CLAMP has created tons of marvelous manga from Cardcaptor Sakura to Chobits. One of their early hits, Magic Knight Rayearth, is one of the best examples of the isekai genre, popularized in the last decade by anime like Sword Art Online and KonoSuba. Isekai stories follow a protagonist transported to another world, where they are forced to thrive in this alternate reality.
This idea is not new to anime. Portal fantasy, from Narnia to Alice in Wonderland, is as old as fantasy literature itself. However, the tropes of the isekai genre as we know it in anime and manga today were heavily codified in the late '00s and early '10s. Magic Knight Rayearth is an isekai from before the tropes of the genre were codified, comparable to The Twelve Kingdoms and El-Hazard. Remarkably, Magic Knight Rayearth remains surprisingly modern, unique and impactful decades later.
What is Magic Knight Rayearth About?
Magic Knight Rayearth centers around three eighth-grade girls -- the energetic gamer Hikaru, the snappy only-child Umi, and the studious Fuu -- who are transported to the magical world of Cephiro. Shortly after arriving, they learn that the princess of Cephiro, Emeraude, has been kidnapped by her traitorous high priest Zagato. This is particularly bad because Emeraude exists as the Pillar as Cephiro, where her dreams and wishes manifest and create the world around her.
It's up to these three girls to learn how to harness their inherent magical power, which involves them learning spells and finding giant magic robots called Rune-Gods, in order to stop Zagato and rescue Emeraude, all while fighting the forces of evil. Or at least, that's what it appears to be at first.
Magic Knight Rayearth is divided into two separate manga, each one covering a different story arc. The two manga were adapted into an anime TV series, as well as a darker, more mature OVA series simply titled Rayearth. While the story is high fantasy, it twists audience expectations, bringing up existential questions alongside the action.
Why Magic Knight Rayearth is Better Than Most Modern Isekai
Magic Knight Rayearth is in some ways similar to modern isekai series, both in its transported-to-another-world premise and its video game-influenced power-ups. However, it differs on some key points.
Most modern isekai incorporates the idea of the power fantasy, either responding to it or fulfilling the expectations therein. In formulaic isekai power fantasies, characters find a cast of beautiful women who love them, end up drawing the admiration of everyone around them, regardless of their personality or actions. In subversions of this formula, protagonists might start off with a disadvantage -- such as being born as a slime or otherwise weak monster -- only to achieve great things later on. Subversions like Re:Zero and KonoSuba deliberately make their characters inherently vulnerable and flawed.
Magic Knight Rayearth is an anti-power fantasy that now plays like a much sharper subversion of the isekai genre than the likes of Re:Zero or KonoSuba -- though of course it can't really be considered a "subversion" when it pre-dates the tropes feels like it's subverting. In the first arc, all the power the Magic Knights receive brings them closer to their goal, but that goal culminates in them killing the person they tried to rescue to set them free. In the second arc, even the "good" characters face serious consequences for their actions. Hikaru literally becomes a God, only to reject that power because she believes no one person should possess that much power. It is a story centered around the burden of power rather than how rewarding it is to have power.
Too many isekai anime have fallen into power fantasy cliches. However, Magic Knight Rayearth is more interested in looking at how power affects people, both for the better or worse. This makes for a work that feels fresh in the genre, maintains tension throughout and never feels dull or predictable. As a result, Magic Knight Rayearth is a profoundly compelling fantasy adventure with a deep existential subtext.