Category Archives: anime

“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.

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

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Magical Realism

This post is not on the schedule. I just needed to rant a bit about something somewhat fantasy-related, and this seemed like a good place to do it.

This week I had to read João Guimarães Rosa’s short story “The Third Bank of the River” for a class. This story belongs to a genre known as “magical realism“. This is a strange and broadly defined genre which in some cases is clearly like fantasy but in others is not. Its broadest definition is when magical, supernatural, or otherwise illogical elements blend with a clearly realistic, logical world. The results can be… strange.

So what counts as magical realism? Well, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis does, for one. Realistic world, completely illogical and inexplicable event. Does it count as fantasy? Sort of. But not the type of fantasy that I like or am interested in.

Going back to “Third Bank”, the things that happen in that story (which I don’t think I can even summarize) are bizarre, illogical, and pointless. And they’re meant to be. See, the reason magical realism became so popular was part of a backlash against Western ideals of literature. Since the 19th century, the Western world has been obsessed with the rational, the logical, and the orderly. Everything needs to have a point and a reason. “Third Bank” is the antithesis of this. It’s like… a story about a type of story.  It demands that the reader be in the ‘third bank’, a place beyond or between the fantastic and the logical. It’s carefully crafted and written… and makes me want to punch something every time I read it.

Remember my Info Desk? I said there that my first goal in my absorption of media is to be entertained. Magical realism (at least most of it) doesn’t do it for me.

It’s not the illogicality that bothers me, since fantasy is all about things that can’t happen in the world. I mean, in Harry Potter people can transform into animals, completely defying the law of conservation of mass (among others), and I can accept it without batting an eye, because it’s a consistent rule that has been established in that universe. It doesn’t have to make real-world logical sense as long as I can suspend my disbelief. It’s fantasy.

No, the first main problem I have with magical realism is the dissonance between the characters and the events. The whole point of magical realism is that it’s supposed to be set in a realistic world. And then you get stuff like Gregor Samsa changing into a giant bug and having the extremely understated reaction of “how am I going to get to work this way?” The characters aren’t zombies or robots. They’re supposed to be real people who act realistically. And yet they act as if nothing really fantastic or illogical has happened. This is very creepy.

However, I can even overcome all of that as long as the story holds my attention. Unfortunately, a lot of magical realism is supposed to be allegorical. The characters aren’t real people, they’re symbols. The events occurring are not literal. Now, most allegorical stories kinda rank really, really high on my list of ‘pretentious garbage I won’t touch’. The reason for that is ‘they’re really really boring’. Even if I like their message, or what they’re trying to represent, it’s all useless if it doesn’t catch my interest. There’s no narrative. No development.

And what’s worse, allegorical/magic realism/postmodernist stories don’t have to be dull and underdeveloped. They can be entertaining and thought-provoking as well! The catch is that you need a good story that you can enjoy for the literal meaning and appreciate on a deeper level for the allegorical meaning.

There are some fantasy works that I have chosen not to cover for this blog. Most are non-Western fantasy based on Japanese mythology, since most of my readers probably won’t be familiar with it. The others are stuff that’s so… strange… that I’m not even sure how to review or recommend them.

Revolutionary Girl Utena falls in the latter category. It’s a deconstruction of the shojo genre (Princess Tutu has been described as ‘Utena lite’) that also happens to have allegorical and magical realism elements. Dissonance between people and events, symbolism popping out of every frame, bizarre scenes that go nowhere, an inconclusive ending… roses everywhere… the car… and the elevators with the mausoleum plots… the arena full of desks and the outlines of bodies…

This picture is here to break up the text. Yes, it’s raining rose petals.

…Sorry, got distracted there. Anyway, as you can see, Utena has pretty much all the things I despised in other magical realism stories. Aaand it just so happens to be one of my favorite anime series of all time. Wait, what?

See, here’s what Utena has that all those other things didn’t: stunning visual and sound presentation, an engaging plot that can be interpreted literally and allegorically, and complex, developed, relatable characters. Plus, they even explain why all of the weird stuff is happening! (At the end of the series, so long after you’ve become completely lost, but still.)

Why can’t more magical realism stories do that? Because The Metamorphosis would have been way less boring if there were sword duels in a giant arena high above a magical forest every chapter. Seriously.

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Yikes, this got way too long. Sorry guys, I guess I had a lot to say. I’m done now. Gaiman on Monday!

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“Those who accept their fate find happiness; those who defy it, glory.”

Warning: the following TV show contains ballet, romance, magic, fluffy girly cuteness,  and obnoxiously huge anime eyes. Take a look at these two trailers to see if you can tolerate the content. If you still love Disney movies and/or have been interested in that weird pony thing that’s been going around the internet, you should be fine.

Princess Tutu

Synopsis: Once upon a time, there was a duck who fell in love with a prince. The prince, Mytho, was empty inside, for he had sacrificed his heart to seal away an evil raven. When the duck wished that she could help return the prince’s heart to him, an old man appeared and gave the duck a magic pendant that could turn her into a girl. The girl, named Duck, now searches for the missing shards of the prince’s heart in a town that merges fairy tales and reality. Coming close to a heart shard transforms her into the beautiful and graceful Princess Tutu, who wins over her opponents through her magical dance. However, complications arise– who is this other princess, Rue, who is vying for Mytho’s affection? And why does Mytho’s guardian, Fakir, not want his heart to be returned?

Review: One thing I love about fantasy is how it can so easily transcend the limits of its genre. It gives the opportunity for the story to be played out in new and fascinating ways, and questions the nature of fiction and reality. 

So why am I bringing this up in a kid’s show about a magical girl ballerina fairytale princess?

You may have found the above synopsis somewhat confusing. That’s because Princess Tutu is a fairytale– inspired by Grimm’s Fairy Tales, good old Walt Disney, and quite a bit of classical balletmost obviously and importantly Swan Lake. It’s also a metafictional fairytale, which means all of the characters know they’re in a story and try to fit their roles to the best of their ability. Or should they defy the limitations of their fictional world and just be themselves?

…Right, let’s back up a little bit here.  Moving to the technical side, Tutu manages to take a fairly small budget and really make something out of it. The character designs are extremely shojo and stylized, but pretty and clean. Backgrounds are detailed and varied, and the use of color to set the mood is fantastic. The action/dancing scenes aren’t perfectly animated, but are gorgeously choreographed and look amazing, making that a forgivable offense. Unlike most magical girl shows, there isn’t a huge amount of stock footage, and Princess Tutu’s transformation sequence is only a few seconds long, when its predecessors could have transformations lasting more than a minute.

That's the prince on the left. He isn't a girl. Really.

Tutu uses famous classical and ballet tunes, making its soundtrack one of the show’s best features.  This is the perfect venue to expose people to classical music– I’m currently listening to “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker on repeat. As for voice acting, I have not seen the original Japanese version,  but can safely say that the English voice cast is just fantastic. The standout performance belongs to Luci Christian as Duck/Tutu, who makes Duck endearing without being obnoxious, and gives Tutu a heartfelt, serene grace.

Back to the actual content… Okay, I’ll admit that I was reluctant at first to start watching this. And, well… you can sort of see why. I mean, I like shojo, but… Princess Tutu. Princess. Tutu. I have my limits.

But, well, it looked cute and harmless and I’d been told by quite a few people to watch it, even those not normally into magical girl shows. The first half is pretty standard monster-of-the-week, finding the prince’s lost heart shards/dodging romantic complications, etc., but I kept watching because I felt like I’d touched on something special. Something was building beneath the surface. The story, set in motion, began to slowly grind forward once again.

And then…

Princess Tutu is not quite a deconstruction of fairy tales and the magical girl genre– it’s too gentle for that. However, it does take a good long look at the nature of archetypal roles, and of the power of story and words. Fate vs. free will is a strong recurring theme throughout. Who is Princess Tutu, exactly? Is she truly the one fated to be by the Prince’s side forever? Or in the end, is she only just a duck?

Tutu is not afraid to get into darker, more complex (still suitable for children, but more PG-rated) themes and scenarios in its second half, and proves to be a worthy successor to all those Disney movies that terrified us as kids. It’s also exceedingly well-written, with some fantastic characters. I loved the main cast (Duck, Mytho, Fakir and Rue), their stories, and their struggles with the roles assigned to them. The supporting cast and even the one-shot characters are interesting and enjoyable as well.

My main problem with Tutu is that the buildup is just too long– 12 out of 26 episodes– and it could easily make someone lose interest before the good stuff starts happening. Otherwise, can you tell already that I love this show? Because I love this show. I would happily write out 1000 more words praising it if that meant more people would watch it. I love how people spent so much effort to create a beautiful, intelligent, well-written story for children, that just about anyone can watch. I love a good fantasy that delights in its genre and pushes its limitations.

Princess Tutu is an exquisite show, and I normally reserve that adjective for things currently in museums. It’s not perfect– no shows are– but it’s still one of my favorite anime series, and something I would recommend to anyone.

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Convinced? Want to watch Princess Tutu? Well, you can watch it legally on Youtube (here, you may need a Youtube account) (looks like they took it off) and Hulu (here) in English, free of charge. It’s only 26 episodes, so what are you waiting for?

Next time I try to talk about fantasy science, using Tales of the Abyss as the main example. Why? Because I like it. Also because it makes no sense.

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