In The Year 2000: Escaflowne

Retrospectives like this one, by necessity, involve a lot of generalizing. Sweeping statements abound, as “experts” like us try to sum it all up, knowing in our hearts that it is, of course, nigh impossible to define an entire decade of animation in a few sentences. And for those of us constantly reminding others anime is a medium, not a genre, it seems silly to even try.

That said, I think it’s hard to argue with this statement: That last decade sure had a lot of Evangelion clones.

Sure, animators were influenced by Evangelion almost immediately, but because it only finished airing in ‘96 (with subsequent films in ‘97) Evangelion’s most sincere flatterers began to appear in earnest in the 00s. In fact, if there is an arbitrary, decade-defining faultline to be drawn where depressed teenagers became anime’s default protagonists, I propose it be 2000’s Escaflowne.

The original Escaflowne series, created by Macross wunderkind Shoji Kawamori, began airing on TV Tokyo in April of 1996, a week after Neon Genesis Evangelion’s final episode aired on that same network. Intentionally or not, Escaflowne felt like a reaction to Evangelion. It shared many superficial elements but differed sharply in tone, displaying an ultimately positive and optimistic worldview. Hitomi, Escaflowne’s main character, was full of energy, confident and likable — the polar opposite of Shinji Ikari.

Escaflowne aired its 26 episodes, doing decent but unspectacular numbers. Meanwhile, Evangelion hit a nerve in Japan, spawning multiple films and becoming a monster franchise that lives on to this day.

When Escaflowne was greenlit for a high budget movie of its own, its creators had the same opportunity to do what they’d done, either consciously or subconsciously, in 1996: provide an ultimately optimistic film, a lone bastion against the rapidly rising Evangelionism that, if left unchecked, would spill into the noughts, infecting every Japtoon for the next decade with all the superficiality of Evangelion and none of what actually made it great.

Well, woulda coulda shoulda.

Instead, Kawamori and co folded. Hard. Debuting in June of 2000, Escaflowne set the stage for the Evangelion-copying decade to come. Hitomi, once a cheerful track star, became a sulking, depressed loner. Sound familiar? Van, the series’ second main character, originally opposed to violence, was turned into a goddamn one-man slaughterhouse. And the rest of the cast became, well, background.

Because this is, after all, one of those “cram 26 episodes into 90 minutes” films with which anime fans are so tragically familiar. For what it’s worth, it’s almost never boring. From the time about 25 minutes in, when Hitomi is transported to Gaea, the movie choogles along at breakneck speed. In fact, for a half hour or so, the film is essentially one long scene, never cutting from Hitomi’s point of view while wild shit happens all around her. It’s a weird way to make a movie, but it kinda sorta almost works.

And if nothing else, Escaflowne is a win atmosphere-wise. The animation is superb. My local con showed the film untranslated in 2001, and without that nagging “plot” to distract me, I distinctly remember being blown away. The music by Yoko Kanno, who also scored the series, is some of her best stuff. And it’s great to see a version of Escaflowne with the budget to handle its ambitious world building. The film is filled with awesome, detailed backgrounds, and the little details playing at the edge of the frame are fascinating — often far more fascinating than the stuff to which we’re supposed to be paying attention.

Unfortunately, the film is plagued with missteps in both structure and characterization. Hitomi and Van both go through a character arc that transforms them into something more along the lines of their TV counterparts, but it happens so fast, and so arbitrarily, that it falls flat. The conclusion is largely predicated on the fact that we care for these two characters. But for non-fans, they’re limp and one-dimensional. Worse, for those familiar with the series, they feel like a betrayal of everything the TV versions were about.

Also, the main villain is killed by a random furry.

Make no mistake: this film has its defenders, who argue abandoning so many elements of the original was necessary in transferring the story to film. I don’t disagree. But for one, it didn’t actually work: the film is, at best, decent. Secondly, and more importantly, jettisoning large amounts of plot doesn’t require abandoning tone or theme. And in a larger, state-of-the-industry context, Escaflowne, unlike its TV counterpart, was an early casualty to the Evangelion-lite, depressed-teenger phenomenon that came to largely define the 00s.

Escaflowne begs comparison to another one of those arbitrary, decade-defining faultlines: If the Escaflowne TV series is Woodstock, then this movie is Altamont: a death knell ushering in a decade comprised largely of mediocrity.

11 Comments

  1. Since American popular culture is the major driving force of Japanese popular culture, I blame Generation X and the grunge movement in the early 1990’s.

    Anno must have been smoking cloves and attending Mudhoney concerts while contemplating how Reaganomics and the Japanese bubble economy corrupted a generation, man.

    /talking out of ass

  2. Interesting, interesting.

    I had never heard anyone consider Escaflowne as part of the ‘Eva cash-in’ sub genre. Most, myself included, always thought of it as Dunbine Lite.

    But then one must build a list on just what Eva IS, or better what the ‘touchpoints’ and key beats of the series, in order to classify if a show is indeed an Eva cash-in, I would think. And that debate/discussion/holy war could be huge.

    I’m kind of surprised Matt is surprised by how different the Escaflowne movie is from the TV series, as that was the norm for our beloved Japanimation for the longest time. History Reset Button got worn out from use back in the day!

    Just see the Queen Millennia movie vs. the Queen of a 1000 Years TV series as one obvious example. Holy Cats the QM movie is batshit nonsense but so, so pretty…

    and just to make sure everyone knows me to be insane, I think the first Eva ‘coat tails’ show was a show made concurrently, even before there WERE coat tails to ride on! Blue Seed. It has many of the same ‘beats’ or tropes used by Eva but from a purely Japanese mystical POV and a whole lot less of outright inconsistent planning. There, I said it.

  3. Oh shit, Brain Powerd was a 90s show, not a 00s series, dayum.

    Tis shame, I’d really like to see your opinions on that show.

  4. Well this is a good start. In fact, going by the suggestions you could start a spin-off series of articles on EVA-clones. That’ll keep you busy for a while.

  5. Drawing the surface impression instead of the deeper idea–that’s an old story. In 80s comics, Watchmen and Dark Knight prompted a flood of comics trying to be grim-n’-gritty, instead of trying to be innovative and exciting, which is what Watchmen and Dark Knight were. You didn’t see Gainax making Zeta Evangelion; their next three projects were KareKano, Ebichu*, and FLCL.

    Their progressive streak didn’t last, but they resisted the temptation to imitate or remake their own top money-earner (I’ve always shrugged at complaints about how they merchandised it; Gainax has always known merchandise is where the mokari makka is–that dates back to their General Products days). And it can be argued they continued to do so; Yamaga says the Gainax/Khara split was over the question of whether their next project would be Gurren Lagann or the Rebuild Eva films. GL wasn’t the phenomenon Eva was–but it’s also not a remake of something that was already famous in the first place.

    –C.

    *Technically part of a three-story anthology series, but no one remembers the other two ^_^

  6. Hey Steve,
    I didn’t mean to indicate “surprise” so much as “heavy sigh.” I’m certainly used to these reset films, and some of them end up being pretty decent. I just don’t like HOW this one is different.

  7. “I had never heard anyone consider Escaflowne as part of the ‘Eva cash-in’ sub genre. Most, myself included, always thought of it as Dunbine Lite.”

    Escaflowne is more like Dunbine Not Completely Awful.

  8. Escaflowne was the first anime series I saw back when it was on Fox Kids, LOL it was all edited so when I got the VHS(LONG TIME AGO) I was like WTF when Fanelia is destroyed and all the amount of violence and blood not seen on the American TV run

    Now that I have seen it again bein a grown ass man I can see how amazing the storyline was, Dornkirk and Zaiback were not really that bad and just other things like that

    All in all a great series, movies was not ok, damn they should have made a second season instead!!!

  9. Ohhh I was hoping for a review on the TV Series =( It still AMAZE ME the quality of that show, it was beautiful, moving, full of action, cool, interesting, the evil character’s development was fucking incredible, the only downside was Hitomi’s silly looking uniform, just that.

    The movie was TERRIBLE, I was SO excited when I finally got it, as Matt wrote the first thing that shocked me was Hitomi’s behaviour, I said to myself: ooohh Shiet… Then I saw killing machine Van’s slaughtering the shit out of an entire army and I said: Hell YEAH! Now you’re talking! BUT THEN, I saw this cool Van getting fucking crazy on poor sweet Hitomi, and that was the end. I was like: WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH THIS STUPID ASSHOLE?!! They fucking ruin it. From there it was all downhill, HORRIBLE.

    I think this movie should be forgotten for the sake of that BEAUTIFUL, amazing piece of art that is Escaflowne (the series of course) this movie should not be related in any way wich such a marvelous work.

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