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.