Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie: Rebellion

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I’ve always been more a fan of continuations than re-tellings or re-imaginings, so among the three Madoka movies, this was the one that I anticipated the most. I only skimmed through the first two, which were only recaps of a show I finished watching over four years ago, but which remains burned in my brain as one of my all-time favorites. Heck, Sayaka is my avatar.

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I also recently dropped Sailor Moon Crystal, because a straightforward magical girl tale just never appealed to me as much as a subversion or deconstruction of same, which Madoka is. With Rebellion, the recaps are over, and I finally get to see what happened after Madoka sacrificed her very existence in order to save Homura and her friends. And I have to say, I liked what I saw.

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After Madoka, Sayaka, Mami, and Kyouko dispatch a “nightmare,” Rebellion begins as if a reset button had been pressed. Madoka awakes and goes through the same morning motions as she does in the first episode of the tv show. Then a twin-braided, bespectacled, friendly and cheerful Akemi Homura transfers in, befriends Madoka and the others, and soon joins them in their periodic nightmare battles.

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Even when their classmate Shizuki turns into a nightmare, they’re able to change her back into a normal human without any harm done. This is an ideal world in which everything is too good to be true. Ironically, it’s a world I, as someone who wants these girls to simply be able to enjoy such a life without further hardship, don’t have that big a problem with! Everyone’s alive; everyone’s friends; everyone is working together; and there seem to be no consequences to being magical girls.

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Homura goes through enough of this that she eventually begins to suspect something is very wrong, as memories of past worlds she inhabited begin to surface. In this way, the movie starts with the “Happily Ever After.” But Homura’s returning memories, vague as they are, become a splinter in her mind she cannot ignore, so both the Happy and the Ever After eventually fade for her.

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Homura takes Sakura with her to the town where Sakura says she used to live, yet doesn’t remember much about it. Yet no matter how many times hey take the bus or even walk, they can’t seem to leave Mitakihara City; as if there’s nothing beyond it. In a movie full of memorable sequences, this entire surreal journey to nowhere is particularly goosebump-inducing, with sound and image in perfect strange harmony.

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This leads Homura to believe this is a false city where she and the others are being imprisoned. She suspects Bebe, Mami’s familiar whom we’ve never seen before, of being a witch, but Mami, having no idea what’s going on, intervenes and threatens punishment if Homura hurts Bebe. But Homura isn’t about to let the mastermind behind this plot go.

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That can only mean one thing: Mami and Homura square off with lots and lots of guns and acrobatics in what I’d describe as one of the best one-on-one battle sequences in the Madoka franchise. It wasn’t just the speed and complexity of the battle that excited, but all the twists and turns it took, from Homura threatening to shoot herself in the head, causing Mami to drop her guard so she can shoot her in the leg, only for her target to be a decoy Mami set up. All because these two girls couldn’t talk it out and let tempers flare.

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Sayaka flies in frees Homura from Mami’s custody, while a Bebe in human form comes to explain things to Mami. When they’re alone, Sayaka asks Homura why things can’t just stay the way they are if everyone’s happy. But her knowledge that something isn’t right is proof that while this is the “real” Sayaka, she’s more than just a magical girl now.

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Later that night, Madoka finds Homura drifting in a canal boat (another gorgeous, lyrical sequence), and they discuss what’s eating her: that being the thought that nothing here is real and there was another time when she lost Madoka and tried desperately to bring her back. Madoka assures her those were all just bad dreams; they’re together here and now, that’s all that matters.

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Homura is convinced this Madoka is the real one too, but she wants to test one last thing: whether she herself is even a magical girl. She does this by tossing away her soul gem and traveling past the maximum distance she can be from it (a tried and true method from the original show). When nothing happens, she knows things aren’t right in the world. Then that world starts to deteriorate around her, and the reality descends upon her that she is a witch, and this false city is a construct of her own making.

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The world around her starts to deteriorate, as the reality descends upon her that she is a witch, and this is false city is a construct of her own making. Then Kyuubey shows up and starts talking. More precisely, Homura is a magical girl on the cusp of becoming a witch, due to the despair of losing Madoka and being the only one who remembers her. The Incubators placed her in an isolated space as an experiment to lure the godlike Madoka, the “The Law of Cycles”, whom they hoped to control in order to maximize the energy they can harvest from magical girls becoming witches.

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When Madoka came to where Homura was, she lost the memory of her duty and powers as the Law of Cycles, and became trapped in the false city along with her two assistants, Sayaka and Bebe. While this sounds a little convoluted on paper, in practice it’s perfectly consistent with vulnerability of the damaged Homura the TV show (and previous movie) ended with, and the cold opportunism of the Incubators.

It also makes sense that Homura would choose to complete her witch transformation at the cost of her own soul, in order to keep the Incubators from screwing with Madoka anymore. Because it’s not a self-preserving move, it’s a move they don’t see coming. But the other magical girls arrive and go against her wishes, freeing her from the false city and find her real body in a desolate wasteland.

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It’s a move that restores Madoka’s memories and powers as Law of Cycles back, but at a price: Madoka is once again exposed to the Incubator’s meddling, not to mention the still-alive Homura’s own desires. When she descends upon Homura to clear her soul gem of despair, Homura grabs her and releases the contents of the gem, which isn’t despair, but love, the ‘most powerful of emotions’ and the one Kyuubey is least equipped to understand. This is Homura following through on her promise never to let Madoka go, having been given an opportunity she didn’t ask for, but did hope for.

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Things get more and more out of hand from there, with Homura suppressing Madoka’s godlike powers and transforming into a kind of Anti-Law of Cycles, calling herself a “demon” in contrast to Madoka’s angel-like form. With her new powers, she rewrites the laws of the universe just as Madoka once had, only this time both of them are alive and well in a real world, not a mere illusion caused by the experimentation of the Incubators.

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In this new world, Madoka is the transfer student rather than Homura, and sports a yellow ribbon rather than red, which Homura sports instead. Homura still has all her memories of what went on in the previous universes, and it shows on her universe-weary, glasses-less face. Her love for Madoka is a twisted, possessive love now, borne from pressing countless reset buttons and literally going to hell and back.

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So, all’s well that ends well, right? Well…no. This is Madoka we’re talking about. Homura merely suppressed Madoka’s Law of Cycle powers, and her memory of them. The powers are still there, and even while she’s showing Madoka around the school, a momentary recollection has her suddenly about to transform back into that godlike being.

Homura has to embrace her tightly to stop the transformation, but a time will probably come when she can’t, and the angel and demon will become enemies with opposing goals. In other words, all’s well that ends well for the time being, if you happen to be on Homura’s side. This is very much in keeping with the franchises refusal to hand out happy or even easy endings, preferring qualified, ambiguous, or just plain strange ones. After all that’s happened, consequences and compromises were inevitable. The show doesn’t rule out future problems…nor future rewrites of the universe.

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The post-credits sequence is strange indeed, but again, nothing new for this franchise. Sitting high above the city she in effect controls, apparently content with the way things are (again, for now), and fully equipped and prepared to defend the way things are, whether it’s keeping Madoka from rising back to godhood or keeping Kyuubey neutralized.

If Homura has to be “evil” in order to share the real world with the one she loves by suppressing her true nature, so be it.

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And so, the best series of the Winter 2011 season ends – in late April – not with a whimper, but with – what else – the re-making of the entire universe. Madoka can make any wish, so she decides to wish for there never being any witches. This pisses off Incubator, but it happens. Of course, there’s a price to be paid. That price is, no more Madoka. Aside from episode 10, this is the only time the heroine is a maho shojo, and she’s nothing like any other; as her newly-gained godlike powers allow her to free the souls of maho shojo from soul gems all over the world, so they’ll never become witches. No maho shojo, no witches.

Of course, even though Madoka makes sure to be as explicit and detailed with her wish as possible, the universe proves just as devious as Incubator. The new universe she creates still has Maho Shojo, but they fight “magical beasts” rather than witches. Ah well, close enough! Kyubey is still around, but it seems he’s more of a friend than a trickster. Also, in the realm/void between the end of the old universe and the birth of the new one, Madoka and Homura say their goodbyes, and Madoka gives her her hair ribbon. The result of this is, Homura is the only person who remembers Madoka. Even for her brother, Madoka is just an imaginary friend. While Madoka is now free of her fate, Homura can’t be all that happy her best friend had to sacrifice her entire existence in order to eliminate witches.

While this series has never been shy about highly abstract settings, especially when dealing with witches, the whole end-of-the-universe transition was a little sudden and overwrought, with whispers of End of Evangelion. The naked space Madoka and Homura bordered on silly-looking, and their tearful goodbye, while earned, bordered on sappy at times. Despite these issues, the series ended strong, and now complete, I can count it among my favorite anime series due to its highly original and entertaining twist on the maho shojo genre. It’s also perhaps Akiyuki Shinbo’s finest non-comedy series. Don’t be put off by the girly opening and frilly costumes; this series has true grit. Rating: 3.5

Series Mean Ranking: 3.750

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I feared the month-long hiatus would have killed most of the momentum gained after the milestone tenth episode that chronicles Akemi Homura’s odyssey through time and space to protect Madoka. Those fears were mostly allayed by yet another episode that may not have been as action pack as last month’s, but was certainly full of crucial information and more startling revelations. Kyubey figures out Homura’s power, but is never worried about it, and in fact is congratulatory towards Homura. This is because he believes by pressing the reset button so many times, Homura has allowed Madoka to become a more and more powerful magical girl, and thus her karmic burden grows more and more immense.

This is one last ef-u for Homura, who has apparently been working so hard to avoid exactly what her actions have caused: a ridiculously-powerful Madoka. Worse still, even in this timeline, there is no way Homura can prevent Madoka from contracting. Everyone else is dead; Madoka is responsible, and even though she knows Kyubey is up to no good, she is compelled to lend Homura a helping hand, even if it means abandoning her family. Madoka’s mind is made up once Homura finally opens up to her about what’s going on and why.

Homura initially tries to fight Walpurgisnacht herself, but not surprisingly fails, despite some impressive pyrotechnics (which seemingly destroy a fair amount of the city). Bloodied and beaten, Homura lies amongst debris, and for once, hesitates to turn back time; doing so would only hurt Madoka more, in her mind. With Homura down and out and no more magical girls extant, Madoka has to step in, stand tall, and make a bad deal with a cold, logical alien; taking her mother’s advice to stop being so good and do something bad for once. Rating: 4

Puella Magi Madoka Magica Postponement Update

“Due to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, the broadcast of episodes 11 and 12 have been postponed, though [a producer] mentioned the delay will allow extra time for the animation studio to improve the drawings for both episodes, with the staff aiming to have the final episode released by the middle of April 2011.”

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Did all that just flipping happen? After fleshing everyone else out previously, all that remained was Homura’s story. We got it, and it was fucking epic. Nothing in this episode would have made any sense without knowing everything that preceeded it, and at the same time, this added so much more dimension to an already excellent series by throwing time into the equation.

Homura was once an innoncent, ditzy human, who transferred to Madoka’s school and befriended her. But Madoka and Mimi were already Maho Shojo. When the Walpurgis night comes, Madoka sacrifices herself to save Homura. Not yet a Maho Shojo herself, she contracts with Kyubey with the wish that she be able to change time, as in reset the timeline to the point she first met Madoka, and protect her instead of the other way around.

Not only is the initial role reversal of Madoka and Homura outstanding – Madoka is, in most timelines, a full-fledged, bow-wielding maho shojo) but the fact that things keep going so wrong; Madoka keeps dying and Homura keeps resetting; really drives home how tortured Homura is by the time we meet her in episode one. Hell, things go so awry, there’s even a scene where Madoka has to kill Mami.

So Homura was never so much an aloof bitch; she’s just been downtrodden by so many lives and so many undesirable outcomes, and won’t stop trying to protect Madoka, out of her powerful friendship for her.

This episode cuts back and forth through time so much, but it’s all expertly and confidently held together and is always advancing the plot, without a hint of repetition. I love Groundhog Day-type situations like this, but this isn’t an unwanted causality loop; it’s Homura’s will. The entire series we’ve seen thus far is only one of an untold number of timelines that have already run their course. And yet, Madoka seems almost fated to be seduced by Kyubey – one way or another – fight Walpurgis, and become a witch so powerful she destroys the world.

The episode ends as the series begins, only this time we hear what Homura is screaming in Madoka’s “dream”: “Don’t contract.” And she still hasn’t, as of episode nine. Will this finally be the time Homura is able to defeat Walpurgis on her own, without Madoka contracting? We’ll see. Fantastic stuff. There just aren’t adequate words for how awesome this episode was. Rating: 4 ~Series elevated to Favorites~

Walking backwards or forwards? Both

I didn’t really notice it the first time round, but I’m watching Puella Magi Madoka Magica through with a friend, and she noted that in the ED, the way the figures are animated, you don’t know whether they’re walking/running towards or away from you. It’s a very neat optical trick, and actually fits well with the idea that Madoka is constantly torn between moving forward (contracting with Kyubey) and backwards (going on with her life as a human and let other Maho Shojo sort out the witches). Again, this may have been painfully obvious to many, but I didn’t catch it until my friend said so, and I think it’s neat, so there.

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Yikes, yet another one bites the dust in short order. I’m tellin’ ya, this series has guts. It’s taking us to a very dark place. Sakura is now killed, fighing off the witch Sayaka has transformed into. Homura is now the only maho shojo that currently stands between the looming mayhem of Walpurgis and the city. This puts Madoka in a spot, and Kyubey knows it.

Kyubey also lets loose about what he is and why he does what he does. He and his ilk are after energy. The best way to get it is to contract with girls, turn them into maho shojo, and then wait until they ‘mature’ into witches through the corruption of their soul gems into grief seeds. All witches, therefore, were probably human at one point, and may have been tricked into contracting by Kyubey-types…though they don’t (and can’t) see it as “tricking”.

Kyubey also lacks the capacity for emotion of any kind, so we can’t necessarily label him as evil; he’s no different from a lion on the Savannah. It may seem cruel how they’ll pick off weak or tired prey, but that’s how a predator survives: by exploiting any and every advantage nature throws at it. In this case, human girls are the prey, or rather a resource, that Kyubey coldly, logically coerces into essentially destroying themselves.

This is why Homura, from episode one, has been so determined not to let Madoka contract with Kyubey. Not because she doesn’t want strong competition; it’s because she doesn’t want her to end up ike Mimi, Sayaka, Sakura…or herself. At this point, I really don’t want Madoka to contract either. Why should someone with such a blessed, happy life throw her life and humanity away just to satisfy Kyubey’s hunger for energy?

Still, there’s no reason to doubt Kyubey’s assertion that Madoka would be the most powerful Maho Shojo if she contracted. That could mean she’d ultimately become the most powerful witch. Will Homura be enough to fend off Walpurgis? We’ll see. Meanwhile, I predict it will be most difficult for future 2011 series top the consistent excellence of Puella Magi. Rating: 4

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Wherein Sayaka loses her hope, her mind, and what’s left of her humanity, and falls, apparently transforming into a witch. This was a stark and cruel end for Sayaka, who never recovered from Kyubey’s scathing words that her soul was in the gem she bore. That gem continued to degrade, and Sayaka gave her first grief seed to Sakura and rejected it from Homura.

In case we weren’t already well aware, Kyubey is the villain here, at least so far. He seems absolutely hell-bent on making Madoka a maho shojo, and she actually asks him, but before he can oblige, Homura kills him just in time. Of course, he comes right back, the bastard; any entity that can cause miracles to happen won’t go so easily.

If Sayaka is indeed gone, Madoka’s choices have multiplied, and none of them are easy: she can contract with Kyubey, and trust that he speaks the truth that she’d be such an unparalleled magician as to be able to perform any miracle she likes. He could well be lying, but then again, it’s telling that someone so unwilling to become a maho shojo would happen to be the one with the most potential. Now that she has not one but two friends to try to save from oblivion, the temptation to contract is as tempting as ever.

But there can be no doubt, that a contract with Kyubey is as good as a deal with a Faustian devil: whatever wish Madoka will have, there will be a heavy cost – just as there was for Sayaka, Sakura, and Homura – that could not only leave Madoka wishing she’d never contracted to begin with, but wishing she’d never been born. This series is rapidly becoming my run-away favorite this season And the main character is still just a whiny ordinary girl! Rating: 4

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Because I’d only ever seen the Magical Girl genre parodied or lampooned (most recently in Zetsubo Sensei and Panty & Stocking), I was weary of what this show would be about. But it’s good, serious, dark stuff. Even though Sayaka loves her friend Kyosuke, whom she healed with her wish, she can’t even approach him after learning what the bastard Kyubey has done to her. And her friend Hitomi has decided to stop lying to herself and will confess to Kyosuke unless Sayaka stops her, which she doesn’t; at least not this week.

This is kind of the quid-pro-quo Sakura warned of while talking calmly with Sayaka in her father’s church. She gains a lot more depth this week by revealing her whole family was destroyed by her impulsive wish to net her dad – a “radical” cleric – more followers. After that, she learned that Maho Shojo can’t help anyone but themselves. If they try, people will get hurt, or killed. By the end of the episode, Sayaka seems to be warming up to that idea as well – rather than shouldering her pain and anguish, she lets the magic absorb it so she feels nothing – not even the attacks of her first bona fide witchhunt.

This series keeps getting better. I even decided to watch it before last week’s Index or this week’s Fractale, because I’m so engrossed in the story. I daresay this is my favorite of the season so far. There’s a lot to like: complex conflicts, ridiculously-flawed yet endearing characters, really awesome and often trip-tacular animation, kick-ass battles, and a rippin’ good soundtrack from start to finish. Bottom line, its just plain entertaining, and I can’t wait what new developments next week will bring. Rating: 4

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The more we learn about the world of Maho Shojo, the more twisted and messed-up it gets. While Sayaka didn’t think about it at the time, she’s come to the realization that most Maho Shojo aren’t like the kind, gentle Mami, but more like Homura and Sakura – in it for personal gain and for self-ingratiation. Mami was the exception, not the rule. Maho Shojo aren’t good people.

Still, strong in will and ideals, Sayaka refuses to back down. She’ll fight whoever threatens what she holds dear even if they aren’t witches, but other Maho Shojo. The only problem is, living a good pure life means living as a weak Maho Shojo; grief seeds must be collected to gain the power Sayaka desires. It’s a vicious cycle, and the weight on her slight shoulders is palpable when Sakura corners her outside her boyfriends house. Sakura isn’t weak or inexperienced. If they fought seriously, Sayaka would be toast.

Meanwhile, the more Kyubey says to Madoka, the more her reservations mount about becoming a Maho Shojo. She wants instead to be the angel on Sayaka’s shoulder that will tell her not to fight. But this insistence on peace leads Madoka to carelessly toss Sayaka’s soul gem over a bridge. Sayaka, in turn, goes unconscious and limp, as if dead, revealing one more tidbit: A Maho Shojo’s soul resides not in the body, but in their soul gem.

This is something even Sakura didn’t know, and when she learns of it, she’s devastated, putting her petty fight with Sayaka on hold.  I swear this Kyubey is quite a trickster; stirring up trouble in everyone’s life he enters, and putting them on paths he sets up. I wonder if there are other Kyubeys out there, and if they’re such cold, calculating bastards as this one is. There have also been numerous situations in which Madoka could have contracted and saved the day, but this has yet to happen. Kyubey has to be growing impatient with her at this point. Rating: 4

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As Madoka continues to weigh whether she should become a Majo Shojo for a surprising fifth week, Sayaka reaps the benefits of doing so right away, as her friend is able to play the violin beautifully like nothing ever happened. But the price of doing what Sayaka did, according to Homura, is too high. She tells Madoka she can’t protect Sayaka, and she should give up on her.

Majo Shojos all seem to be resigned to losing their lives at any moment, because, as Mimi demonstrated, they can. Contracting with Kyubei is almost like dying itself; you just stick around to fight witches until you have a bad day, and then, pfft. I can understand Madoka’s reticence, especially since her wish isn’t as specific or clear-cut as Sayaka’s was.

Madoka obviously wants to protect Sayaka, but that isn’t a wish. Furthermore, when a new, hardened Majo Shojo appears and tries to shoo Sayaka off, provoking her into a duel against one another, Madoka is moments from contracting when Homura shows up, to do just what she said she wouldn’t: keep an eye on Sayaka. She must really not want Madoka to become a Majo Shojo. Perhaps she knows, somehow, that if she did, there’d be no stopping her. Rating: 3.5

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Booyah! This was in my opinion the best episode of the season among all the new winter shows. The fact that Mami “bit it” but no one in the normal world knows, and she didn’t leave a corpse, really puts into perspective how tough it is to be a maho shojo. The dark undertone of this series so far is exactly what I was hoping for; the girls don’t just automatically contract with Kyubei; there has to be a deep, heartfelt reason to do so.

Sayaka finds it, as she can no longer live with the injustice of her friend – a violin prodigy – losing the ability to move his hands after an accident. His life of music was taken away, and there’s nothing a normal Sayaka can do about it, which crushes her. However, magic and miracles, she has learned, do exist, and she decides to make that contract, in exchange for her friend recovering his gift and hence, his life.

Equally moving is how she realizes that she isn’t just doing this for him; there is a part of her she detests that wants to be the one to save him, and for him to fall for her in return. It’s a selfish fairy tale in her mind, but it also happens to be perfectly doable. Considering the good her wish will do, though, I think she made the right choice.

I also like how we don’t actually witness Sayaka’s contracting and transformation; but she shows up in the nick of time to save Madoka, who is still too scared and indecisive to contract, and trapped in the middle of a group of people (including a classmate) charmed by a witch into poison themselves in a warehouse, possibly for nothing other than the witch’s amusement. This is dark stuff, and the suspense around Madoka’s peril is very well presented.

I’m really enjoying how witches and the creepy, crazy, messed-up way they futz with reality and perception. They’re so far removed from conventional reality, and yet know exactly how to manipulate humans, including Madoka, into wishing they had never been born, or to kill themselves at the drop of a hat, or whatever.

Anyway, Sayaka is now a maho shojo. Will Madoka follow suit? Obviously; I’m really looking forward to how. I’m guessing for now that Sayaka may start facing challenges from rival shojos wanting a piece of Mami’s former territory; and the rookie Sayaka unable to hold them back without Madoka’s or Homura’s help. But even though our main character isn’t a maho shojo yet, this episode rocked. Rating: 4

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Madoka and Sayaka tread deeper into the world of maho shojos and witches as they happen to encounter a grief seed while walking around. By this point, we learn that Sayaka will most likely wish for her ill friend to recover, while Madoka’s wish is simply to become useful and be good at something.  It’s also hinted that she has the potential to become an extremely powerful maho shojo.

Mimi warns her that being a maho shojo (at least in her experience) isn’t any picnic, as there’s pain, anguish, suffering, no time for boys, and no one to talk to about the weird shit going on in your life. Mimi puts up a brave front, but inside, she’s a mess. Madoka tells her not to worry; they’ll be a team and she won’t have to wallow in her loneliness anymore. Mimi is heartened.

But Mimi also underestimates the witch (despite some really slick gunplay) and apparently gets eaten. Madoka and Sayaka are moments away from contracting with Kyubei when Homura steps in to clean up the mess. Homura hopes this is a lesson to the girls to not enter her world, but with Mimi apparently gone (and “miracle” in the next ep’s title), I’ll bet Madoka’s wish will be to bring her back. Rating: 3