Narrative and Visual Symmetry
CLAMP's consistently rich art is widely known, but even more impressive is how each of their work has a distinct style (and elements of storytelling and composition that tie them all together) that differs from work to work. This is not limited to the visual aspect, though in terms of visuals, it's not just the way they draw characters, but also the way they use colours, ink and the composition of entire pages.
As already mentioned, Clover, for example, uses its space very sparingly, and the panels often feature miniscule movement as if showing a film frame by frame; where Clover's pages are white, X's are black and full of decorative details and symbolic imagery. Tokyo Babylon is yet another work that stands out, featuring wide spaces filled with solid colour and cutting down on decoration, though its kind of minimalism differs from Clover's; this is even more visible in its artbook, which, in contrast to other coloured art by CLAMP, mostly contains images consisting of black and a dominant colour. All these art styles complement the respective series; in these cases, the negative space in Clover reflects, among other things, the loneliness of physical or emotional isolation and the basic desire to connect, X's encompassing and violently fantastic art heralds the destruction of the world, and Tokyo Babylon's very much represents the duality at the core of its themes.
I dare say that Magic Knight Rayearth, too, has a cohesive style, albeit in a way more subtle compared to the ones mentioned above. MKR's character design and arrangement of panels is in line with CLAMP's style (especially back in the day) and can be identified as their work on sight; for the same reason, I would not regard them unique to or defining of MKR. What I do, however, consider its distinctive trait is the symmetric structure throughout the series, in art and storytelling, the significance of which goes back to MKR's core; more to that below. When I speak of symmetry, I mean it as balance and regularity of the elements that make up the whole.
Narrative symmetry starts with something as banal as this: There are two story arcs, each spanning exactly three volumes. Both arcs open with the Magic Knights in their own world, followed by their arrival in Cephiro; both times, they fall from the sky and are saved by the same spirit beast as they look at or look for Cephiro's landmarks. In both instances, what they set out to do is determined after a conversation with Clef, who provides them with armor and magic. Each girl receives her own weapon (two times: the ones borrowed from Presea and the ones crafted for them), her own element and her own Mashin after facing their respective trials and opponent in the Spring Eterna and the respective shrine associated with their element. After every step of the way, their armor and weapon grows.
Each girl has an emotional connection in their world; for Hikaru, it's her brothers and her pet dog, for Umi her parents, for Fuu mainly her sister. When they return to Cephiro and stay at the palace, each of them is shown to be particularly dear to one of the people closest to Emeraude: Presea is especially fond of Hikaru, Clef and Umi's relationship has advanced from bickering to understanding, and Ferio and Fuu are romantically involved. By the end of the series, each girl's love life has been addressed too (even if by the absence of romantic notions): Hikaru wishes to be with Lantis and Eagle, Umi is oblivious to Ascot's feelings, and Fuu continues to be smitten by Ferio's tender flirting.
Cephiro's invaders each travel in a vessel and have an ability that corresponds to the theme of their design; each of them has someone dear to them, someone knowledgeable about the other countries on board of their vessel, and their family members are mentioned (even if only briefly).
In supplemental material, every single character (every. single. character.) has a profile of their own. Hikaru's birthday is on 8th August, Umi's on 3rd March, Fuu's on 12th December. Their names mean "Light of the Lion Shrine", "Sea of the Dragon Blossom" and "Wind of the Phoenix Temple" respectively.
The beauty of this is that despite things being so balanced, each character is distinct, and the story does not feel repetitive. What's refreshing in my view is that MKR is so balanced even in storytelling perspective that it isn't until late into the second story arc that Hikaru sets herself apart as the protagonist; in contrast to Magical Girl series in particular, growth, power and amount of scenes between the three girls are so equally distributed that Hikaru doesn't come across as more important or more as a leader (even with her jumping into action and unknown situations more readily than her comrades). Even the finishing blow dealt to Emeraude is a result of the three Mashin merging and the trio seeing things through together.
I will admit that this point is what made me start reading MKR at first sight: When you look at the six volumes of MKR (omnibuses obviously not included), whether it's the Japanese, German or English Tokyopop editions (I can't speak for the rest), the symmetry is eye-catching. The Japanese and German editions feature the same images on the first three covers, so I'll refer to those first:
The respective volume covers are red, blue and green. As you can see, each cover image shows one girl in the foreground with the other two in the back, matching the girl with the volume cover and the order in which they learn their spells. The background of each image is dominated by the respective element. On the first cover, the girls are depicted with their initial armor Clef gave them, the second cover shows its second form after the trial at the Spring Eterna, and the third their final armor (different from the individual armor they gain as finalized Magic Knights) after the second trial at the Wind Shrine; each stage occurs in the respective volume. The only inaccuracy of the covers is that they all show the form of the girls' final weapons, thus not matching the stage of their armor and story. In the same vein, each of the first three volumes contains fully coloured bonus stories of the girls' adventures with Mokona, showcasing Mokona's abilities, where they wear the respective armor.
Though the images used for the second part of the covers differs in the three mentioned versions, just like the entirety of MKR's coloured art, the symmetry is preserved. In the Japanese and German versions, the three volume covers are in a different, darker shade of red, blue and green respectively. This balance extends to other characters as well: artwork of the Mashin, artwork for both the group of allies and antagonists the girls face in the first story arc, artwork for each group of invaders, artwork contrasting the landscape of Cephiro in the first story arc to the landscape of the world in the second, individual images of the girls doing sports or their favourite leisure activities, and the list continues. The sheer amount of images, with each girl getting her own in the same composition, makes this some impressive dedication.
Here's a small selection of the art from MKR's artbooks; these images are also featured on the covers of various manga editions:
I mentioned above that I think CLAMP ties the visual presentation of a work to the themes and mood of the work itself. In the case of MKR, I think the basis of the symmetry is rooted in the Magical Girl and JRPG genres that MKR explicitly draws from. For what it's worth, I'd say that the visual symmetry is a result of the Magical Girl influence, whereas the narrative symmetry stems from JRPGs. For that matter, I don't think of MKR as a Magical Girl series either, or at the very least not primarily.
Magical Girl series are heavily associated with visual elements and rituals, but also their themes – less so their narrative structure. Elements commonly seen in series of the genre are individual transformation and attack sequences, reccurring battle postures and battle cries, upgrades in power that are reflected in the change of attire and weapons, weapons resembling toys and feminine accessories that can be merchandised and cute non-humanoid sidekicks; they are often coming of age stories embedded in everyday life, revolving around friendship and holding on to one's values even in the most hopeless situations.
I believe equal presentation of each Magical Girl within a group is an important element of the genre since little girls, the target demography, are meant to identify with them. Equally important is to make each girl distinct – through colours, elements, abilities, personality.
The girls in MKR are distinct by these criteria, their weapons and armor change forms as their hearts mature (though they're unsuitable for toy marketing, which is an important aspect of the genre), and the series certainly is a coming of age story where the girls encourage each other and speak of the power of friendship, which ends with one girl obtaining something close to godhood, but the narrative structure does not strictly follow that of Magical Girl stories. Notably absent are ritualistic scenes that, in my opinion, mark the genre (though I admit that might be due to the genre being so dominant as anime, not as manga); the aforementioned transformation (there is no repeated transformation, just one-time upgrades) and attack sequences and battle postures, for example. Battle cries and the insistence on the power of friendship can as well be attributed to typical fights in the shounen genre (relevant because the blurring of genres is something CLAMP is known for).
Furthermore, though I'd be hesitant to call it a constitutive element of the Magical Girl genre, they usually feature one protagonist who is also the leader, and whose inner thoughts are typically portrayed as the narrative voice. I believe this to be important because it allows the younger audience to better relate with the protagonist, especially with protagonists usually starting out as unremarkable characters who think of themselves as an average person leading an uneventful life. As mentioned above, this does not hold true for MKR as Hikaru doesn't assume a narratively dominant position until the final showdown.
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