Review for Escaflowne: Complete Collection - Super Legends
I did it again! I went and bought a Region 1 release of a series that is available in the UK, in a perfectly acceptable Region 2 edition. And this time I actually paid more for the privilege, with the UK Anime Legends re-release of Escaflowne from Beez last year hitting the streets at £15, while I paid closer to £20 to import the Bandai Super Legends collection. Actually the UK release isn't all that perfect. Anime companies rarely have the capital, and neither can they expect the returns to justify a re-mastering and re-authoring of a DVD. They usually just gather the pre-existing discs into a handy boxset and consider the job done. Escaflowne is one of the first anime series to be released in DVD format, indeed it's so old that it was released simultaneously on DVD and VHS. They hadn't quite sussed the technology at the time, and the US discs were prone to more than a few image artefacts, problems that were apparently exacerbated when they went through the necessary NTSC-PAL conversion required for our UK market. The deal breaker for me though, was the missing subtitles at the end of the final UK disc. I'm a sub fiend, preferring to watch my anime in the original language, and I wasn't going to put up with a dub, especially a creaky dub from the anime dark ages (The twentieth century!). There isn't that much in it, as Bandai too simply re-release their old discs in new packaging.
I have taken my time in approaching this series. After all, The Vision of Escaflowne was released in Japan back in 1996. It made its ill-fated English language debut close to the end of the decade, when a US broadcaster commissioned a dub, realised they had to drop the first episode because of violent content, similarly edited the rest of the series for content, and dropped the broadcast after just 11 episodes due to poor ratings. But that was enough to galvanise anime fans that were tantalised by what they had seen, and Bandai Entertainment released the show in its uncut form between 2000 and 2001. It's one of those gateway drugs that I occasionally mention. It's an anime title that has drawn a whole generation of fans towards the medium, served as their entry point into a whole new world of entertainment, just as Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell would do. It also shares a composer with those titles in Yoko Kanno, and that would normally be enough for me to pounce on the series with the eagerness of a space cadet.
Except that Escaflowne is a fantasy mecha show. Dungeons and Dragons in anime form has rarely excited me, although of late, the Slayers franchise has altered my outlook on that. And then I have never really been all that simpatico with the spectre of giant robots in anime, despite the occasional dalliance. I've also seen Escaflowne's premise of a normal schoolgirl drawn into a fantasy world on more than one occasion, in the abortive UK release of Inuyasha, and in the tiresomely dull Fushigi Yugi manga, and I have never really been impressed by that either. The thing about anime gateway drugs is that they usually stand out among their peers, deliver something special that captures the attention of fans. I've finally reached that point where my antipathy to these genres is outweighed by my curiosity about that 'something special'.
Hitomi Kanzaki is a lively schoolgirl with very few problems. One of them is being on time to her athletics training, and the other is the crush she has on the team captain Amano. She does have a talent for prognostication though, and her tarot card readings are much in demand. When she does a reading for herself and gets a worrying future of a distant separation, and hears that Amano will be leaving the country to study abroad, that spurs her to act, to confess her love before he leaves. But her talent is more than just a card game, and during practice, she sees a vision of a swordsman battling giant robots and dragons in a fantasy world. That evening when she tries to confess to Amano, she's struck with the vision again, only this time it's no vision. A portal opens between worlds, and she runs head first into the swordsman from her dreams. It isn't long before the dragon that he's fighting follows him into this world, and battle commences. During the battle, Hitomi again sees a vision of the immediate future, of the swordsman being killed by the dragon. She manages to warn him in time, only for the two of them to be pulled back into his world.
She and the swordsman, Van Fanel arrive on Gaea, a mystical world where the Earth and the Moon hang full in the sky. Van takes Hitomi back to his home of Fanelia, where he is the prince, and has just completed the rite of Dragon-Slaying, and retrieved the Drag-Energist which will allow him to be crowned king. It's a techno-feudal world, replete with kingdoms and knights and chivalry, but where knights go into battle piloting giant robots called Guymelefs. As king, Van will be heir to the ultimate guymelef, Escaflowne, which will be powered by the Drag-Energist that he has won. It's a time of celebration, and Van promises that after his coronation, he and his people will do all that is possible to return Hitomi to the Mystic Moon, or Earth. But that celebration is cruelly foreshortened, when invisible melefs from the Zaibach Empire attack, destroying Fanelia, wiping out its army, killing its bravest knights, and scattering its people. Van has to take Hitomi and Escaflowne and flee. And so begins his battle to defeat the Zaibach Empire and restore his kingdom, and all he has is a powerful mecha, and an alien girl who can foretell the future. Will Hitomi ever get home again?
Bandai Entertainment presents 26 episodes of Escaflowne across 8 discs as follows.
Volume 1: Dragons and Destiny
1. Fateful Confession
2. The Girl From The Mystic Moon
3. The Gallant Swordsman
4. The Diabolical Adonis
Volume 2: Betrayal and Trust
5. The Seal of the Brothers
6. City of Intrigue
7. Unexpected Partings
8. The Day the Angel Flew
Volume 3: Angels and Demons
9. Memories of a Feather
10. The Blue-eyed Prince
11. Prophecy of Death
Volume 4: Past and Present
12. The Secret Door
13. Red Destiny
14. Dangerous Wounds
Volume 5: Paradise and Pain
15. Lost Paradise
16. The Guided Ones
17. The Edge of the World
Volume 6: Fate and Fortune
18. The Gravity of Destiny
19. Operation Golden Rule of Love
20. False Vows
Volume 7: Light and Shadow
21. Reaction of Fortune
22. The Black-Winged Angel
23. Storm Premonition
Volume 8: Forever and Ever
24. Fateful Decisions
25. Zone of Absolute Fortune
26. Eternal Love
Escaflowne's 4:3 regular transfer is looking decidedly creaky now, and certainly doesn't do the rather splendid, old-fashioned cel-animation any justice. The image is bright to the point of over-exposed, edges lack definition, and colours are prone to bleed, rainbow and fade. There is also significant shimmer around detail and fine edges. Fortunately, as with most such flaws, constant exposure to it, and a degree of consistency tends to blind you to them after a while, and you can go ahead and enjoy the anime. But you have to remember to make allowances, and remind yourself that the transfer is 11 years old. As mentioned, Escaflowne is predominantly a cel-animation. There are hints of CG here and there, but certainly not to the degree used today, and it's actually a little charming to see imperfections and the oddities that comes with hand drawn animation. It's an extravagant and rich piece, with a lot of detail and thought in each episode, wonderful, and unique character designs, and a world design that is inventive and engrossing.
You have a choice between DD 2.0 Surround English and Japanese, with optional translated English subtitles. But, I must say that the only time the surround really kicks in is during the Dolby Digital logos at the start of each disc, otherwise it's a mostly front-focussed affair for both language tracks. The English dub really is showing its age at this point, one of those dubs where the voice actors would insert awkward pauses to make the dialogue match the lip flaps. And while the main cast sounds reasonable enough, the supporting characters really leave a lot to be desired. The original Japanese track is definitely the audio track of choice here, with some very appealing characterisations.
Of interest to many fans will be the music, which comes courtesy of Yoko Kanno, who has had such stunning impact with music for shows like Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Cowboy Bebop and Wolf's Rain. Escaflowne is one of the earlier anime shows that she worked on, but already you can hear that the music sets the show apart. As befitting the fantasy setting, there's a fair bit of mediaeval style music, lots of choral pieces, especially for the Escaflowne mecha, but there is also a smattering of eclectic world music, which is a rather fitting way to reflect Gaea's multi-culture.
The eight single-layer discs are packaged in an m-lock case. There are two discs overlapping at the front, two at the rear, and a hinged central panel holds the other four, two overlapping on each side. Although the case is made of clear plastic, the inlay is blank on the inner side.
The discs all get tarot card themed animated menus, and there are extras spread across all the discs. From Disc 3, the discs get jacket pictures as well. It's worth just picking a menu page and letting the music play, as more often than not, the song or the piece of background music is presented in its entirety.
The trailers on this disc include Cowboy Bebop, Blue Submarine #6, Gundam Wing and Haunted Junction.
On this disc, you'll also find Music Videos, 13 minutes worth, which comprise the textless opening, and three AMVs, songs set to scenes from the anime. You'll get the translated subtitles for the songs (although not for the opening as you get that anyway in the episodes). There's an Easter Egg on the disc that changes the subtitles to a romanji track, so you can sing along karaoke style if you so choose. Or you could just press the subtitle button on your remote and change it that way. Also, it's better to leave this featurette till after the series, as there are more than a few spoilers within (I just closed my eyes and listened to the music).
Trailers on this disc comprise Outlaw Star, Jubei Chan, Saber Marionette J, and Don't Leave Me Alone, Daisy.
You get the first of the Club Escaflowne featurettes here, prefaced by a substantial spoiler warning. This episode lasts 18 minutes, and sees Tomokazu Seki, voice of Van Fanel, host Maaya Sakamoto (Hitomi), Joji Nakata (Folken), and Ikue Ohtani (Merle), for a light-hearted gossip and chat. There is also some pertinent material about the show, hidden beneath the fluffiness, and as it was recorded just prior to the voice recording for episode 25, the spoiler warning is very justified. Watch it after the series is my advice.
The trailers on this disc are for Gundam Wing, Saber Marionette J, Angel Links and Crest of Stars.
This episode of Club Escaflowne lasts 21 minutes, and this time Tomokazu Seki plays host to Shinichiro Miki (Allen), Mayumi Iizuka (Merle), and Minami Takayama (Dilandau). Once again there is a spoiler warning, and it's well worth taking heed and leaving it till after you've finished the series to watch this featurette.
Trailers here are for Gundam 0083, Cowboy Bebop, Angel Links, and Blue Submarine #6. There's an Easter Egg on this disc that lets you change the background music to one of the menu pages.
Club Escaflowne changes direction, and becomes a little more serious with this 14-minute instalment, as it shifts focus to the creators of the show, and also employs Mayumi Iizuka to ask the questions, instead of a falsely moustached Tomokazu Seki. This is the first part of an interview with mechanical animation director Hirotoshi Sano, animation direction Hiroshi Ousaka, and mechanical designer Kimitoshi Yamane, and proceedings do take on a more serious air as they discuss various aspects of the production process.
The trailers this time are for Angel Links, Crest of the Stars, Saber Marionette J, and Mobile Suit Gundam.
Club Escaflowne presents the second part of the interview with the show's designers that began on the previous disc. This instalment lasts 14 minutes, as they talk about their favourite scenes and favourite characters.
Trailers are here again for Gundam 0083, Angel Links, Cowboy Bebop and Blue Submarine #6.
Club Escaflowne now moves on to the first part of an interview with the story creator, story editor and supervisor, Shoji Kawamori, and the director of the show, Kazuki Akane. Once more handling the interviewer duties is Mayumi Iizuka. It's short at 12 minutes, but they get to chat quite a bit about the production of the show. It's interesting to hear how this was an early TV anime to get CGI into the animation process.
The trailers on this disc are for Angel Links, Mobile Suit Gundam, The Big O, and Mobile Suit Gundam 08th MS Team.
Club Escaflowne concludes on this volume, with the second half of the interview with Shoji Kawamori and Kazuki Akane. They talk about what they do in the scarce minutes that they get to relax, and what will come following the end of Escaflowne. Hint: It's trailed in Volume 8.
The final batch of trailers comprises Crest of the Stars, Gundam 0083, Jubei-chan, and Mobile Suit Gundam.
There is an Easter Egg on this disc, which will play the textless ending sequence.
You get 8 minutes worth of Playstation Game Footage, essentially the cut-scenes for the Vision of Escaflowne game presented in isolation. It promises an interesting alternate storyline to the one presented in the anime.
There's another alternate storyline to be had in the Escaflowne Movie Trailer, one of those films that revisit the series by remaking it from the ground up, with all-new animation.
Finally there is a 5-minute sequence of concert footage, featuring Maaya Sakamoto singing a song from the show with Yoko Kanno on piano. You can choose between translated subtitles, and romanji if you feel like karaoke.
Just to recap, I don't like mecha shows. Shows with giant robots, piloted by whiny teens, teens that can usually pilot a complex bit of machinery without looking at an instruction manual, and for which anyone over the age of fourteen is ill-suited, I find a turn off. It gets worse when the robots develop personalities. Escaflowne has giant robots in, albeit they are presented more as giant suits of armour in a more feudal, pseudo-mediaeval setting. I don't choose to watch a lot of fantasy shows. Despite a brief flirtation with Dungeons and Dragons in my childhood, and a brief appreciation for magic and sorcery, wizards and warriors, it somehow seems to be a genre that has dated, and one that I have never really appreciated in anime form. It all just seems little removed from the RPG epics that comprise a fair proportion of console games that come out of Japan, usually with the words 'Final' and 'Fantasy' in the title. Escaflowne is about a schoolgirl transported to a mythical realm, populated by all manner of weird and wonderful people and beasts, where magic and prognostication is more real than anything so prosaic as technology or machinery. Also, as I mentioned when I reviewed the X TV Series, I'm not fond of stories where the concepts of fate, predestination, and potluck drive a story. Hitomi Kanzaki's abilities with a tarot deck are a major part of the story in Escaflowne. Add to that a show that is 15 years old, on DVDs that are long in the tooth, and it becomes a question not of whether or not I like Escaflowne, but what aspect of it is going to turn me off the quickest.
Oddly enough, it's neither of my two more commonly expressed bugbears that irk me when it comes to this show. The mecha aspects of the show are handled competently enough. These are really just giant suits of armour, worn by soldiers in battle, expressing their movements on a gargantuan scale. The pitfall that most other mecha shows have is that of personalising, and anthropomorphising their robots, imbuing them with personality and emotion that may or may not be there. Here, Escaflowne is a singular device, a relic of a bygone age, and one that reacts dynamically to its pilot, so you would think that Van Fanel would also form a connection to it. Thankfully, he never sees it as anything other than a device, even when the connection between him and Escaflowne is shown to be much deeper than just mechanical. The fantasy setting didn't put me off either, as the world of Gaea turns out to be much more than just a Maguffin world used to show off some dragons and slayers, and whatever various oddities of the genre that spring to mind. The story behind Gaea is revealed carefully in the show, and the mythology behind the world shows more than the usual levels of thought and consistency. Besides, there is something very compelling about a world that has our Earth and Moon hanging in its sky, a mystical totem for the inhabitants.
So with these two aspects taken care of, Escaflowne gets the opportunity to establish its story, and get under my skin, worm its way into my affections as it slowly reveals its secrets as the episodes pass. Hitomi Kanzaki is introduced as the typical schoolgirl, with typical schoolgirl problems, and only her talent with the tarot cards, more of a hobby really, that mark her out as someone special. There's also the odd crystal pendant that she has inherited from her grandmother, and it's that which takes her into a whole new world, when a portal opens, and a young, would be king arrives, hotly pursued by the dragon that he is supposed to be hunting. Hunt concluded with her help, they both get pulled back to the world of Gaea, where it looks like a brief, but harmless adventure is about to get underway. Van Fanel has succeeded in his rites of ascension by slaying the dragon, and he's about to ascend the throne of Fanelia, after which he promises to find a way to send Hitomi home. A short stay in a fantasy world is something some teenaged girls would dream of, but Gaea is about to face its greatest upheaval, a change that will throw the world into chaos. A simple stay becomes more complicated when Fanelia is attacked, and Hitomi and Van have to go on the run.
It's the kingdom of Zaibach, led by the enigmatic Emperor Dornkirk that wants to reshape the world to his design, and he and his underlings, Folken and Dilandau are seeking the power that will literally drive that change. With Zaibach so powerful and influential, many nations turn a blind eye to its actions, and even choose an alliance with them out of fear. So it is that Van and Hitomi have a hard time trying to find a safe haven. On their travels, they encounter the knight Allen Schezar and his band of privateers, and an awkward friendship forms between him and Van. At the same time, Hitomi finds her affections torn between Van and Allen. Aboard the vessel The Crusade, they try and stay one step ahead of the Zaibach forces, while trying to warn the lands they visit of Zaibach's duplicity. It isn't easy. Even in Allen's home of Asturia, they face duplicity from the king, yet they pick up another friend in the shape of Princess Millerna.
Escaflowne is a quest story of the old school, with the journey that the heroes take giving the story pace, while each turn offers new revelations and insights into the world, the background of the characters, and the secrets they conceal. It's an oft-followed formula, but Escaflowne has it down to a fine art for much of its run. The writers certainly know how to spin a good yarn, and it's very easy to just one-episode-more yourself late into the night. There's a whole lot of dynamic when it comes to the story and the action, while the emotional dynamic is driven by the triangle between Allen, Hitomi and Van. It gets even more complicated, as Hitomi still has feelings for her upperclassman Amano back on Earth, while Millerna dotes on Allen, Allen has a history with Millerna's older sister, and even Van has a devoted follower in the little catgirl Merle. There are plenty of dark pasts to explore as well; with Allen always trying to find what happened to his sister Celena, who vanished several years previously. At the same time, Van's older brother disappeared on the ritual hunt that should have confirmed him as king. There's a lot going on in Escaflowne, but it isn't hard to keep track, so well crafted is the story. It does make one or two points stick out though, and I did feel as if certain aspects of the story were left hanging, or just weren't explored adequately.
The problem with me for Escaflowne comes late into the run of episodes, and while it is tied into my dislike of stories with an over-reliance on predestination and fate, it isn't the whole problem. My dislike stems from the temptation to use such excuses as a way to contrive story developments that work against the flow of the narrative. "Oh, but it was always meant to be!" is a poor reason to throw a kink into a story, but more of an issue with Escaflowne is that while the writers can spin a hell of a good yarn, they come up against a problem that has blighted far too many anime over the years, they just don't have a good way of tying a yarn up. Fate and Destiny play a bigger part as the show moves along, indeed it's Hitomi's ability to prognosticate that is a strong force in the story, countering Dornkirk's desire to reshape the destiny of Gaea through mechanical means. There is a hell of a sweet twist in the story, where Hitomi learns that rather than foretelling the future, she may be reshaping it herself, and it brings a whole new weight to her fortune telling, and a degree of foreboding when she tries to use it deliberately to bring forth her desires.
It's when Dornkirk and Folken start doing the same thing in earnest that my eyes start rolling in their sockets, and exasperation becomes my overriding reaction to the show. The aptly named Operation Golden Rule of Love is a prime example. At this point in the series, we've turned to Power Rangers Mode. With Dornkirk the evil bad guy, sending his minions down to enact yet another evil plan. This plan is to alter fate by keeping Hitomi and Van apart. They do this by making Hitomi and Allen fall in love. It's a sappy, and contrived story that looks as if it was added to appeal to a female demographic, but it lacks the complexity and realism to be believable. One minute Hitomi is conflicted about who she actually has feelings for, while Allen is pining away for his lost sister, is half attracted to Millerna, and the next they are hopelessly smitten with each other. It's storytelling like this that dates the show more than the look of it. The next such episode is Reaction of Fortune, which sees two of Folken's minions, a couple of catgirls, get transfusions of lucky blood, which alters their fortune so that they will succeed at any mission they attempt. After that, anyone opposing them is blighted by ill fortune, their mecha breaks down, they trip up at inopportune moments, and their machinery starts behaving oddly. I start wondering what happened to the interesting and complex story that I started watching.
The contrivances multiply for the conclusion of the show, where not only are things happening because of Dornkirk's evil plan to alter fate, but they also happen because the story demands that they do. Dornkirk flicks a switch, and former allies turn on each other with bloodthirsty fury. Another twist in the plot, and they're the best of friends again. And when it comes to the grand conclusion, the resolution of the emotional quandary of who falls in love with who, and will there be a happily ever after, we get such a desultory, and unsatisfactory non-ending, that you can see the minds of the creators banking on the likelihood of a sequel to address the issue, or in this case, probably string us along for another 26 episodes.
Escaflowne is a flawed classic. It shows its age in the writing more than the production values, and that only close to the end of the show. Its reliance on contrivance and unrealistic plot twists eventually goes overboard, leading to the disappointing conclusion. While the central characters of Allen, Van and Hitomi are well written, the rest of the cast is less so, Dornkirk's motivations remain opaque, Folken's decisions are proscribed by the plot rather than his personality, Dilandau is hopelessly wasted as a psychopathic villain cliché, even with his tragic background, while Merle is little more than a Van groupie. But then, the animation is amazing for its age, the world design is stupendous, with Gaea a rich multi-culture, from the steampunk Zaibach, the renaissance Asturia, the mythic visions of Atlantis, the oriental styles of Fried, it's all a treat for the eyes. That's no less true for the ears, with Yoko Kanno's soundtrack as eclectic and varied as I've come to expect, but with a mediaeval and choral focus that suits the story down to a tee. And there is that storytelling, which for the first 18-20 episodes is rich, vibrant, compelling, and up there with the best that anime has to offer. It is easy to see just why Escaflowne served as a gateway drug for many an anime fan.