Vision of Escaflowne Anime Review
Tenkuu no Esukafuroone
Escaflowne of the Heavens
US Release By
26 25-minute episodes
1996-04-02 - 1996-09-24
What's In It
- Fantasy Mecha
- Fortune Telling
- The Heavy Hand of Destiny
- Utterly Insane Villains
- Airborne Chases
- Violence: 3 (significant)
- Nudity: 1 (mild)
- Sex: 2 (moderate)
- Language: 1 (mild)
Young Hitomi is a girl with some slightly unusual talents--she's a top member of the track team at her high school, and she's got a knack for Tarrot readings. But her relatively normal life is about to get very un-normal when one day she finds herself running from a dragon, and being saved by a young prince from the world of Gaia. Thus she finds herself thrust into a world at war between the powerful empire of Zaibach, with vast fleets of airships and floating castles at its command, and the many kingdoms who oppose the emperor's dark plans. Hitomi's mysterious abilities land her with a group of misfits, including two deposed princes--Allen, a gallant swordsman, and Van, the headstrong pilot of the mysterious and mighty Escaflowne--in a fight against destiny.
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With equal parts romance, fantasy-mecha action, metaphysical science-fantasy, and a war epic thrown in as a bonus, Vision of Escaflowne is an impressive series. Backing up the interesting and enjoyable characters and twisting plotline are the creatively designed world of Gaia, very attractive visuals, and beautiful music. All that, and the overblown drama and angst factor are toned down and offset by pragmatic characters and a hit-the-ground-running narrative. The catch? It ends about a season too early, so the last third is rushed and unsatisfying, and the end is particularly disappointing.
Despite the weak endgame and disappointing conclusion, Escaflowne is still an exciting and enjoyable series for any fan of wild fantasy/sci-fi, light romance with a whole lot more, or just a good anime yarn. Just don't get your hopes up too high.
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Vision of Escaflowne looks suspiciously like yet another girl-sucked-into-fantasy-world show, but don't let that turn you off--there's a lot more to it, and it's a very interesting series deserving of its popularity. It's also something of a tragedy, because even though it has all the elements of something spectacular, it never makes it past good and ends on a weak note thanks to a rushed conclusion. Even so, it's still an unusual, attractive, and all-around creative series.
The story is Escaflowne's strongest point as well as its weakest. "Girl gets sucked into alternate dimension and surrounded by highly attractive men" is not an original plot, but Escaflowne is not written as a straight shoujo romance. It has just as much mecha action, fantasy war story, and convoluted metaphysical weirdness as melodrama, and even much of the romance has a toned-down, slightly mature air.
The combination of these things gets the series off to a rollicking good start, so there's no wait to find out whether you're going to like it or not--if the first couple episodes don't do it for you, don't waste any more of your time. If they do, you've seen the best the series has to offer. The whole first season (which is to say the first half of its 26 episodes) keeps the creativity and drama level very high, only slipping a few times, and it's a great ride while it lasts.
Unfortunately, Escaflowne's great start is the flip side of its biggest flaw; instead of building up steam, Escaflowne starts strong and gets progressively worse toward the end. The problem is, the story works very hard to set up a wide variety of complicated interrelationships between the characters, a lot of hard-to-follow metaphysical backstory, and several brutally-difficult-to-resolve dramatic points, then tries to conclude all of them in about the last third of its run.
The pileup can be blamed on the fact that the story was originally written to cover three seasons, but was later cut short and compressed into two. Initially, the compressed plot is a bonus, keeping the energy level high and everything moving along briskly. But, as the series rolls into its last few episodes, the sprint to the finish is painfully evident--it doesn't feel ready to wind things up, and by the end it's clear that it wasn't. There are several disappointingly simple resolutions to major character issues, and the final episode is the most frustrating of all--its seemingly pointless conclusion feels forced and untrue to the characters.1 That left me with a particularly bad taste in my mouth.
Fortunately, for all that goes wrong with the plot, the series has plenty of good to offer. The characters certainly fall into that category--vital, since past the grand fantasy backdrop Escaflowne never pretends to be anything but a character-driven drama at heart. True to shoujo form, they're a well-developed lot with ample personality, and despite a predictably high angst factor the cast actually manages to be quite likable as well.
The lead protagonist is Hitomi, who breaks no new ground as far as people uncertain of themselves despite being gifted with great powers go. However, she's an all-around likable heroine; feminine yet competent and stable, with a hint of tomboyishness. She is far less weepy than some of her anime kinfolk, and her reserved, relatively pragmatic approach to both her romantic interests and her (entirely metaphysical) magical gifts is quite appealing. It's a nice touch that her skill at running (she's on the track team) is worked into the plot several times.
Standing beside her as love interests are Van and Allen, both classic but worthy characters in their own right. Van is your stereotypical hotheaded youngster (and deposed prince), more concerned with fighting than romance, but with an obvious thing for Hitomi under the surface. Allen is your stereotypical shoujo prettyboy, positively oozing romantic appeal, but he manages to be likable as well--he's a smooth talker, but still has an air of honesty about him. The one thing that differentiates this love triangle is that Allen is significantly older and more mature than both Van and Hitomi, making for an interesting contrast.
I liked this triangle more than most partly because of its imbalance--Van is the obvious choice, but Allen has adult charms that Van can't possibly compete with, and although you wonder how serious Allen's interest in Hitomi could be, he does seem to have genuine feelings for her. The romance also isn't forced; it's not entirely unbelievable that either fellow might take notice of Hitomi. Another strong point is that the emotional entanglement doesn't override the large-scale plot; when there's fighting to be done, the romantic tribulations realistically take a back seat.
The other main strong point of the series is its grand, weaving storyline. The story operates effectively on three different levels. Most pressing is a war story full of evil empires and great kingdoms, with the main troupe of characters always somewhere near the center of the action. Well-handled and engaging, Escaflowne has more than enough to offer as a fantasy war epic (with mecha) alone.
Then there is a whole mess of twisting metaphysical plot about the relationship of the parallel world of Gaia, the dead civilization of Atlantis and the godlike control over the winds of destiny it held, and the occasional gifted Earth folk who find their way to Gaia. The tides of fate play a heavy role, directly pushing and pulling the characters about, with each side trying to manipulate the not-quite-inevitable to their end. This is where Hitomi fits into the grand drama, with her ability to see and perhaps alter fate, despite all the hardship it causes her. Although I loved the way that destiny is an almost tangible force just below the surface of reality, the series has a tendency to bog down in the metaphysics on occasion, leading to weird scenes or entire episodes that make little sense.
Finally, there is the personal drama, with all manner of traumatized and ambitious characters fighting for both good and evil. From the central trio of heroes, to the mysterious and insane Dilandau, to the calculating menace of Folken and his murky motives, each character is distinctive and has something buried beneath the surface driving them. Dilandau in particular is a spectacularly deranged villain, who, despite being easy to hate, is also broken so brutally over and over again that you have to feel some pity for him. The numerous of meetings of these varied personalities provides much of the emotional meat of the series. There are a few notably out-of-character actions that annoyed me, but in a series with fate playing such an obvious role you can almost write them off as things that had to happen whether they make sense for that character at that time or not.
Alone, each of these threads would've made for an interesting story; in Escaflowne, they weave together into a sensational fantasy yarn.
On an unrelated note, anyone who's seen both Escaflowne and Evangelion will notice many parallels between the series (Van's strange, almost symbiotic relationship with his mech among the most obvious). Though it's tempting to call one a rip-off of the other, the fact is they were both in production at the same time (the Escaflowne manga, written in parallel with the series, actually predates Evangelion slightly), so neither can really be accused of taking much from the other.
Visually, Escaflowne is a highly attractive series, with sharp, attractive linework and smooth animation worthy of the grand scale of the plot. The mecha designs aren't wildly creative, but have an unusual, organic theme. The rest of the world features a variety of attractively-rendered and creative locales, familiar enough to believe, yet different enough that it's clear Gaia is not Earth. The only possible issue you could have with the visuals are the long, squared-off noses that most of the characters sport; you'll probably either like them or find them distracting, but they're sure distinctive.
The music in Escaflowne, by master composer Yoko Kanno with help from Hajime Mizoguchi, is equally good, epitomized by Kanno's beautiful (if slightly weakly sung by Maaya Sakamoto) intro theme that evokes the grand scope and sense of wonder of the world of Gaia. Throughout the series a variety of fantasy- and classical-style pieces provide a fitting foundation for the story.
The Japanese cast is top-notch from one end to the other; each character has a distinctive voice and personality, and the dramatic acting is uniformly good. The unquestionable standout, though, is the amazingly diverse Minami Takayama as the psychotic villain Dilandau. She dishes out all manner of to-the-hilt emotion to fill out his unstable persona, from seething rage to insane bloodlust to the anguish of an utterly broken man. This is yet another illustration of the unparalleled range of the woman who has voiced characters as different as Kiki, Nabiki, and boy-detective Conan.
In the end, Escaflowne is well worth the time spent watching it, but it is its own worst enemy. It builds its story, world, and characters so solidly through the first two thirds of its episodes that it's all the more painful when it fails so dramatically to capitalize on that foundation at its climax. Still, unless you find heavy metaphysics particularly annoying or can't stand even a modicum of angst, on balance Escaflowne is well worth watching.
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Plot-wise, series with the same basic concept (girls in a fantasy world at war) include the more comedic and romance-oriented Fushigi Yuugi (which is worse overall but more even), the extremely involved fantasy of The Twelve Kingdoms (which is very good and ends strongly), and the equally interesting and unusual Strange Dawn (which makes the end of Escaflowne look great by comparison). For mecha and romance with war as a backdrop, Escaflowne's creator's other series, Macross, is worth looking at. Record of Lodoss War also shares a general theme, with less emphasis on the romance and more on the fantasy; it also looks somewhat similar, as it shares a character designer. Last Exile (alternate world with war, less romance, and airships) might also be worth a look.
Notes and Trivia
The concept for the Escaflowne series was developed by Shoji Kawamori (known for his hand in developing Macross) around 1990, and sold to Bandai as a 39 episode TV series. It was initially developed as more of a shounen (male-oriented) series, focusing on action and fanservice, but after a number of delays and staff changes the series was re-envisioned to incorporate more shoujo elements and a stronger female lead. In the process the story was also compressed down to 26 episodes, leading to the rushed plotting (for better--high-energy--early on, and worse--hurried--later). This is the form it eventually took in 1996.
Along the way, a manga version was also produced by Katsu Aki (available in English from Tokyopop). It was done in parallel to the animated version, and based more on the original concept than the final one. As a result, the manga version is much more of a boys' comic, quite different in both plot points and flavor. It's not really fair to say that either is based on the other due to the series' interesting history.
The story with the high-budget movie produced a few years after the TV series is similar; though based on the same concept, it is a story of its own, with no direct connection to either the manga or TV versions.
It's also worth noting that though it's very easy to draw parallels between this series and Evangelion (weird, organic mecha and traumatized heroes who have unhealthy relationships with them), the concept was developed well before Evangelion began production, and the two series were produced essentially at the same time, so there really isn't any cross-over between the two. Just two ideas that appeared at the same time.
Footnote 1: Those bothered by spoilers should definitely skip this, but I feel obligated to rant in slightly more detail. I found the end so frustrating because Hitomi makes what is apparently supposed to be some sort of painfully tragic, fate-induced decision, except the viewer is given absolutely no reason for it--not even techno-babble or tides-of-fate. Assuming there isn't anything forcing her to leave, she has absolutely no reason to--her love for Van has just saved the world from destruction, she has essentially nothing to go home to except an underdeveloped relationship with her mother, and she has every reason to stay. Something--anything--forcing her to leave would've at least made it plausible, if forced, tragedy (wasn't their unbreakable love supposed to be the ultimate point of the whole series?). As is, it's nothing but annoying.
US DVD Review
The DVDs aren't Bandai's most impressive productions, but are solid enough on the whole. Aside from the Japanese and English audio tracks and a subtitle track, the later discs include cast and staff interviews, creditless openings and endings, and a few odds and ends, such as a preview of the Playstation game.
Though there isn't anything particularly objectionable, quite a bit of violence and some mature themes lead to a 13-up rating.
Violence: 3 - Not particularly gory, but there is a lot of death and destruction.
Nudity: 1 - Nothing particularly noteworthy.
Sex/Mature Themes: 2 - The romance is mostly light, but there are some mature themes.
Language: 1 - Relatively mild.