This is a spoiler-laden review and initial analysis for a movie that so far has had only a limited theatrical release in English, and as such I am operating on the assumption that someone reading this both wants to see it and has not. As such, the actual review is behind a cut. As I said, it is spoilertastic. Consider yourself warned.
In Gnostic myth, the demiurge Ialdabaoth traps its creator, the divine spirit of wisdom Sophia, in the prison we know as material existence.
In Buddhist myth, the demon Mara uses the illusions and temptations of material existence to try to ensnare the would-be Buddha, and prevent the attainment of enlightenment.
Why do they do this? Normally it is assume d that they are simply evil (or in the case of Ialdabaoth, so wildly incompetent as to amount to the same thing). But maybe they have motivations, one that we might find sympathetic if only we could understand the feelings of such vast, cosmic beings. Maybe their motivations are even something we smaller creatures can understand, feelings we ourselves share.
In short, maybe they’re in love.
Throughout the first half of Rebellion, the main characters and their supporting cast are in what seems to be a far better world, for them. They are all happier than they were in the series: all five magical girls are alive and working together to easily take down Nightmares, Mami and Kyouko are no longer alone, Madoka and Homura are able to be friends as they were in the first timeline, and Sayaka is at peace with not getting the boy.
The downside is that no one outside this group is real, which makes sense for a world created by Homura; as I’ve argued before, she is the representative of in-group care ethics in the series, so of course her world only contains her in-group and a bunch of ciphers. Since the series is, arguably, Homura’s story, her in-group neatly maps on to the main and supporting characters from the series (though admittedly, she probably only drew in Madoka’s family, Hitomi, and Kyousuke because of their importance to Madoka and Sayaka).
The movie thus functions as a critique of that care ethos, balancing the critique of consequentialism in the series. Just as, in the series, Kyubey’s excessive consequentialism led him to be willing to torture and sacrifice young girls to stave off the heat-death of the universe, so is Homura willing to ignore the entire rest of the population of Mitadake City to make her friends happy–and that’s only in the first part. Depending on how one reads the remainder of the film after the battle with Homura’s witch form (apparently named Homulilly in supplementary materials), she may be risking the entire universe and overriding Madoka’s own choices in order to keep Madoka in the world she cherishes.
Put another way, Homura’s actions and descent into becoming a “demon” by the end of the film are based entirely on love. She takes care to craft the new world into one where the five magical girls can be happy, and in particular making it match as closely as possible the world Madoka treasures. She is acting entirely in accordance with her care ethos–but in the process is willing to become the living incarnation of evil, destroy the universe, and override Madoka’s preferences and choices for what Homura sees as Madoka’s own good. Just as Kyubey’s actions were correct from a consequentialist perspective and utterly monstrous from a care ethics, virtue ethics, or deontological perspective, Homura is acting correctly from a care ethics perspective and committing the worst possible violation of the others: risking universal catastrophe (consequentialism), becoming evil (virtue), and violating Madoka’s right to self-determination and agency (deontology).
This counterbalances the villainization of consequentialism in the series, because it is not that consequentialism is inherently wrong; rather, it’s that no meta-ethical approach is complete in itself. Excessive adherence to any one leads inevitably to becoming a moral monster in the eyes of the others; balancing them is the key to true morality.
This concept of balance is, of course, yet another way in which the series is intensely Buddhist. In the series, the Buddhist symbolism was mostly given to Madoka, whose story is that of the Bodhisattva Guan-yin (Japanese Kwannon (archaic) or Kanon) even as Homura’s story follows Goethe’s Faust (hence Homura being a transfer from a Christian school at the story’s beginning). In the movie, however, it is Homura’s turn to stand in for a Buddhist figure. As a weaver of illusions who creates a world to trap the Bodhisattva and make her forget her Buddhist nature, Homura is quite clearly the demon Mara, who attempts to do exactly that to the Buddha.
Like Mara, Homura fails; Madoka and the other magical girls ultimately break free of her barrier and return to reality, where Madoka reconnects to her ascended self. Here the series turns away from Buddhism and back to Christianity, and more specifically to the (now regarded as heretical) mystical system known as Gnosticism. Madoka now becomes identified with Sophia, stripped of her power and trapped within the material world by her own creation Ialdabaoth (admittedly, Demon Homura self-created, but used power stolen from Madoka to do it). As Ialdabaoth, Homura has taken up the role of guarding and sustaining the material universe by becoming the mistress of the Incubators.
But is Homura truly villainous now? Ialdabaoth certainly is, being ultimately responsible for all evil and suffering in Gnostic mythology. Gnosticism, however, is firmly world-denying; it opposes Ialdabaoth to Christ, who in Gnosticism is a purely non-human entity from outside material reality who enters it with the goal of liberating Sophia and all human souls from Ialdabaoth’s trap. Or, looking at it another way, he’s an inhuman alien being from an incomprehensible plane outside our universe that wants to destroy the world, rip out all our souls, and carry them back to his realm. In other words, if one regards the material universe as completely corrupt and worthless, Ialdabaoth is a cosmic evil; if one regards the material universe as being good, Christ is a Lovecraftian horror and Ialdabaoth our only protection from it.
Is there any hint that the movie might lean toward the latter perspective? To an extent there is. First, there’s the fact that the new reality is just that, a reality. The series has habitually used changes in art style to denote the illusory realms of the witch’s barriers, and the first half of the movie is no exception–even before Homura begins to figure out that the city is a fake, there are quite a few intrusions of other art into the false city. Despite that the new reality is shown as forming when Homura’s witch’s barrier expands to cover the entire cosmos, it is depicted consistently in the art style of the characters, with the few appearances of witch’s familiars only appearing at Homura’s command and self-erasing almost immediately. It is thus a real thing that Ialdabaoth/Homura is working to protect.
Second, Homura has had extensive character development by this point. Despite her declarations that she is now alone and taking on the role of everyone’s enemy, it is clearly just a role–she still arranges the new reality to be kinder and better for them than any previous universe. She worked alone throughout the series, but at the climax of the movie she demonstrates that she has learned to trust others–she knows that becoming a witch in close proximity to a depowered Madoka will not put Madoka at risk, because she trusts Mami and Kyouko to kill her. This is a Homura who can trust and work with others, who tries to bring some happiness, who has even managed to expand her in-group beyond Madoka to include other friends and allies–she is neither a monster nor a mindless gibbering incompetent, the two traditional depictions of Ialdabaoth. She is, in her interactions with Madoka, once again much closer to Mara, deliberately acting to keep Madoka focused on the world and away from connecting with her Buddha-nature.
Homura, in other words, has not fallen. She is not Lucifer, trying to usurp the power of God and as a result transforming into a creature of pure evil. Homura is a complex character, not a cosmic force such as Madoka became at the end of the series; she is not the incarnation of Love or Evil or anything else, but a person, who has made choices good, bad, and arguable, and now must live and work with the consequences of those choices.
Despite that she has done everything wrong from the perspective of most moral systems, she has also done everything right. From a consequentialist perspective, yes, she destroyed the universe, but now she is the universe’s protector. From a deontological perspective, yes, she overrode Madoka’s choices from the end of the series, but at the same time she has kept the goal Madoka sought intact while allowing Madoka to continue to exist as an incarnate person–she has, in other words, enabled Madoka (and Sayaka and Nagisa, for that matter) to regain their lost agency and capacity for self-determination. In terms of virtue ethics, yes, she embodies Evil now–but also she embodies Love, which most systems regard as being a virtue worth cultivating. And finally, from a universal care ethics perspective, she is helping to maintain the system Madoka established and holds the Incubators in check.
Devil and saint, good and evil, concept and character, demiurge and struggling young woman; Homura is an embodiment of contradictions and opposites, proving ultimately that all these seemingly disparate concepts are really one. It’s hard to get more Buddhist (or, for that matter, postmodern) than that.