Escaflowne is an excellent example of several good elements coming together to form a fantastic whole. To say the plot is about a girl from Earth being transported to another world where she must help defeat an evil empire is like pointing at the Sistine Chapel ceiling and saying ‘this is a painting'. There really is just much more to it than that. Several deeper ideas are explored here - including the question of whether or not we are slaves to destiny and whether we have the right to re-forge destiny's chains - which add an unexpected tone of sophistication to the story.
In terms of plot structure, this is an elegant show with an effortless intuition for pace and timing; for example, the way the story reveals the true meaning behind ‘the dragon' is perfectly timed for maximum appreciation. In addition, the series displays an uncanny ability to weave together a substantial tapestry of subplots, which not only prove interesting in themselves, but also help give a rich understanding of the milieu. Lastly, Escaflowne attains the kind of epic scope in twenty-six episodes that it takes others such as Full Metal Alchemist fifty or more to achieve, meaning there is a consistent stream of quality with no filler or blind spots.
By the time the final two episodes arrive, enough has been going on throughout the series that it is possible to see a general shape, although the actual events turn out to be both inventive and refreshing. What I enjoy time and time again about the ending is the way in which it can be interpreted emotionally in various ways and, more importantly, the way the story portrays the saving grace of love without resorting to cheesy gimmicks.
In essence, Escaflowne is a deep enough show but admirable especially for its skillfully presented scope. I just never get sick of its classic feel.
The animation is good considering the series' mid-nineties era, although not groundbreaking in any technical sense. Against newer productions, it is also hopelessly dated. During wide shots of melees and busy towns, the animation becomes static and the use of still frames and repeat frames is common. Moreover, for some reason, the dragons, in contrast to the rest of the show, are CG animated. Their glossy, metallic skin gives them an unearthly look on the one hand, but on the other hand, makes them look terribly misplaced in the frame. Luckily their role is so tiny that they appear only twice.
Still, battles are animated competently throughout, with swords clashing in silver streaks and warriors swerving in smooth motions during close-ups. My favourite scenes are those involving Van in his guymelef, when the animation really conveys the weight of the Escaflowne.
What is noteworthy about the series, though, is the sheer level of beauty and detail of the world concept; from sumptuous cities and the intricate guymelef (mecha) designs to the clear pastel colours and sketchy animation style, everything combines to make a visual feast. As well as being a pretty series, Escaflowne has no problem showing an ugly side - watch out for the splashes of blood, the contorted, shadowed faces of dying mecha pilots, and a couple of the freakier species designs
Clever, delightful, and varied, Yoko Kanno's score here is still one of the best around; every mood identifiable in the series is captured by the mix of pop, instrumentals, Gregorian chanting, and invigorating choral pieces. Undoubtedly the supreme tune is the epic ‘Dance of Curse' which is used during key Escaflowne battle scenes. Quivering strings and urgent choral punctuations give a sense of immediate peril and generally keep you on the edge of your seat. ‘Zaibach,' often played in conjunction with Dilandau's appearance, is another favourite because it matches his maniacal personality so very well. Unfortunately, there is one bad egg in the basket, namely the ending theme, ‘Mystic Eyes,' which sounds like it was concocted on a Casio keyboard and doesn't fit the series at all.
Both the English and the Japanese dub are solid. Allen gives the best English performance because, whether passionate in rage or passionate in love, his tone is always spot on. Van's voice is also surprisingly convincing as a stoic royal because it is so unlike the usual American jock voice used for teenage heroes. The Japanese voices are less distinctive - at times I find it difficult to distinguish between Allen and Van - but because they are far better paced, the dramatic scenes have a stronger impact.
Like most fantasy epics, Escaflowne has a fairly large cast, some of which are of the typical bishounen stock. For example, there is the suave knight, the stoic warrior, the beautiful psycho, and the fallen angel. Unsurprisingly, most of the characters are not complex in any outstanding sense, which is to say this is not Cowboy Bebop.
Possibly the most disappointing of the characters is Hitomi because, whilst the people around her drive the plot forward, she remains a largely passive observer. For example, she uses her fortune-telling to help develop plans but never comes up with any fresh ideas herself, and she acts proactively only on two occasions. What is interesting is that, unlike so many other teenage female protagonists who adopt Annie-style attitudes towards end-of-the-world problems, Hitomi realistically gets overwhelmed by it all. Sure, she is thus difficult to love outright but her role is nonetheless highly suited to the plot.
Importantly, though, whilst not superbly complex, the characters are also far from cardboard thin. All the important characters, including the antagonists, have interesting stories to tell, the conclusions of which are always surprising, mature and slightly open. For example, although a minor protagonist, Princess Millerna's part in the adventure is surprisingly touching - surprising because on the face of it she looks predictable. Despite being trapped between her conniving royal father, a cynical merchant who wants to marry her, and an unresponsive Allen Schezar whom she loves, she avoids becoming another annoying female victim by taking a brave step to change her lot.
With merely decent characters and a dated look, what makes Escaflowne stand out is the excellent plotting, the way it tells an exciting and meaningful story without losing attention to detail. For those in need of something exciting, well-paced and epic, this romantic fantasy action-adventure is a safe bet.
Hitomi was just a normal high school girl, until she was taken by the mysterious Van Fanel and dropped into a world of romance, magic and giant sword-wielding armor suits! Now Van, pilot of the famed armor suit Escaflowne; and Hitomi, whose hobby of predicting the future just became a frightening reality, must work together and fight the advanced technology of Zaibach: a force who want to shape Gaea to their visions of "peace". Follow Hitomi in her struggles against both these forces who seek to conquer this world, and her own confused heart.
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