Madoka Kaname (voiced by Aoi Yuki) is no ordinary Japanese schoolgirl. Blessed with awesome magical powers she defends Mitakihara City from bizarre-looking evil monsters called Nightmares, fighting alongside her fellow magical girls Sayaka (Eri Kitamura), Kyoko (Ai Nonaka) and Mami (Kaori Mizuhashi) and their oh-so-cute-and-cuddly magical animal sidekicks, Kyubey (Emiri Kato) and Bebe, who looks like Mickey Mouse redesigned by Pablo Picasso. To Madoka's joy the new kid at school, shy and geeky Homura Akemi (Chiwa Saito) turns out to be a magical girl too. She joins their nightly battles with the forces of darkness. However it so happens Homura is haunted by memories of another life on another world where another Madoka was her dearest friend until it all ended tragically. As Homura risks her soul to put right what once went wrong, Madoka attempts to redeem her friend only to unravel the very fabric of the universe.
The original Puella Magi Madoka Magica television series and subsequent two-part compilation films subverted the sugary sweet 'magical girl' sub-genre in anime into a candy-coloured nightmare. A rare work of modern fantasy that pushed boundaries while remaining phenomenally popular, the franchise arguably reached a perfect conclusion yet made far too much money for the creators not to revisit the well one last (?) time. More often than not the trend in feature film spin-offs for popular anime shows is to give the fans what they want on a larger scale with more lavish animation, geeky what-if scenarios, dream-team combos and fanciful storylines that do not impact on the carefully crafted continuity. To an extent this is exactly what PMMM3: Rebellion does, at least in its first act.
Newcomers will be completely bewildered. Rebellion is strictly for those who have already caught the Madoka bug, are deeply invested in these characters and can savour its fever dream narrative without explanations. Set in the alternate reality conjured at the cimax to the series, the film's first act plays a neat postmodern game pondering what life would be like for Madoka and friends were this a 'regular' magical girl story. In keeping with this semi-parodic charade there is great deal of fan service (Mami's bosoms never got this much attention in the series!) Each heroine has their own exquisitely animated transformation sequence that are mini masterpieces of pop art wonderment. As a piece of moving art Rebellion is a feast for the eyes that takes the already heady kindergarten art class aesthetic into even wilder realms of psychedelic surrealism. Co-directors Akiyuki Shinbo and Yukihiro Miyamoto juxtapose Ume Aoki's fluidly animated, lovingly rendered kewpie doll cute chara designs with crazy calico patterns in the sky, insane action sequences that put The Wachowski siblings to shame, and playful cut-out animation that comes across like a crazed collision of Dr. Seuss and Heironymous Bosch as brought to life by Terry Gilliam with silhouette puppets by Lotte Reineger. The soundtrack is equally extraordinary: an operatic collage of J-pop, discordant classical anthems and a nightmarish soundscape worthy of David Lynch.
Ah yes, nightmares. For as Madoka fans know this fiendish franchise specializes in distorting the toy-box imagery of a young girl's fondest dreams into the most delirious childhood nightmare. At first Rebellion teases with subtle glimpses of unnerving parallel worlds and strange beings intruding on Madoka's happy reality. In an early classroom scene played for laughs yet with sinister undertones the comedy relief schoolteacher startles her students with an inexplicable rant about the approaching apocalypse. Slowly, the mood starts to shift as both the narrative and visuals grow increasingly unearthly and dreamlike in intensity. As in The Matrix (1999), an innocent comes to suspect the reality they inhabit is not what it seems. However, unlike The Matrix this character is a messianic hero only in their own mind. Rebellion boldly argues the need for non-compromised truth can prove as destructive as a retreat into fantasy. In other words, the world does not have to be a certain way in order to have value or meaning. What matters is how we choose to live our lives.
Once again the touching friendship between Madoka and Homura provides the emotional flavour notes to this stewing cauldron of ideas. What unfolds between the two will prove controversial with Madoka fans as the film's truly audacious third act replaces the original message of redemption through an act of selfless love with a disturbing new conclusion wrought by an act of selfish love. In a flourish of mind-blowing experimental visuals that even outdoes Adolescence of Utena (2000), another trippy feature film spun-off from a popular magical girl franchise, in that instance Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997), Shinbo and Miyamoto cruelly tease with a finale even more mind-blowing and life-affirming than the original series before unleashing the Antichrist. On one level it is slightly disheartening yet one has to admire the sheer bravado of the creators detonating their delicately constructed storyline so spectacularly. In fact the results qualify as arguably the most fiendishly original horror film of recent times. Keep watching past the end for a rather unsettling post-credits scene.