“Was it all just a dream? Or maybe a vision?”

The Vision of Escaflowne

Synopsis: Hitomi Kanzaki is an ordinary high school girl with a knack for reading tarot cards, but her life is changed forever when a vision of a knight battling a dragon becomes reality, and she is transported to the magical world of Gaea. There she meets the young prince Van Fanel, who is attempting to unite the countries of Gaea against the mighty Zaibach empire. Swept into the conflict, Hitomi finds that her tarot readings are beginning to come true, and that she may have the power to change the fate of the entire planet– for good or for ill. But first, she must discover the secret behind Van’s origins and those of his legendary mech, Escaflowne.

Review: Escaflowne is one of the most shining examples of positively derivative fantasy I have ever come across, which is why I wanted to review it immediately after decrying bad works of derivative fantasy last week.

It embarrasses me to say this, but for a long time I actually avoided Escaflowne because I was under the mistaken impression  that it was just a standard shonen mecha (that is, giant robot anime for teenage boys) series. When I finally heard that it was a shojo fantasy/romance, I became extremely confused, but decided to watch it anyway because hey, fantasy. It turned out to be… a shonen/mecha/shojo/romance/adventure/high fantasy. And somehow, it works.

Look, capes and swords! That makes them fantasy!

Let’s get right down to the technicals, since those and the presentation are pretty much everything that makes Escaflowne work. This show is just beautiful. The art and animation are gorgeous and richly detailed. I love how though the setting is mostly medieval European/steampunk style (my favorite fantasy setting!), it also has some distinct Asian elements that make it interesting and unique.  The character designs are shojotastic, which basically means that the girls are cute and the guys are gorgeous, but it’s not enough to distract people or turn them away. It’s all very, very pretty– exactly what you’d expect from a high fantasy.

The soundtrack is… perfect. Not that I’d expect anything less from the legendary Yoko Kanno, but it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect an epic high fantasy soundtrack to sound like. For voice acting, I’m going to say to avoid the English dub on this one. There isn’t anything really wrong with it, but the English episodes I saw were just so bland and lifeless, especially when compared to the fantastic Japanese cast.

Okay, so the audio and visuals are both ridiculously good, but what about the rest of the presentation– narrative, plotting, and pacing?

…Yeah, those are ridiculously good too. The first episode starts out slow, as what looks like a standard shojo high school romance begins to unfold… suddenly, DRAGON IN THE MIDDLE OF THE TRACK FIELD.

I know the CGI's dated, but these dragon designs get a free pass from me because that is so cool.

After that the plot kicks into high gear and never once looks back. This tight, intricate, and super-fast pacing is what really makes Escaflowne stand out. Every single episode, every single scene, is unskippable, packing in huge amounts of story and character development. Events that would normally take one or two episodes in another anime take half an episode in Escaflowne, and somehow still manage to keep all of their impact. This is why both the shonen and shojo elements work so well– exciting action scenes and giant robots doing cool stuff are balanced by character progression and a giant love… uh… dodecahedron… consisting of most of the main cast. Normally this sort of thing would be incredibly confusing, but Escaflowne deftly juggles its multiple plotlines with masterful exposition.

Before you start to worry that this show is too good to be true, however, let’s move on to the actual content.

Scroll up and reread the synopsis I wrote. Done? Okay, now can anyone point out anything in there that was even remotely original? (And if you answer with ‘the giant robot’ you obviously haven’t watched enough anime.) No? I thought not.

Escaflowne moves along like it’s checking off from a guide to anime and fantasy cliches. The archetypes here are as old as dirt, and while characters do develop as I said before, their arcs are entirely predictable. They’re not bad characters, and I enjoyed them a lot, but they’re enjoyable, well-developed stereotypes, from “ordinary high school girl” Hitomi, “hotblooded young warrior prince” Van, “ladies’ man with daddy issues” Allen, and even “honorable villain henchman with good intentions” Folken.

Also, why is Hitomi still wearing her school uniform in magical fantasyland? Why does that happen all the time in anime?

The story, while intricate and developed as well, is also one big cliche. If you’ve played any sort of fantasy video game from Japan from the past twenty years, you know what’s going to happen. And I… have played a lot of those. On the other hand, I keep playing them for a reason, so I was still able to have a lot of fun watching Escaflowne.

No, my main problem with Escaflowne was the ending– well, the last two episodes in general, but the ending especially. The pacing had just been so perfect throughout, and then it was like someone realized “Oops, guys, we need to finish up here”. As a result, the last two episodes feel rushed and inconsistent compared with the rest, and some major characters are sort of glossed over to get to the final battle. The ending isn’t really bad, but… what happened left me frustrated, and not in a good way. It definitely knocks Escaflowne down a peg on my favorite anime list, and that’s a shame for such an amazing series.

There is also an Escaflowne movie (called, amazingly enough, Escaflowne: The Movie), released several years after the series, that I have not yet seen. I’ll see if I can find it and make a follow-up post on it sometime before the end of the semester. It’s apparently an alternate retelling of the series, instead of a continuation.

If you want an epic, traditional high fantasy series played straight, I absolutely recommend Escaflowne.  If the English dub were any better, I’d say it would be a perfect introduction to anime, especially for fantasy lovers. It’s a classic that’s got something for everyone, and while it sacrifices originality for technical perfection, it shows why those old cliches still exist.

———–

Next time: I tackle the Harry Potter series. Help me.

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Filed under animation, anime, review, Vision of Escaflowne

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