|In Short:||An intriguing blend of action, story, character development, and kick-ass music to make a worthy, but perhaps sometimes a tad slow, anime.|
|HITOMI KANZAKI:||Was it all just a dream? Or maybe a vision? No, it was real...|
So when faced with writing a review featuring one or more kick-ass vehicles, what better place to turn than anime? And the anime chosen is The Vision of Escaflowne, featuring the mystical and mythical suit-of-armor/giant mech/transforming-dragon (tying in nicely with our In the Stacks topic this month), Escaflowne. This anime has a bit of a convoluted history, but for now, we'll focus on the original 26-episode series.
The series centers around a school girl Hitomi who would consider herself an average school girl (yes, she even wears a school-girl outfit) with penchant for fortune telling via tarot cards. One day she finds herself randomly involved in a fight with a dragon after said dragon and the requisite dragon-slaying swordsman appear out of nowhere. Soon thereafter she finds herself transported along with said swordsman back to his world of Gaea, upon which she discovers that the Earth hangs in the sky as a moon (a Mystic Moon, as it is called) and that the swordsman is Van, the young soon-to-be-crowned King of Fanelia and pilot of the titular dragon armor/mech Escaflowne.
The kingdom is attacked by agents of the high-tech-wielding Empire of Zaibach who use specialized invisibility-cloak-wearing mechs (which are called "guymelefs" in the series for reasons I cannot fathom, and thus will just be called "mechs" for the remainder of this review), forcing Van and Hitomi to take Escaflowne and flee, kicking off a Gaea-crossing trek as they try to discover the truth behind Zaibach's attack, who is really behind it all, what kind of secret powers Hitomi holds as a native of the Mystic Moon, and why Escaflowne is at the center of everything -- besides, of course, that a) it's a mech that turns into a dragon and b) the anime is named after it!
The plot is complicated without getting too convoluted. It's not just a straight-forward lets-have-giant-mechs-fight-it-out tale (though there are certainly a multitude of mech-fights), but also delves deep into character development and motivations, with aspects of mysticism and perhaps even some alternate history -- no spoilers, but the identity of one of the main bad guys is quite the interesting and unexpected choice.
One aspect that definitely deserves mention (and even its own paragraph!) is the music. Usually in TV shows the music is there, but not necessarily noticeable. If the music is noticeable, it is usually because it doesn't fit and/or otherwise sucks. But in rare cases, and this is one, the music is exceptional. At times operatic, at times Gregorian, and at times simply whistling, definite effort was put into the soundtrack, and it shows.
The anime is quite well done, overall -- the story, the animation, the voices are all high quality. It is, however, perhaps a tad on the slow side, depending on your preferences. With an emphasis on the characters and not as much on the action (particularly in some episodes), the show does come across as deliberate at times. Not bad, just... unhurried. Some people really like that, others would prefer more action (especially when, as mentioned, there is a mech that turns into a dragon!).
As it turns out, there are multiple ways to experience that which is Escaflowne. There is the original 26-episode anime. Then came the manga, and apparently due to creative disagreements, more than one version was released, each with dramatically different takes on the plot and characters. Then in 2000, Fox decides to air the show in the US (which is how I personally first encountered it), but made various cuts/edits to the episodes... and then inexplicably canceled it after 11 episodes. Also in 2000, Escaflowne: The Movie (subtle title, that) was released, which had an entirely different animation style (still good, just different) and quite the different take on the characters, but still kept the plot (well, as much as you can when cramming 26 episodes into a 90-minute movie).
So which should you watch? Well, even if you could find it, there is no real reason to watch the edited Fox Kids version. And between the movie and the original anime... well, they are different enough that it's hard to recommend one over the other. As there is much more time for development, the original series is able to go into a lot more character depth. The movie is much more stream-lined. It is also much darker and grimmer compared to the series. But you can't really go wrong with either. I'd recommend both, and as to which one to watch first... that depends on you. I can't make all of your decisions for you!
But all you really need to know is this show features a mech that transforms into a dragon! All else is secondary.
-- K. Burtt