Light classical: A critical review of “The Vision of Escaflowne” (1996)

I remember when the anime “The Vision of Escaflowne” (“Visions of Escaflowne?” whatever) was going to air on Fox Kids. Its blend of high fantasy and giant robots appealed to my middle school mind. Or maybe it was just the name–what the heck is an escaflowne? Either way, I missed the first episode. Luckily, I had a playground friend who watched even more cartoons than me and could fill me in. Thus informed, I watched a few episodes of the show before being distracted by whatever also came out that year.

When the show popped into my adult mind the other day, I started researching it out of curiosity and learned a couple of things. First, I hadn’t technically missed the first episode. Fox Kids cut that out of the lineup due to violent content. Second, the show was sometimes described as “dark fantasy.” All this put together sounded pretty awesome, so I spent some time with the show.

“Escaflowne” follows a pretty standard pattern. A girl named Hitomi is accidentally transported to a steampunk/fantasy land where everyone conveniently speaks Japanese (or English if you’re watching the dub). The land is in a state of constant and increasingly nightmarish war, so naturally she gets mixed up in the affairs of a brash young king, a rogue knight, a delightfully villainous and scenery chewing mad man-child pilot, and some old guy strapped to an H. R. Giger-style throne. Also, Atlantis for some reason.

The uncut first episode starts out surprisingly tame. It’s about a girl who runs high school track and occasionally glimpses flashes of a more fantastic reality. This was too much for Fox Kids? Then, in the second half of the same episode, a swordsman tumbles onto the running track and fights a dragon. And by “a dragon,” I mean “a squat grotesque that resembles a dying lizard or toad.” And by “fights,” I mean “pops its eyeball like a pus-laden zit.”

Ah. I think I get it now.

“Escaflowne” is not a constant parade of violence, blood, attempted assault, collateral damage and torture, but it does not shy away from any of those elements either. In the first couple of episodes, a number of good characters you’d expect to hang around are systematically killed. Later in the show, a lesser villain is introduced who feels like he might hang around for a couple of episodes. Nope. Instead, the good guys shove him off a cliff, and the camera hovers over his body for a minute to make sure he’s dead.

As much fun as dark fantasy violence is, it’s just one part of the narrative. It gets a little more stage time than space opera-esque political intrigue–sanctions are mentioned at one point–but neither element is as prominent as the romance. As the show evolves, that’s what it really ends up being about, which is fine I guess. Things are told from the POV of a high school girl, and the cast includes gallant knights, so it might be weird if it weren’t romantic. The show tries to treat relationships seriously, so it works for the most part. Besides, every time this blog started to get bored of the raging hormones, something violent or trippy would pop out (I swear, one episode toward the middle reminded me of the head spinning Russian sci fi flick “Solaris”).

Despite her inability to make up her mind, I like Hitomi as a protagonist. She starts off kind of a mess, but she’s just been plucked by a cosmic claw machine off Earth and plopped onto a planet where dragons and robots coexist in constant combat, so I think it’s fair to cut her some slack. Her love triangle is a harmless enough hoop for her to jump through–although I do wonder how she keeps her school uniform so clean on a planet that clearly lacks washing machines.

As a protagonist, Hitomi is probably more realistic than interesting. In fact, “Escaflowne” does not offer much in the way of originality. It does a little philosophizing about luck, destiny and gravity, and a little psychoanalyzing about relationships, trauma and childhood, but much of that inexplicably falls away for an ultimate message of “war is gross.” Not to sound crass, but that’s hardly an innovation. Everyone from the Greeks to Gundam has hit that beat. The philosophizing and psychoanalyzing from earlier were stronger, but they hardly delved as deep as “Evangelion” did the year before.

Nossir, if one were going to watch “Escaflowne,” it would be for the presentation rather than the content. The look and feel of the show is largely unlike anything before or since. I don’t mean the animation, which varies in quality from episode to episode. Sometimes it’s pretty fluid. What I mean is the design.

The environments and character designs are a delightful mashup of all sorts of sources, and the result genuinely feels timeless. Where else or when else are you going to find steampunk mechs, corpulent dragons, Renaissance Italian architecture, World War I helmets, Blade Runner pyramids, ruined jungle temples, eerie doppelgangers and twin sister cat girl assassins who almost make out, all side by side? The soundtrack is likewise eclectic and eccentric, mixing stark atmospheric pieces and driving rhythms with sweeping orchestral movements. It’s good, but Yoko Kanno worked on it, so that’s probably a given.

Everything is helped by the repeated images and breakneck pace–apparently the show was trimmed by a few episodes from its original intended run, but the trimming was done in such a way that nothing narrative was lost. It can feel like you’ll be lost if you miss an episode–if you miss two minutes you can feel lost–but the trade off is it feels like there’s something new every second. This is definitely a point in the show’s favor, since everything looks so intricate and there’s hardly time to notice any flaws, particularly in the first half of the series. The second half, when things start to slow down, is when the show feels less interesting. Or maybe it’s just weepier. At least most of the conveniences that drive the plot are contextualized and the violence returns for the last episode, although the show definitely animates one-on-one duels better than sprawling battles.

“The Vision of Escaflowne” is everything you’ve heard it is, perhaps even a little less, but it’s still pretty to look at. Everything about it seems familiar but different, and while this blog knows its copying something, it can’t quite figure out what (the show was a flop in Japan, so maybe it left everyone scratching their heads a little). Between the steampunk airships, the fantasy swashbuckling, the high romance and bloody low blows, the closest I can think of is the John Carter of Mars novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (if John Carter were a high school girl). It’s weird, tonstant weader, but good old anime weird, where the characters had thick outlines, the images were needlessly violent just to succeed on television, and everyone had a nose. It’s not a classic, but it is light classical.

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