Magic Knight Rayearth
Lodoss. Narnia. Middle Earth. Dune. These names conjure up unique histories and worlds in the minds of those who have read the incredible books or watched the programs based upon them. These worlds are fantastic, with creators who endowed them with rich histories and legacies. Although some worlds are perhaps larger in scope than others--certainly, Middle Earth is possibly the richest land ever created in fantasy lore--these places still conjure up a sense of mystery. Magic Knight Rayearth introduces a new land into the canon...the world of Cephiro, where the will of those in power controls the destiny of the planet. If there is a place where the story of Magic Knight Rayearth both succeeds and fails, it is in creating a world unique unto itself. CLAMP's creation is not particularly spectacular, but it is surprisingly entertaining despite the flaws that attempt to bring it down.
There is a pillar, Princess Emaraude, and her whole existence is concerned with praying for the land of Cephiro...it is her will that keeps the universe together. However, once taken captive by her own high priest, Zagato, Emaraude summons Cephiro's only hope...three teenagers from another world. Hikaru, Fuu, and Umi are Japanese students visiting Tokyo Tower when a mysterious flash of light blinds everyone, and suddenly they find themselves on the back of a flying fish! They have indeed reached Cephiro, and as the show progresses, they follow the path set by legend for them to become Magic Knights and to save this strange world from its dark destruction. However, Zagato and his minions have no qualms about killing the three girls or anyone else who would help them fulfill the legend.
In some ways, Magic Knight Rayearth is difficult to review as a whole because the series is brilliant at times, but has several nagging faults that will annoy the typical viewer. However, I think the first season as a whole has merit, so I'm going to get the negatives out of the way first and be done with them.
First off, there are some problems caused by the fact that MKR is a television series. The show feels expanded at times to fit a particular number of episodes, and so a few episodes are essentially nothing more than filler that could be skipped with relative ease. Under this same heading falls the narrated bit that starts each episode. Each and every time before the name of the episode rolls, we have a synopsis of what has gone before. Although I like the concept in theory, watching two or more minutes of flashback when watching a series in a few sittings can be dull.
Secondly, the show is set up like an RPG. Now that sounds great in theory, but it doesn't work so well in practice. Each time the girls defeat an enemy, we see Zagato send the next person in line to have their chance at the heroes. This makes the show feel too repetitive too soon, especially when any particular episode doesn't further the plot.
Finally--and this is a corker for me--the world of Cephiro doesn't work very well because there is no overt back-story. The best created worlds have long and rich histories that shape the events of the here and now. Although Cephiro's recent history becomes apparent during the course of the show, the extended history seems to be missing entirely. For example, the girls have to revive three Rune Gods in order to become Magic Knights. But who are the Rune Gods? Why do they exist? Why do they sleep for centuries only to be awakened now? There are no answers to these and many other questions that come up about the world of Cephiro. This is ultimately the most daunting element of the show, because we cannot get swept away...there's too much on the surface and not enough meat to sustain a ten hour program. Perhaps the world has more depth in the manga, but it's not present here. These faults are serious when seen on the whole, and they take MKR down a notch.
Keeping all of that in mind, the first season of MKR is by all rights a good show, with charm to spare and a perky spirit that keeps the show alive even during its dullest moments. The show does employ "super deformed" characters at times when things get silly, and it uses lots of stock shoujo techniques (such as teardrops on characters symbolizing embarrassment or nervousness.) However, it doesn't overemphasize them, and so they add to the overall ambiance. Even one character designed for cute, comic relief--the bunnylike furball Mokona--is fun without becoming overused. The characters are surprisingly interesting considering their lack of depth at the start, and the designs are very contemporary while staying sharp...if there's any one place I think CLAMP excels, it is in design.
What's also a great credit to the animators is that the artwork is surprisingly good for a television show. There may be lots of static shots, but the whole thing looks great overall. Simply, for reasons I can't even explain, the show bulldozes through its faults and winds up entertaining as a result. I've mentioned how some episodes are straight filler, but the excitement level never waivers very long. The show is formulaic to a fault, but the formula works anyway, and if anything it is due to making each scenario just different enough to make it appealing. The music (which sounds straight out of a PlayStation RPG) goes a long way to making it an easier ride.
There are two other quick things I'll mention in favor of MKR. The first is that this show is not afraid to play around with the death of its characters. Realism was what brought a lot of fans in through Robotech, but it's becoming harder to find dramas where you are left on edge because the leads may very well die. This is one area where there is no formula to predict what will happen, and it gives the show an extra edge to keep watching. I also give the show credit for its final five episodes. The last section of this show really surprised me, especially since the middle starts to drag considerably. The last two hours were very, very good: without spoiling anything, let's just say that I was very surprised, and I believe most viewers will be as well. Though there is so little denouement after the climax that it's a disappointment, the show ends on a good note...and since there are more seasons to follow, there is no doubt that the story will continue.
It isn't often that I get the chance to take a look at an entire series (or season from a series) to review. It's pretty typical these days to find series released piecemeal--which certainly is easier on the budget, but it doesn't necessarily give a reviewer the best vantage point from which to judge. That's one nice thing about the new Magic Knight Rayearth DVD box set...it gives the purchaser the opportunity to see the entire storyline of the series immediately. There are some real benefits to the boxed set ideal, especially for TV series, but there are some other problems as well. The MKR box set does give you all twenty episodes of the series, and it's not at a bad price in comparison to VHS. However, be aware that the menu system on this thing is one stop short of horrific. The alternate endings work on only a few players--neither of mine would show them--and the options move so slowly that it's like navigating through molasses. Nevertheless, for the cost, the box set is the way to go, especially if you can get past the unique disc quirks.
Ultimately, the final question is whether or not it is worth your money. If you like CLAMP material or shoujo anime in particular, this should be on your list. If you like Japanese RPGs, you're also in the clear. Those who like serious fantasy might have some problems with the way the show just skims the surface without adding true depth to the world and its characters. It's not the Lodoss OVA series; once you get past that, you might find yourself enjoying the ride through Cephiro.
Magic Knight Rayearth, Season 1 -- violence, extremely brief nudity, mild profanity (sub only) -- B-