On the evening Hitomi Kanzaki confesses her love to the captain of the track team, a bright light transports her to Gaea, a world where the Earth and Moon hang in the sky. There she meets Van Fanel, newly crowned king of Fanelia and the only person capable of controlling the ancient guymelef Escaflowne. After the destruction of Fanelia by the evil Zaibach Empire, Hitomi and Van set out to overthrow the empire and prevent the end of the world. Major spoilers ahead.
If there was ever a mecha anime made for girls it is this one which features a fantasy setting with magitek, the prominent use of divination as a legitimate form of magic, and romantic entanglements as driving elements of the plot. This is not mentioning the winged romantic interest and all the times we see a shirtless muscled swordsman, usually Van, who also happens to be the winged love interest (of course). His wings rip his shirt to pieces when they unfurl. Where he gets his replacement shirts after these occasions is never explained.
Despite being geared towards women, there are some non-feminist things about it. The first is the plot’s treatment of Princess Millerna. She is royalty but no one listens to her, specifically to her requests to join Allen Schezar on his quest to help Hitomi and Van. Though I understand the need to protect a member of the royal family, Millerna is hardly the only princess. Nor is she the most important since she has two older sisters. Side characters hinted at her tomboy childhood, and she spent several years studying medicine before being forced to give it up by her father the king. As a character, Princess Millerna had a lot of potential: she fought against authority for agency and had a history of straying from the princess-like path. Unfortunately, she never gets an arc to truly shine, especially after her marriage to the merchant Dryden. After the king of Asturia falls ill, Dryden is the substitute ruler despite being the dowager prince to the third-born princess. Apparently, it is too much for a princess born into royalty to manage her own country.
My second issue regards the character Dilandau, revealed to be the kidnapped younger sister of Allen, Celene, towards the end of the series. While I find it interesting that an anime from the 1990s decided to play with gender in this way, I don’t appreciate the artificial origins of the character’s genderfluid nature. I especially don’t appreciate that yet another character whom my society would characterize as LGBTQ+ is put into a villain role. For most of the show, Dilandau is bloodthirsty, stir-crazy, and really really wants to kill a main character. He overreacts after an early encounter with Van leaves an ugly scar on his pretty face and officially loses all control when Van slays Dilandau’s Dragonslayers. Not much is known about Celene whose transformation was caused by Fate Altering Experiments from the Zaibach Empire. As an adult, she is seen briefly and portrayed as childish and amnesiac. There is a physical transformation between Celene and Dilandau–her shoulders widen and the scar appears on the side of her face. Despite inhabiting the same body, Celene and Dilandau are treated as two separate characters, and I find that unsettling. Since Dilandau/Celene is revealed so late into the series, the show does not have the opportunity to further explore the character. I would be happiest if they were granted an arc that allowed them to combine both parts of themselves into a happy whole.
The Vision of Escaflowne takes the traditionally corny message of “believe in yourself and your wishes will come true” and tries to run with it. However it gets is message crossed with something else in the execution. Hitomi has the power to will her wishes and anxieties into reality, a power she didn’t realize she had until it was pointed out to her by the first of two dead mentors. Her second dead mentor tells her to believe in her friends and everything will work out just fine. The same message, when applied to Emperor Dunkirk, fails. He spends a lifetime on Gaea working towards a peaceful future and it backfires at the first opportunity. Was it because he believed in people and people as a whole are greedy monsters? Was it because he believed in the abstract concept of a utopian future instead of a specific future? Was it because he used questionable methods to perfect his machines in the first place? The show is not clear on this, and I feel the point deserves more exploration than what it was given.
Despite this semi-serious exploration of belief and human nature, The Vision of Escaflowne is full of archetypes commonly seen in action/adventure. Van is a Winged Love Interest and Royalty of Special Heritage. Hitomi is a Mystical Girl and a Fish out of Water. Allen is a Gallant Swordsman and a Loveless Playboy. The main villain of the show (Emperor Dunkirk) is a Tyrant with Good Intentions. Other antagonists include a Maniac with a Tragic Backstory (Dilandau) and the Prodigal Relation with a Redemption Arc (Folken). Most entertaining of all, all three of the main characters is the center point in a love triangle. While some people may run away at the saturation of archetypes, I found the saturation entertaining. The archetypes work so perfectly together that it’s hard to call this a bad show. Were the arcs predictable? Of course. Does that really matter? No, considering I still stayed up past my bedtime just to watch the next episode. (And did I mention the love triangle has a love triangle?) In the language of TVTropes.com, one person’s Troperiffic is another’s Cliche Overload.
Perhaps the most important question is whether this show withstands the test of time. The Vision of Escaflowne originally aired in 1995, marking its age clear in the “retro” category of “Classic/Retro.” While the animation feels dated, it is still smooth. Since the world is a fantasy setting and Japanese school uniforms are timeless by design, the only prop that dates the show is Hitomi’s pager which goes off at an (in)opportune moment and given no explanation as to how.
To have a little fun while watching The Vision of Escaflowne, TVTropes.com has a drinking game available that I highly recommend. Please drink responsibly.
The Vision of Escaflowne feels like a mecha show written with a female audience in mind. It follows the mold of several action/adventure archetypes but their execution adds to the watching experience. I recommend it to people who enjoy old-school epic fantasy and people who want a female lead in their mecha show.