On an evening when both her athletic skills and confused lovelorn feelings are put to the test, Hitomi is transported to a planet located behind the far side of the moon. What she encounters there reconfigures her coming-of-age problems; the imaginary subordinates reality, enabling her more time to experience, understand and judge herself. Through her eyes we encounter the world of Gaea, a place populated by feudalist human factions, furry half-breed creatures and ‘dragons’ of both classical and mechanical robot types.
Hitomi allies herself with Van, a young, rash and hot tempered samurai prince. Van’s home city is soon wiped out by stealth mechs and he steels himself on revenge. His own mech is the angelic (demonic?) Escaflowne, a badass, ethereal suit with a surprising shape-changing feature. Having glimpsed the power of Escaflowne, the emperor of Gaea determines that the wonder ‘bot represents a threat to his autocracy. In order to capture and disable it, the emperor sends out his special squadron of stealth minions. Their leader is an insanely twisted caricature of a male antagonist who in many ways is bizarrely coded as a cross-dressing woman (I’m almost convinced this is some kind of half-assed attempt to express gender politics). Hitomi and Van meet Allen, a dashing knight who vows to protect them. In his own astonishing combat suit, Allen proves he’s quite suited to the task by schooling angry little Van in an all too brief joust with Escaflowne. Of course, Allen is drawn into Van and Hitomi’s fight for justice and the final chapter of the first disc leaves us with the impression that one small band of guerillas will stand against the might of the empire (sound familiar?).
A weird mix of pseudo-science, pop-mysticism, robo-fantasy, traditionalist heroic adventure and political intrigue, Escaflowne tries to be many things. The story advances at a fair clip, perhaps disguising how these many parts fail to fit together in a satisfying way. Some key elements of backstory and development are forsaken, which I found increasingly frustrating. It’s difficult to ascertain what is central to the narrative when inserts of ho-hum mech preparations and maniacal monologues garner more liberal attention. Another small problem is the deficiency of humour. Given the dumbed down status of the high concept story, a few more shameless gags wouldn’t go astray. The series does deliver surface kicks and the animation is consistently fantastic but it is questionable that the long spectatorial haul will ultimately convey anything new or exciting. I guess a lot depends on how you feel about the characters. Does it matter if Hitomi discovers her true feelings and finds her way back home? If Van learns how to conduct himself honourably while gaining revenge? If Allen may find his true calling and sacrifice himself for a greater cause? Maybe I’m overlooking some subtleties, but are these questions really all that interesting?