Anime Review: “Escaflowne” – Animation Scoop

Anime Review: “Escaflowne”

Although it didn’t draw much of an audience when it aired on Fox Kids in 2001, The Vision of Escaflowne (Eska-FLOW-nay, 1996) retains a loyal following, probably because this sprawling fantasy infuses sword-and-sorcery and mecha elements into the popular “magical girl” genre.

Hitomi Kanzaki (Caitlin Glass) is a sensitive teen-ager who reads Tarot cards for her friends. Just as she’s finally acting on her crush on a classmate, she sees a young warrior battling a dragon on the school grounds. A few days later, the vision materializes. Hitomi and Van (Aaron Dismuke), the warrior, are transported to the alternate world of Gaea, which boasts a curious mixture of futuristic technology and medieval culture.

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Shortly after their arrival, Hitomi witnesses Van being crowned King of Fanelia. At the end of his coronation, another of her visions comes true: Fanelia is destroyed by an army of monstrous robot-suits called “guymelefs.” Using the gem-like “energist” he took from the dragon’s heart, Van fires up Escaflowne, a legendary super-guymelef, and carries Hitomi off. A busy day, even by anime standards.

In the nearby kingdom of Asturia, they meet the gallant knight Allen Schezar (Sonny Strait). They also encounter the villainous Dilandau (Joel McDonald), who destroyed Fanelia at the orders of Dornkirk (Jeremy Schwartz), the evil Emperor of the Zaibach Empire.

The increasingly complicated story unfolds through a prolonged series of battles, threats, escapes, flashbacks, dreams, revelations and character reversals that often feels out of control. In a bizarre twist, Dornkirk reveals that he’s actually Sir Isaac Newton(!). He’s at work on a machine that will enable him to create alternate destinies for Gaea, which was somehow created by the mass will of the Atlanteans after Atlantis was destroyed.

Her friends rely on Hitomi’s psychic powers to survive battles and duels, but she periodically refuses to use them. She just wants to go back to being a normal girl on Earth, which is understandable, but putting her companions’ lives in danger won’t help her achieve that goal.

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The power struggle on Gaea plays against a standard-issue romantic triangle: Hitomi is torn between her attraction to the elegantly chivalric Allen and Van, the diamond-in-the-rough. Miaka faces a similar choice between the dashing martial artist Tamahome and the exquisite emperor Hotohori in Fushigi Yûgi: The Mysterious Play.

The ending of Escaflowne leaves a number of plot points hanging. The worst unresolved element is the is the failure of any of the heroes to eliminate the evil Dornkirk. After seeing him launch invasions, dispatch murderous doppelgangers, and attempt to subjugate an entire planet, viewers expect a stronger resolution then his realizing the error of his ways after chatting with Hitomi about the nature of human desire.

Twenty years after its initial release, The Vision of Escaflowne shows its age. Hitomi has the excessively huge eyes and upturned nose typical of 90’s anime heroines. The kawaii (super-cute) cat-girl Merle is equally typical of the semi-comic obnoxious sidekicks of the era. The drawn battles between the guymelefs looks very mild next to the CG robot battles in recent anime adventures. However, Funimation’s new dub is livelier than the first US version.

Funimation is releasing the more violent and exciting Escaflowne: The Movie in conjunction with the TV series, using the same voice cast. The feature re-uses some elements from the 26-part TV series. The characters retain their names, but they’ve been redesigned and given different roles.

In this version, Hitomi is taken to Gaea, as its battling lords believe she is the “Wing Goddess,” whom prophecies say will reawaken Escaflowne—and possibly lay waste to the entire planet. Hitomi finds this idea upsetting, but she doesn’t whine about it, as her TV version does. This Van begins as an angry, violent man, but he quickly softens under Hitomi’s influence.

Although the tone is darker than the TV series, there are still plenty of prophecies, battles and relationship crises—more than the filmmakers can resolve satisfactorily in 96 minutes, despite a tacked-on happy ending.

Escaflowne: The Movie boasts more impressive action sequences, which director Kazuki Akane handles with a flashy skill that eclipses his work in the more pedestrian TV programs. In the opening sequence, Van single-handedly dispatches all the guards on an enemy airship to free Escaflowne. It’s a bravura piece of filmmaking many American features can’t match, despite bigger budgets and more polished animation.

Charles Solomon

Charles Solomon

Internationally known animation historian and critic, Charles Solomon has written over 15 books books including Enchanted Drawings: The History Of Animation, The Art of Disney's Frozen, and The Making of Peanuts Animation. Solomon's "The Art of Toy Story 3" will be published by Chronicle this spring.
Charles Solomon
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