Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Magic Knight Rayearth
25th Anniversary Box Set
Hikaru, Fuu, and Umi are three middle school second years on field trips to Tokyo Tower when they suddenly see a flash of light and feel the ground open up beneath them. The next thing they know, they're falling through the sky of a world they've never seen before. It turns out that they have been summoned to the land of Cephiro by Princess Emeraude, the Pillar of Cephiro, as the three Magic Knights. If they ever hope to go home to Tokyo, they must awaken the Rune Gods and carry out their mission…but just what that mission actually entails turns out to be something they never imagined.
Magic Knight Rayearth may not be a magical girl series in the strictest definition of the term – the girls don't actually transform, making them magic-using girls, like Clamp's later foray into the genre, Cardcaptor Sakura – but their impact on the magical girl story is hard to deny. Long before Puella Magi Madoka Magica took up her weapon, the Magic Knights were discovering that carrying out a seemingly magical mission carries unforeseen tragedies and that adorable mascots (be they people or bunny-like animals) can't always be trusted to have your best interests at heart. While the second half of the series, whose anniversary box set is due out later in 2020, takes a much lighter tone, these first three volumes bring Clamp's early 1990s-era sensibility to an audience that didn't necessarily usually see it: the elementary-and-middle-school age readers of Nakayoshi.
The story today looks very familiar: three girls summoned to another world, where they gain powers and a mission. Because of the saturation of the isekai genre at the moment of this writing, that makes it important to understand that it was not as prevalent in 1993 when the manga was written. Certainly there were other stories that played with the concept – Fushigi Yûgi and El Hazard both immediately come to mind – but there weren't so many that Magic Knight Rayearth would have felt like a stale retread. That said, there are still some interesting differences from what we see in mainstream isekai today. Most interesting among them is the fact that the first reaction of the girls, Hikaru, Fuu, and Umi, isn't excitement or understanding; the girls are genuinely upset to have been ripped away from their parents, friends, and pets and fail to see why the people of Cephiro couldn't just solve their problems themselves without resorting to pulling children out of their own world and making them do the work. While Hikaru is more willing to listen to what Clef and the other Cephirans has to say on the subject, it seems more in the service of getting the job done so that she can go back to her dog.
At least, that's the attitude at first. As the volumes continue on, we can see all three girls beginning to really get into the idea that they're great saviors, come to rescue the captive princess from the evil Zagato, her former associate. Even the imagery they're fed contributes to this: Emeraude is always in white sitting in a blooming flower as if she were a mystical fey creature, while Zagato is robbed in black with roughly twenty pounds of dark metal and gems serving as a headdress. His followers are constantly set after the Magic Knights, and that two of them are under-clothed busty women seems to fit the iconography of “sexy henchmen” that fantasy fiction often indulges in. Everything is designed to make it look like the Magic Knights are there to win the day and rescue the damsel in distress, a narrative they're all familiar with, be it from folklore, Disney films, or the RPGs Fuu references repeatedly. The girls are all falling prey to what can be seen as an engineered hero complex, something that all three of them were prone to from the get-go, which may be why they, out of all of the people at Tokyo Tower that day, were summoned as the Magic Knights. From Hikaru's training in kendo and its ideals to Umi's statement about wanting to grow up to support her parents to Fuu giving Hikaru a coin for the binoculars at Tokyo Tower, we can see how they were all very well suited to what Clef and Emeraude had in mind.
Despite all of this very well-thought-out set-up, Magic Knight Rayearth does make some missteps. Chief among them is the attempts at comedy, which, while they don't precisely fall flat, certainly are more of a distraction than anything else. Typically this means that Umi and Fuu are quipping or bickering in the background while Hikaru is being serious about learning a skill, but it also shows up in the form of chibis where they really don't need to be or Umi giving someone or something a silly nickname. While these moments do distract from what's really going on (as they're intended), they also feel like they don't quite work as humor, which is a problem. There's a sneaking suspicion that the page time could have been better used to perhaps give us a better sense of how much time is actually passing within the story. Things happen very quickly with no time spent on the girls eating, sleeping, or really doing anything beyond progressing from one plot point to another, and that does leave things feeling a little unmoored while moderately undermining the girls' ties to each other.
Artistically, this is a particularly memorable period for Clamp, with the sharp eyes, tiny triangle heads, and anatomically unfeasible bodies that all somehow combine to make something really pleasing to look at. This is best seen in the artbook included with the three hardcover volumes in the box, and the use of vibrant colors really enhances it. There's a clear art nouveau influence (with a smattering of art deco) in both the black and white and color art, and although the pages are uniformly busy, there's almost never a sense of being overwhelmed by it. In part this is because the use of panels and gutters is fluid, but it's also due to the fact that there's always someone to rest your eyes on before moving over to another decorated background. The use of two-page spreads is also impressive, and the oversize format of the books really shows the art to its best advantage.
The new translation is also a major bonus, and the translation notes make a few linguistic choices clear. It is worth noting that these glosses are only present in the first volume and that they contain spoilers for books two and three; the assumption was clearly that this set would be purchased and read only by people who were already fans of earlier releases of the series. While that's relatively fair – this does have a very high price point, even on sale – it may still be an issue for some readers.
Magic Knight Rayearth is held up as one of the classics of late 20th century shoujo for a reason. Its influence can be seen in magical girl, fantasy, and isekai series of the early 21st century, and even without a wide base of manga knowledge it holds up as simply a good story. This edition, although pricey, is beautiful and a very nice way to have a “definitive” version in your collection.
Overall : A-
Story : B+
Art : A-
+ Good use of misdirection in art and story, beautiful edition with a solid translation.
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