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The Fine Print
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Magic Knight Rayearth © Clamp/Kodansha, Dentsu, YTV, TMS-K.
Is Clamp's magical-girl series just Sailor Moon with new costumes, or is it something completely different? By Dwight R. Decker
Three schoolgirls who have never met before encounter each other on a field trip to the Tokyo Tower - and are immediately whisked away to a magical world called Cephiro. They are met by a magician named Clef who is to be their mentor, and informed that have been chosen to be that world's saviors, the Magic Knights. Unfortunately, before Clef can elaborate on some of the more useful details, he is attacked by one of the villains and... er, neutralized. After that, the girls are on their own and have to learn just what it is they're supposed to do as they go along.
Based on the manga by Clamp (Card Captor Sakura, X/1999) Magic Knight Rayearth has probably been one of the more eagerly awaited series among American fans. Buzz about the series had been filtering over from Japan since its debut on Japanese TV in October, 1994. In 1997, Mixx Entertainment picked up the manga for U.S. translation and publication in its new magazine, Mixx Zine, perhaps to give Sailor Moon fans something in the same conceptual ballpark to look at. In 1999, Anime Works followed suit by releasing the TV series on tape in subtitled and English-dubbed versions. The English voice-cast are regulars in many a Pioneer series, including Wendee Lee (Ayaka, Phantom Quest Corp. Kiyone, Tenchi Muyô!) as Umi; Bridget Hoffman (Anna, Battle Athletes) as Fuu and Julie Maddalena (Sakuya, Tenchi in Tokyo) as Hikaru.
The Journey Begins The story of Magic Knight Rayearth is that of a quest. The villainous high priest Zagato has kidnapped Princess Emeraude, whose prayers sustain Cephiro's very existence. With Emeraude held captive, the world is crumbling. The only hope is the legend of three Magic Knights from another world. That the legendary saviors of Cephiro turn out to be 14-year-old girls seems to surprise everybody (including villains who continually underestimate them), but there's no arguing when a prophecy starts fulfilling itself. To defeat Zagato, the Magic Knights must first obtain the raw material for their weapons (a magic mineral called "Escudo"), then seek the storage places of the "rune-gods" (as they're called in the U.S. release), the giant mecha that will serve as their fighting vehicles: Selece, Windam, and Rayearth.
Since Cephiro is a magical world, the wanna-be warriors encounter outright wonders along the way. Points of interest in the Cephiro guidebook include floating mountains and a two-dimensional lake (visible only from the top - from the side, it's just a thin line suspended in the air) as well as whole forests full of monsters.
The Color of Magic The girls include short and perky Hikaru, who is small enough for her age to be mistaken for 11. What she lacks in size, she makes up for in enthusiasm and dedication to the task at hand when the other girls are still confused and hesitant. Of the three heroines, she is probably the true star of the show. (After all, it's even named after her - when she reaches the end of the quest, she's the one who will be "Magic Knight Rayearth.") Hikaru's fighting prowess is eventually explained as being due to her martial arts background, as her family owns a dojo. Each of the girls has her own distinctive color for clothing and other gear, and Hikaru's color is red (including her hair). She also has a personal element, in this case fire, which she can call up and use as a weapon.
Fuu is a girl with glasses, the brains of the outfit, and good at archery. While the shy and reserved one of the trio, she is also the one who falls in love. Fuu's color is green and her element is air (or wind).
Umi is the tall one with fashion-model looks and elegance, good at fencing, whose initial reluctance and even outright opposition to becoming a Magic Knight causes problems at first. She just wants to get back to Tokyo so she doesn't miss an upcoming fencing tournament. Umi's color is blue and her element is water.
The girls' relationships with each other are important because Rayearth is, to some extent, a story of friendship. Three girls who have never met must become a fighting team almost immediately. Several episodes depend on their cooperation with each other and the willingness of each one to risk her life for the others. Once they do become a team, however, and despite Umi's initial reluctance early on, there is no real dissension that threatens to break up the trio after that. The all-for-one and one-for-all friendship between the three is an important part of the series but never seriously questioned.
Friends and Enemies With their mentor, Clef, out of the action most of the time, the would-be Magic Knights need a friend they can talk to and who can supply them with the weapons they need for their quest. Enter Presea, a beautiful young woman who makes her living as a weaponsmith. She is the one who sends the girls in search of Escudo and then uses it to fashion their weapons. One nice touch is that as the series progresses, the girls' armor and Escudo-made weapons evolve along with their growing self-confidence and experience. The coolest forms are saved until last, of course. And not only do the girls' swords evolve over time, but they are custom-designed for their owners. Unauthorized personnel attempting to lift Fuu's sword will find it tremendously heavy; Umi's sword will melt into water and then reform on the ground; and Hikiaru's will burst into flame.
The girls also acquire a guide in the form of Mokona, a sort of rabbitlike being that doesn't talk (in a human language, anyway; its conversation is limited mainly to "Puuu"). But Mokona has magic powers and can be handy to have along on a quest, or at least a camping trip. That is, when night falls, Mokona can conjure up a safe and secure and very solid shelter, completely furnished down to soft beds and even nightgowns for the girls. Or, when traveling underwater, Mokona can produce a winged conveyance with an air bubble on top. Unfortunately, Mokona is also whimsical and not very consistent, and Umi complains that things he materializes relatively late in the game should have been produced on earlier occasions when they were also needed.
Adding some mystery to the mix is Ferio, a handsome young hunter and swordsman who turns up now and then to help the girls (or, seemingly, betray them). He and Fuu strike up a particularly close friendship. There's more than meets the eye to him, however.
And then there's Zagato, the ominous villain, a dark and somber man who wears a dark cloak, armor, and amazing shoulder guards out to here. As a useful narrative device early on, he follows the Magic Knights' progress on a magic mirror and periodically sends his minions out to stop them. Eventually he learns the folly of leaving such tasks to underlings and in the final battle, it will be him personally that the Magic Knights have to face.
Zagato's lieutenants include a sorceress named Alcyone, a nasty little boy named Ascot who can summon horrible monsters, a mercenary dancer and enchantress named Caldina, and a mind-controlled swordsman named Lafarga, who bedevil and harass the Magic Knights every step of the way.
And yet, while the series starts out with good and evil seemingly clearly defined, and certainly the villains are trying their best to kill the teenaged schoolgirls before they can become full-fledged Magic Knights, things are not quite so clear cut after all. The secondary villains each have reasons to work for Zagato other than sheer evil (such as love, avarice, or even simple confusion), and Zagato himself has murkier motives than are apparent at first. On the other side of the coin, Clef didn't tell the girls quite everything, and Princess Emeraude is just a little more complex than your usual kidnapped princess. The Magic Knights are in for a few surprises before they get back to Tokyo.
There's a reason why Magic Knights have to come from some other world than Cephiro, and there's a reason for the shocked and appalled expressions on the girls' faces through much of the last episode when they finally find out the real story of what's been going on and why they're there. It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it - and that somebody is them.
Manga to Anime Compared to Clamp's manga, the character designs, settings, and the general storyline of Rayearth have been carried over faithfully into the animation. To stretch the story to twenty episodes however, some new incidents have been added and others are rearranged. For instance, in the manga, Umi's heart-to-heart conversation with Ascot (along with the well-deserved slap she gave the little twerp) took place in the underwater shrine where she found her personal rune-god; the animated version has Ascot bug out of the shrine without a second thought or a word to Umi, but the manga's conversation (and slap) are moved to a subsequent episode and appear nearly verbatim in a different setting and situation. Meanwhile, another of Zagato's henchbabes, a sexy illusionist named Caldina, gets a considerably expanded role in the animated version, lasting several episodes, while the manga introduced her and then sent her on her way within a few pages.
Anime Works is releasing the series is "waves" - th first wave, consisting of the first eight episodes on two tapes - Vol. 1: Daybreak, and Vol. 2: Sunrise - covers the story through the girls' teleportation to Cephiro; their meetings with Clef, Presea, and Ferio; fights with any number of monsters; the quest to find Escudo; the making of their weapons; and their battles with Alycyone and Ascot. The second wave, released in November 1999, consists of two more tapes of eight episodes - Vol. 3: Noon, and Vol. 4: Twilight. The series is set to conclude in February, with the third and final round of episodes.
Additionally, Manga Enteratainment has acquired the rights to the Rayearth OAV series, but a release date has not yet been scheduled.
Rayearth Ratings It'd be reasonable to assume that Magic Knight Rayearth would be a good entry-level series for younger siblings looking for "more of the same" after watching Sailor Moon until the iron oxide starts flaking off the tapes. However, for better or worse Anime Works is not editing the series for content in its direct-to-video release the way Sailor Moon was for television, and since Japanese standards for children's entertainment allow for greater latitude in the usual hot-button issues, some things have to be kept in mind....
SEX. Doesn't come up. The girls are too young anyway. Between the lines, mature viewers might wonder why the villainesses are sexually potent older women or about Emeraude's alternate form, but these are things small fry won't pick up on.
NUDITY. Slight (mainly non-explicit transformation scenes - but as I've heard one little girl said about transformation scenes in another series, "they aren't naked, they're magic!"). Still, a villainess named Alcyone wears a rather revealing dominatrix-like costume, and Caldina doesn't wear much, either, rather pointedly emphasizing her pride in her "nice body" (the English term used in the Japanese original!) by bouncing her pulchritude.
VIOLENCE. Well, there's that. Monsters get hacked to pieces or stabbed in the eye. The girls themselves suffer a fair amount of injury, bleed, and go through a lot of pain that might be distressing for the very young to watch.
EMOTIONAL INTENSITY. Maybe this isn't as obvious as the others to the protective parent, but the series can really wrench the heartstrings. Several times, the villains wage psychological warfare and attack the girls through their feelings or play games with their emotional attachments, and at least one major sympathetic character dies (as does a sort of pet). Also, the storyline has a rather shocking twist ending that a little kid won't see coming (well, I certainly didn't), and the girls must make a difficult moral choice that doesn't have a happy solution.
Anime Works itself rates Magic Knight Rayearth for ages 13 and up, which might be a little high, since Pioneer's somewhat similar Fushigi Yûgi series (girls transported to a world of magic where they become key factors in local power struggles) is likewise rated 13 and up, but contains much more sexual content. In Fushigi Yûgi's world, rape is a very real threat to the heroines, but despite the violence and even death, the world of Magic Knight Rayearth seems like a kinder, gentler place where that, at least, isn't among the possibilities. Overall, Magic Knight Rayearth is definitely geared to a younger audience than Fushigi Yûgi despite the box labels.