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This post is image heavy and will, obviously, contain spoilers for both the Puella Magi Madoka Magica anime series and Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Rebellion, the movie. I would strongly suggest you not read this post unless you have seen both.

This is a selective reading - I do omit many events that I think are irrelevant - but that is a flaw in essentially all analyses of this type. Media analysis is not an exact science. And Rebellion, being a story with symbolism this complex, ensures that I will inevitably leave something out. I apologize in advance for any omissions, or any issues with the method (as opposed to the substance). All screenshots used are claimed under the Fair Use exemption for educational uses. (Also, sorry about the logos in the screenshots.)

Also, content warnings for basically everything having to do with PTSD, including depression and suicide.


Puella Magi Madoka Magica
is a series that has been said to be an allegory for depression and decay. But there is another theme in the Rebellion story worth picking out: trauma.

Magical girls in the PMMM universe lead a deeply lonely existence, fighting horrors conjured from the despair of mankind. It is no surprise that this experience - being stigmatized, set apart from everyone, and tasked to fight against an enemy that will never give up, unlike you - is not only isolating, but can lead to PTSD. If members of the military can gain PTSD from fighting wars with an entire army supporting them, is it really any wonder that magical girls, who experience much of the same stress coupled with isolation, would too?

Rebellion is the story of Homura breaking under the strain.

I: Isolation

The beginning of Rebellion is a pleasant and fun romp, the kind of story that most people think of when they hear "magical girl series". The girls are fighting in a magical team together, their interpersonal issues somehow having vanished. It appears at first to be a different continuity; it starts just like the series, too, with Madoka waking up and getting ready for school.

But then there is the opening.

The opening credits of this movie depict, in stylized form, Homura's experience of the original anime series. Throughout, Homura is pictured as being alone, and unable to experience the joy of life:

But Madoka reaches out to her, which gives her the will to go on:

So Homura fights. So Homura devotes her life to saving Madoka. But when she finally manages to reach back, Madoka disappears:

Her experience leaves her with nothing except a pair of ribbons and the knowledge that Madoka is happy, somewhere - a somewhere she can't get to, and a somewhere that nobody else knows exists.

The real danger in a traumatic experience is not that it happens. The real danger is the social isolation afterwards. Strong communities can mitigate much of the psychological impact of, say, natural disasters. Isolated people who feel they will not be believed if they tell anyone about what happened to them are the ones that most often break.

The sequence of events in the anime leave Homura with nothing to show of what she went through, of her sacrifices, but her memory of the time before - and memory is fallible.

II: Dissociation

Dissociation is a kind of mental defensive wall behind which one retreats, when things get too traumatic. Some people learn to do it consciously, and some drugs cause it, but in the context of trauma, it is often an early, learned, unconscious response to trauma: a way to function despite the pain.

Here is a quote from the VA website, explaining types of dissociation in relation to PTSD:

  • An ‘out-of-body’ or depersonalization experience during which individuals often see themselves observing their own body from above [...] has the capacity to create the perception that ‘this is not happening to me’ and is typically accompanied by an attenuation of the emotional experience.
  • Similarly, states of derealization during which individuals experience that ‘things are not real; it is just a dream’ create the perception that ‘this is not really happening to me’ and are often associated with the experience of decreased emotional intensity.

I must note that dissociation is not inherently bad; dissociation can be invoked for feats like hypnosis, or integrated into spiritual practice. But dissociation that is triggered unconsciously to shield one from trauma is generally not a pleasant experience - especially when you have no idea what figment of real or perceived danger caused it, no context in which to understand it, and no way to turn it off.

Some sort of representation of derealization is evident when Homura starts seeing people with blank faces.

And similarly the images of Homura, seen through fences, cut throughout the above sequence, seem to represent depersonalization:

Although the pop-psych "recovered memories" construct is generally not supported by the evidence, there most likely exists a lesser version involving not really thinking/reacting to trauma until it seems "safe" to do so. [Update: I have since been convinced that recovered memories are indeed things that exist.] PTSD sometimes has a delayed onset, not showing up until years or decades after the original trauma.

Of course, things just get stranger from there.

III: Pretend

People with PTSD know that they feel different from everyone else. Their first impulse is to conceal this and try not to let anyone know. To pretend to act normal. They don't feel like they can ask for help, because asking for help wouldn't get them help. Asking for help might let others know of their weakness.

I'd explain what I mean using a quote, but the movie itself explains this better than I can. Observe this sequence, immediately after Homura and Kyoko realize they can't leave the city. Kyoko's response is to fight back, but Homura's response is more interesting:

(Actually, that last image doesn't have much to do with the sequence, I just think Kyoko's reaction is amusing.)

For normal people, for healthy people whose relationships have trust, the reaction to a puzzle like this should be to get other people in on it, especially when they seem to be having the same experience as you. But Homura learnt first that her existence as a magical girl had to be hidden from everyone, then that what she learnt from her many timelines would not be believed by anyone, and finally that the one person she would trust - Madoka - abandoned her. She has been taught, like many traumatized people, that there is no point asking for help. So she turns inward, pretends she hasn't seen the things she's seen, and copes as best she can.

IV: Intrusion

But memories cannot really be erased from the mind. Especially not the emotionally charged memories that come with trauma. One of the primary symptoms of PTSD is that "triggers" (things related to the trauma) can cause the memories, or more specifically the intense emotions associated with the memories, to come right back. Just as intense, and as terrifying, as they were the first time around.

These fragments of memories will go on attempting to jam themselves into awareness. They may or may not have been repressed once, but that does not matter now; trying to repress them again never seems to work for long. Not that Homura wants to.

V: Cognitive Distortion

Knowing who she is, Homura decides to instead judge her own behavior harshly, maybe too harshly: a pattern that is also common in trauma.

She sets up a rigid idea of what she should act like, and believes there is no redemption possible if these rules are violated.

(Incidentally, the chants of "Fort! Da!" are a quote from a work by Freud. Whether this implies the psychodrama is intentional is up to you.)

Madoka tries to show Homura that she is worth such redemption - after all, Madoka ascended to offer all magical girls such redemption - but Homura won't have it.

There is much discussion on the meanings of the scene that immediately follows, in the flower field. I have little original thought to add to this pile. Suffice it to say Homura asks the wrong question, and thus gets the wrong answer.

VI: Suicidality

To understand this next part, to go forwards, we first need to go backwards in the chronology of the movie, to when this happened:

Of course, that time, when Homura was shooting herself in the head, it was a bluff, to throw off Mami. But it was also foreshadowing. PTSD almost always occurs next to depression, or at least feelings very like depression. And depression can result in suicide.

The US military's suicide rate passed the US military's combat-death rate in 2012.


But we are at least allegedly analyzing a work here, so let's go on. Homura realizes she is the witch she's looking for. Her first reaction is to use her soul gem for target practice.

This, unsurprisingly, fails to kill her.

So, after the bunnycat's infodump, she turns to the others, who she believes will kill her:

Well, that's cheerful.

VII: Betrayal

There is also much discussion of the way that the "Luminous" two-chairs-in-a-field scene gets twisted into Homura's worst nightmare.

The consensus is that it has something to do with Homura's feelings of helplessness and betrayal at Madoka's repeated deaths and finally ascension, which seems about right to me.

But that's the thing. One of the reasons Vietnam war veterans have it so much worse than most other war veterans, argues one Jonathan Shay, is because they feel betrayed. From their perspective they won all the battles they were in. It was the government that planned badly, made their winning useless, and lost the war. (Whether this is true or not is another subject entirely. Politics should be discussed elsewhere.)

Likewise: Homura made a wish, to save and protect Madoka. And she bled for the wish hundreds of times, because every wish the Incubators grant comes true - whether or not the girl who wished it truly wanted it, in the end.

Every wish except hers.

VIII: Fragmentation Of Memory

And thus Homura both hates the Incubators, for trapping her in this hell, and herself, for not being good enough to save Madoka anyway, or for not being good enough to notice that her wish had been fulfilled somehow, or for not being good enough to make a wish that would actually make her happy.

Self-hatred tries to cover all the bases like that.

But her friends, her friends try to save her. The ensuing battle is essentially what happens when you have an unlimited animation budget and a fondness for mixed media. It's about what you'd expect (inasmuch as you can expect PMMM at all), right up until this bit:

The My Little Po-Mo blog has an interesting analysis of what this scene might be.

Homura's witch form is an endless cycle of self-flagellation, a psychodrama in which she acts out the events that brought her to despair and punishes herself for her failures. She tries to shoot herself, and the self she shoots becomes the Madoka she had to mercy-kill. She cannot die, does not deserve to die, the way that Madoka did, because she has failed to save Madoka.

But I'm going to sidestep that. Because there's a thing, with traumatic memories, ones that overwhelm one's ability to understand. They don't get stored as regular memories, like a birthday party or a vacation. When the brain never finishes being able to process a memory, it stays stored in fragments. Shards of emotion are separated from shards of sensory information are separated from shards of time sense. The effect is to destroy the ability to recall the emotion calmly, or even in the right order for that matter.

Homura's most traumatic memory is that of mercy-killing Madoka. Because she couldn't talk to anyone about it (the only person she'd seriously consider trusting with this memory would be Madoka, and this poses immediately obvious problems), it never got properly processed and she had to dissociate from it to survive, to pretend nothing happened. She didn't come to an emotional understanding of what happened. And because the memory was never processed or understood, the memory was broken into shards, and she broke with it. By the final timeline, she is running on nothing but willpower and a promise she'd made many years before.

By the time she realizes Madoka isn't coming back, her fate is already sealed.

IX: Instinct

So what's kept Homura going this long? Saving Madoka.

Her plans of suicide-by-cop, I mean by magical girl, having failed, she falls back on the only thing that's kept her sane for years: saving Madoka.

The only problem is this time she actually has the power to do it.

I can see it now: Homura, awake in bed, unable to sleep, a couple nights before the Incubators take her. Turning over and over the fragment of memory in her head that is Madoka making her wish. She's inspected the wording a thousand times, hoping against hope that there was a loophole. And finally: she sees it. Madoka promised to cleanse all soul gems with her own hands.

This isn't a serious plan, not at the time that she first thinks of it. Only the fatalistic musings of a deteriorating soul gem. But when she wakes up on that slab with her blackened Soul Gem in her arms and a head full of fire, her first instinct is to save Madoka. And since the Incubator was so kind as to give Homura all the pieces of the puzzle, she knows who she needs to save Madoka from:

(Kyubey's punchable face doesn't help at all.)

She falls back on the instinct that has kept her alive all these years. Her life has long since been pared down to what will save Madoka? So this doesn't take effort. Following the ruts already worn into the brain (or soul gem, as it were) by years of one's thoughts going around in circles is easy.

Taking the first step, to break out of that fatalism, is much harder.

Madoka may offer Homura love, forgiveness, salvation. But Homura has gone through so much, she can no longer see it. Because in the depths of her mind, broken and broken and broken, Madoka can't help her. Homura was teetering on the edge of closing herself off from even Madoka's boundless love; the Incubator just gave her the final push.

Instead of opening herself up to healing, Homura follows her instincts instead, by taking matters into her own hands.

X: Forgetting

Homura may be able to rewrite the world in her own image now. And she's finally gotten her wish: her wish of being strong enough to protect Madoka. But it turns out that hasn't helped her feel any better at all.

Unfortunately, revenge and fulfillment don't fix PTSD.

(Moe!Madoka doesn't fix it either. She sure is cute though.)

Homura is just as alone as she was in the opening credits.

She still believes herself to be unforgivable.

And her psyche is still shot through with images of suicide.

But no matter how hard one tries to repress a traumatic memory, something inside oneself will always remain, to remember.

Homura can try to forget all she wants. And she can try to enforce her idea of forgetting on the universe all she wants. But it's only a matter of time until the memories start resurfacing again. For her, and for everyone.

XI: Conclusion

Homura still tells herself it was worth it. Even as she doubts it herself.

I wish for a world where Homura can be happy, too. But it won't happen, not in the world of Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Because in Rebellion, her story is a tragedy: a broken girl who breaks the world, and only then realizes that nothing she does will soothe the pain.

See this article, on reenactment of trauma:
Many individuals re-create and repetitively relive the trauma in their present lives. These phenomena have been called reenactments. For example, it has been found that women who were sexually abused as children are more likely to be sexually or physically abused in their marriages. It has been noted that traumatized individuals seem to have an addiction to trauma.
All Homura has done in Rebellion is set herself up for more pain. Because it's only during the pain, while trying to save Madoka, that she has any idea what she's doing. Without a Madoka to save, she is nothing.

Even the pain is dear to her now because Homura isn't Homura anymore, without it.

At least she got her revenge.

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January 2015


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