So, the last 2 months of 2015 I am taking a look at Mahou Shoujo both past and contemporary. November is covering a show that is holding its 20th anniversary this year. Yes, I planned it that way before you ask, at least a year ago. Well, here it is…..
“The Heart Which Believes…”
Magic Knight Rayearth
Studio: TMS Entertainment, Director: Toshihiro Hirano
Writers: Keiko Maruo, Nanase Ohkawa, Osamu Nakamura
On a field trip to Tokyo Tower one sunny day, three schoolgirls (Hikaru, Fuu and Umi) meet up by chance. But then a blinding flash of light transports our heroine trio to other world, Cephiro. It is a land of fantasy and wonder, where the power of will rules. It turns out that the Princess Emeraude had summoned to this world for a quest to save her from the clutches of the evil former advisor Zagato and her entourage of magical minions. With the help of the master mage Clef and some other allies they seek to rescue the princess to save the world.
Or at least that what Magic Knight Rayearth (MKR) is about on the surface. It is basically a magical girl show combined with mythic fairy tale and legend, combining mahou shoujo story with beats of the mythic hero’s journey. It contains a very nice blend of mecha, magical girl and fantasy adventure. For good measure it also has dashes of Eastern RPG elements thrown in for good measure, and given that this got a Sega Saturn game makes this observation all the more apt. Though by end of the first season, a series of twists occur which change the previously established dynamics of the story told. MKR is technically 2 seasons but actually just one long series that had a 4 week break between episodes 20 and 21 (Ep 1-20 aired October 17 1994-March 13 1995, then Episodes 21-49 aired April 10-November 27 1995).
First off what really works for the show’s favor is the characters. Our heroine trio are very relatable, not just for the main audience (young girls) but beyond it. And the nice thing is that they are fully developed and realized, though they would go onto being archetypes (Hikaru being the genki girl, Fuu being the megane smart girl and Umi being the graceful rich girl). My favorite of the trio is Fuu and its more than just the fact that she’s a meganekko. She is rather clever, being the brainiac of the show, coming up with strategy to solve the problems the trio run into. Another good thing this show does is make the villains more sympathetic by using a more ambiguous but not quite ‘shades of grey’ line of morality. Of course, what makes the show great is the many and varied relationships between characters and how they change over the course of the entire series. One of the themes explored in the show is power of love in all forms and how that drives us forward partially or fully, and how it can drive us forward or hold us back.
Second, the story takes a fundamental fantasy story and mixes things up a lot. What starts off as some typical ‘group gets sent to another world to save the day’ turns into something very special and unique. When I first watched the show online some years ago, I was on the edge of my seat even during the climax of the first season. Quite honestly I didn’t see some of these twists coming.
Third, the world of Cephiro itself is an extremely well-done example of fantasy world-building. The concept of a world maintained by the power of will is utterly fascinating to me and really ties the setting to the thematic meat of the story. I like the various locales that are explored in both seasons and some of them are very unique (the spring of Eternia comes to mind).
Magic Knight Rayearth is very much an old school production, with all its blessings and flaws. The story tends to repeat exposition points way too much and stating the obvious, mainly by Fuu but other characters do it too at points. Season 2 has some pacing issues in terms of dealing with repeating stuff from S1 and moving the story forward at about the same time. Mokona, while a cute mascot character does act as a convenient device to move the plot forward. S2 does have a tendency for story reasons of focusing more on Hikaru and relegating Fuu and Umi to side adventures, which while entertaining, aren’t as fulfilling as what Hikaru goes through in S2. I find this goes against the team dynamic between our heroines established in S1.
On the production side of things, it does hold up really well even 20 years on though there are some glaring issues one with a modern eye: lots of still frames, speed lines, stock footage etc but paired with some great art and character designs. Stock footage abound in S2…..from earlier episodes in that season, even having every episode having a recap. Then again, S2 has some impressive action set pieces. I love the chibi moments as bits of levity in some of the more dark and serious moments or episodes. The CLAMP ladies were heavily involved and that shows in the final product for good and bad. I own the sets that are from 2001, though I heard that the show is getting an upcoming Blu-ray release which nice considering this show’s age and I encourage fans of the show to pick up that when it is available.
Hayato Matsuo did the music for this show. It is some really great stuff in the OST at times complementing the eastern RPG elements of the show with something that wouldn’t be out of place in Final Fantasy or Fire Emblem. Though, some of the tracks are repeated a lot but there isn’t one that’s dull or uninteresting so it is merely a nitpick. For example, one track in S2 is just wowow amazing crescendo of sound that is quite impressive. I also like the OPs for both seasons, yes even the versions sung by english dub voice actress Sandy Fox.
MKR has a well done english dub, if a little on the stilted side at points. It is well-casted and acted for its time, with a few cringing moments. Julie Maddalena, Wendee Lee and Bridget Hoffman are great in this playing our heroine trio. The supporting cast includes Jane Alan, Barbara Goodson, Mona Marshall, the late great Bob Papenbrook, Lex Lang, etc. and all do some great work here. In addition, you can find some early work by Michelle Ruff and some others that would go onto be in future LA dubs. Granted, Terence Stone in S1 as Inouva is really the only miscast in that his voice doesn’t quite nail the character all that well. Hearing Lenore Zann as Caladina was a treat for me as she voiced Rouge in 90s Xmen animated series. Season 2 continues the trend of good acting, though Reba West as the fairy Primera is a bit annoying. Though as a highlight, Dorothy Elias-Fahn as Nova is just wow what an amazing performance, I really wish she was still doing major voice work nowadays but oh well. One thing I liked about the release I have is the extras on discs including interviews with the voice actresses, blooper reels, etc. The special treat though is a commentary by English dub voice director Eric Sherman for episode 49 which is basically him rattling off bullet points off a script it seems regarding the production of the dub. But it gives one a rare insight into anime english dubbing production. Now he’s more known for being Producer on all Bang Zoom dub productions (CEO for Bang Zoom) but around this time he was one of the main directors/writers for Bang Zoom. Its good for the time, though a bit stilted at points.
Magic Knight Rayearth is a classic in its own right, though slightly overlooked due to some of its bigger contemporaries (cough Sailor Moon cough). But I find that it does something very special for the magical girl genre, in that it makes it more then just magically powered heroines teaming up to save the world, it’s a lot complicated than that. Sure, it hasn’t aged all that well but the lessons and ideas explored still resonate today at least for me. It’s well worth a watch to see this old school mahou shoujo.
Now I have some similar feelings for the review next month, I am covering a more recent magical girl show, one that’s near and dear to my heart. All I will say is ‘HERO PUNCH’ and leave it at that as hint.
Til next time, dear readers.