This review contains many spoilers, so if you haven’t watched Rayearth in its entirety, please be advised before reading this.
I finally finished watching Magic Knight Rayearth, a 1994 shojo anime based on CLAMP’s fantasy manga. In it, junior-high school girls Hikaru Shidou, Umi Ryuuzaki and Fuu Hououji are summoned by Princess Emeraude to another world called Cephiro, in order to become the legendary Magic Knights, who must save the princess and protect Cephiro. I have to say that it took me awhile to finish this series. I think it was hard for me to muster up enthusiasm to continue it because it’s so formulaic. That’s part of the point – in one scene genre-savvy Fuu mentions that their quest to become Magic Knights is not unlike an RPG. But the pattern of the Magic Knights fighting against monsters and minions sent by the lead bad guy Zagato each episode became tiresome. What kept me interested, however, were the Magic Knights themselves, especially Hikaru. Hikaru was the most enthusiastic about becoming a Magic Knight because she wanted to help the people of Cephiro, and I really love how determined she is. Umi was the character who surprised me the most – at first, I expected her to be snobby because she initially wanted to return home and felt that protecting Cephiro wasn’t her business. But over the course of the series, Umi becomes very protective of her friends, and her kindness shines through. I found the intelligent and ultra-polite Fuu to be the least interesting of the Magic Knights, but I did appreciate her relationship with Ferio, a swordsman who occasionally helps the Magic Knights. Not to mention, Mokona’s adorable.
Before even watching the series, I had heard that a “shocking” twist occurs at the end of the first season. I normally don’t care for these types of spoilers because they set up high expectations, but I have to say the twist in Rayearth is a pretty good one. It turns out that the villain the Magic Knights were supposed to defeat in the legend wasn’t Zagato – it was Princess Emeraude herself. It turns out that Zagato and Emeraude were in love, but Emeraude’s feelings for Zagato interfered with her duties as the Pillar of Cephiro, who is supposed to pray for the safety of the country. He kidnapped her so they could be together, even if that meant the destruction of Cephiro. All of this was unknown to the Magic Knights, and when they kill Zagato, Emeraude becomes overcome with vengeance and turns into an evil form of herself, leading to the Knights killing her, which ultimately fulfills the legend. While I really enjoyed this ending, I became immensely aware of the ingredient this series lacks: balance. While the first season was predictable until a major twist at the end, the second season, while full of drama and angst, ends on a very predictable note. In the second season, the Magic Knights return to Cephiro, which is scrambling to find a new Pillar before it gets overtaken by other countries. The Magic Knights aid in protecting Cephiro alongside Lantis, the brother of Zagato. One thing I really enjoyed about the second season is the inclusion of a love story, which I feel the first season could definitely have used to break up its formulaic nature (then again, I could probably say this about most series since I’m a romantic). I love the drama Hikaru undergoes when she realizes that she’s fallen for the brother of the man she killed, which works well with Lantis’ realization that not only does he love Hikaru too – he has fallen for the new Pillar just as his brother once had. Oh, the irony. But I do have to take issue with the fact that Hikaru and Lantis fell in love after talking to each other literally two times – it reminds me of the characters from Disney movies such as The Little Mermaid and Cinderella falling for each other in three days (or one dance). Love doesn’t work that fast. More importantly, I found the second season’s villain, Lady Debonair, to be utterly cliché and boring. At least Zagato had interesting motives because he wanted to free the woman he loved – Debonair just wanted destruction for no apparent reason. And the discovery that Hikaru was the new Pillar wasn’t shocking at all.
I watched the two seasons of Rayearth separately and I’ve had a hard time determining which one I liked better. Part of me likes the second season better because the characters suffered so much, causing me to really sympathize with them. The stakes just seemed a lot higher, and I feel like the first season needed this level of drama to tell a fuller story and lead into its great ending. But the plot of the first season was more interesting, so ultimately I think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Aside from this lack of balance, another minor problem I had with the series is the annoying presence of what I like to call the ‘echo effect’ – after a character would say a line another character would typically repeat the line back to the original speaker. It’s probable that the dialogue is so simple because Rayearth is aimed towards children (the original manga ran in “Nakayoshi,” after all), but so was Cardcaptor Sakura and I didn’t notice anywhere near as much repetitive dialogue in that series. Overall, I don’t think Magic Knight Rayearth is essential anime-viewing, even for shojo fans. And if I had to recommend one CLAMP series, I’d definitely choose Cardcaptor Sakura over this series. But for what it is, it’s a pretty enjoyable fantasy series that doesn’t rely too much on the clichés of the magical girl genre. And it has Mokona.