Reviewby Theron Martin,
Magic Knight Rayearth
Blu-Ray - Memorial Collection
Three 14-year-old girls – Hikaru Shidou, Umi Ryouzaki, and Fuu Hououji – are all on class trips from different middle schools to Tokyo Tower's observation deck, when they are suddenly spirited away to a different world. They soon learn that this magical realm, called Cephiro, is a place where the will can become manifest, and they have been summoned here by Princess Emeraude, the Pillar of Cephiro, whose prayers ensure the world's well-being. The Princess has been locked away by Zagato, her former High Priest, so the trio of girls must become the legendary Magic Knights who will save Cephiro. These three initial strangers become close friends, as they weather many challenges and foes on the road to resurrecting the Rune-Gods and becoming Magic Knights. Even when they succeed at their task, it happens in such an unexpected way that they're left with deep regrets, so they're actually happy to be called back to Cephiro again some time later. This time, the situation is different, for the Master Mage Clef doesn't know who summoned them, entirely new and different threats are lurking in the shadows, and a sinister presence looms over a Cephiro that is literally falling apart.
Ready for your next big '90s nostalgia burst? While calling this one of the classic titles of the '90s might be debatable, Magic Knight Rayearth was definitely among the more prominent titles in the American fan scene through the mid-to-late '90s. It's not hard to understand why, since the franchise is a rare multigenre cross-over, at its core a super-sentai-styled magical girl series influenced by Sailor Moon, but it combines that with a stereotypical “transported to a fantasy world” scenario and heavier action elements more typical of fantasy anime for older audiences. Late in the first season, the story also throws in a mecha component, which becomes much more pronounced in the second season. The series' ability to pull off this “something for everyone” approach set the stage for Vision of Escaflowne's embrace by anime fandom a year later and leaves me wondering if there might have been an inspirational link between the two.
Magic Knight Rayearth consists of a 20-episode first season that aired in 1994-95 and a 29-episode second season that aired four weeks later. (Although these are classified as two separate series in North America, the episodes on this release are numbered contiguously.) The first season is firmly based on the source manga by CLAMP, whose stylistic touches are unmistakable and pervasive, but the second season takes extensive liberties with the source material, including the introduction of new main villains, although the conclusion is supposedly the same. The second season follows naturally from the events of the first, seeming specifically designed to carry forward from the Pyrrhic victory of the first season's climax and delving heavily into its ramifications.
The plot of the first season is fairly simple and straightforward: the trio of ordinary schoolgirl leads are chosen, seemingly at random, to be transported to an alternate magical world where they become go on RPG-style quests to gather the items necessary to become Magic Knights. Along the way, they are guided by the Master Mage Clef, the bulbous, bunny-like mascot Mokona, the magical smith Presea, and the roguish adventurer Ferio, while being opposed by the dark overlord Zagato and his diverse assortment of minions. Though they must do battle with various monsters along the way, the story sticks to more shojo or magical girl style storytelling by having the trio actually convince most of Zagato's minions not to fight rather than defeating them in combat. Along the way, one of the girls even gets a chance for romance too! A couple of big twists late in the season – one totally unexpected and the other vaguely implied throughout the first 19 episodes – dramatically upend expectations for the end of the story, however. Let's just say that no viewer will question why the girls return to their world feeling more depressed than satisfied by the results of their inevitable victory.
The second season has a more involved plot but remains uncomplicated. Not only is Cephiro a mess in the wake of the first season's events, but it also has to contend with a trio of otherworldly invaders who all want Cephiro's Pillar system for their own reasons, from status to conquest to the power to save their stagnating home world. The other two girls get their own romantic opportunities as the trio navigates various conflicts against those three parties, while also trying to deal with the more existential threat posed by Debonair and her “daughter” Nova. Again, befriending enemies rather than defeating them is a recurring element, and again, there are a couple of big twists about character identities to upend the status quo. The ultimate ending is also more definitive and satisfying.
There's nothing particularly complicated about most of the major characters either, though they complement each other well. Amongst the Magic Knights, green-themed Fuu is the calm and analytical one, while red-themed Hikaru is the passionate and enthusiastic one who serves as the trio's heart and soul, leaving blue-themed Umi as the tantrum-prone complainer, though she does eventually mellow out. Each has a distinctly compassionate side that especially comes out when interacting with enemies. At least some effort is made to distinguish the villains by personality and motivation, whether it's the love-motivated Alcyone, the money-motivated Caldina, the persecution-complex-motivated Ascot, or the loyalty-motivated Inouva. Of these, the most involved characterization is probably Alcyone's, with Caldina and Ascot most distinctly changing their stripes between seasons.
The interactions of various characters' storylines can generate some real drama, but its effectiveness is sporadic. The initial revelation of who Hikaru loves in the second season isn't surprising, but it doesn't feel as well-established as the other romances. More positively, the eventual reveal of Zagato's true goals adds such an additional degree of depth to the first season that it casts much of the story in a new light. At its best, the drama can be pretty potent, but this potency is more of an exception for the series than the rule. Both seasons have a tendency to stretch out the pacing, with the second season in particular being the biggest offender; the season probably could have been trimmed by 3-4 episodes without adversely affecting the story. Both seasons are also prone to SD comic moments, more commonly in the lighthearted first season and much less frequently in the heavier second season. Attempts to insert the fairy Primera for comic relief in the second season are much less successful, as some of her interactions with Mokona are cute, but she's more typically just a nuisance.
All CLAMP-based works rely on specific ongoing themes, and Rayearth's seems to be how the strength of one's heart can be both a blessing and a curse. After all, Cephiro is a world where human will reigns supreme, which on the plus side means that miracles can be achieved if one's will is strong enough, but on the minus side, this results in many monsters plaguing the land when hearts turn to unease and fear. This is easily the story's most interesting underlying aspect. Love being a driving force in character motivations is a regularly recurring element, both for better and for worse; love can sometimes be a problem rather than an empowering universal solution.
On the visual production end, the series is practically the epitome of its era, with many style points and animation quirks specific to mid-90s TV anime. (And I don't mean that in a good way.) This is especially evident in the look and feel of the magical energy attacks, which resemble just about any other fantasy series from the '90s. This also means that you can expect painfully limited animation that's heavily dependent on stills and repetition, especially in action scenes. Only a few key action scenes in each season have any real sense of movement to them at all, which at times seriously hampers their impact. The series has a penchant for having characters dance when performing magic, but its animation isn't smooth enough to support that well, either. Background art has occasionally intriguing design work (the Palace of Cephiro's facade, for instance), but it's otherwise rather bland, while character design sharply favors shojo-style body proportions, sometimes taken to extremes. Yeah, Hikaru is supposed to be short, but in some shots, Lantis looks like he's almost a full meter taller, and just about everyone is portrayed as being very leggy. The ultimate costume designs for the Magic Knights are sharp enough that they were probably popular cosplay options back in the day, while Zagato continues the weird '90s obsession with ridiculous shoulder guards; it would be difficult to walk squarely through a set of double doors with those things, and a normal door would be out of the question. Outside of alluring outfits on the older female characters, there's little to no fanservice in the series, while the substantial violence throughout the show never ranges more graphic than a little blood and bruises.
The artistry and animation may generally fail to impress, but the same can't be said about the musical score. It aims for a rich and majestic sound that uses a diverse variety of instrumentation, from string and piano pieces to full-blown symphonic numbers to synthesizer-driven backing, with even some dramatic church organ emerging at times. The series uses one opener and closer each for the first season and two each for the second season. None of these are especially memorable, although the openers do display the weird '90s penchant for inserting sound effects in over the mix. The first opener is also occasionally used as an insert song in the second season.
The English dub for the series was produced by Bang Zoom! Entertainment and is loaded with names that will be familiar to long-time dub fans, with many performing multiple roles. (Wendee Lee voices both Umi and Princess Emeraude, for instance.) The stand-out performance is Sonja S. Fox as Debonair, who embodies evil with her wonderful voice, but on the whole, the dub is a bit shaky. The casting choices are generally fine, but timing and delivery isn't always smooth, and the little kid voices are often a stretch. A Southern accent was chosen to reflect the Osaka dialect that certain characters use, and some spell name deliveries were modified to match lip flaps better, but the English script stays pretty close otherwise. You can hear the English dubbed opening theme in the background of some episodes as an insert song, but the openers and closers otherwise retain the original Japanese vocals on this release. Next Episode previews are not dubbed (they play silently when the dub is on) but the “guess who” segments at the end of each episode are.
If you've ever had a desire to own the entire series, then this is absolutely the release that you want. The visuals have supposedly been restored from original film masters, which results in a sharp look on blu-ray with just a little grain in the frame. The sound reproduction is also fantastic. The 49 episodes are spread across six disks, with a load of extras on the final disk. These include interviews with the original series and audio directors (done in 2005), a collection of shorter interviews with various English dub cast members (sadly with bad audio quality), an audio commentary for the last episode with English ADR director Eric P. Sherman (there were a lot of tears involved in recording the last episode), series trailers and promos, English dub outtakes, clean openers and closers, a recap episode that originally aired between episodes 8 and 9, English character greetings, cutscenes from the video game, and assorted production art. The most choice extra is an alternate English pilot version of episode 4, which is frankly hideous.
Magic Knight Rayearth originally aired in a prime-time slot, which may be why it feels more accessible to younger audiences. It also has a less cynical or gritty feel to it than more recent productions in the same vein, which can be either annoying or refreshing depending on your expectations. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the series to newer viewers will be that it offers a gender-reversed version of the isekai titles that are so prominent these days, where the girls are getting fantasy guys instead of the other way around. And really, isn't the idea of magical girls fighting with swords and mecha at least a little intriguing?
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : C+
Art : C+
Music : B+
+ Quality Blu-Ray release, some potent dramatic moments, rare multi-genre cross-over that works well
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