Juna (voiced by Mami Higashiyama) is a sporty high school girl leading a regular life in Kobe, Japan. Until she is struck dead in a freak accident right in front of her horrified boyfriend Tokio (Tomakazu Seki). As Juna's spirit leaves her body and floats above the Earth she sees the planet ravaged by Raaja, giant invisible worm-like creatures that manifest as result of mankind's destruction of the environment. She is joined on the astral plane is Chris (Yuji Ueda), a mysterious young boy with awesome psychic powers. He offers to save Juna's life if she will dedicate herself to saving Earth. To the shock of Tokio, her grieving mother (Chiharu Suzuka) and hospital staff, Juna springs back to life and magically destroys a Raaja threatening the town. Thereafter Juna and Tokio join SEED, an international organization trying to protect the environment, as our heroine struggles to master her newfound mystical superpowers in time to stave off an ecological apocalypse.
Earth Maiden Arjuna was a daring attempt by Shoji Kawamori, the fan-favourite anime auteur best known for his innovative mecha designs and co-creating stalwart giant robot franchise Macross, to fuse the popular magical schoolgirl subgenre with heady SF ideas and environmental themes. The latter proved especially topical at the dawn of the new millennium as Japan and many other nations grappled with the fallout from the last century's rampant technological and economic growth. As the ominous narration that opens the first episode observes: "Human history is but a mere flicker in the history of time", establishing an overarching theme that like Jurassic Park (1993) (albeit more the novel than movie) implies the end result of mankind's mismanagement of the environment is not the planet's destruction but our own. As events unfold the plot repeatedly confronts Juna with the question of whether it is worth protecting humanity when humanity is seemingly set on destroying itself. Dreamlike and contemplative the story expands upon the introspective, philosophical ideas at the root of Kawamori's earlier masterwork Macross Plus (1995) with which it also shares in common a lyrical score by the great Yoko Kanno, fusing Hindi music with Celtic choral chants and techno rhythms.
Despite claims that the series errs on the side of preachy, Earth Maiden Arjuna neither simplifies environmental issues nor tries to sermonize. This is not Captain Planet and the Planeteers. Part-inspired by the Hindu text "Bhagavad Gita" (whose driving figure Prince Arjuna grapples with a philosophical dilemma similar to that of the anime's heroine Juna), Kawamori explores conflicting ideologies within the framework of a suitably stirring adventure full of action and mind-blowing fantasy set-pieces. Scenes where Juna communes with nature gaining a greater understanding of life itself are worthy of comparison with those found in live action epics by Andrei Tarkovsky or Stanley Kubrick and full of heady, thought-provoking ideas. Right from Juna's opening out-of-body experience the animation achieves remarkable fluidity with intricate detail worthy of a big budget feature film. The giant CGI Raaja seem primitive by today's standards, as were most early attempts to fuse traditional 2D animation with computer graphics. Yet the animators use borderline avant-garde designs and whiplash editing to arresting effect.
While the story remains compelling throughout a great deal of Chris' frankly vague if not outright nebulous mystical statements result in some nagging inconsistencies. Along with that Kawamori's attempt to chide self-involved post-bubble economy Japanese youth for their presumed lack of engagement in sociopolitical issues is undone by having established Juna as a basically sweet, kind and conscientious girl from the get-go. Nonetheless Kawamori strips the magical schoolgirl archetype of its sugary facade. Juna is older, smarter and more grounded than the typical maho shoujo heroine and the show charts the evolution of her connection to mother Earth in some especially interesting ways. Juna discovers she can no longer eat regular food because it is full of pesticides and finds herself reluctantly distanced from friends and family. Happily the finale goes some way towards resolving those early plot holes and infuses the entire premise of the show with some intriguing ambiguity.