Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Magic Knight Rayearth II
25th Anniversary Box Set
After the devastating discovery that the magic knights were summoned to Cefiro to kill Princess Emeraude, Hikaru, Fuu, and Umi still have trouble recovering emotionally from their ordeal. They meet up at Tokyo Tower to comfort each other when the unthinkable happens: they're once again summoned to Cefiro! But it's a much different place this time, crumbling into ruin with a Pillar to support it. To make matters worse, invaders from nearby lands are trying to claim the title of Pillar for themselves. Will that be what's best for Cefiro? The girls aren't going to just let it happen without finding out how this time they can do what's going to promote the happiness of the greatest number of people.
There's always been a (mostly) mild sense that perhaps Magic Knight Rayearth's original three volumes didn't need a sequel. After all, the first series did an excellent job of not only upending the kid-friendly girl-power fantasy that had really come into its own in the 1990s, but also at teaching the basics of the caveat emptor school of entering into a contract – if you don't read the fine print, it essentially said, that's on you. With the revelation that the magic knights weren't summoned to save the princess from the evil Zagato but instead to kill her so that she could be freed of her duties to Cefiro, the story exploded damsel in distress myths alongside the notion that true love conquers all, all of the time. How could a sequel possibly continue that story?
The short answer is that it doesn't. Magic Knight Rayearth's next three volumes look at the aftermath of what the three girls from Earth did not in the context of broken fairy tales, but in terms of a society built on rules that almost forces them to break in the first place. Emeraude, we're reminded, acted selfishly because the rules governing Cefiro – that the Pillar had control over every aspect of the land but could only think of Cefiro's good in order to maintain it – wouldn't allow her to be a full person if she was to carry out her duty. Emeraude was crushed into a child-like form because she wasn't allowed to grow up or have emotions that were her own, and because of that she gave into despair and essentially summoned her own murderers in order to escape. Playing the villain was the only way that Zagato could accompany her on her voyage of self-destruction. The focus, therefore, is less on “be careful what quests you undertake” and more “the world sucks, how can we make it better.”
Interestingly enough, just as the first series did some foretelling of the isekai craze alongside playing with the tropes of both mecha and magical girls, this second one also feels influential, or at least prescient, in terms of what came after it. This time the spotlight shines on the idea of summoning someone from another world to take care of your world's problems. While this wasn't always a major piece of the isekai genre – the focus was more on summoning as wish fulfillment for all parties – it's definitely a trend that we've seen come into the foreground more recently, with series like The Extraordinary, the Ordinary, and SOAP!, The Saint’s Magic Power is Omnipotent, and The Magic in this Other World is Too Far Behind!. In all of those titles at least one of the characters summoned to a fantasy land is resentful about it, and in a few cases the rulers of those lands are actively remorseful about having yanked someone out of their comfortable, or at least familiar, life. That's the tone Guru Clef takes here: he spends most of the three volumes feeling terrible for Hikaru, Fuu, and Umi and lamenting that he worked with Emeraude and the system to facilitate the girls' trauma. Clef, like Zagato's younger brother Lantis, wants to do away with the Pillar system in order to make sure that no one ever needs to go through the tragedies it promotes again.
What's striking is that the girls themselves don't necessarily see things that way. They are carrying a lot of hurt and anger from the previous three volumes, but they also don't want to see Cefiro destroyed, and they don't seem able to entirely see Emeraude as selfish in her actions. (This is a question CLAMP series of this era toy with a fair amount; it arguably comes up in Tokyo Babylon and X as well.) They simply want what's going to be best for Cefiro as a nation, and there's a sense that they don't fully understand what the problem was before – if she was the Pillar, couldn't Emeraude have just changed the system herself by believing in the changes? It comes across to a degree as naivete, particularly on Hikaru's part, but that doesn't mean that they aren't on to something that everyone else is busy overthinking.
This theory would seem to hold a bit more water when you consider that of the invading nations, at least two out of the three are coming in for entirely selfish reasons that have nothing to do with maintaining Cefiro's health. Aska, Tarta, and Tatra are just out for themselves, even if they may not see it that way; certainly when asked they seem to think that they're justified in pursuing Pillarhood. Eagle, the third aspirant to the position of Pillar, seems to have thought it out a bit more, but he also has more information – Lantis spent a lot of time with Eagle in Autozam, his country. On the other hand, Eagle is seeking to be the Pillar to save his own life, so he's almost a reverse Emeraude, which may not be a good sign.
In terms of art and storytelling, it's easy to see why this period of CLAMP's work is so popular. The art is highly stylized, from a time when men were inverted triangles and women were sticks with strategic bumps and skirts that cut away in front. Whiplash lines and other elements of art nouveau slink across the pages (both in the manga itself and in the artbook), and things are busy with a sense of purpose. The trends of the times are also clearly evident, such as ornate headpieces that look like they'd hurt, random cat-eared chibis, and ill-conceived humor breaks, but things really do hold up well here, even if at times it does feel a bit forced, both in terms of the humor and sometimes as if CLAMP is saying, “You want happy?! THIS IS HAPPY!” There are also plenty of markers that this is a story that ran in Nakayoshi, a magazine for middle-grade and upper-elementary age readers, mostly in terms of “lessons” about the power of imagination and positive thinking, but those are quite common in many works for that age group and are no more distracting here than in your average chapter book or middle-grade novel. More interesting for CLAMP fans is the very clear roots for their later works such as Clover and Tsubasa, RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE being planted; the former seems to owe a lot to Emeraude's desire to be happy and what that might mean for others.
As with the first half of the series, this set is gorgeous – oversize hardcovers with spines that don't easily show fingerprints, a beautiful box, and an artbook. The art really benefits from the size of the volumes, and the translation notes in volume two especially are very interesting, especially if you aren't familiar with Japanese cars. (It makes sense, I promise.) The tradeoff is that once again this is extremely expensive; it really is intended as a collector's edition for serious fans of the series. This second half of Magic Knight Rayearth may not be as hard-hitting or even as good as the first, but it's still both an important series in terms of CLAMP's bibliography and in its genre(s) – and even if it isn't as good, it's still an enjoyable revisit with some favorite characters.
Overall : A-
Story : B+
Art : A-
+ Trim size enhances art, interesting use of themes that would be polished in later CLAMP series. Still a good story…
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