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ESCAFLOWNE: Visions of Wonder

As new DVD and video versions of the Japanese anime series are released today, we examine the different forms of this popular anime serial.

By Andrew Osmond     October 03, 2000

No two people watch the same cartoon. Of course, it can be similarly said that no two people see the same movie or read the same book. But it's particularly true of animation. Some people watch a Scooby-Doo episode and see a tatty, stilted piece of Saturday-morning pap. Othersparticularly the generation who watched the show in the '70srevel in the thrilling adventures of well-loved friends. Again, some folk watching a Yuri Norstein film see a murky, pointless fable with odd-looking animals; others glimpse a transcendent world where each element has a galaxy of meanings. And so on.

Japanese animation has its own complications, because there really are different versions of the same cartoon. Take one of this writer's childhood favorites, Battle of the Planets. For me, it was a fast-moving, terrifically exciting space-opera; but for older, in-the-know anime fans, it was a hack-job, a dumbed-down insult to the darker, more adult Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. Similar examples abound in recent years, such as the Disney version of Kiki's Delivery Service. While kids laugh at the one-liners of Kiki's cat Jiji (voiced in the dub by the late, great Phil Hartman), long-in-the-tooth fans sit and grumble, 'But Miyazaki didn't have wisecracking sidekicks!'

All of which leads to Escaflowne, or Vision of Escaflowne (Tenku no Escaflowne), as it was known in Japan. At the time of writing, we're up to Part 7 of the Fox Kids dubonly, due to the complexities of re-editing, we're midway through Part 9 of the original. The Japanese serial was 26 parts; how long the dub will run is one of life's unanswered questions. Please note: all references to the 'dub' relate to the version on Fox Kids. It appears the uncut dub out today on video and DVD is a more faithful affair, with the same voice-actors but none of Fox's tampering with music and continuity.

The reason I mentioned Scooby and Battle of the Planets is that this time round I'm the other side of the fence. To me, the original Vision was a charming, evocative piece of first-class anime, and I mourn its reduction to a typical Saturday-morning toon. But then, Fox's version wasn't meant for me. As an executive pointed out on this site (see the link for 'Escaflowne Explained at the end of the article), it was aimed specifically at the channel's main audience, boys between 6 and 11. Older anime fans can buy the uncut dub, or the subbed version available for over a year. In an obvious way, then, I'm not qualified to review the Fox version. (Any six-to-eleven year-olds care to volunteer?) But, heh, I can't resist putting down prejudices...

For me, the Saturday-morning Escaflowne removes the larger part of what I loved about the show. The most heinous change is the music. In a previous report, I compared Fox's handling the score to Disney's treatment of the music in Kiki. It's now obvious, however, that was understating things. The great bulk of the music has been radically transposed or, more often, replaced by standard toon filler. This would be a shame for most series. For Escaflowne, it's devastating. The brilliant anime score was composed by Hajime Mizoguchi (a specialist in cello music, he composed for Please Save My Earth) and Yoko Kanno (Macross Plus). As anyone who's seen those titles knows, Mizoguchi and Kanno are two of the finest musicians in anime, and their Escaflowne work is positively cinematic. Listen to the music accompanying the opening dragon battle, equating the beast with some terrible steam engine, or the accompaniment to Van's murderous fight in Part 14, worthy of Darth Maul. And don't forget Maya Sakamoto's contribution: she not only voices heroine Hitomi but sings the series' magnificent opening number, 'Yakusoku wa Iranai' ('I Don't Need Promises'). In the anime, at least; Fox's version substitutes a heartless mix of techno and Titanic-style vocals.

I could continue grumbling about the dub's voice-acting, adequate but well below the standards of classy TV toons in this country and in Japan. Or the tucks and cuts for timing that offset the whole pleasure of an unfolding narrative. Or the convoluted rearranging of scenes to preventheaven help usany kind of enigma or foreshadow that doesn't pay off in ten minutes. I know about short attention spans, of course, but some of these revisions feel more confusing than the original show. Then there's the deletion of the entire first episode, the equivalent of Alice without the rabbit or Narnia without the wardrobe. (Some fans complain the first episode isn't like the rest of the show. I'd humbly suggest the wonders in the later story depend on the firm initial grounding in reality, a lesson which many screen storytellers forget.) Or there's... But enough. It's easy to be rude about a revamp of a well-liked story, be it Homer or Batman. Let's look at the show in its original form.

Escaflowne belongs to a sub-class of fantasy involving a person from our world, usually young, traveling to a very different 'secondary world' of magic and myth. (The 'Secondary World' tag was coined by Tolkien.) The most famous precedents are children's books: the aforementioned Alice and Narnia, plus Oz and Peter Pan. It's interesting that one of Escaflowne's main twists was anticipated in an early Oz book. More recently, the device was used in fantasy films like Time Bandits and Labyrinth, and in the recent Hallmark miniseries Tenth Kingdom. In anime, it crops up in two girls' series, Fushigi Yuugi (wherein two schoolgirls are whisked to a mythic version of ancient China) and in Magic Knights Rayearth, created by the famous female team CLAMP. (At least, the manga and TV Rayearth fit the category; the shorter video series brings the action to Tokyo.) For the boys. there's the El Hazard saga, blending the Arabian Nights with the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The first six-part video series, made in 1995, is especially vivid, lush backgrounds conveying the strange new realm.

All three of these titles, like many anime adventure serials, combine intense drama with wacky comedy. Escaflowne is different. There's plenty of laugh-aloud dialogue and bits of silliness, but the comedy is far more restrained than in the show's contemporaries. There's no lewd humor at the expense of the females, nor any of the super-deformed hijinks common to girls' shows, where characters 'deform' into gonzo caricatures of themselves. The relative restraint is comparable to that of Hayao Miyazaki. There are other Miyazaki touches, such as the use of a strong, spirited girl as a viewpoint character, as well as the floating rocks that power Escaflowne's aircraft (shades of Castle in the Sky).

Then again, Escaflowne draws inspiration from across the map. Certainly, it can be accused of treading too much on old ground. There are love-triangles galore; giant suits of armour ('Melefs') bonding with their wearers; spectacular duels and mass battles; cute comic sidekicks (the cat-girl Merle)all embedded in a familiar-seeming world of monsters, prophecy, and eccentric technology. And many of the staff are old anime hands in familiar roles. Character designer Nobuteru Yuki was responsible for the elegant, elongated look of the main characters. Their infamous long noses are characteristic of Yuki, who also designed the RPG heroes for the video series Record of Lodoss War. The mechanized Melefs were designed by Kimitoshi Yamane, who worked on such SF anime as Gall Force, Genocyber, G-Gundam, and the 1994 video remake of Gatchaman. Escaflowne's animation studio Sunrise was best known for the never-ending robot franchise Gundam.

Yet for all these precedents, Escaflowne handles its material so well, and with such assurance, that it feels completely fresh. Merle may be a comic sidekick, but a genuinely funny one (her scenes with Hitomi are gems), and her heartbreaking sacrifice late in the show makes you realize how much you like her. There are giant robots, but it's not a robot show; one can be indifferent to the genre and still enjoy the gargantuan duels. (Notably, you can forget the robots when they're off-screen.) There's a fantasy world, but a fully realized one, drawing not on some generic RPG wonderland, but on a range of real locations: Korea, Vietnam, Nepal, Thailand, Venice, and for the enemy empire, industrial London. There are love-triangles, but integral to the story, and it isn't at all clear which protagonists are more deserving. The romances relate to Escaflowne's main theme, a warning that wishes are dangerous and that one should not always trust your heart's desire.

The idea is developed and elaborated over the series, with an escalating number of plot layers and turnabouts. There's much play with the workings of cause and effect, and one should see the series twice to catch the subtleties. (The identity of the main 'villain' is handled particularly well, and some viewers miss the hints altogether.) One interesting question recurring through the series is the role of the savior. Many characters are either seen as, or see themselves as, saviors in a near-religious way, a theme emphasized in the last episodes. As such developments move to the fore, it becomes clear Escaflowne is no more a fight show than a robot show. This helps answer a frequent question; why is Hitomi, such a courageous, go-getting heroine, so passive in the main action? Within the story, it transpires that Hitomi is more central than anyone could have dreamed. More importantly, however, the 'action' is beside the point of the story that Escaflowne turns out to be.

Escaflowne is not a 'revisionist' anime in the sense of its near contemporary Evangelion, a show many fans prefer for the way it subverts anime norms. For my money, however, Escaflowne is more involving and rewarding. It has none of Evangelion's self-conscious crassness in the early episodes; it's an earnestly good anime rather than an often 'ironically' bad one. With limits, of course. A couple of Escaflowne's action sequences feel repetitive and redundant. Technically, it would not impress anime-hating scholars of classic Western animation, the kind who see anime on a par with Hanna-Barbera. The backgrounds and designs are great, with excellent use of unobtrusive computer-processing for the dragon's skin and Dornkirk's viewscreen. Yet the actual animation is often crude, a fact reinforced by the Fox dub. It's largely the music and overwhelming style that lets one forget these failings so easily.

Is Escaflowne a boys' or girls' series? Apparently neither. The final show reflects the influences of its first director Yaushiro Imagawa (Giant Robo), who wanted a boys' show, and Kazuki Akane (Gundam 0083), who brought in more girls' elements. Macross co-creator Shoji Kawamori, who first envisioned the fantasy series, explains. 'The male protagonist Prince Van is from boys' comics, and the schoolgirl Hitomi from girls' comics. We wanted to cross these two completely different tastes... A story only about action or only about love might as well be left to Hollywood.' Animation director Hiroshi Osaka adds, 'It has a shojo manga style, but it's still a mecha show. It'd be easy to assign it a genre, but most of it wouldn't make sense. Each fan sees something different in it.'

Today sees the release of the first parts of the Escaflowne dub on video, in 'edited' (as seen on Fox Kids) and 'uncut' versions. A new DVD includes the uncut dub and the Japanese track, with English subtitles. The subtitled version has been available on tape for some time, on eight volumes. A movie remake was released earlier this year in Japan; watch this space for news of a US release.

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