Escaflowne (2000) | Anime Nonsense
You ever wonder where all of these “Modern, everyday character gets transported to an alternate universe” stories came from?
Recently I’ve come to understand that the Japanese, more than likely have their own ancient/traditional stories that are the source of many of their media tropes; so it would be unfair to simply equate inspirations only to things I’m aware of from the west: as I’m not entirely knowledgeable about literary history anyway. However, considering that Hollywood has produced many similar projects, especially in the 1980s, the earliest similar thing I can think of is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: which was more or less a time-travel/fish-out-of-water story like Back To The Future or The Time Machine. But Connecticut Yankee… and the Time Machine are both early examples of this same type of story, which, when combined with the story of Jesus’ descent to earth; later split off into subgenres involving alternate universes, other planets, and often involve some sort of foretold prophesy of a savior or saviors who will come to fight off the evil villain’s forces and bring peace to the land. They also, more often than not, involve magic or mystical powers. And in some cases, like Escaflowne, they involve magic-imbued, God-like, giant robots. One such title being the Magic Knight Rayearth anime.
Now, when it comes to films like Escaflowne that are created after the success of a series, they really baffle me. Sure, I don’t have trouble understanding the financial benefit of getting all of the die-hard fans in theater seats to watch a theatrical version of their favorite show. It’s already been proven that films like Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan succeed in this effort very well. But MOST OF THE TIME, movie adaptations are lousy, lazy, too-devoid of context for new viewers, or too over-simplified which alienates established viewers. And, all around, many of them just plain suck: and it’s often due to the Director and Producer not understanding the source material.
The worst offenders include Inspector Gadget, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Garfield, Scooby Doo, Bewitched, Yogi Bear, Tom and Jerry, Speed Racer (though in my opinion, you really couldn’t do much better with adapting that series. The fact is, it’s just not a good series to adapt in the first place), Space Jam, The Nude Bomb (the unofficial first Get Smart movie), Fat Albert, Good Berger, Flintstones The Movie and Viva Rock Vegas, My Favorite Martian, G. I. Joe, Felix the Cat, The Jetsons, Doug’s 1st Movie; and the mother of all bad adaptations, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender.
But, I’ll admit, some adaptations have worked, and some have at least greatly pleased their fans; mostly the animated ones: like Hey Arnold, Rugrats and Rugrats in Paris, The Ducktales Movie, A Goofy Movie (yes, in fact, this came after Goof Troop),Transformers the Movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and even Mr. Peabody and Sherman succeed in being fair and proper extensions of their television counterparts. Though that’s probably due to the same team being involved in the creation of most of these films only a few years after the original shows came out. So there is less of a disconnect from the source material.
Japan has also had a successful track-record with making movie adaptations of their most popular series: like the still ongoing Lupin the 3rd TV specials, which started in 1989. But Lupin also had a string of theatrical films even before that, starting with the live-action film in 1974; and the first animated film, The Mystery of Mamo, in 1979. There are also the Slayers movies (The Motion Picture, Return, Great, and Gorgeous), all of which are fantastic; Urusei Yatsura (Movies 1-6), Patlabor Movie 1 and 2, Case Closed (Movies 1-13, and the cross-over with Lupin), Dirty Pair- Project Eden, the Evangelion Rebuild movies, and many more.
However, Japan is also notorious for having a garbage heap stockpile of lame, to boring, to absolutely terrible adaptations. And this, my friends, is where we really begin with Escaflowne the Movie.
Escaflowne is the theatrical adaptation of a 26 episode fantasy series, that tells the story of a young high-school girl named Hitomi; who feels lost, aimless, and alone in her daily life. She is then inexplicably transported to the world of Gaea; where she is thought to be the Wing Goddess: a person deemed to be the only thing that can either wish for the world’s destruction, or the world’s preservation by way of channeling her wish through the Dragon Armor robot mecha, known as Escaflowne.
Yeah, I don’t quite get it either. For a prophesied-being descended from another world to be this world’s savior: that’s one of the dullest purposes any of them has ever had. Even the dude in Garzy’s Wing who dropped in completely nude and flying on Hermes’ sneakers had more to do when he got there than Hitomi did. At least he was able to pick up a sword and gunpowder and fight off hoards of monsters. Heck, all three middle-school girls in Magic Knight Rayearth brandished color coded armor and swords that gradually improved like in an RPG the further along they got in their quest for the ancient mech suits they were destined to pilot.
So, what’s the good and what’s the bad, generally speaking?
Well, I can honestly say that at many points in the film, the art design and background locales are very striking. A lot of scenes take place at sunset, which gives the world a very gorgeous, soft yet vibrant color palette. But it also has a dark and dirty edge to the design as well. Many scenes are clad in harsh shadows and black shading which presents a rather serious atmosphere compared to the original TV series. In fact, I originally attempted to watch this film way back in 2008, but I only managed to get through about 10-15 minutes before shutting it off out of confusion and boredom (we’ll get to why in a bit). But the one thing that stuck out to me was how striking the color palette, dark lighting, and atmosphere was in the opening scene.
The movie starts on a black, iron-clad blimp, transporting the fabled Dragon Armor, Escaflowne. Suddenly, a character named Lord Van, swoops in from the sky and lands hands and feet right on a watch tower atop the blimp, and proceeds to cut down every single samurai onboard. Cinematically and artistically, it was one of the most unique things I had ever seen on film at that point. But that was also one of the reasons why I decided to shut it off after a while. It was just a tad too far on the realistic side of art styles to make me enjoy it much. I was still under the impression that anime just wasn’t anime unless it looked a bit more soft-edged and cute. These days I’m a much more broad and open with my viewing tastes.
Another awesome thing about this film is its musical score, written by the impeccable and very creative Yoko Kanno; who of course wrote the score for Cowboy Bebop. She composes a score here that is very similar to what you’d get if you crossed James Horner’s score for The Land Before Time with James Newton Howards score for Treasure Planet or Atlantis the Lost Empire. She also throws in a few synth pieces for certain character moments that to me feel out of place. But none-the-less, it is totally her style to do that, so I have no real complaints. Yoko is a master in whatever she works on.
Now for the bad. The bad qualities of this movie permeate every other aspect of the production. Basically, the characters are horribly underdeveloped, the world is poorly established, the politics are barely if ever explained (although they are mentioned often), and character motivations are never fleshed out or explained by any visual or audible means. So in short, I don’t care about anything that’s going on.
For example, there’s the main character, Hitomi, who pretty much takes a back-seat to Van’s story, if you can even call it a story. You see, I really… desperately want to empathize with her struggle. I want to feel with her and I want to understand what she’s going through. I love and even crave that sort of thing when I see a lot of movies. But this film gives me no opportunity to do that. She starts out in the film, lying down on the roof of her school dreaming about a vision she had as a child; and one of her best friends shows up. We are told outright by the dialogue that Hitomi skipped class to be on the roof, she quit the track-team that very morning; and she also wrote a note that she’s having second thoughts about, which says that Hitomi is going to die soon: obviously meaning that she feels like killing herself. Okay, so… why? Why does she want to kill herself?
After that, she goes out to hang around with her friend and they do a few random, happy-go-lucky things you see girls in movies do. And then Hitomi gets all angsty all of a sudden and tells her friend to leave her be and go away. Then once the friend is gone, Hitomi proceeds to talk to the sky, saying that she’s alone, she’s a nuisance, she causes trouble and has hurt too many people, and just wishes that she could just leave this world altogether. Again, why?
We NEVER get to see any examples of how she has hurt or annoyed people. We never get to see any context for her mental and emotional issues that cause her to feel like she wants to die. And the stupid thing is, her problems, and her coming to grips with her problems becomes a major plot point in turning around Van so that he doesn’t feel so alone and helpless himself. But we also don’t get to ever understand why he feels that way either. Yes, the movie does try to explain that Van’s “evil brother” Folken is the cause of his issues, because Folken became angry that Van was chosen as heir to the throne of their kingdom, and thus Folken betrayed his kingdom, killed his father, and fled to gather an army. But even with that, we don’t get a full explanation of why Van feels alone and helpless, even while having a strong band of allies behind him, and a perky young cat girl as a loyal side-kick.
Furthermore, the main villain, Lord Folken, is never fully explained himself. Because even with the generic motivation of wanting the throne of your kingdom over your younger brother, Folken explains that he doesn’t want the throne; instead he wants to kill his brother, take control of the legendary Dragon Armor, and destroy the world along with himself in order to end all of the world’s suffering. This, of course, is never fleshed out or explained; and so we never understand why Folken wants the world to end so badly. He even says he wants to die along with the world as long as he knows that it will all end. So all of this, really, freaking pisses me off.
Who wrote this weak, poorly thought out, unmotivated piece of garbage?
Well, apparently it was a team, composed of Kazuki Sekine and Ryota Yamaguchi. Don’t know who they are or what else they’ve worked on, but man did they really drop the ball here. Cause you know, I could somewhat excuse most of these issues if the movie had been based directly on the series, allowing the fans of the series to fill in the story’s gaps with information from having watched the show. But the problem there is that apparently there are two different versions of Escaflowne the TV series: a Shonen version, and a Shojo version; as well as an original manga and a novelization. Each of which, it appears, have little to nothing to do with this film’s particular version of the tale. Characters are altered, completely different, and/or gone. The main villain and ongoing war has nothing to do with the Zaibach empire from the series. And the design of the film and locales have been changed to reflect a more Asian inspired aesthetic as well as a darker, grittier tone.
So it is essentially its own unique animal that should want to stand on its own two feet. But it can’t because the writers were forced to put a 26 episode story into a 96 minute movie. And apparently the only way they could do that was to over-simplify the story into a brother-against-brother tale of revenge, and to castrate anything that would have taken up too much runtime. Unfortunately, that turned out to be all of the characters backstories, personalities, motivations, and any and all context we so desperately needed to get invested in this universe. What a letdown.
Final verdict: listen to the sound-track if you can, it’s totally worth your time. And watch the movie if you want to see some decent Japanese animation. But trust me, this is “one-time” thing. You’ll enjoy some nice visuals, but you won’t give a rip after finishing it. So don’t spend too much on it. About $3 is all its worth, which is what I ended up paying for my copy.
Alright, I’ll catch ya’ll later with my next review.