Magic Knight Rayearth

TV (49 eps)
1994 - 1995
3.594 out of 5 from 4,717 votes
Rank #4,000

MKR is a Clamp anime about three girls who are taken from Tokyo during a school field trip, and transported into a fantasy world. Hikaru Shidou, Umi Ryuzaaki, and Fuu Hououji must fight a slew of enemies, overcome trials and tribulations, and face their inner demons to save Cephiro, a wonderfully detailed world, from a dastardly evil and powerful Priest, Zagato.

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Blind watches are a hell of a thing. I think I heard about Magic Knight Rayearth for the first time in 2009 or 10–through an Anime Dissection review that I’ve long since forgotten about. My interest in it did recently grow though as I developed a greater taste for shoujo products and the pre-digital classics. That being said, while Rayearth was the greatest blind watch of a TV series I’ve had the honor of treating myself to, it shows its age more than I hoped. The show is broken up into two seasons that feel recognizably similar, but pursue two opposing objectives. The first season is an episodic journey of little consequence. Rayearth's three main characters do grow and get stronger, but season 1 does not make much time to bask in their results. That's where season 2 comes in, but goes above and beyond to subvert the entire purpose of their initial trials. And reviewing the full series necessitates an understanding that this is one of those shows where events hit the fan. But wherein another magical girl series, such as Madoka Magica, takes three episodes to get there, this takes twenty. I want us to go forward under that context. So what is Magic Knight Rayearth about? Three girls—Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu—are teleported from Tokyo to the magical land of Cephiro. Their task is to become Magic Knights and save it from the forces of evil. They accomplish their initial task, and things don't go as planned. What the girls were tricked into achieving has doomed the planet. The skies permanently turn black and thunderous. The land is a desert. And the last of humanity lives in a singular castle. And with the world’s power source, the Pillar, exposed, Cephiro’s neighboring worlds have come to take it for themselves. The girls' journey in season 1 can be deceptively simple. You have no insight on their lives at home as their tossed into the fantasy setting almost at the word go. But there are little quirks in their personalities and designs that offer shorthand information on where these girls come from. None of them know each other at the start. They are strangers to each other as much as they are the audience. Hikaru is a tomboy who is regularly underestimated because of her height. She can't be tough like the guys, but can't be pretty like the girls. Umi is the selfish one who just thinks of home because she has deadlines to make on work—mostly training for her fencing tournament. Fuu changes the least in the show, but this is by no means a bad thing. She's more mature than the other two and the show plays this up to great effect. You may go into Rayearth knowing from the start that it's supposed to be a mecha series, but you'll be keenly short on such mechs for the majority of season 1. They are a powerful reward for the girls sticking through the journey, and a visual reward for the audience. Up until then, the girls have armor and swords that morph to suit their growth as characters. It can come across as cheesy when they quite literally level up in power, but the show does justify that these moments need to be earned. Hikaru's fun romanticism is burnt away over time by newfound courage to protect her friends. She receives the harshest beatings over the course of the entire show, and such events mold her weapon into a wildly spiky blade that displays her aggression. With it, she becomes a champion deserving to be the protagonist of this series. Umi's transformation is also surprisingly interesting. I cannot stress enough how much of Rayearth is "show, don't tell." Umi is a fencer and her thin blade never stops representing that. But she took me the longest to understand what was happening with her. The hilt of her sword developed a stern handguard little by little. It felt like a eureka moment when it dawned on me just what that additional layer of defense represented. Her selfishness was cast aside. Unlike before, she had friends to protect and needed to be there for them. As overblown as friendship can be in most shows made for younger audiences, the subtlety in Umi is rather splendid. Fuu, as I said, doesn't have as much commitment to developing herself. Her weapon frankly doesn't change much at a first glance. It just gets bigger. But as the wisest member of the party, it figures she would be first to choose to bear the weight of her responsibility to save Cephiro. Her sword therein grows to be that weight itself and make her stronger as a result. All three of them are lovely protagonists that hold the show together in its first season. And that is a miracle because of just how much it needs them. The first 18 episodes are wholly episodic, with season 1's finale being the only two-parter. And there are not many villains to throw at them. The leading antagonist, Zagato, has five henchmen that aren't very menacing. Rayearth is just trying to have fun a lot of the time, but I think it eventually becomes unintentionally comical with how often the villains are tossed aside. It makes the cast feel unbalanced with how well Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu develop and everyone else is left in the dust. That two-parter though is the beginning of our hard departure from this leisurely adventure. Season 1 was already pretty serviceable for anyone looking for a good time, but season 2 opens on adding some needed details to our girls. We finally see their personal lives on Earth. Remember, they were tossed in pretty fast, so we only got dialogue in season 1 about what the girls cared for on Earth. Hikaru especially receives the richest benefit at the start of season 2, as her tomboy personality is proven to be a product of her three older brothers raising her this way. Wherein season 1 still had no main character by the end, in season 2 it’s unarguably Hikaru. All three of them participated in a tragedy on their first outing, and this has haunted Hikaru’s psyche to nearly a breaking point. She hides it pretty well from the others; but in a magical land that’s fueled by willpower, Hikaru’s self-hatred has taken its own physical form and sets out to do what she can’t herself. So if you recall those invading worlds I spoke of earlier, it's time to touch on those. Each girl gets a rival from a respective world. Umi faces Tatra and Tarta from Chizeta. Fuu faces Aska from Fahren. And Hikaru faces Eagle from Autozam. Starting with the worst set, Umi’s rivals are frankly annoying. Tatra and Tarta have this “Pinky and the Brain” gimmick going on, and the humor falls flat on its face. Add on their terrible theme song and lackluster Arabian dancing slideshows, and maybe you can understand why I dreaded them being on screen. Seriously, if you’re not gonna animate them dancing, just show us one panel and move on with it. They got a little better over time, every character does, but I still can’t overlook how much they ruined my enjoyment of episodes 31-36. But they are no less an honorable bunch that prefers personal duals than magic hellfire in the skies. And this was a great time for Umi’s long built-upon fencing skills to finally be put to the test in a practical sword fight. Aska was also almost unbearable, but Fuu shut her up real quick. Aska is just a bratty, screaming child who wants the Pillar’s power because she does. Heavy motives such as Chizeta’s population problem, or Autozam succumbing to a cybernetic takeover are not going to be found here. But this was surprisingly good material as Fuu proved why she’s beyond her years. She has a motherly personality and is a rational thinker. Her lectures humbling a spoiled princess is what she’s suited for. And I liked Aska just a little bit more when she knew she had no good reason to seek the Pillar after all and was the first to make her world Cephiro’s ally. Hikaru gets the best material to work with though. Every character from Autozam is great, and Eagle quickly became my other favorite on par with Hikaru herself. Eagle is an excellent spokesman for his people’s cause, as much as he is a brilliant fighter and tactician. The friendship he builds with Hikaru felt more special than any other relationship in the entire series. She confides her troubles to him, he shows her sympathy, and it’s tragic that he regardless cares more for his planet to the point their fight is inevitable. Season 2 also offers two new leading villains over the course of the arch, so let's just talk about all three. They're a mixed bag. Zagato is a dark wizard with all the episodic minions for season 1. And he's another character who retroactively gets more depth in season 2. His romantic and familial relationships help us better understand what he wants; and he serves as a narrative tool that has a domino effect on the objectives of his brother Lantis, influencing Eagle, influencing Hikaru. Too bad Zagato is only a better character when he's a part of the background. Another is Debonair, who frankly has no substance to offer. When she shows, her presence is an interesting escalation of scale, as she swears she’s capable of destroying all worlds; but that doesn't guarantee she'll be leaving a strong impression on the audience. All she has going for her is being the big bad lady who laughs a lot. And what it takes to foil her is equally as juvenile. What was Debonair’s best contribution actually was empowering Alcyone. Alcyone was treated like a joke across the first season, and I’m glad that paid off with Alcyone reaching a boiling point and selling her soul to the devil. Nonetheless, Debonair’s screen time is thankfully limited—even in the final battle. Saving the best for last, Nova, a “dark Hikaru” in laymen’s terms, is a great member of the cast because of how she affects Hikaru herself. Hikaru doesn't feel like she ever fully fits in anywhere. Her brothers are caring, but don't see the problem for what it really is. She was always bound to be the most unstable; and after getting blood on her hands, she spends much of the series with a messed-up train of thought: that only love from others, regardless of how she feels about herself, will justify her existence. But life doesn’t work like that. Hikaru’s journey of forgiving herself and learning to love herself independent of any validation is what truly skyrockets the quality of this series. Without Nova, we wouldn't have Hikaru convincing me that this series isn't just good, it's great. But I won't pretend there isn't one huge overarching problem with this series. None, absolutely none, of the romances are convincing. I could buy into some more than others, but a handful are really weird and out of place. Three come to mind right now where I wish no one would have ever said anything. Because there’s no point! Some confessions only tease unfulfilled wishes. And it really takes away a good character’s agency when they say they do one thing for a justified reason, but then episodes later will have a throwaway line of “well, actually I do it for that person.” And it’s never mentioned again. Saying nothing at all would have been better, but that “never mentioned again” part can oddly be the saving grace too—especially for our three main heroines. They have love interests, but the ending was surprisingly more mature than I expected. These couples can never actually be together, they live in separate worlds too far apart from each other. And when there was no melodrama, just professional exchanges of goodbye, I wondered why this wasn’t the series I could have been watching all along. Still, it was a healthy final note that the girls have moved on. So what is it that makes Rayearth feel special then? If the dark twist is to make it an anime about regret, suicidal thoughts, and independent existence, why would someone like this better than more adult-oriented shows exploring the same topics such as Haibane Renmei and Welcome to the NHK? They’re absolutely better-made; but, speaking for myself, am a guy with Aquarion Evol and Fullmetal Alchemist ‘03 in his favorites too. I can forgive sloppy execution (to a point) for sincerity. Rayearth is a coming-of-age story that wants to speak to young teens. And I know it’s the series I would have needed in my teenage years more than the adult shows. It’s more theatrical than real life, but you can’t criticize an isekai for verisimilitude. So yeah, I cringed a few times; but Magic Knight Rayearth won me over as a whole. For those that like season 1 better, it's understandable. There's little to harp on during the first 20 episodes because the characters grow well and it doesn't strive for anything more than to simply entertain. However, the last 29 episodes seek out to be so much more with a commendable effort put forward. And it pulled it off in the areas that matter most.

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