The Vision of Escaflowne
One day, high school student Hitomi Kanzaki is accidentally transported from Earth to the world of Gaea, where she meets the young king Van Fanel and is caught up in his efforts to unite the countries of Gaea against the belligerent Zaibach empire. On the way, she discovers a hidden ability and strives to unravel the layers of mystery surrounding Van, his past, the world of Gaea, and the giant machine known as Escaflowne.
(Adapted from Anime News Network's synopsis)
Ah, the "classic". I never know entirely what to make of that term, especially when critics apply it to works that were made recently enough for most people to still remember its release date. The 1996 series The Vision of Escaflowne, touted for its unique combination of genres and for being one of the first anime designed to appeal to both male and female viewers, is one such example of a possibly prematurely-deemed classic. It is a series I adore, for it is both a beautiful and diligent production and an amazing fantasy, and it mostly deserves the accolades given to it. The presence of certain missteps, however, lessens its impact somewhat, and while these didn't ruin the overall experience for me they did unfortunately lead an excellent series to tragically collapse onto itself at the end.
First, however, I want to highlight the things that Escaflowne does well, for I think that most of it is wonderful. The strength of a fantasy storyline comes from how well its alternate world is developed, and it's very clear to me that a lot of energy went into the development of Gaea and its legendarium. The architecture, for example, is a well-detailed spectrum of dazzling designs, with one city resembling the towns of North India and another being filled with the domed buildings and canals of Venice. Various beast-men abound, as do references to sorcery, and the most distinctive element of Escaflowne's fantasy world is something rarely seen in fantasy anime: the beautifully designed mecha known as "guymelefs", the most prominent of which is the titular machine. Escaflowne certainly isn't the most original series I've seen, for elements of its legendarium appear in other works and certain aspects strike me as deliberate homages. Far from being a mere conglomeration, however, it majestically maintains a mysterious and ethereal atmosphere all to its own throughout its run, and I have to give the creators some credit for pulling off the combination of stories and genres as well as they did.
All of this wouldn't mean much if the show didn't have a good cast of characters, but Escaflowne's cast proves to be its strongest aspect. For one thing, the females have as much of an active role in the storyline as the males, which is a huge improvement over the fantasies where women are either absent or present only in highly stereotypical roles. The most mystifying thing about the show is that it's inclined to lure one into initially believing that its characters are stock archetypes, and my first impression of Van, for example, was that of a rude and alarmingly angsty young brat. Soon enough, however, each person develops into someone we can root for, and I found myself quite surprised at how much spine they all had and how hard they became to pin down. Van gives up on the "angsty young prince" aura once he realizes the gravity of the situation and the fact that his attitude makes Hitomi dislike him, and afterwards he's much the better for it, if still a little difficult to comprehend at times. Similarly, a woman who initially gives a "snobbish princess" air later drops that pretense and is slowly revealed to be a hard-willed and courageous person, as well as a skilled physician. Even the "annoying catgirl", Merle, whom countless fans have complained about, has several moments in which she astounds me, and it becomes clear that for all of her jumping over Van and licking him incessantly, she cares for him in a manner that is not merely that of a clingy dependent. The show's characterization is superb, and it even succeeds at making love triangles, something I normally can't stand, work to move the show's plot along effectively.
And indeed, when Escaflowne's story works, the result is wonderful. The show treads a rather fine line between being a lighthearted fantasy and a somewhat darker piece, but for the most part it succeeds at balancing the two aspects (although the sheer amount of destruction can make it difficult to watch in large chunks). The story, like the setting, isn't the most original I've seen, and numerous elements from other fantasy stories (as well as some bits reminiscsent of Miyazaki's work) find their way in. It's a flawless combination, however, and the story proves to be one of the most gripping I've seen in any anime. If a show is not going to surprise me with novelty, it had damned well better make up for that in execution, and The Vision of Escaflowne excels in that regard. For most of its run, it's incredibly entertaining, enjoyable to watch, and emotionally riveting, and yet within it are subtle but strong critiques of political corruption, gender politics, and militarism, all well-integrated to a point where moralization fails to become an issue. Indeed, I found myself quietly moved by many parts of this, and I was even brought to tears at a few points. One feels the characters' pain, and one never stops wanting to find out more about them, their past, and the world they live in. It's just that good.
For those who don't mind the older character designs, Escaflowne will be a visual delight, for the art, especially in long shots and panoramas, is invariably gorgeous. Females and males are equally detailed and physically attractive, a huge improvement over the usual "pretty girls, bland boys" fare, and the animation is surprisingly smooth and impressive for a TV series. Regarding the soundtrack, I have long known that Yoko Kanno is an excellent composer, but until I saw this series I had never realized that she had such a gift for symphonic and choral music. This is a case in which an exceptional soundtrack makes good battle scenes into great ones and perfectly amplifies the mood, and I was as moved by the effective atmospheric use of crescendos, soft oboe melodies, chamber pieces, and choral accents as I was by the story itself. It's an amazing aural experience all around, and while the ending theme, a poppy dance number, is a bit cheesy (if still catchy), Maaya Sakamoto's magnificent opening theme is one I'd buy and listen to next to my "normal" music. Coupling this with some excellent voice acting, you have a show that's virtually flawless in presentation.
Unfortunately, Escaflowne makes a few crucial mistakes near the end, and while they don't sully my enjoyment of the best parts, they do make the whole somewhat harder to recommend. The first of these is a product of studio demands, namely the fact that the show was downsized from a planned 39 episodes to 26 episodes while it was still on the air. This becomes obvious when, say, two crucial events occur in the same episode, and especially near the very end when the writing (which is quite solid for the most part) begins to glance over certain developments, showing none of the same skill that the show originally promised. Indeed, the second great mistake occurs when Escaflowne reaches a beautiful emotional climax two thirds of the way through and then fails to complete the story as that climax occurs. It spends the rest of its run fumbling and attempting to tie its rich and convoluted tales together, and it sadly succeeds only to a very limited degree. The ending relies heavily on overly convenient plot devices, illogical allegiance shifts, and some revelations that simply make it look hokey, and these various faults combine to make it into a clumsy and disappointing mess. Additionally, the show's inclusion of some ridiculous pseudo-science, particularly references to some sort of "fate machine" that are delivered as if it were a particle accelerator, is simply embarrassing, and the once-adept balance of fantasy and realism is thrown off by attempts to take such hogwash seriously. Although the plot completes, it peters out instead of ending strongly, and it seems that by the conclusion, nobody on the staff knew quite what they were doing with the story.
So, do I recommend The Vision of Escaflowne? My response is much more reserved than it would have been had I reviewed the majority of it on its own terms, but still, the enthralling story that is the first two-thirds compensates enough for the clumsy ending to make it a worthwhile ride. It in fact reminds me of an over-zealous high school student who, after having labored intensely and aced his classes during his first three years, enters his final year in a state of complete and utter burnout: one might feel angry at him for ending his career on such a weak note, but everything else he's done makes it hard to give him too harsh a yelling about it. Escaflowne is a very good series all around, and for the most part, it's excellent. I only wish that I could use the word "excellent" without any qualifiers.
The majority of the show earns an unquestioned five stars from me, but the rather mediocre ending prevents the entirety from earning the top grade. Remove a star if you find yourself unable to forgive the show of its failings, or if you dislike fantasy, and add one if you don't mind the ending as much as I did. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: As an action adventure, Escaflowne is fairly straightforward in terms of content. There is a decent amount of graphic violence in the action sequences which will keep the youngest audiences from seeing this title. There is also a very high dosage of occultism (tarot cards, dowsing, etc.) in the first half of the series as well, which may offend some parents, and one catgirl's incredibly skimpy outfit brings this ever so slightly into the "risque" spectrum.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD, bilingual (Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (26/26)
The Vision of Escaflowne © 1996 Sunrise / TX
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