(26 episodes, 1996 + 1 movie, 2000)
My previous exposure
This seems to be the first anime series I ever watched in full, as it aired on French TV in the late 90s. I hadn’t rewatched it ever since, so I thought it’d be interesting to revisit it.
I’d never watched the movie until now, which allows it to barely squid under this thread’s mission statement.
What’s it about ?
Hitomi, an ordinary high-school girl with a gift for fortune-telling, gets suddenly brought by accident to the parallel world of Gaia (a blend of med-fan and steampunk) by Van Fanel, who was busy fighting a dragon as a rite of passage for becoming king of his country. Before anyone can settle down, said country gets destroyed by the big bad empire of Zaibacher, whose stealth mecha are way too powerful for the defensors to handle. So Hitomi and Van are on the run aboard Van’s super-duper-special mecha Escaflowne (whose very existence was the reason Zaibacher attacked for the first place). Along the way, they gather a ragtag group of allies, most notably the litteral knight in shining armor Allen Schezar (and the crew of his flying ship).
This being at least partly a shoujo show, we get lots of Hitomi hesitating whether to pursue a romance with either Allen or Van. Gripping stuff.
The REAL plot of the show involves Zaibacher actually being a tool for Isaac Newton to create a big machine that alters fate and will allow him to recreate Atlantis. No, seriously. The series never quite recovers from that reveal, sadly.
What did I think of it ?
I have mixed feelings about this one.
At the heart of it is a very well-constructed, 16-episode-long chase scene. Despite being a bit repetitive (“Van & Hitomi arrive somewhere, they aren’t really taken seriously, Zaibacher suddenly attacks and our heroes narrowly escape, usually with some more allies in tow” happens, what, five times in a row ?), it manages to showcase some interesting worldbuilding, develop the characters properly, progressively increase the stakes and build towards the big reveal. The fight scenes are mostly well-staged (except Ep #13, which is a bit of a mess), and made all the more thrilling by the top-notch soundtrack (probably the second-best Yoko Kanno has ever composed). It’s hard not to get enthralled when the choirs start going “Es! ca! flow! ne !”…
And then the story stops dead on its tracks with the big reveal. Never mind that it’s very stupid indeed ; that’s not the problem, and to be fair the show had spent a lot of effort before that point to foreshadow it and make it somewhat believable. No, the big issue is that the story loses all momentum. Zaibacher stops being the implacable assaillant it’s been up to now. Our heroes finally find a safe base or operations, just because (which is made worse by it being a place they’ve already visited and found hostile). The show never quite recovers from this, and ends on a whimper. (The climax includes a Van/Allen fight that just feels gratuitous and contrived.)
One subplot I find emblematic is Dilandau’s fate. He’s a great villain in the first half, chewing scenery with gusto and providing the heroes with somebody to fight. Then comes the progressive reveal that he’s actually Allen’s sister manipulated by Zaibacher’s fate-altering machine… and okay, that mostly works in context, despite depriving us of a fun villain. But the finale has him reverting to the original with no memory and no real consequences (aside from setting up that half-assed Van/Allen fight), which just feel like a cheat. This lack of followthrough is pervasive throughout the last few episodes of the series, which alas contribute to bring the whole thing down.
There’s a lot I like here… but I have this nagging feeling that a lot of it comes from the first-class soundtrack elevating it above what it really is.
What about the movie ?
The good part : it does away with most of the series’ most questionable aspects. They’ve managed to completely write Zaibacher out, which is quite an achievement. Dilandau stays who he is throughout. The Van/Hitomi/Allen love triangle is completely absent (Allen has a smaller role, overall).
The bad part : it replaces it all with a by-the-numbers plot with nowhere near the same ambition as the original. To accomodate the plot, Hitomi starts off a lot whinier. And the worldbuilding is much less interesting, with the only flashes of interest coming from leftovers from the series.
But then, there’s only so much you can do with a 95-minute movie. Unlike, say, RahXephon or TTGL, this movie doesn’t even try to cover the same story as the series, and I can’t really fault it for that. It’s a pity it doesn’t manage to build anything really worth watching instead, but I can’t bring myself to hate it. It ain’t horrible : the production values are obviously higher (although the character design has taken a turn for the worse – poor Merle !), the music is still ace, and the plot actually makes more sense… but at the cost of being very generic indeed.