Coming of Age
In true shoujo fashion and following the inspiration of the Magical Girl and JRPG genres, Magic Knight Rayearth is ultimately a coming of age story wrapped in a fantasy adventure – of the girls', but also of the world's maturing, and perhaps also the reader's.
What does it mean to grow up?
A Matter of Perspective
What strikes me the most at the beginning of the second story arc is how deeply the girls are affected by the events of the final battle once they've returned to their world. They are unable to forget the Tokyo Tower, unable to confide in anyone and meet up again at the place it all began (they don't attend the same schools). The mood is heavy with regret and dejection, very different from the triumph throughout the first arc and especially in the lead-up to the final battle.
The girls admit to having wanted to become heroes fighting for justice, and the story they found themselves in was indeed just like an RPG – but it was reality: Cephiro's and theirs. Fuu remarks that unlike video games, there was no good or evil; each person fought for their own wish. Umi adds that since realizing that, she hasn't felt like playing RPGs anymore, as each game makes her think that "even this enemy has a reason to act the way they do", and that though as the player, she may think of herself as the hero, from the perspective of the enemy, she must be the villain. Once, they wanted nothing more than to return to their world – now, they wish to go back to Cephiro to face what they've done.
Once in Cephiro, the three of them show what they've learned from that lesson: When the invaders approach Cephiro, the Magic Knights move out – not to attack, but to make sure they know the enemy's motives, having vowed not to ever fight again without knowing what each side is fighting for.
One's Own Path
The second time they are called to Cephiro, they don't know who summoned them and what they have been summoned for. The people of Cephiro whom they've met tell them they have done and suffered enough and need not get themselves involved anymore. Unlike the first time, there is no legend or quest to tell them what to do; in fact, even Cephiro's people do not have a clear vision of how to deal with the land's crumbling and the incoming attacks of lands beyond Cephiro. They know they must find a new Pillar, but where in Cephiro is such a person? Who called the Magic Knights? What and where is the Path to the Pillar, and what kind of trial awaits those with qualifications?
And yet, the Magic Knights decide to take up their swords and fight for Cephiro's preservation once more. This time not because it is something requested of them, but for the wish coming from their own heart – the heart that has matured over their journey.
Rejecting the Utopia
Walking their own path rather than blindly following one laid out for them is closely linked to rejecting the notion of a utopia. There is no such thing as a utopia because there is no such thing as perfection, and if it weren't for that, people would not strive for improvement. Perceiving something as perfect is also ascribed to a lack of vision, perspective and thus maturity: The image of perfection crumbles the more information you obtain, and the more you mature, the better you are able to see that.
When Emeraude rejects sacrificing herself for Cephiro's sake, instead choosing to avenge Zagato's death, her childlike appearance turns into that of an adult's. When the reader reaches the moment of truth and then returns to Cephiro, they realize that Cephiro is not a world as beautiful as they had thought. When Hikaru rejects Cephiro's Pillar system, she is able to create a more equal, a more balanced world. None of this would have occurred to the Magic Knights in the first part of their journey. It is only by questioning the world that one can change it.
Staying True to One's Values
Changing means understanding and adapting. Changing does not necessarily entail eradicating all that was: One can also change by giving what already exists a new form.
Strength and will lie at Cephiro's core, but more subtle is the message that they alone do not suffice. The monsters that threaten Cephiro's stability in the first story arc are the fears of people taking shape; they are manifestations of the heart. The same power of the heart that ensured peace is also the power that creates chaos. Emeraude's strong heart and love for Cephiro protected it to the very end, but it's the same strength that tore her apart, and the reason why both Emeraude and Zagato, those with the strongest hearts, could neither live out their desires nor forgive themselves. Lantis' heart is the strongest in all of Cephiro by the time the Path to the Pillar opens, but his wish is destructive. Eagle's heart is strong, but his wish adheres to the status quo (see the two paragraphs above) even though he means to be the end of the system.
Hikaru's strength, on the other hand, refuses to accept and instead chooses a new way, one that acknowledges that Cephiro's underlying principle is beautiful while criticizing the way it is used, and in turn, her wish is acknowledged by Cephiro's creator. Strength of heart can mean different things and manifest differently, but it's not the end-all: What matters is where you direct that strength and what you use it for.
Growing up includes taking responsibility for your actions, but also knowing when to share that responsibility. The Magic Knights assume individual responsibility when they go from asking "why us?" in the first story arc to "it has to be us" in the second story arc – Umi in particular. Cephiro's people take responsibility for their world as a collective by accepting the new system Hikaru has proposed instead of the Pillar system, which pushes the burden of the world on one person. Only by working together can they ensure the stability of the world they envision and improve as a group. Similarly, the Magic Knights learn not to shoulder their burdens alone, but to lean on their friends. It is this trust in their friends, but also in themselves, that allowed Hikaru to remake the world – something that both Emeraude and Mokona were capable of, but chose not to do.
The path to the future under a system everyone is an active part of may be one of uncertainty, but it is also one that allows each person to grow and mature as they all take responsibility for their world, their own future and their own happiness.
The Magic Knights and Cephiro's evolution is beautifully and subtly shown in different ways. At the beginning of the story, Cephiro looks beautiful even as Emeraude was captured, and though it seems as though the Magic Knights were called to fight an external threat (the monsters, the chaos, Zagato), they learn that the state of the world was brought about by Emeraude's wavering heart, a result of the world hinging on one person's heart. In MKR's second story arc, the land is barren, dark and threatening, the palace surrounded by mountains, and again they seem to face an external threat (the invaders), when the true danger stems from the Pillar system, something internal.
Where Cephiro's people, especially those that the Magic Knights have befriended, were spread out across the world, at the end of the story, they are all around the palace. The mountains and magical barrier around the palace are gone, as are the boundaries of responsibility. Hearts are no longer isolated; instead, the reconstruction and maintaining of the world is acknowledged as a collective effort. When the girls come to visit Cephiro after it has been rebuilt, they wear casual clothing, not the school uniforms they used to wear beneath their armor – under the new system, they no longer have to fight, and under the new system, they contribute to the world as individuals, each with their own skills.
When I read MKR when I was younger, for a long time, I disliked its second arc: It is void of RPG elements, it is not light-hearted, its pacing is immensely slow compared to the constant action in the first arc, and most of it consists of the Magic Knights going in and out of the palace as they face the outsiders. It was not until later that I understood just how tremendous the second arc is, and how MKR's true value comes from the growth displayed in it, a growth unlike the one the girls go through in the first part of their journey.
The reason the pacing is different in the second arc is because it has to be different: It does not follow any formula, especially not one of classic JRPGs that rehash the same plot. It is not an outward adventure, but one inwards, where you learn to question your own actions and your own heart as you struggle to understand the world and come up with an answer. It is full of uncertainty, just as the future is full of uncertainty, because in reality, there is no one path to follow and you don't know what's coming – and still you must venture on.
I tried to capture that contrast and that uncertainty in the titles I've given to Act I and Act II on this site: Bound by Will and Forging One's Own Path. There's ambivalence in both titles to reflect the lesson that nothing is inherently good or evil, but that you must use your own mind and heart to look at things from different perspectives. Cephiro being a world bound by Emeraude's will is portrayed as something positive at first, but it is because the Magic Knights let themselves be bound by it that they kill Zagato without considering his stance. Forging one's own path applies to the girls, to Cephiro, and also to the invaders (in two senses: the paths of light they create, but also their ultimate decision), even if they don't know where exactly they are going and what they can do.
To a world where a believing heart truly turns into power.
These are the lessons of growing up: Learn to look at things from different perspectives. Accept that there is no such thing as good and evil; things are the way they are for a reason. Do not judge and do not act hastily before you know that reason. Question yourself and the world around you so as to understand both. Reality is not a game and does not have a preset path. Only experience will teach you what you must know. Find your own way; listen to your heart. Accept that perfection does not exist, but that the struggle for it makes you a better person. Embrace change. Take responsibility for your actions. Be responsible for the world you are part of. Do not be afraid of the future, of uncertainty. Share your burdens – and remember, always, that you are not alone.
Strength of Heart is part of the Caged Songbird Network © 2015-2021 Lethe
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