(This review only applies to the first three volumes, not the later ones that make up Magic Knight Rayearth II. That'll be its own review)
I give one of CLAMP's most well-liked manga series...a 70/100.
Let's face it: anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of anime has at least heard of CLAMP, or if you don't, you've seen one of their anime/manga without knowing it. They were the queens of manga back in the 90s. They made famous titles like Card Captor Sakura, XxxHolic, Tsubasa Chronicles, X, Angelic Layer, etc. My first manga by them was Wish, and I still own all four volumes to this day. People still love their work even now, though as of late, CLAMP doesn't seem to be as well-loved now as they were during their heyday, what with all the drama regarding Tsubasa, the low quality of their newer works, among other things. One of their most well-liked manga is a little title called Magic Knight Rayearth, famous for having three female main characters wielding swords and magic, going to another world, deconstructing the typical "destroy the evil villain and save the princess" tropes in unexpected ways, and just being all-around cool. I've seen the anime version and have read the manga (the first three volumes make up 20 episodes of the anime series, which technically counts as the first season), and...well, to be honest, I feel the anime told the story a little better.
So the premise in and of itself isn't much to write home about. Three middle school girls--Hikaru Shidou, Umi Ryuuzaki, and Fuu Hououji--are suddenly whisked away to the magical land of Cephiro, where one's choices and belief are the strongest power of all. But Cephiro is in a global crisis, as Princess Emeraude's trusted high priest, Zagato, has kidnapped her and whisked her away to his secret lair, and because Princess Emeraude keeps Cephiro alive and thriving with her prayers, he basically is the cause of everything. With the help of some allies, both human and non-human, the three girls are tasked to become the legendary Magic Knights and save Princess Emeraude and Cephiro from certain doom.
I really don't think I need to say much about the artwork that hasn't been said about CLAMP by now. It's freaking beautiful. Everyone's outfits are meticulously detailed, sometimes even excessively so, the battle scenes are full of action that really feel like they come alive, sometimes taking up whole pages, and all of the characters have unique designs that are distinctly their own, so not once do you feel like everyone looks the same. Need I mention the setting and weapon designs as well? You have to admit, CLAMP has a real knack for making their own fantasy worlds and weapons that really look unique. Magical flying fish, fountains that only exist in two dimensions, weapons that evolve when their characters grow up mentally, a princess whose very life is used for making the entire world peaceful and nothing else? You have to admit, those are pretty original, especially for their time period.
Unfortunately, this leads to what I feel is one of the manga's biggest flaws. Since the story only takes up three volumes, it moves at a very fast, breakneck pace that doesn't leave much time for the characters to just sit down, breathe, and learn more about Cephiro, what it's like, its customs, the people living on it, etc. This is one flaw that the anime managed to rectify. Since the first season of the anime consisted of 20 episodes, it had more time to add more episodes that not only expanded on Cephiro and its plight as a hole, but added new situations that really allowed you to relax and get to know the characters and the setting more. The manga doesn't have that luxury, and it's basically just "Learn stuff from Clef, go to the forest, meet Presea, get weapons, fight monsters, go to castle, etc" with nothing in between to even the pace.
The manga's short length and extremely strict but fast pacing also effects the characters as well. Since 98% of the story takes place in Cephiro, we know little to nothing about what the girls are like outside the main story, and they aren't given the opportunity to truly blossom and become fully realized characters. Hikaru is still a happy-go-lucky tomboy who's extremely determined, Umi starts off as an annoying rich girl who complains a lot but then mellows out, Fuu is the smart one, etc. There isn't much else to them. One minor character, Ferio, is the biggest victim of this since he barely gets any plot relevance outside helping the girls out of a forest and fighting off one of Princess Emeraude's brainwashed guards. The anime rectified this by giving him more character, more screentime, and a far more active role in the grand scheme of things, even a fleshed out backstory. On the other hand, I did like some of the details added in the character bios and omake sections, such as Hikaru wanting to be a seeing-eye dog trainer, Umi being good at fencing which helps her grow as a Magic Knight, and Fuu being good with computers, things I really wish had been explored in the manga or even a side-story if CLAMP had the chance to expand on those aspects of them.
So yeah, the manga's not perfect. Nothing is. It could have been so much better if CLAMP made more than just three volumes of it. But for the purpose of not being an edgy killjoy, here's some more positives: the girls themselves are pretty decent characters overall, and they get off to a rough start but gradually become friends and work together, not once falling into the catty girl stereotypes and superficial friendships you see in most trashy teen romcom TV shows nowadays and even back in the 90s. Plus, they use swords and magic! How cool is that?! Also, I absolutely LOVE the twist ending. I won't spoil it for you, but the ending is an absolute masterpiece in that it completely eschews typical "save the princess" cliches and doesn't coddle the reader whatsoever. The anime keeps the twist too, so don't worry about it not being adapted.
Not one of the best mangas ever, but it's still a pretty fun ride if you want something cool to read to kill time.
Firechick's Manga Reviews: Magic Knight Rayearth
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