Magic Knight Rayearth
Three very different (and conveniently color-coded) junior high schoolgirls, Shidou Hikaru, Ryuuzaki Umi, and Hououji Fuu, meet by chance during a school trip to Tokyo Tower. A bright light blinds them, and before they know it, they have been transported to Cephiro, a land of magic and monsters, where the power of will is the very foundation of all existence. Thankfully, they already have talents which allow them to survive in this new world, with the initial guidance of the youthful-appearing Guru Clef, who sends them on a journey to become the Magic Knights, to rescue the Princess Emeraude who summoned them in the first place, but has been ostensibly kidnapped by the Dark Priest Zagato, and, in the process, save the world of Cephiro. They are not alone, either, for they are accompanied by the bouncy, rabbit-like, uber-cute Mokona (named after CLAMP member Mokona Apapa), who seems to always have they need (unless they are confronted by monsters, of course). Throughout their various adventures, the three girls soon become close friends, and really that by sticking together, they just might have the power to save this world. But not all is as it seems in the world of will.
At first glance, Rayearth seems to be a silly take on the RPG genre, from a shoujo-manga (girls-comic) point of view. The main characters, while charming, are drawn from the archetypes of the hundred or so girls comics before it. The genki tomboy. The spoiled ojousama. The demure smart-girl-with-glasses. And then the girl-with-glasses says, "Oh wow, this is just like an RPG!" And the audience laughs, because she is cute (and SD), and this show has suddenly become rather funny.
Rayearth, much like its characters, its mascot, and the very world it portrays, is full of surprises, and a good deal more inspiring and deep than it ever claims to be. It is a series that unfolds lightly, but steadily drops you into more and more interesting situations, while the characters develop nicely into some of the most likable heroines in anime fantasy. I found myself consistently rooting for the spunky Hikaru, the graceful Umi, and (my personal favorite) the smart-or-is-she-just-silly Fuu as the episodes went on, laughing with them and crying with them as they went through trials I did not even imagine were ahead of them. Yeah, Rayearth has its silly SD bits, but with villains and allies who change sides, fall in love, and sometimes, die, this series takes its turn to the deadly serious. And the ending will definitely hurt - and you may not expect it. The girls certainly don't - but one of the neat things about this series is watching the girls overcome their obstacles, learn from their mistakes, and keep on going when all seems hopeless. It's as much a coming-of-age story as a fantasy, which certainly adds points in my book.
But then, we shouldn't expect any less from CLAMP. The manga form of Rayearth was intended to be a lighter, more audience-friendly work from the group that produced the angsty and brooding Tokyo Babylon and, later, X. But even in its lightest material (Card Captor Sakura), CLAMP has a tendency to present forbidden relationships, tangled romances, and heartbreak, and Rayearth is no different. But it is done tastefully, cleverly, and well, and the animated series is no different in that respect. However, the character designs might be a bit jarring to those used to seeing the styles of Clover, Card Captor Sakura, and Angelic Layer.
The animation itself is about average for a TV series, if maybe a little bit below average, but that doesn't detract at all from the storytelling. THEM is certainly quite used to the low frame rates and still-frames and pans that are used in most shoujo anime, but shoujo anime generally don't run towards high action sequences anyway. (Also, halfway through the series, Fuu ditches the bow and arrows, and her specialty in archery, for a two-handed sword which she couldn't possibly wield realistically, but whatever floats CLAMP's boat, I guess.) And the action sequences, while simply done, are certainly emotionally intense, which is what the creators were aiming for, rather than slick or detailed (which the creators that was comparatively unimportant). Of course, diehard action fans usually stay clear away from this sort of stuff anyway, which is a shame, really. And the music is pretty good, too, though I advise the viewer not to play the soundtrack's Mokona image songs on endless loop, due to the risk of brain damage. "Pu! Pu! Puuuuuuuu!!!!!"
Of course, I haven't yet mentioned the titular Rayearth, which is one of the "Magic Gods" (literally Mashin) that the Magic Knights eventually use to defend and save Cephiro. The Mashin are, in fact, sentient giant robots, which presages (by about a year or so) a similar fantasy-themed usage of the giant robot genre in Vision of Escaflowne.
But the series is never really about the robots, who meld with the backdrop for the real story, a rather good hero's journey, with three winsome leads, a funny mascot, a good supporting cast, and one heck of an ending. It's a good thing it doesn't stop there, either, or otherwise I'd be screaming for more. But that's another review in the making, for another time.
A wonderful shoujo fantasy anime, whose review here at THEM has been long overdue. Feel free to chide me for such an egregious act of procrastination. — Carlos/Giancarla Ross
Recommended Audience: Some violence and emotional intensity, which means the really young ones might get creeped out. But it's aimed for 6-12 year old girls, so there's nothing offensive here. No sexual content, no nudity (other than the requisite transformation sequences, which don't count), and no foul language.
Version(s) Viewed: VHS, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (20/20)
Magic Knight Rayearth © 1994 CLAMP / Kodansha
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