I originally assessed the post-credits sequence to be mostly symbolic – Homura’s literal fall from the cliff mirrors her irreversible “fall” into evil. However, Kyubey also makes an appearance, albeit in a very different state than we’ve ever seen him. He’s beaten. He’s battered. His fur is matted and ruffled. It looks like the guy has seen a lot of abuse; enough for me to almost (almost) feel sorry for him.
The expression in his eyes is also very telling. It’s subtle, but think of the way Kyubey has consistently been depicted, both in the series and in the movie. His unflinching, unwavering gaze is practically his trademark.
And yet, there’s nothing “unwavering” about the Kyubey we see post-credits.
The light in his eyes glistens and trembles. Is that fear in the face of Homura’s cruelty? Who knows? What I do know, is that despite the cold, calculating nature with which he has manipulated the feelings of young girls over the course of the series, Kyubey has always been an enemy of entropy. An enemy of stasis.
In the post-credits sequence, Kyubey is visually represented in a way that’s unique to the series so far. I think it’s safe to say that even Kyubey has finally gained a bit of “life experience.” Though the Madoka depicted at the end of Hangyaku no Monogatari may be a Madoka that’s unfamiliar and uncomfortable to me, it’s impossible to deny that the future of the franchise has some intriguing possibilities in store. What happens when someone finally manages to force Kyubey’s back against the wall?
I can’t wait to find out.