Escaflowne vol. 1: Dragons And Destiny

Escaflownevol1coverI’m excited and worried all at once. I’m so glad for what I’ve seen and I’m already itching to watch more. This is how I always want to feel when I watch a new show. Vision of Escaflowne – released on DVD as simply Escaflowne to coincide with the concurrent (and currently canceled) airings of the show on Fox – is a strange fantasy series with great action, charm to spare, and a story-line that is constantly threatening to break through with something new and exciting. Unless these first four shows are an anomaly, Vision of Escaflowne could turn out to be one of the very best of the 90s anime TV shows.

The basic story-line seems to be fairly typical, both in anime and in the fantasy genre in general. Hitomi, a cute and able Japanese school girl, is transported from our world by Lord Van, king of the tiny country of Fanelia, to the strange planet of Gaea, where both the earth and our moon hang in the sky. When Fanelia is sacked by an invisible enemy, Hitomi and Van run to the neighboring country of Asturia, which is soon assaulted by the same enemy. But the story is less important than the detailed and imaginative world that surrounds it. Gaea is a place where advanced technology stands side by side with medieval weaponry – sword combat transpires just as often in giant Guy Melefs (read: mecha) as it does in hand-to-hand. The world that Vision of Escaflowne creates is intricate, dangerous, and believable enough to care about.

Even better, though, are the characters that populate this world. Hitomi Kanzaki, the hapless track runner thrust into the middle of the world of Gaea, is immensely likable right from the beginning. Sure, she’s headstrong and practically oozes pluck, but she’s also self-conscious and insecure enough to seem like a real teenager. Van is arrogant and impatient with Hitomi, but that comes across as just a front to cover up his own feelings of impotence as king of a broken nation. Of the villains, Dilandau comes across as particularly interesting. A pretty boy voiced in both Japanese and English by a woman, Dilandau is mad with blood lust. He’s unsettling every time he’s onscreen, launching attacks on the various cities and burning them to the ground.

So far, the show’s visual design is nothing short of excellent. The character designs are very attractive, with Hitomi and the cat-girl Merl looking especially cute. The Guy Melef (mecha suits worn by combatants) design is appropriately evil or heroic looking, (e.g. the Zaibach empire (the bad guys) have creepy-looking suits that have an insectoid air to them), while Van’s Escaflowne looks just like a suit of super-powered armor. The show uses some CG, particularly for the Zaibach stealth cloaks, but it does so very well without ever sacrificing visual continuity. Vision of Escaflowne goes a long way towards creating a very homogeneous  natural-looking world where interesting machinery mixes with fantastic creatures and places very satisfactorily. Unusual for a fantasy show, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of magic – no world-destroying spells or incantations. I liked this – magic in fantasy series tends to make action scenes predictable and boring.

While the subtitled version of Escaflowne has been available on VHS for quite some time, the dub is being debuted on this DVD release. It’s done by Ocean Studios, most recently responsible for Gundam Wing and Jubei-chan. I’m not too fond of Gundam Wing‘s over-literal script, but I thoroughly enjoy Ocean’s work on Jubei-chan, and I’m equally impressed with Escaflowne‘s dub. While a few secondary characters are less than credible (particularly Belgas in episode two), these seem to be the exception rather than the rule. The bottom line on the dub is that, except for a few goofy mistakes (“Give me my Escaflowne AND give me my Guy Melef”?!?), it is an enjoyment, not a distraction.

There seems to be a trend towards more interesting direction in recent TV shows. You can see it in the uber-stylish antics of Cowboy Bebop, and you can see it here in Escaflowne. From composition and camera movement, to color schemes and visual motifs, Escaflowne‘s direction is a cut above the pedestrian sort you see with most TV shows. However, Kazuki Akane never resorts to the sort of pretensions that make things like Hideaki Anno’s Kare Kano an occasional chore to wade through. Escaflowne is energetic and likable  and it feels like there may be depths inside of it, awaiting discovery. In opening, I said I was excited and worried all at once. I am – I’m excited about where the story is going, and worried about Hitomi and Van – and that’s the thing. I’ve only seen four episodes, but if the DVD had only the first one my feeling would be much the same. I already CARE about these characters and I’m creeped out by Dilandau and intrigued by Falken. I have these feelings towards these characters, yet I don’t feel manipulated by the show – I feel like I’m getting to know some people and some of their situations.

Vision of Escaflowne has the makings of the sort of show that makes one eager to watch anime.

Rating: A-


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