Synopsis: Teenage-girl Hitomi is known by her friends for her incredibly accurate fortune-telling skills and is in love with her school’s track team star, Amano. After finding out that he’s moving away soon, Hitomi decides to confess her feelings but gets interrupted when a boy named Van appears from a portal of light, and ends up taking her to strange world called Gaia. Now stuck in Gaia, Hitomi soon finds herself wrapped in a conflict between the powerful Empire of Zaibach and the mysterious giant mech known as Escaflowne, and her fortune telling skills may just prove to be the only key to controlling the latter
I’ve been watching anime in some capacity ever since I was a little kid growing up in the late 90’s/early 00’s and I’ve been into the hardcore anime scene for well over a decade now. In that time I’ve consumed a lot of anime both new and old, but despite the amount of stuff I’ve seen there’s always been one series that I somehow never managed to get around to: Escaflowne. It wasn’t necessarily for any lack of interest. I’ve heard pretty nothing about good things about it, and it’s been long held up by anime fandom as a beloved classic, but between the weird things I’ve heard about the Fox Kids dub, and the lack of a convenient means to watch it, it remained in my backlog for a long time. Thankfully Funi’s recent re-release and subsequent streaming of the show finally gave me an excuse to sit down and watch it, and it turned out to be quite an interesting experience.
Right out of the gate it’s pretty easy to see why the show has managed to stand the test of time for the last two decades. Fantasy is a pretty common genre for anime, and fantasy with shojo trappings even more so, but the show’s execution is so solid that if it had came out today in the exact same style, you’d never be able to detect even a hint of age to it. The series’s basic premise is a simple one as the story of a girl being transported to another world has been done dozens of times before, but the writing is sharp enough to keep things from ever feeling rote and it stays pretty consistent. Things progress at a very comfortable pace, giving the series ample time to develop both it’s world and it’s characters, and while some of it’s lore can get a little convoluted at times it’s never too difficult to follow and everything about the show’s atmosphere is so well-crafted that’s really easy to get sucked in.
It helps that the show has a cast of very familiar, but ultimately likable characters. Hitomi is a great heroine and one who’s really easy to root for as her strong sense of empathy serves as the show’s core. Van on the other hand is the standard angry prince who’s usually at the center of these kinds of shojo stories but the show does a great job of making his character understandable, and keeps him grounded enough to avoid making those traits unbearable. The best of the bunch though, is Allan who rounds out the show’s primary love triangle as the knightly prince archetype, but is slowly revealed to have the most complicated past of the show’s primary cast, and seeing him have to come to terms with a lot of it is an interesting story all on it’s own. The cast as a whole is fleshed out pretty well, and the story does a fantastic job of giving all of them clear motivations behind their actions, making them all pretty compelling, if not always original.
The show also looks surprisingly gorgeous in spite of it’s age. 90’s animation can be something of a mixed bag in terms of consistent visual quality, but this was definitely one of the stronger productions of the era as the character designs and animation are both pretty impressive in their own right, and work together to give the show a nearly timeless look that holds up really well under the high-definition remaster that was provided for the new release. It also has some fantastic music, with the show’s score having been composed by Hajime Mizoguichi alongside the legendary Yoko Kanno of Cowboy Bebop fame, and while I’m not used to hearing purely orchestral music from the latter, it certainly works here, and feels as though it’s aged as gracefully as the rest of the production. Yoko Kanno also lent her talents to scoring the show’s opening theme “No Need for Promises” with the vocals provided by Hitomi’s Japanese actress, Maaya Sakamoto making for a combination that serves as one of the best anime openings I’ve ever heard, and one that never gets tiring to listen to.
If there’s one thing that was a little strange to me, it’s that for how well structured it is, the show generally doesn’t evolve too much past being a genre thing. The last few episodes toss around a few vague ideas about humans overcoming destiny through willpower, and whether or not humanity’s ability to love is enough to triumph over our base desires for conflict, but these concepts are crammed in so tightly that it doesn’t really feel like they go enough of anywhere to proclaim them as the show’s primary themes. Ultimately though, this is more an issue of me having figured the show would be a lot more profound given it’s reputation rather than an actual complaint. I found myself enjoying the story from beginning to end regardless and it’s not really something that I’d seriously hold against the series since it does pretty much everything else it sets out to, so this is more of a nitpick than anything.
I decided to watch the series through Funimation’s new dub, since I was curious to see how it turned out given all the controversy with their release, and I was really blown away with how it sounded. Sonny Strait’s return to voice directing in the last couple of years got off to a pretty rocky start but this is easily some of the best work I’ve seen from him. Caitlin Glass’s Hitomi does a great job of making the character feel endearing, and I was equally impressed with Aaron Dismuke’s Van as he plays the role of the angry teenager pretty well and it makes for one of the best performances I’ve heard from him since he hit puberty after the original Fullmetal Alchemist dub. I was also pretty enamored with Vic Migongia’s performance as Volken despite the controversy concerning the casting choice, and while I haven’t seen the JP track or the old Ocean dub to compare it to, it’s distinct enough from a lot of his past work to leave a lasting impression, and it did a lot to sell me on the character. Out of the entire cast though, my hat definitely goes off to Sonny Strait himself as Allan as it’s a role that’s vastly different from the wackier characters that he usually plays and he plays it to perfection, giving off a level of grace and maturity that’s unlike anything else I’ve ever heard from him. I was kind of worried that the dub might end up sounding a bit too modern given how a lot of Funimation’s recent dubs have turned out, but everything from the performances to the script meshes perfectly with the show’s atmosphere, and it definitely feels like a lot of love was poured into it.
So having finally gotten around to Escaflowne, I can say that it was both more and less than what I thought it would be. I came into the series expecting something a lot meatier than a basic genre story, but the execution and visual aesthetics of it were so strong that by the time I walked away from the show, I hardly cared and it was an enjoyable experience from start to finish. There isn’t really anything about Escaflowne that stands out from the stuff that’s come after it, but just about everything in it has aged gracefully, which really speaks to how timeless of a series it is, and with that going for it, I have no doubt that it’ll continue to stand the test of time for many years to come.