Escaflowne Collection Box 1 (of 2) (Mania.com)

By:Dani Moure
Review Date: Tuesday, January 11, 2005
Release Date: Monday, November 15, 2004



What They Say
A world is dying, torn apart by a colossal war, the planet of Gaea is in turmoil. Civilizations have been wiped out, and more are ready to fall. But a girl could change all that. An ordinary girl, Hitomi finds herself suddenly transported to the mysterious planet Gaea, where Earth hangs in the night sky. A planet filled with magic, strange technology and legendary armor. She doesn't know it yet but her special abilities could be the key to saving an entire planet.

The Review!
Includes Volumes 1 to 4 (Episodes 1-14).

The review

The original release of Escaflowne is repackaged into two box sets, this one containing the first half of the series.

Audio:
I listened to this disc in Japanese with subtitles for my main reviewing session, and I really enjoy the performances of the Japanese actors. I noticed no dropouts or distortions during the entirety of this stereo track, and in general it sounded really quite good.

However, the English dub is certainly not one I'm a fan of. Ever since I first saw it on FOX Kids I have never been able to watch the abomination, and though it's a little unfair since the cut dub was so hacked up, I just can't bring myself to listen to the track. I did spot-check it though just to get a feel for the review, and noticed no dropouts or distortions during regular playback.

Video:
This is where the series takes a huge blow. The video quality for this release is simply poor, occasionally decent and often awful. What's the problem? Well, where do we begin. The transfer seems to have been taken from the VHS tape masters as often that's why the colours seem so wash out, and flicker one minute from overly dark to too bright for the TV. There's a little bit of aliasing, though it's surprisingly minimal. Naturally there is just oodles of cross colouration that plagues almost every scene, and some compression artefacts as well. It's a crying shame as there's just so much wrong with this transfer. Occasionally it shows promise and looks OK, but for the most part it simply doesn't.

The English subtitles are yellow, in a thin but clearly readable font, and thankfully contain very few spelling errors and conjoined words. Though there is an error on disc 4 where the streams are incorrectly marked, so having subtitles off actually has the full translation, "English 1" is the signs and subtitles and "English 2" is actually off. Not very good, that.

Packaging:
The packaging is the most gorgeous prospect of this release. The four original cases, which contain some great artwork and always looked really good, are now housed in a Collector's Box. The front side of the box (which is pretty sturdy) features a gorgeous piece of artwork of Hitomi, along with the show and company logos. The spine features the Escaflowne logo, while the back cover features a summary of the show, episode and extras listing, staff listing, a few screenshots and a smaller piece of Van artwork. It's a really nice presentation for the box.

Menu:
The menus follow the same structure on all four discs. The various selections appear in front of a looping background of tarot cards and the Earth on the main menu, with a tarot card in the centre allowing access to specific episodes' scene selection menus. A piece of background music plays to the main menu. The individual menus are all static, with various images from the series on them, and different pieces of music playing to each.

While the setup is nice and access times are fast, they are plagued by problems too. On volume 3, I had the Japanese language selected, and on returning to the main menu trying to access any of the sub-menus returned me to the language menu, which confused me no end until I switched it to English and the menus worked fine. There are a few other errors on the menus that rear their head at times, too, and it's very disappointing in that regard from a technical standpoint.

Extras:
One nice thing about this series is that it comes with a wealthy dose of extras taken from the original Japanese release of the show. The first volume features a selection of music videos set to various themes from the series, which are a really nice addition although they can be a bit spoilerish if this is your first viewing of the show. There's also a textless opening thrown in for good measure.

The rest of the volumes feature "Club Escaflowne", which in the second and third disc takes the form of Tomokazu Seki, the Japanese voice actor for Van, acting as a barman and serving drinks to the various Japanese cast members in groups. It works really well as he questions them and they all answer honestly and discuss the series in a very open environment. They have some great chemistry and seem to get on really well, which is nice. Volume 2 features Maaya Sakamoto (Hitomi), Ikue Ohtani (Merle) and Joji Nakata (Folken). Volume 3 features Shinichiro Miki (Allen), Mayumi Iizuka (Millerne) and Minami Takayama (Dilandau).

The fourth disc has Mayumi Iizuka taking over to interview some of the staff members, this time Hirotoshi Sano (Mechanical Animation Director), Hiroshi Ousaka (Animation Director) and Kimitoshi Yamane (Mechanical Designer).

These interviews are an excellent addition to the release, and I really enjoyed watching them.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
This is the second UK release of Escaflowne now, following the original individual disc release that was plagued with several problems (most notably a very long delay for the release of the last two volumes) and a TV airing on Fox Kids that was so hacked up a lot of people renamed it "Foxaflowne" (but at least it aired here in full, unlike the US where it didn't last long). The original release came at a time when the UK anime DVD market was just undergoing a resurgence, so with the popularity gained over the past couple of years since, Beez have taken the opportunity to capitalise by releasing the series in two cheaper collections.

The series itself is one that's pretty well known outside of Japan, with a healthy number of fans in the West, and deservedly so, as it's a really enjoyable fantasy romp with a number of big name staff members attached to it.

The story begins in high school, following Hitomi Kanzaki. She's a pretty ordinary girl, though she does have an interest in fate and fortune, and likes to do tarot readings, which are usually quite accurate. She is also a successful member of the running team in the 100m sprint, and her best friend Yukari eggs her on. Hitomi has a crush on the team captain Amano, but on the day we see her she is late for practice. During her run, she sees a vision of a man with a sword and a suit of armour, and a battlefield engulfed in flames. She awakes to Amano in the school nurse's room, and counts the seconds with him with the pendant she wears. On the way home, Hitomi finds out that Amano may be leaving the country, so when she does a tarot reading that suggests separation, she asks Amano to give her a first kiss if she can run the 100 metres in 13 seconds.

Alas, during the sprint, she runs into the man from her vision, only he's actually there. He says his name is Van Fanel and claims to be fighting a dragon. Hitomi is confused, but neither Amano nor Yukari can understand Van's words. Hitomi has a vision of the dragon killing Van, so when the dragon appears and almost does it, Hitomi sprints to his rescue, and Van manages to slay the dragon. Van retrieves the dragon's heart and is transported off of Earth, but Hitomi is dragged along with him. They appear in a strange world called Gaea, where you can see the Earth in the sky, which the world's people call the Mystic Moon.

In Gaea, Van is about to become king of a country called Fanelia. Van is actually returning from his right of passage, the dragon slaying, which will lead to him becoming king. But that day, an invisible force of huge robot warriors, called guymelefs, attacks Fanelia. While the countrymen try and fend them off with their own melefs, they can't succeed against the invisible enemy. Van retrieves his own melef, Escaflowne, which is the giant suit of armour Hitomi saw in her vision. With Hitomi's abilities, she can find the presence of the invisible enemy and helps Van fight them. He is forced to flee his country, despite wanting to stay to the last, in order for Fanelia to live on.

Van, Hitomi and Van's catgirl friend (who is also in love with him) Merle flee to the country of Asturia, where they end up meeting with a knight of the country called Allen Schezar (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Amano), who listens to how the Zaibach Empire destroyed his country. Allen is a little sceptical but believes Van because he is a king, and when he has a confrontation with the leader of the Zaibach troops, the crazy Dilandau, he realises that it's true. While he tries to warn the king of Asturia and give Van and Escaflowne refuge, the king decides to go against Allen and signs a peace treaty with Zaibach that includes the handover of Escaflowne.

Those events all take place in the first handful of episodes, with the rest of the first half of the series follows Van, Hitomi, Merle, Allen and Allen's troops as they flee Asturia and try to find allies. They are constantly on the run from the Zaibach forces and end up in the country of Freid, where they are initially welcomed until it's believed that they are the country's enemy.

The story is one of the biggest hooks of Escaflowne, and with good reason. The first half of the series is a sprawling fantasy epic in the making, with all the ingredients to build on the world, its history and its characters, and they are quite a cast.

Hitomi is the girl in the foreign world, and it's through her eyes that we experience everything, from seeing just how different this world and its customs are to our own, to seeing the true horrors that await the heroes of the story through her prophetic visions. While at times Hitomi can be a bit whiney, she is in general an interesting character. The writers do a really good job of transitioning her from the girl who's completely out of place and out of her depth into someone more confident in her own abilities and how she can help, over the course of these fourteen episodes.

Van is your typical young hero in a lot of ways. His reaction to what happens to his country is totally understandable, but the emotions bear a raw child-like quality to them. Indeed for a while Van does act a little childish as he comes to term with the death of so many around him, and is engulfed by his quest for revenge, over the course of the series he begins to mature and think before he acts. While his goal is the same the way he goes about it changes, and it's really interesting to watch.

Allen Schezar is your typical "knight in shining armour" type of hero. He says and does all the right things in the beginning, and is admired by (and in favour with) just about everyone. It's a bit of a change of pace though that his talks of honour don't take over every single sentence he sprouts, but instead it's in his actions and the view of others that we get a sense of his honourable and trustworthy character. He is one of the most conflicted characters at the start of the series, though it might not seem like it, as he has to deal with numerous changes to his way of thinking when he finds out the truth about the attacks on Fanelia, his own King's involvement and indeed has to go along with Hitomi and company as a fugitive.

The Zaibach forces are made up of some of the most intriguing villains you'll find, with the absolutely insane and schizophrenic commander of their forces, Dilandau, and the man that works behind the scenes, Folken, who in a twist of fate just happens to be Van's brother, who abandoned his country long ago. The rest of the cast manage to be quite well developed, too.

Of course, it wouldn't be a TV show without a bit of romance, so naturally there's a bit of a messy multi-dimensional shaped one here. Initially, Hitomi takes a liking to Allen. He's the natural one she'd go after, as not only does he bear a striking resemblance to her high school crush, Amano, but he's also her rescuer that whisks her off her feet with his charm. But there's your spanner in the works in the form of Princess Millerne. She clearly has a thing for Allen despite her sister's past involvement, and she sometimes results to a few dirty tricks to upset Hitomi.

But is Hitomi really falling for Allen? Over the course of the series she seems to develop some kind of feelings for Van. There's an attachment there right from the start, but it seems Hitomi is a little confused as to which man she really wants (no surprises there then!), and Van is just to preoccupied to care either way. But there's a thwart to this relationship, too. You have Merle, the catgirl with the crush on Van, who is generally there to annoy Hitomi a bit and get her away from Van, though she often shows her caring side.

There are plenty of other interesting supporting characters introduced that are intertwined to the plots and themes of the series. Prince Chid has a secret that even he doesn't know, the Duke of Freid makes a huge sacrifice that sets some massive changes in motion, and Emperor Dornkirk of the Zaibach Empire is influencing everything from the background with his machinations about the Destiny Prognostication Engine (though we never really find out too much about it in this half of the series). The plot twists in the first half of the series are really interesting, as all the diversions are interesting and just when you think you've figured out where it is going, something else is thrown into the pot, such as the Draconian/Atlantis backstory that relates to all the main characters, and starts to come into focus as the episodes in this set are wrapping up. Likewise, the changing nature of each country and their relationships make for some great entertainment, as everyone tries to second-guess everyone else and see who can come out on top.

One of my few gripes that can be aimed at Escaflowne itself in this first half of the series is it's slightly uneven pace at times. On occasion you'll feel as though the plot is moving at a blistering pace, and then the pace will slow and it sometimes seems to meander along without advancing much at all. But this is only a minor gripe as for the most part it's a very enjoyable opening. My biggest minus against the story is the introduction of the Ispanos that build Escaflowne, and their purpose. Their character designs are odd even for the series, and they just seemed to distract during their part in the story with their giant fist descending from the clouds. But again, it's not a really big niggle, and in the context as a whole the good far, far outweighs the bad.

But the biggest black mark against this release is its production. You can see from the technical portions above that it is massively disappointing in terms of quality, though the blow was softened a bit since we all knew about the problems plaguing this release from its initial rounds a couple of years ago (and since, to their credit, Beez have come a very long way, just witness their release of .hack//SIGN for proof). These types of issues never should have happened, and it's truly a shame that they somewhat mar this release.

In Summary:
Escaflowne is one of the most enjoyable fantasy with mecha series you'll find around, and has a lot going for it both in terms of a strong story and an excellent and diverse array of characters. Unfortunately the production of the discs does leave a lot to be desired (though these discs are old and Beez have come a long way since this release), but if you can look past these issues Escaflowne is a great series that is very popular, and now it's at a pretty cheap price I would definitely recommend it.

Features
Japanese 2.0 Language,English 2.0 Language,English Subtitles,Non credit Opening,Music Videos,"Club Escaflowne" Specials – Staff and Cast Interviews

Review Equipment
Philips 28" Pure Flat Widescreen TV, Pioneer DV-464 code free DVD player, JVC gold-plated RGB SCART cable, standard stereo sound.



Mania Grade: A-
Audio Rating: B
Video Rating: D
Packaging Rating: A
Menus Rating: D
Extras Rating: A
Age Rating: 12 & Up
Region: 2 - Europe
Released By: Beez
MSRP: £39.99
Running time: 350
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Escaflowne