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Making a movie based on a popular television series is a dicey proposition. A well-told story leaves little room for embellishment, but retelling the same tale seems pointless. The creative team behind the animated high fantasy Escaflowne takes a third approach: reinventing the characters and concepts from the twenty-six episodes of the inspiring coming-of-age series to create a mature -- sometimes dour -- feature film. More than an original and a copycat, the two Escaflownes are like children of the same parents: although they share similarities of feature, each has its own personality and purpose.

A Series of Fortune-Twisting Events

In Shoji Kawamori's series The Vision of Escaflowne, sixteen-year-old Hitomi Kanzaki is a promising high-school runner pursuing the typical healthy dreams of improving her sprint times and winning her first kiss from her track-team idol. Her uncanny Tarot predictions seem like nothing more than a knack for fortune-telling. Hitomi -- whose name can be translated as "pupil" (like the one in your eye) -- thinks that she and her life are perfectly normal right up until the point her visions of a dragon and an armored boy emerge living and breathing (in the dragon's case, breathing fire) onto the track. Hitomi finds herself swept into the magical world of Gaea, where dragons and floating rocks hover in the sky between the horizon and the Mystic Moon that resembles Earth. Hitomi's precognitive abilities may bring hope to the war that the technologically advanced Zaibach empire and its leader, the mysterious Dornkirk, wages for control of Gaea. Escaflowne, a powerful guymelef that transforms into a dragon, figures prominently in his plans.

Van, the Gaean youth she saved from the dragon that invaded her own world, is the new king of a country promptly reduced to cinders; as Escaflowne's master, he goes on the lam, and Hitomi -- who has no other guide or protector in this strange world -- goes with him. When the gallant knight Allen Shezar rallies to their cause, they gain Gaea's finest swordsman -- and a man who reminds Hitomi of her homeworld crush. When Hitomi and Escaflowne draw near one another, Gaea's fate becomes unclear -- Dornkirk and his strategist, Folken, use mechas, warriors, assassins, political machinations, and mystical weapons against them in their bid to become Gaea's masters. Gaea's epic struggles intertwine with love triangles, troubling family connections, and Hitomi's uncertainty about her identity, her desires, and her ideal self. Indeed, Hitomi's dreams may hold the key to Gaea's fate.

Far surpassing the average schoolgirl-in-a-strange-land fantasy anime, The Vision of Escaflowne excels both technically and artistically. The saturated colors and graceful lines please the eye, and the well-rendered animation flatters both Nobuteru Yuuki's (Record of Lodoss War, Battle Angel) expressive character designs and Kimitoshi Yamane's (Cowboy Bebop) magical/medieval ships and mechas. Yoko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop) and Hajime Mizoguchi (Jin-Roh) composed a sweeping orchestral score that adds pathos or punch as any scene requires. This reviewer, having listened to the Japanese voice track first, will accept no Hitomi but Maaya Sakamoto and no Van but Tomokazu Seki; however, Ocean Group's English-language dub has its proponents as well. The characters' detailed stories and motivations make them fascinating, and even the villains' psychological processes are refreshingly real.

The Vision of Escaflowne's challenging themes appeal primarily to teens and adults, and Hitomi's physical and emotional normalcy allows female viewers to easily identify with her. Small wonder, then, that the kiddified, girled-down version broadcast on Fox Kids as Escaflowne met an untimely end -- alas, at a crucial point, leaving fans to wonder how Fox planned to explain bastardy to their audience of six-to-ten-year-old boys. Bandai has released The Vision of Escaflowne on VHS with the original title, but on DVD as Escaflowne; the Fox Kids version does not appear to be available. The DVD release features extras such as music videos and interviews with the Japanese cast.

Between the Black Dragon and his Wrath

Escaflowne: The Movie employs the same creative team and -- in both the Japanese and the dub -- nearly identical voice casts, but the resemblances barely reach below the cosmetic level. Hitomi, still a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl, stagnates in a suicidal depression, longing to leave the world. When a sinister man reaches out to her, urging her to follow her wish to "fade away," she fades away from Earth and into Gaea. There, she falls from the Dragon Armor Escaflowne into the arms of Van, a fierce swordsman-prince wearing animal skins. He recognizes her as the Wing Goddess destined to awaken the Dragon Armor, with which he plans to kill his evil brother, Folken, to avenge the destruction of the clan that Van was chosen to lead. With nothing else to do -- and perhaps a little flattered to think that she may be something as important as a Wing Goddess -- Hitomi joins Van and the Abaharaki, a motley band of soldiers who have survived Folken's habitual destruction of one country after another. Together, they must learn to control Escaflowne before Folken steals it from them and uses it to destroy Gaea, a world that has seen great pain.

Kazuki Akane directed a number of The Vision of Escaflowne episodes before tackling Escaflowne: The Movie (released in Japan as Escaflowne: A Girl in Gaea). He felt that the series appealed too much to the feminine, and set out to make a more masculine film, with less romance and more up-close-and-personal swordfights. Indeed, Van slays half a dozen men before speaking a word. Under Akane's direction, Van gains psychic blasting powers and becomes a protagonist at least as important as Hitomi; Hitomi's psychic talents shrink to the passive, pretty role of muse to Escaflowne, and the movie is as much about Van's journey as about hers.

The simple beat-the-boss plot provides a neat framework for developing Van and Hitomi's characters in parallel. He needs to live for something more than killing his last blood relative, and she needs to find something to live for, period. The movie's short time frame and emphasis on action allow little visible evidence of this, leaving us to take their word for it when the characters launch into surprisingly affecting speeches telling us how far they've come. Their relationship gets equally sketchy treatment: Hitomi falls chest-first onto Van out of a mecha, and from there we have only the occasional held gaze and some rather forward comments to suggest that they've become romantically attached.

Many of the minor characters -- knightly Allen, haughty Millerna, and, most notably, insane villain Dilandau -- return in different forms. Some, such as Allen's lieutenant Gaddes and the enemy soldier Shesta, show off new and attractively cinematic abilities. Some, such as Dornkirk, do not exist in this Gaea, which features a new geopolitical arrangement lacking Zaibach and many other realms important in The Vision of Escaflowne. In general, the female characters have less to do than they did in the series. Perhaps in a nod to gender stereotypes, the cat-women who figured so prominently in the series have been reduced to decoration, and the enemy's dog-man lieutenant, Jajuka, steps up into a more influential role. Clocking in at approximately one-tenth of the series' runtime, the movie simply can't devote the same time to elaborate backstories and intricate relationships. Many alliances and affections get only the faintest implication, and the Allen-Hitomi-Van love triangle vanishes completely. This makes for a less complicated, if sometimes less rewarding, story.

Only a few new characters, mostly anthropomorphic villagers, appear in the movie. The most notable, Sora, is the prophet and sole survivor of an elfin lineage Folken has destroyed. She sings a lovely, haunting song that recurs in various forms throughout the film. Although the movie's ending theme, "Yubiwa" ("Ring") became popular in Japan, I found "Sora" the most memorable tune on Kanno and Mizoguchi's movie soundtrack.

Even a fan who expects to dislike the movie's characterizations may want to watch it, just to marvel at the visual depth a feature film budget can bring to Gaea. Yuuki reprises his own character designs, making the most of theatrical animation's ability to represent intricate detail and flowing materials. Hitomi changes little, but many of the other characters wouldn't be mistaken for their series analogs in a lineup. Aside from Hitomi, who swaps her skirt-and-blazer school uniform for an equally demure sailor suit, the new costumes tend towards the body-conscious on both male and female characters -- hot pants, open shirts, bustiers, midriff-revealing snug tops, and so forth. Poor Van doesn't even get a shirt until his last scene. Yamane's new mechanical designs take a turn to the bio-mecha look, with liquid oozing from within Escaflowne. Its spindly limbs and creepy purpose -- it's not just a robot, it's a robot prophesied to destroy the world -- bear a resemblance to the EVA units of Neon Genesis Evangelion.

The Escaflowne: The Movie Ultimate Edition 3-Disc Set includes a disc of extras and a soundtrack disc. Given the high price and extremely limited availability of Japanese CDs, the $55 price for the 3-disc set will seem like a bargain for fans of Kanno, Mizoguchi, and Escaflowne. The disc of extras includes concept and poster art, interviews with Japanese cast and creative team members, interviews with Akane and the engagingly candid Kanno, slightly embarrassing footage from the U.S. premiere at the 2000 Anime Expo, and a duet by Maaya Sakamoto and the Korean Hitomi, Kim Su Jin. The regular Escaflowne: The Movie DVD contains nothing more than the film and lavish, well-designed menus, but it weighs in at a little more than half the price of the limited edition.

A Choice of Dragons

The series and movie are certainly different. For a quick comparison, we've assembled a reference table describing some of the major figures in both.

When Escaflowne: The Movie was released, series fans expressed disappointment at the differences between the spunky Hitomi and noble-hearted Van they'd come to love, and the sleepy Hitomi and vicious Van on the big screen. Although understandable, this isn't an entirely fair complaint.

In The Vision of Escaflowne, Hitomi learns to accept her own judgement and her own identity. Like any teenager, she often feels conflicted. In Escaflowne: The Movie, both Hitomi and Van reach past their feelings of isolation -- hers self-constructed, his partly thrust upon him -- to one another, and to a world that, for all its faults, does not deserve to die. The series presents the events as a relationship-driven, but ultimately personal, coming-of-age story; the movie addresses them as an awakening to the emotional and physical environment. Each Escaflowne is its own animal, but each is a dragon, magnificent and fierce, and well worth watching as it soars.


Reader Comments

Laura Blackwell lives in the fantasy setting known as the San Francisco Bay Area, where she writes reviews and short fiction. Her previous reviews for Strange Horizons can be found in the Archives.

Guymelef is a term specific to Escaflowne. It describes gigantic, bipedal, manually-piloted mechanical devices originally designed to fight dragons. Less spectacular Gaean battle machines are called melef. These are examples of the anime staple mecha (a word derived from "mechanical"), which applies to machines from transforming tanks to giant robots.

Laura Blackwell is a writer, editor, and journalist. Her fiction has most recently appeared in The Lorelei Signal. Some of her previous reviews at Strange Horizons have been honored with Reader's Choice Awards. She lives in Northern California.
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