Incorporation of RPG Elements
Already have I mentioned that I don't think of Magic Knight Rayearth as a Magical Girl series first and foremost, but rather a shoujo action adventure fantasy that combines elements of the two popular genres (belonging to different media!) Magical Girls and JRPGs, with the latter outweighing the former.
The three girls are shown to be genre savvy from the moment they arrive in Cephiro and meet Clef; Fuu in particular points out several times over the course of the first volume what's typical in your average JRPG in the respective situation they find themselves in:
RPGs are not mentioned in name again until – and that's the sole instance afterwards (talk about symmetry) – the first volume of the second story arc; by then, the mention carries an entirely different tone. There are, however, many more RPG elements throughout the first arc! Below is a loose categorization.
What merits mentioning is the inextricable connection between the expectations of an JRPG player and the conclusion of MKR's first story arc. I wholeheartedly believe that if the first arc weren't set up to follow classic JRPGs, fairy tales and fantasy journeys, all of which frequently feature "dragon"/princess stories and have the protagonist retrieve that princess in order to save the world, as faithfully as it did, the plot twist would not have been as successful.
What's more, at no point in their journey did the girls have reason to question their mission, especially since none of the people they met knew the truth behind the legend or Emeraude's true wish. The exception to this is perhaps Clef, as he hesitates briefly when he first speaks to them, but dismisses what he meant to say; in a flashback in the second story arc, he is seen with Emeraude, who admits to loving Zagato and not being capable of accepting the turmoil with herself. The phrasing of the scene is ambiguous though, and it is unclear whether Clef knew the true extent of Emeraude's plan, whether he was able to foresee what would happen, and whether he acted on the hope that things would turn out differently.
Emeraude is always featured crying in the first arc, whereas Zagato is always communicating with her or his people with a threatening expression, continuously going expressly against Emeraude's requests as she begs him to stop. None of Zagato's underlings questioned him because they were all acting for their own wishes, an important theme in MKR. Even Emeraude's unheard cries during the final battle could, for a while, be interpreted as her worrying for the Magic Knights' integrity, rather than for Zagato's safety.
As Caldina suggested, to Zagato, there's something more important than Cephiro, and in a conversation between Emeraude and Zagato where she asks him why he continues to do "such awful things" (hindering the Magic Knights from finding and thus killing her), he states that no matter what happens, his heart won't change. From the perspective of the reader and the girls both, at those points, there is no explicit reason to question those words – after all, the plot has been a straight-forward RPG and Zagato has never been portrayed as anything other than a villain: in the words of Cephiro's people, in his own words, but more importantly, in the framing of the scenes (the same scenes often seen in JRPGs when villains conspire).
In the final fight, Zagato asks why the Pillar must always pray for Cephiro – and the girls do not understand. They don't because everyone they have met in Cephiro spoke of the princess' loving heart and of Cephiro with adoration; at this stage in the series, nobody (other than Zagato!) gave the girls and the reader a reason to question the nature of the Pillar system. When Zagato phrases the question more forcefully, it is drowned out and brushed over in the heat of the battle. This is addressed below, but during and after the final battle, protagonists in JRPGs usually do not listen to the words of the final boss anymore.
There is a JRPG in recent memory (I won't name it here so as not to spoil anyone) that tries to do something similar by sending the party out on a quest where they believe they're doing the right thing, but in truth aren't, which is why they end up having to fight everyone else – people who are framed as villains when in fact, they are trying to keep the party from destroying the world. The reason that JRPG fails spectacularly and leaves no impression whatsoever is because unlike MKR, there is no sense of urgency within a condensed quest, and all the opportunities to realize that the protagonists are on the wrong path are there, but are conveniently ignored by the writer to enable the twist. Everyone hunts down the protagonists, everyone chats with them before, during and after battles, everyone stands around forever calling each other traitorous, but nobody even tries to ask what the wrong assumptions are about and why they're fighting each other, let alone make an attempt to reason or to convince them from giving up their quest – for no good reason. This is all the more jarring because the protagonists go as far as killing everyone in their way, something that is not called into question either. Not to mention that after realizing their mistake and knowing how to prevent it, the characters still keep doing what they've been doing – again for no good reason. Lazy writing and ignorance of existing options do not make a good plot twist.
By far the most striking RPG-to-manga translation of an element is, in my opinion, the last page of the series. After Cephiro has been recreated, the characters decide to give it a new name to signify its new beginning. Hikaru breaks the fourth wall to address the reader directly:
Hmm.... I know! You decide the name for our new world! You've been with us this whole time!
This is followed by an empty text field. Of course, books have those too, but I've only ever seen them hold the book owner's name outside of the story. The way MKR entrusts such a significant decision to the reader can't be anything other than a callback to its RPG – and thus video game – roots (something mostly absent in the second story arc with good reason) and a defining trait of theirs: interactivity. A player is an active part of a video game, accompanying the main party every step of the way. The text field thus mimics the input fields frequently seen in video games, which allow players to customize their experience. A very fond memory of mine from early internet days is that of MKR fansites featuring polls for Cephiro's new name, and collecting suggestions from their visitors.
That aside, there's also a delightful illustration depicting the Magic Knights with various costumes, some of them professions or classes mentioned within the series itself. These are obviously meant to be job classes!
Lastly, something that vastly differs from (at the very least classic) JRPGs is the way the girls react to the final battle. In RPGs, the game usually ends as soon as the final boss has been defeated, and is immediately followed by the ending (which often takes place some time afterwards). The protagonists do not spend the ending mulling over the antagonist's motives or the final battle itself (the same holds true for bosses encountered over the journey); if at all, they do so before the battle takes place. In older games in particular, antagonists along the way are not thought of as individuals from the perspective of the protagonists, and their individual personalities, motives and fates are only relevant to the player, without touching the protagonists on an emotional level.
MKR, however, dedicates its entire second part to the consequences of the final battle – not just in terms of what it does to the world (which is not an unheard of element in a video game sequel), but what it does to the girls emotionally, and how they are affected by specific people (Emeraude and Zagato). The revelations of the final battle shake them so much that they see not just their past actions, but their entire world in a different light. How this is crucial in the bigger scheme is explored in a different chapter.
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