A review series requested by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, with thanks for multiple contributions to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Released one week after the first film, Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie - Eternal is a much looser concoction. Beginnings reduces eight episodes to 130 minutes; Eternal reduces four to 109 minutes. I cannot be certain without checking into the original show, but I suspect this means that Eternal is closer to being four uncut episodes stitched together without the re-imagining that made Beginnings hold together so well as a feature film (though it too had touched-up animation and, I believe, re-recorded lines).

The result is a distinctly less elegant construct qua movies, though there comes a part where you stop paying attention to elegance because things have become too enthralling. That's the other thing - Eternal is the climax to a story, so it has a leg up on being far more sweeping and exciting and consequential. And it's a right freaking good climax, too. If I may now swerve fully into baseless speculation, I find myself wondering if the movie works better in that regard than the series would have - the last "episode" (and it's extremely obvious, in this half of the dyad, where individual episode breaks occur) is virtually all wind-down and spiritual abstraction done up in over-saturated sparkly colors. As the wind-down to a movie, it's paced exactly right; watching it as its own 30-minute chunk of narrative media, I have to wonder if it might feel a bit stretched thin and anticlimactic.

Well, anyway, let's stay away from that rabbit hole. On its own merits, excepting the very distinctively episodic flow of the story, Eternal is a bold sequel and conclusion that takes advantage of the cliffhanger at the end of Beginnings to completely re-direct the intentions and meaning of the plot. You will, please, forgive me for being cagey in describing that plot; it's all but impossible to talk about Eternal's story without delving into the twists and turns that happen in the latter hour of Beginnings, and I'd rather not do that. There are two things in the first hour of Eternal that are very much worthy of consideration for how much they shift the emotional axis of the story. To begin with, we learn (or a least, we are enthusiastically invited to infer) more about the witch-realms than had previously been apparent: as we find in exploring a newly-created one (still depicted in the scrappy collage style that has made all of the witch-realm sequences so interesting to look at), they are assembled from the shards of ill-feeling of the witch who inhabits them - they are the embodiment of her anger and hopelessness. That's enough to make this first sequence rather more tragic than anything, but it also retroactively recasts all the previous witch fights as their own tragic odysseys. In essence, this is the passage through which Puella &c. reworks itself completely as a sorrowful human story instead of a magical girl adventure, not that there was still any real thought of that being the case. But it's here that even the witches themselves are absolved of their villainy.

The other switch happens in the second episode, and involves a most convoluted flashback that turns out to be dozens of flashbacks, or at least one flashback to dozens of time streams. And here's where the series makes its even bolder turn: suddenly, we have a new protagonist, only the way she's revealed as such indicates that she has, in fact, been the protagonist all along, and Madoka's confusion about making her wish has been merely the last small chapter of a very long struggle. It makes perfect sense when you're watching it. It is, at any rate, a remarkably successful change that digs down to make the series an even stronger character drama than it had been; instead of the somewhat schematic way that each of the magic girls (or magic girls in potentia) occupy a different slot on the "how selfless are we to be?" spectrum, the overall story now reveals itself to be about the deep, unconditional love felt by a friend, and the obsessive promise she makes to prove that love.

It's all deeply satisfying, even if I can barely talk about it. So let's switch gears to talk some more about the animation of all this. The design strategy largely remains the same (as it would have to, really), but I didn't talk nearly enough before about how that design translates into practice. At a glance, all the characters, and especially Madoka, are pastel cartoons, with the usual enormous anime eyes and faces coupled with generic and stylistically unlikely uniformity in their hair, eye, and clothing colors. Watching those figures express big, joyful glee is unexceptional; watching throughout Beginnings and into Eternal as those same figures start to feel fear, misgivings, and sadness is much different, and the slowed-down movement and increasingly heavy, downcast expressions of the characters - again, especially Madoka - is reliably jarring, in the best way possible. Directors Miyamoto Yukihiro and Shinbo Akiyuki, and their team of animators, find no limit to the number of ways they're able to make their simplistic cartoon girls feel ground down and desperate, which makes the last-act shift into a sequence so light it literally floats feel wonderfully earned.

I might also put in a word for the lighting: in its final stages, Eternal showcases some highly dramatic mixtures of gloom and piercing beams of light, rather like pre-Raphaelite paintings of storms. Someone with a better knowledge of Japanese graphic art history can tell me if that's as stunningly inept a comparison as I expect it is. But the point being, strong sunlight broken down and filtered becomes greatly important to building the mood of the film as it approaches its final conflict, with an encroaching sense of night that infects even a bouncy pop song montage that glosses over some redundant story bits.

Taken altogether, the two "original" parts of Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie tell a sneakily unsettling psychodrama using unexpectedly lush visuals, continuing to up-end the narrative with unanticipated shifts even after we "get" that's what it's doing. I must again retrench to my ignorance: I don't know what Japanese animated series are like in the 2010s, and perhaps this is all boringly routine stuff. But if that's the case, Japanese animation must be in a tremendously strong place, because even with some lumps and strain - four hours is plenty for this story, let alone even more - this series is damned impressive, visually and emotionally, with an increasingly sprawling narrative universe that always stays grounded in its own rules even as it goes bonkers towards the end.

Reviews in this series
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie - Beginnings (Shinbo, 2012)
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie - Eternal (Shinbo, 2012)
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie - Rebellion (Miyamoto, 2013)