Anime Reviews: Magic Knight Rayearth

1994-95; Director: Toshihiro Hirano; Studio: TMS
1994-95; Director: Toshihiro Hirano; Studio: TMS

A long time ago, back when there was an International Channel on the TV dial, I promised myself after watching the last few episodes of the soap-operatic Fushigi Yuugi that I would never again get involved with another girl-centered series. Years later, I look back on that moment and contemplate where my continuous venture into Japanese animation has taken me since. I’ve seen, reviewed and enjoyed Paniponi Dash, Azumanga Daioh, and Princess Jellyfish (the former two now sit on my DVD shelf), I have also sat through Loveless (which made me swear off shonen-ai series for life), and I’ve also indulged in some adaptations of the works of CLAMP, the undisputed queens of shoujo. I've even been collecting the xxxHOLiC manga.

Call me a sucker for a cute face.*

Magic Knight Rayearth, another CLAMP series, takes place in the faraway land of Cephiro, where the grass is green, the birds are singing, and everyone is living peaceful, happy lives. It is kept this way because of one person—the “Pillar” of Cephiro, one Princess Emeraude—whose job it is to pray and wish for Cephiro’s continuous prosperity. Recently, however, the land has fallen into chaos, and monsters have roamed the countryside terrorizing the populace. A concerned Emeraude, from deep inside an underwater prison, summons outside help—warriors from another world, namely ours, to become the legendary Magic Knights, revive three mysterious entities known as Rune Gods, save the princess, and restore Cephiro to its former glory.

The candidates for knighthood are three junior high school girls from Tokyo who are strangely color-coded for our convenience. Hikaru Shidou (red) is your everyday adolescent with a perky attitude, and she is the most eager to save Cephiro. Umi Ryuuzaki (blue), student of a school for rich kids, is for the most part willing to do it just to get back home, but grows more motivated as the show continues. Fuu Hououji (green), a quaint bespectacled girl who attends a school for geniuses, is rather polite and serves as the voice of reason between the three.

The program is divided into two seasons. Season one tells the aforementioned story and introduces other characters (master mage Clef, weaponsmith Presea, rogue knight Ferio and mascot character Mokona) as the girls battle a rebellious high priest named Zagato and his various minions. The first season is good, but has some faults. The first that comes to mind is its length; at a short twenty episodes, the story is forced to develop at a hurried pace, making certain plot points come and go almost too fast. Also there is the writing; as the result of the rushed story, miniplots are resolved one per episode, and the overall result has the feel of a video game. (The girls even make note of this on occasions.) In its defense, though, the ending was nothing I was expecting—don’t expect this to be a typical defeat-the-baddie-save-the-princess story, that’s all I’m saying.

The second season picks up almost immediately where season one leaves off, as the girls mysteriously return to Cephiro to find it still in chaos, and facing invasion from three neighboring countries for reasons which would force me to give away the ending to season one were I to reveal them here. Season two was a visible improvement which fixed a number of problems from season one. For one thing, it's nine episodes longer, so the plot has more room to breathe. Also, the neighboring countries' ships are clearly influenced by mecha shows and Chinese and Indian décor, which was nice, and we also get to see the universe of and surrounding Cephiro expand and are introduced to some fun new characters.

While we’re on the topic of characters, our three heroines are interesting ones. Much of the series appeared to focus on Hikaru, who is perpetually cheerful and otherwise emotional in all situations. Fuu was an enjoyable character to watch, even though she had a habit of constantly stating the obvious. Umi, however, was a pleasant surprise—I came into this expecting the rich girl to act all snooty and stuck-up, and despite her occasional frustration, she doesn't act as snobbish as one would expect. The rest of the cast range from interesting to just there, depending on their role in the series. Presea was regrettably underdeveloped and Clef seemed to merely pop in and out early on, while Ferio and Mokona made a decent love interest and comic relief, respectably. The designs of each character fit perfectly well to boot.

Magic Knight Rayearth is best described as a series where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It has its flaws, but it is in no way a bad show—it's full of surprises, it looks as fantastical as one would expect from the makers of xxxHOLiC and Cardcaptor Sakura, and when watched from beginning to end it tells a good story and gives us some fun heroines to root for.

*This does not apply to Loveless, which I was forced to watch in my college anime club and found greatly disturbing with overt allusions to pedophilia and a plot that went absolutely nowhere.

tl;dr:

PROS
CONS
Various artistic influences present; story contains some very entertaining twists
Season one is episodic and a bit rushed; some characters underdeveloped

Magic Knight Rayearth: awesome or crap?

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