If you are going to talk about Taken To Another World animes, then there’s one you really just have to mention. Probably the most important, and influential of them all, as it set many of the standards we still see today. That anime is, of course, The Vision of Escaflowne.
This 1996, 26 episode series from Sunrise almost didn’t even get made, and went through a lot of different incarnations to become the show that is beloved by millions all over the world. It’s fair to say that only Neon Genesis Evangelion is a bigger global hit that Escaflowne. Much like Evangelion, the effects of Escaflowne still resonate today, and shaped the very fabric of the Taken To Another World sub-genre.
The story is, of course, pretty simple. It follows high school student Hitomi Kanzaki, an amateur tarot reader and track field rising star, as she attempts to confess her feelings for the boy she likes, who is about to leave the country. As she makes her effort, a young man named Van appears in a bolt of lightening, followed soon after by a dragon. Hitomi has a sudden vision that foretells Van’s death, and warns him, saving his life, and allowing him to slay the dragon. Afterwards, as he is taken back to his world, Hitomi gets caught up, and finds herself in the strange world of Gaia, where both the Earth and the Moon are visible in the night sky.
With no way home, Hitomi follows Van as he awakens a powerful mecha, called a Guymelef in this, named Escaflowne, and sets out on a crusade to stop the power hungry nation of Zaibach, which has already overthrown the country Van is the Prince of.
Along the way, Hitomi’s latent psychic powers awaken more fully, which she uses to help the headstrong Van. The two are aided by a gallant knight named Allen Schezar, who bears a striking resemblance to Hitomi’s crush back on Earth.
Arrayed against them are the leader of Zibach, Emperor Dornkirk, who constantly tinkers with a Destiny Prognostication Engine, in the hopes of controlling fate, and is later revealed to be a rather famous scientist from Earth. His chief strategist, Folken, harbors a connection to Van, even as he follows Dornkirk’s path to domination over all of Gaia. Then there’s Dilandu. Poor, crazy, Dilandu, who just wants to watch the world burn, and is blind to his own connection with Allen.
The villains of Escaflowne are as well fleshed out as the heroes, driven by motivations that are reasonable, believable, and understandable. Except Dilandu, who’s just nutty as an elephant’s shit.
Which is really sort of the thing about Escaflowne. Even with a fate of the world plot going on, the story is really driven by the characters at every step. Their hopes, dreams, goals, and fears are what makes everything happen from the world go. It’s a very character driven story, and you guys know how much I love those.
Hitomi, especially, is a real stand out character. Considering this was the 90’s, it was somewhat unusual to see such a realistic, well crafted female lead in much of anything, even anime. Hitomi’s presence in Gaia, and her connection to Van, affects the story at every turn, and she is no mere bystander to what goes on. She’s an active force, and helps shape the destiny of the world she finds herself in.
What’s interesting about this is that Hitmoi was almost very different. Her original character design called for a busty airhead who was just there to ask the obvious questions, and get in trouble so Van could rescue her. Had Yasuhiro Imagawa (Beserk) and Shōji Kawamori (The Super Dimension Fortress Macross aka Robotech), the original concept creators of Escaflowne, not left the project, odds are that’s we would have gotten. However, they did, in order to work on other projects, and Escaflowne sat in development hell for a couple of years.
Until Sunrise brought in Kazuki Akane (Birdy The Mighty Decode), who gave the script something of a rewrite, and Hitomi a complete overhaul, turning her into the character she is, and frankly, changing the game for female leads in anime in a lot of ways.
Akane was also the one who, with the help of composer Yoko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop), insisted on casting the virtually unknown at the time seiyu Maaya Sakamoto to not only voice Hitomi, but to sing the shows theme song. If you aren’t familiar with Sakamoto, then let me assure you, yes you are.
Mishio in Kanon, Matsuri in Naruto, Tomoyo in Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles, Haruhi in Ouran High Host Club, Crona in Soul Eater, Ceil Phantomhive in Black Butler, Rikako in Psycho-Pass, and many other roles have made Sakamoto one of the most well known, and sought after seiyus in the business. And it all started with Escaflowne, when she was only 16 years old.
Beyond that, Escaflowne set the standard for Taken To Another World shows in many ways. The seemingly normal protagonist who develops powers and changes the fate of the new world, especially, has become such a staple, that shows like Re: Zero have actively made fun of the cliche, and usurped it whenever possible.
Other things that are now common, started with Van. The Prince without a nation. The generally arrogant dickhead who hides a wounded heart. Dudes with wings. Ya know, the usual stuff.
Okay, okay. Van starts out acting like a douchebag, but as Hitomi gets to know him, and what’s going on, she discovers he’s not actually a douchebag, just a guy who is driven to save his country. Van’s actually a generally thoughtful, considerate, and kind person, but the circumstances he is in compel him to act in a way that is against his natural behavior. This gives Van a lot more character, as it shows the two sides of him. The person he is, and the person he feels he needs to be, as well as how trying to balance the two things cause him more trouble than he really knows how to deal with.
While a fairly intelligent person, Van has a temper that he lets get the best of him often, driving him into rash actions for the sake of all the people he’s trying to save. This both mixes well with, and sometimes clashes with, Hitomi’s own temper. The two characters actually work well together, and balance each other out pretty nicely, since Van isn’t use to people snapping back at him, which often calms him down and makes him realize what a jerk he was being. Yet another way Hitomi affects the characters, and the plot.
While Escaflowne wasn’t a massive hit in Japan, it did well, and spawned several manga variations, novels, and a 2000 feature film that only bears a passing resemblance to the original story. Globally, it was an enormous hit, however, and during the anime boom of the late 90’s, became a staple of many anime lovers around the world.
It also shares a lot of themes with Super Dimension Fortress Macross, or Robotech as it’s called in the States, such as transforming mecha, music being a powerful part of the story, and a quest to just return home safely. This is hardly surprising, as the creator of both series, Shoji Kowamori, basically envisioned Escaflowne as Robotch with diving powers and a more fantasy like setting.
Though Escaflowne is a pretty different series from Robotech, that basic concept is what likely cost it some measure of popularity. It was a bit too similar in a lot of ways, and some feel the show is little more than a derivative take on the much more popular series that preceded it.
Personally, I disagree, and consider Escaflowne to be every bit as good as any of the Macross spawned series. That’s just me, though, and I am biased towards fantasy, so take that for what it’s worth.
Despite the rewrites Kazuki Akane made to the series, Kawamori is still listed as the head writer for the show, so it’s hard to talk about the direction and writing separately. Akane did a lot of rewrites, and directed, but much of Kawamri’s original writing and conceptual direction remains. It’s fair to say that Escaflowne would not be the show it is without both of them, though, so credit goes to them equally for creating what is widely considered a masterpiece of anime.
The music was done by Yoko Kanno, as I mentioned earlier, and her then husband Hajime Mizoguchi, a world renowned pianist who got started at the age of 3, and is equally well regarded for his skill with a cello, and his many contributions to the world of anime music. Basically, the music for this show rocks way more than any 90’s era anime has a right to. It’s not just good, it’s fucking epic.
The animation is very 90’s, though. I will say that. Now, I’ll grant, that doesn’t bother me much, and I still frequently re-watch Robotech, Sailor Moon, and many other 80’s and 90’s era animes. For folks new to anime, who are accustomed to more recent styles, it may seem weird. Even off putting, what with those pointy noses and all. All I can say is stick with it. The story is well worth the time spent.
Overall, I’d say Escaflowne is a must see anime, not just for how heavily it has influenced every Taken To Another World series that has come after, but for the masterpiece of anime that it is in it’s own right. Escaflowne stands with the giants, like Evangelion, for a reason.
It’s that damn good.