To Save This Earth, Will Safe Guard Our Dreams
This animated fantasy had my attention from the first frame. A powerful priest fights a desperately dark battle against a massive deity. I stared in awe at the beautifully rendered animation while absorbing the intense action. Haunting music drew me in further. RayEarth had me in a spell.
Facts of the Case
Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu are three fast friends about to graduate from high school. Upon graduation, they will go their separate ways, and the three fear their friendship will suffer. They gather under the wish-granting cherry tree and ask to remain friends forever.
The spirit of the tree overhears them, and grants their wish in a most peculiar way. As it happens, the advanced yet decadent world of Cephiro is in peril. Princess Emeraude has made a decree (under deception) that is open to interpretation by her loyal subjects. Some are using the decree as rationale to seek out other worlds and destroy them. The last world is Earth. The fortress of Cephiro is about to land here and rend us apart.
The tree spirit chooses Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu as champions to defend Earth. Their mission becomes clear when a priest of Cephiro locks all of humanity in a time warp prison. The three must unlock their inner deities and fight the menace of Cephiro.
The brief synopsis above does not do justice to the intricacy of the tale. There are many characters with complex motivations. Each scene sheds more light on the relationships between the characters, and we must rethink our conceptualizations. Although the story is highly involved and the characters are haughty and ethereal, RayEarth never feels abstract.
The story is intricate, but the animation is more so. RayEarth was drawn by CLAMP, a partnership of four Japanese women. These talented artists are responsible for some of the most popular anime series, such as Chobits and Card Captor Sakura. CLAMP is known for detailed animation, and this series is no exception. They take some license for the sake of style, such as eyebrows that extend beyond the face and periodically transparent hair. (While we're on the subject of hair, there is a lot of it, flowing around ankles in unnaturally comely waves.) The characters are long and graceful, clad in fetching outfits. Mind you, the outfits are of the least sensible variety, with flowing capes and swirling belts that would trip up even modest attempts to walk. (That is, if the hair didn't trip them first.) Clearly, the focus is on style and fantasy, and they admirably attain that goal.
The sweeping score matches the fantastic animation. Themes of melancholy, danger, and fantasy supplemented the story without crossing the line of taste. The music did repeat themes often, but there was enough variation to keep it fresh. When dramatic battles loomed, the music was right there to provide the perfect note of apprehension.
The voice acting in the English dub is effective. I didn't register any major annoyances, and the acting never took me out of the story. In my book, that is a successful dub.
The best anime is a harmony of music, artwork, and voice acting. RayEarth works on all three fronts. Solid mechanics are a precursor to great anime, but don't always result in an enjoyable whole. What about the big picture?
RayEarth may not be the best example of the "kids saving the world" fantasy genre. There may be a similar anime that tells the same story with more grace, drama, and poignancy. But I haven't seen it. I was completely blown away.
The aspect that I most appreciated was the gravity granted each character. The girls were never portrayed as silly or naïve. They lacked knowledge, needed to mature enough to confront their true selves, and had petty desires or traits. But never were they stripped of respect. (Though they were stripped of clothing once or twice.) In the same way, villains were portrayed as complex beings with hearts and emotion that drove their behavior. Some of them were evil, but they still had believable motivations. Certain characters even grew from enemies to friends in the course of the story.
The story is heavy and somewhat dark. As menace builds, the battles become more and more desperate. It has become trendy to bash France; you watch Paris get trashed by massive mecha-deities. The girls do not emerge unscathed, glowing with unrealistic super-powers. Instead, they claw their way through hopeless circumstances even when the way is unclear. I prefer my fantasies to err on the side of verisimilitude. This one maintains its dark composure throughout.
The DVD package is impressive. First, we get stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in both Japanese and English. Japanese 5.1 tracks are not standard issue, so fans who prefer to listen in Japanese should be pleased. The English dub closely follows the subtitles, which means the English version is a faithful adaptation of the original meaning. The video transfer is clean and crisp. The colors seemed a tad desaturated, but that could be due to stylistic intent. Black levels were mostly consistent and the transfer was sharply focused.
The extras are straightforward. There is a trailer and photo gallery, standard issue extras. The Cephiro Chronicles break down each character and reveal their role in the story. It made many things clear, and I appreciate the pointers for the complicated story. The Manga extras are quite thorough if you enjoy that sort of thing, with trailers for many anime titles and trailers for affiliate companies.
All of this is fantastic, but the bottom line is the story. Through careful manipulation of tone, emotion, and honesty to the characters, CLAMP has created a powerfully moving story. I felt connected to these completely untouchable beings.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
RayEarth is an Original Video Animation (OVA) with the same characters as the television series Magic Knights Rayearth. The OVA is an alternate take on the same characters and premise. Fans of the television series might be unprepared for the darker tone and fundamental changes in character. Since this series did not run in the United States, American audiences are unlikely to have this problem. (Unless, of course, they are anime fans; as such, they probably know more than I do about this series anyway.)
The storyline is devilishly hard to follow. The clues are all there, unlike some recent titles I've viewed (*cough*…Kai Doh Maru…*cough*). Try not to blink or otherwise become distracted while the story is unfolding. That way you won't miss the plot holes.
The battles tend to become repetitive. I can only see the "Squirt of Powerful Water" and "Mighty Break of Wind" attacks so often before they lose their awe. RayEarth at least provides a rationale for these uninspired attacks. The girls have only had their powers for a few hours. If I found something that worked, I'd stick with it too.
RayEarth snuck up and ensnared me in a world of ethereal beauty and beguiling characters. I didn't expect to be so drawn or to like it so much. It doesn't fire on all cylinders, but the whole is still amazing. RayEarth may not attain the stratospheric heights of artistry we see in Miyazaki's work, but judged against normal standards it is a fine effort.
CLAMP is free to go with the good wishes of the court. His honor hopes the handcuffs did not affect your drawing hands too much.
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