Friday, January 11, 2008

Anime Review: Escaflowne the Movie

Come again?

Escaflowne, directed by Kazuki Akane and Yoshiyuki Takei. Screenplay by Ryota Yamaguchi and Kazuki Akane. Voices by Maaya Sakamoto, Tomokazu Seki, and Joji Nakata. Produced by Masuo Ueda, Minoru Takanashi, Masahiko Minami, and Toyoyuki Yokohama. Executive producer Ken Iyadomi. Sunrise/Bandai Visual: 2000. Runtime 96 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Read other reviews here.

According to all my sources, school in Japan is tough, so tough it's unsurprising that a number of popular shōjo (girls') manga and anime series focus on Japanese schoolgirls who get sucked into alternate universes where they can learn magic, battle monsters, and maybe have a romance with a hunk instead of studying for their high school entrance exams. Magic Knight Rayearth and Fushigi Yûgi, as well as the shōnen series InuYasha, for example, all use this conceit.

And then there's mecha, in which pilots get inside robotic exoskeletons and fight really loud battles. There's Mobile Suit Gundam, Bubblegum Crisis, Ghost In The Shell (the manga, not the movie), and Neon Genesis Evangelion, for starters.

Well, why not put them together? Enter The Vision of Escaflowne, a 26-part TV series shown in Japan starting in 1996 and then shown in America, after censoring, on FoxKids. Aimed at both boys and girls, it features a sprawling fantasy world, magical mechs, and a schoolgirl who gets sucked into it all. A good formula, but if you want to experience it, head for the TV show and skip the movie adaptation.

The movie version, simply called Escaflowne, has the same basic problem every 96-minute film adaptation of a sprawling epic has. It has no time to develop anything, so the viewers are stuck watching characters they know nothing about doing things they don't understand. Escaflowne looks like a bare-bones outline of a much bigger story, undoubtedly because it is. We have Hitomi from Tokyo, who's depressed and lonely for no reason. She gets sucked into the magical world of Gaea and learns that she's supposed to be the Wing Goddess, capable of bringing to life a magical biomechanical armor suit called Escaflowne, which can maybe destroy the world or something. The evil Black Dragon Clan, led by the evil Lord Folken, wants to destroy the world for some reason. Some rebels, led by an angry youth named Van, with whom Hitomi has a perfunctory romance, want to stop Folken and save the world. Both sides want the Wing Goddess and the magic armor, and the movie ends with a big mech fight involving yet another magic exoskeleton that comes out of nowhere. You follow all that? Good, because I couldn't.

We don't know why Folken wants to destroy the world. We don't know why Hitomi's depressed. We don't know why Hitomi is attracted to Van. We don't know what the heck this magic mech thingy is. We don't know why everyone in the movie is doing whatever he's doing, we don't know who they are or what they want, and we don't know why we should care. Major problem with Escaflowne? Zero development. This movie is an almost perfect example of exactly how sword-and-sorcery can go bad: if we can't get to know the people and explore their world, we can't care about their struggles. The creators who made this should have known ahead of time they would have this problem. You just don't compress a big epic into an hour and a half, especially if you're going to spend a lot of that time displaying silent mood images. I never thought I'd say this, but I almost think a couple of infodumps might have improved this movie. They certainly couldn't have hurt.

That's not to say it has no good points. The music by Yoko Kanno and Hajime Mizoguchi is excellent. The animation, though variable, certainly has its moments. The atmospherics are great and the general look of the fantasy world is imaginative. Fun to look at and listen to, I suppose, but a most unsatisfying story. Fans of the TV series might want it to complete their collections, but nobody else should bother.

As an added note, make sure you watch this one with the subtitles. I did, but according to all sources I've seen, the English dubbing is lousy.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Escaflowne:

Myth Level: Medium (the formula appears to be there, but delivery is weak)

Quality: Low (poor script, no development, moderate animation, good music, nice mood lighting)

Ethics/Religion: High (nothing objectionable, a number of blood splatters)
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