Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
The Vision Of Escaflowne
She may be only 15 years old, but Hitomi Kanzaki can't help being obsessed over her future. After all, the star of her track team, the dreamboat Amano, is moving far away to a different school! She's running out of time to impress him by breaking her personal speed record, and she's running out of time to confess her true feelings. After consulting her tarot cards for a sign of what to do, Hitomi asks Amano for her first kiss before he moves away, if she can beat her personal best on the track.
Unfortunately, right when she's headed for her prince at the finish line, a literal prince from another world appears between them in a blinding flash of light, dragging them into battle with a deadly dragon before zapping back to his homeworld of Gaia and taking Hitomi along by accident. Now stranded in a fantastical land with nothing but her grandmother's magical pendant and a deck of tarot cards for guidance, Hitomi must entrust her fate to Prince Van Fanel and the roaming knight Allen Schezar, as their homeland is razed by the mad warriors of the Zaibach Empire in search of some mystical power. Can Hitomi unlock the secrets of Escaflowne and save the world of Gaia in time to go home and see Amano again, or does destiny have something else in store for this "girl from the mystic moon?"
It's been over 20 years since The Vision of Escaflowne first aired, and let's face it, there aren't many 20-year old anime series you can expect the average anime fan to sit through with ease, much less the average non-anime fan. And yet, despite yielding a few snickers at its '90s era technology like portable CD players, you can sit just about any fantasy lover down in front of Escaflowne, and a dozen episodes will have passed before you've even thought to check the time. It's easy to see Escaflowne's surprisingly timeless accessibility as its greatest strength; it sits quite comfortably alongside Cowboy Bebop as the fantasy gateway title to CB's sci fi for introducing new fans to anime. But if you're a veteran anime fan who's never seen this classic before, the more pertinent issue may be if there's anything about Escaflowne that hasn't been improved on in the hundreds of fantasy anime you have already seen that followed it.
On that level, Escaflowne is a weird outlier in its tiny club of highly influential anime classics of the '90s. While legendary titles like Neon Genesis Evangelion or Revolutionary Girl Utena changed the mecha and shojo genres in ways that echo so clearly across the titles that followed them in everything from visual style to thematic content, Escaflowne's strong impact on many different anime genres was mostly invisible. While the show is firmly "of its time" in many ways (angel boys and kittycat girls spell "90s anime" like little else), Escaflowne still stands out as a story cobbled from familiar parts into something that doesn't really resemble any anime before or since, because the number of brilliantly diverse creators behind this show is staggering in hindsight.
While the many fantasy anime that followed Escaflowne may not copy it much visually or thematically, Escaflowne had an explosive effect on the careers of its creators, similar to the vital impact that The Little Mermaid had on the future direction of Disney Animation. Without this unusual fantasy series' critical success, there might not be a Cowboy Bebop or Code Geass, because Escaflowne either launched or wildly propelled the careers of dozens of artists whose work on this show cemented their status as some of the biggest names in their industry.
The staff roll for Escaflowne is an absolutely jaw-dropping collection of talent that rivals the vast majority of productions made before or since, a perfect storm of brilliant artists from Shoji Kawamori's world building to Kazuki Akane's animation direction to Nobuteru Yuki's character design, not to mention a bevy of other names responsible for storyboarding (Shinichiro Watanabe), musical score (Yoko Kanno), and perhaps most impressively, an all-star seiyuu cast that now reads like a list of legends: Maaya Sakamoto, Tomokazu Seki, Jouji Nakata, Shinichiro Miki, and many more, taking on some of their first principal roles or even first roles period. (This series even snapped up Ikue Ohtani before she became Pikachu!) Whoever was in charge of casting for Escaflowne had an impeccable nose for greatness, picking out so many of the most beloved names in the business when they were still newbies. Even before you get to the story itself, Escaflowne looks and sounds excellent not only for its time but even by today's standards, an easy recommendation on spectacle alone.
It's a blast just tracking the wild web of different careers that spun out from Escaflowne's creation, but getting past its legacy behind-the-scenes, what makes Escaflowne's actual story worth watching? Frankly, few anime before or since had such an excellent sense of pacing. It's not just that things unfold at a rapid pace in Escaflowne (which they do, not even by much slower '90s anime standards, but even compared to modern anime), but more impressively, the story remains emotionally impactful even at such a breakneck speed through new locations, characters, and game-changing twists. Like all the best modern fairytales, Escaflowne mostly achieves this by taking extremely familiar visual concepts and tweaking them just enough to make them feel new. (And also like the best modern fairytales, Escaflowne achieves the rare perfect balance between high-concept action and melodramatic romance to tickle your spirit of adventure and mushy heartstrings at the same time.)
For the most part, Escaflowne's story relies on visual shorthand to pack a ton of easily digestible information into short scenes, allowing all these potent little nuggets to eventually snowball into outstanding climactic setpieces. (The payoff in episodes 5 and 6 from three prior episodes of build-up is a great example.) While Escaflowne's lore can be complicated and bizarre on closer inspection, the show's classic yet distinctive design choices are able to communicate a lot of ideas with very little explanation, in the same way as other timeless epics like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Just by looking at a character like Allen Schezar (flowing hair, knightly attire, prissy white gloves, stern owl companion), you can tell exactly what kind of person he must be, from his noble traits to his shortcomings, so the story doesn't have to waste time making him monologue about it. Even when more detailed backstories are called for, the show employs clever cinematic staging to get ideas across with the maximum emotion in the shortest amount of time. (As a child, Allen lost his family members to tragic circumstance one by one, which we see in a short flashback of crossfades from sunny days to stormy nights, until he's left standing alone in a cemetery.) These are simple tricks, but they're effective for a reason. Escaflowne takes old fantasy or anime clichés and tweaks them just left of center to paint a fresh feeling of engagement over familiar, timeless emotions for any audience in love with sweeping epics. All they had to do from there was slap a pulse-pounding cliffhanger on the end of every episode, and Escaflowne had achieved the perfect formula for crowd-pleasing entertainment!
Sadly, this balance couldn't last forever despite its team's best efforts. Escaflowne is rumored to have been cut from a projected 39-episode runtime to 26 episodes not long into production, forcing the already notoriously ambitious Shoji Kawamori to condense the show's second half without losing any important information. (Director Kazuki Akane contested this in an interview last year though, so there may have been other factors that led to the rushed second half.) Whatever the case, while Escaflowne's back end remains as entertaining as ever, that initial alchemy of plot coherence and emotional investment gets considerably messier as wild twists pile up and characters are rushed into resolutions they might not have been quite ready for. It holds together admirably all the way through the end, but you definitely have to "just go with" some abrupt shifts in plot and character development that just barely make sense without the appropriate amount of breathing room that would have really made them shine. (Some episodes literally change the setting and POV character multiple times per minute for almost the full runtime.) By the end, it all fits together satisfyingly enough to let you forgive those moments of truly disorienting weirdness that gave you whiplash and made you ask "Wait, Sir Isaac Newton?"
Funimation's blu-ray transfer is fabulous, with just enough friendly film grain on the picture to remind you of this series' age, but none of the muddied colors or aliasing you might remember from older releases of the series. Of course, the main feature of this release is Funimation's new English dub, which became a necessity since the director's cut of Escaflowne (i.e. the first seven episodes were produced under the assumption that there would be more airtime per episode, whoops) was never dubbed into English before. (Fans of the old dub can also find it on these discs, although you won't be able to flip back and forth to compare during those first seven episodes, since the director's cut and broadcast version are split onto separate discs.) While it would be nigh-impossible to beat Escaflowne's Japanese track considering its pedigree, Funimation's dub blows not only the old Ocean Group dub away in comparison, it stands as one of the most surprisingly natural-sounding and charmingly earthy dubs Funi has put out in many years. Caitlin Glass is a pleasingly vulnerable Hitomi, Aaron Dismuke excels at giving Van a brash brattiness without sounding like he's trying too hard, and Sonny Strait's Allen grants him both the paternal kindness and hypocritical schmooziness that makes him such a frustrating contradiction.
The dub's greatest (perhaps only) point of contention will undoubtedly be Vic Mignogna as Folken for obvious reasons. (Mignogna's immediately recognizable reedy voice is absolutely nothing like Nakata's dangerous baritone.) While it may not be the best choice, Mignogna's about as unrecognizable as he can manage to be in the role, pulling from his deepest register to try and make his telltale sound stand out as little as possible. At the very least, he performs the role with emotional fealty, communicating Folken's world-weary ennui well despite the giant difference in vocal register between portrayals. Speaking of difference, fans should have the most fun swapping between the three different versions of Dilandau, from the original Japanese actress delivering the most throaty and unsettlingly insane portrayal, to a Canadian boy of the character's actual age throwing an entertaining hissy fit, to adult actor Joel McDonald's oddly sensual delivery that lends the character more intelligence and a clever hint at the "other" personality beneath the surface. They're all fun highlights of their respective dubs in completely different ways.
There's a healthy heap of extras even on the standard release for the series. (Good luck finding that special edition for a remotely reasonable price anymore!) Interviews with the lead staff were conducted especially for the blu-ray, along with a massive special thanks credit roll to Kickstarter backers and a lengthy interview with the new dub cast about the show's legacy and the decision to kickstart the series' release. (Admittedly, the on-disc explanations for this choice aren't any more convincing than they were in text form last year.) The old "Club Escaflowne" shorts, where you can see now-legendary seiyuu twenty years younger, are also included, easily the most entertaining content on the release alongside the decades-later cast reunion extra: "Escaflowne at the Bar." All this combined with the usual smattering of music videos, clean theme songs, and trailers make this a meaty release.
As it well should be! With its inimitable imagery, stellar soundtrack (not Kanno's best work overall, but it definitely includes some of her most memorable pieces), and substantial story, Escaflowne is still an unforgettable adventure two decades after it was first created. From Atlantis's angels to Dornkirk's dragons, there's very little about Escaflowne's world that's not downright inspired, even if it's mostly pulling from fantastical ideas about fate and destiny that are old as time. If you somehow missed out on this seminal classic before, you owe it to yourself to check it out in the most pristine quality yet. Whether it becomes a new favorite for you to revisit again and again, or just an enjoyable one-time marathon of high-concept action and crowd-pleasing romance, Escaflowne remains as solid a gateway to anime's potential for greatness as ever.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Outstanding art design, animation, music, and all-star Japanese voice acting that still stands alone in its genre; compelling story propelled by edge-of-your-seat pacing and memorable characters; new English dub is one of Funimation's strongest in recent memory
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