Growing up in the 90’s, Magic Knight Rayearth was one of the first anime series I followed, and it introduced me to the “magical girls” subgenre and its common tropes (I got to watch it before Sailor Moon). The anime centers on three eight-grade girls of varying personalities and from different schools who, while on a field trip at Tokyo Tower, are magically taken into the fantasy world of Cephiro. They learn that they are summoned by Princess Emeraude, the “Pillar” – the sovereign and guardian of Cephiro, who sustains the peace and prosperity of Cephiro by her prayers – and that they are the chosen Magic Knights that would awaken the Rune-Gods and save the gradually deteriorating Cephiro. In order to do so, they need to rescue Princess Emeraude from her apparent kidnapper, Zagato, the former High Priest to the Pillar.
From his introduction and throughout the story, Zagato is seen as a callous villain who seeks the destruction of Cephiro. Meanwhile, the Magic Knights believe that they were summoned by Emeraude to defeat Zagato. Which they were able to do so. After overcoming his minions, the trio kill him in their final battle.
Then comes the fantastic plot twist that changes everything that was known of the story…
Princess Emeraude and High Priest Zagato are lovers! As the Pillar, it’s required for Emeraude to invest all her heart and thoughts to her prayers for the well-being of Cephiro. But because she has fallen in love with Zagato, her heart and thoughts are now set on him, putting Cephiro at risk. This turns out to be the reason why Cephiro’s state is worsening. In order to save Cephiro, Emeraude knows that a new Pillar needs to be chosen – which can only happen after her death. However, only the Magic Knights are capable of killing her. Thus, Emeraude didn’t summon them so that they can save her from Zagato; she summoned them so that they can kill her – and Zagato, who loves and values Emeraude over Cephiro, only did what he did in order to prevent her death from being carried out!
The death of Zagato at the hands of the Magic Knights broke Emeraude’s heart, awakening a dark side of her. The Dark Emeraude, blindly driven by vengeance and hate, attacks the Magic Knights. However, a vision of the good Emeraude reveals the truth to the trio, and begs them to end her life. In order to save Cephiro and since there are no stopping Dark Emeraude from killing them, the shocked and reluctant Magic Knights are forced to do so. After they delivered the killing blow and before being returned to Earth, the girls see a final vision of Emeraude, in her original appearance, and Zagato embracing, implying that the two are reunited in the next life.
It was the first time I encountered such big plot twist in fiction. I’m not sure if I encountered other significant plot twists prior that, but Magic Knight Rayearth’s was so impactful that I can still remember how blown away I was as a kid of that reveal. There are a couple of reasons why I think Magic Knight Rayearth is a better anime classic than Sailor Moon (at least, to a boy’s perspective), but the love story of Zagato and Emeraude is among the major ones.
As far as having an original, well-realized, beautiful, tragic love story is concerned, Magic Knight Rayearth is the best since William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In fact, being embodied in this fantasy story of magic, monsters, school girl “chosen ones”, a dying world that needs saving, enchanted mechas, and complicated duties makes the former better executed, more high-staked, and more appealing to me.