Animation Company: Sunrise
Genre: Romance, Mecha, Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Aired: Summer 1996
Personal Rating: 10/10
Average Score on MAL: 7.88/10
(This is a spoiler-free review! So even if you haven’t seen the show, read on!)
The Vision of Escaflowne tells the story of Hitomi Kanzaki, high-school track runner and tarot card aficionado, who lives a normal life until one night, moments before possibly getting her first kiss (and from her sempai to boot!), her world is invaded by a strange young man with a dragon hot on his heels. A battle ensues, and when it’s over a beam of light appears and transports Hitomi and the stranger to a different world. That world is Gaea, where the moon and the Earth both hang in the sky, creatures half-beast and half-man roam the forests, and people wage war using giant mecha known as Guymelefs.
The young man Hitomi is with turns out to be Van Fanel, the king-to-be of the small and peaceful country of Fanelia, who (not knowing what else to do with her) takes her back to his home. But before you can say “Oh, so it’s going to be one of those series” the country is attacked by the shadowy Zaibach Empire. Van and Hitomi are forced to flee using the legendary mecha Escaflowne, which the people of Fanelia have kept hidden for centuries. The show follows their journey through the countries of Gaea, gathering allies like the gallant knight Allen Schezar, Millerna Aston the head-strong princess, and a cat girl named Merle, in order to discover the true motives of the Zaibach Empire and the secrets of the world known as Gaea.
Escaflowne and the story it tells is just a straight-up good fantasy. While we’ve seen almost all these elements before, like handsome knights or cat girls or mythical giant robots or girls being transported to different worlds, Escaflowne takes them and mixes them together in a way that elevates them and turns them into something unique. The plot is exactly as complicated as it needs to be, there are some twists and reveals in the later episodes that you will NOT see coming, the love triangle aspect is done well and never wears out its welcome (the romance in general is so great. There’s enough of it that you really can see the characters falling for each other, but not so much that it becomes the sole focus of the show), the action sequences are always exciting, and the over arching theme of fate and destiny versus free-will that the show presents is compelling and though provoking.
This is a show with perfect pacing and where there is absolutely no padding or filler. There’s no goofy side-quests, no episodes of dicking around at a hot spring or beach or ski-resort, no recap episodes, none of that bullshit that seems so common these days. Every episode serves to move the story forward. Even the episodes where not a lot of fighting happens are essential in developing the characters and showing the relationships between them. At 26 episodes, it’s one of the only shows were I’m not left thinking “Oh, I wish it there was more” or “Man, that could have been half as long.” That alone makes this series worth watching in my book.
It’s not often you find as good of an A-typical heroine as Hitomi. She’s neither a curvy air head, a crazy tsundere, a macho warrior chick, or a weak cry-baby princess (or any combination there of). She’s heroic (she saves Van almost as much as he saves her), she’s afraid, she’s bold and strong willed, she doesn’t always make the right choice, she wants to do whats right, and she isn’t afraid to stick up for herself; in short, she’s a very good depiction of what you’d want from a regular high school girl if she were thrust from her peaceful life into a world where war ruled the land. And by that I mean, she’s very relatable, but still has traits that make her more heroic than I think your average 16-17 year old would be.
Which is what I want from a character, because watching (or reading) about an absolutely truthful depiction of what a teen girl would be like in a fantasy setting would be horrible. You want to read about heroines (and heroes) that are just a touch above average people. One tiny thing I want to point out: Hitomi is track runner who actually runs like a track runner! and it’s a skill that is shown several times throughout the series! It seems like such a small thing, but it just goes to show the detail and focus of this show, that they actually really back up the traits that they give their characters and continue with them for the whole 26 episodes.
Van, our other main character, is also really well done. He undergoes the greatest character development of all, at least in my opinion. At the start, he’s arrogant, rude, and sees Hitomi as nothing more than a convenient tool to use in his fight. But he changes and grows over the course of the series, eventually becoming a man instead of a boy (I know, that sounds horribly cheesy but it’s really the best way to put it.) Seeing him slowly start to fall in love with Hitomi, instead of just seeing her as a means to an end or as a way to compete with Allen, is really sweet and well done (and it doesn’t happen over night, which is also a refreshing change of pace).
Allen is a perfect knight, a bit full of himself, but still exactly the type of guy you’d fall for at first if you were in Hitomi’s shoes. His back story, for me at least, made him more likable in the long run. Escaflowne has a whole slew of secondary characters that are all great, from the crew on board the The Crusade, to Millerna (talk about good character development! She goes through some amazing transformations), to Folken, the list goes on. What it boils down to is that basically: they’re all great.
Talking about the characters from Escaflowne wouldn’t be complete without mentioning everyone’s favorite crazy pyromaniac, Dilandau Albatou. Anyone who’s watched the show knows what I’m talking about, and for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure to see it yet, just a heads up that you should keep an eye on him, because it’s probably one of the biggest twists of the show (Plus: Jajuka! I love him and want him to be my BFF forever and let me pet his silken mane.)
For something that came out in 1996, I’ve got to say, this show holds up pretty well. Yes, some of the very early CGI effects are horrible and yes, some episodes look a little more wonky than others, but as a whole the level of detail in this show is amazing. The backgrounds are varied and beautiful. Different countries have very distinct architecture and color palettes. Fanelia is very green, with a very rustic Eastern European flair, Asturia is mostly blues and purples to go along with it’s Western European harbor feel, Zaibach is smoggy and yellow to match it’s heavy industrial city vibe, and the country of Freid is earth tones with go along with it’s influence from South-East Asia.
The Guymelfs have interesting designs (especially Escaflowne) that look like nothing I’ve ever seen before or since. I think a lot of care went into making them look like the type of machinery that would be produced in Gaea, which is a very medieval land. They don’t move very fast, and are powered by dragon heart stones instead of batteries or what have you. Even the floating fortresses and ships powered by so-called “Levistones” are really unique and interesting. A lot of attention is paid to the Mecha battles, and to fight scenes in general, and they look amazing even now.
The character designs are…probably the only thing that might be a little off putting about this series (at least at first). They all have these very sharp, long, pointed noses that take a while to get used too. I know when I first saw the show, I was a little put out by how ugly I though it looked, but I’ve come to love it now. I like how Hitomi’s character is designed, and Van, and Allen, but I think the show really excells with the bestmen like Jajuka, Merle, and Naria and Eryia (gosh they looked gorgeous!) Good facial expressions, not a lot of reused animation, all around just good stuff that you can tell someone cared a lot about.
This is what, for me, makes Escaflowne a full 10 instead of 9 or an 8. This show has possibly one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard for an anime. Every tune is memorable and matches the action on screen to perfection, from the super climactic battle hymn to the more melancholic softness of the theme music played during flashbacks, this is music that will stick with you and that you might find yourself humming years and years after you first heard it. And it’s really no wonder since they had the dream team of Yoko Kanno (famous for her work on Cowboy Bebop, all of Macross, and more recently Sakamichi no Apollon) and Hajime Mizoguchi working on it. I implore you, even if you skip the series, to a least search out some of the music because it’s amazing even as a stand alone work. To this day, there are some pieces that still send shivers up my spine.
There’s some really good voice acting in Escaflowne as well. Maaya Sakamoto (Haruhi in Ouran High School Host Club, Ciel in Black Butler) voices Hitomi in her break out role, and she does a perfect job of bring her to life, since she was just a teenager herself. Tomokazu Seki (Kyo from Fruits Basket, Sousuke from Full Metal Panic!, basically everything else) does an amazing job with Van, pulling off both the more aggressive tones of battle, and the softer side of Van that comes out sometimes. Minami Takayama (Conan Edogawa from Detective Conan) pulls double duty as both Dilandau and Prince Chid (talk about range, those are like polar opposites). The amount of talent in this show is staggering when you go through and look at it. The opening song (sung by Maaya Sakamoto) is very sweet and catchy (pretty sure I still know all the words.) The ending is eh…could have been a lot better, but it’s also not the worst. It could have fit better with the tone of the series.
The Vision of Escaflowne can easily fit into any top ten list of anime from the 90’s. It’s an amazing fantasy series that mixes a lot of different genres and comes out with something original and great. It’s incredibly tightly paced, with great characters, music, and art. While it’s mostly a serious drama, it isn’t without brief glimpses of humor. Whenever I recommend this series to people I always liken it to The Princess Bride in that it has a little something for everyone to enjoy: romance, sword fights (in giant robots but you see my point), adventure, surprise twists, it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make your heart flutter, and sometimes it’ll make you want to cry.
There are some people out there who complain about the ending, but I maintain that if it had been done in any other way, it would have been taking the easy way out and the show would have been worse off for it. I won’t lie and say that this review isn’t without some influence of nostalgia, since this was one of the first animes I ever watched and had a huge impact in making me a fan, and I won’t lie and say this show is without its flaws, because it has them (I’m looking at you, shitty CGI effects). Even so I believe that this series should be watched by more people than it has, because it’s truly enjoyable and fun to watch, regardless of what genre you might be into.
(Take note: for those of you who think that you’ll take a short cut and watch the movie Escaflowne: A Girl in Gaea, be warned. The movie and the T.V show are two very different animals, that share only a name. The story, personalities, tone, and just about everything else between them is very, very different. It’s not bad, just…watch the T.V series first.)