1996 was a good year for anime fans, with a plethora of hard-hitting shows on Japanese TV. Neon Genesis Evangelion was the hot topic of conversation for anime conspiracy theorists, Gundam Wing gave deprived fans a much-appreciated Gundam fix (some people never get enough), and shows such as Slayers Next and the latest Lamune incarnation (Lamune & 40 Fire) also got high publicity in Japanese anime magazines. At Anime Expo '96, Eva was the show to have watched, just as Macross Plus was the year before, and the merchandise sold reflected it. At the same convention, however, Bandai presented Tenku no Escaflowne, and the word was out that Escaflowne would be "the next Eva" in terms of success. I personally feel that Escaflowne surpasses Eva, not due to the fact that it is particularly groundbreaking in any way, but due to the sheer artistry and precision of its presentation. In examining the various aspects of Escaflowne, I think it is important that we take a look at the show's director and writer, Shoji Kawamori.
Shoji Kawamori is definitely best known as being the man responsible for Macross (premiering in 1982, this year is its 15th anniversary). With Mobile Suit Gundam changing the face of anime with its realistic and piloted giant robots, and wanting to return to the ever-popular space battleship concept, Kawamori, a young animator at Studio Nue, decided to combine the ideas and came up with a huge transforming battleship, hence: Superdimensional Fortress Macross. Originally not meant to be taken too seriously, the show was supposed to feature an all-female bridge crew, a male alien spy who has a love affair with the captain, and a supergenius ace pilot who, against all existing anime tradition, is not the story's main character. Some of the wacky ideas stayed, and some were ditched, but Kawamori's strange sense of humor is frequently evident in the anime he works on, including Escaflowne.
The 36-episode Macross series was a huge success and resulted in the making of the Macross movie: Do You Remember Love. The next Macross feature would be the Macross II OAV series which Kawamori did not work on, even though the original Macross character designer, Haruhiko Mikimoto, did. Kawamori returned to Macross in style when he directed the extremely popular Macross Plus series (without Mikimoto). Shortly after, Macross triumphantly returned to television with Macross 7, in which Kawamori and Mikimoto reunited to produce a Macross series which proved truer to the original show than both Macross II and Plus, and featured even more strange humor than the original series.
As one might have figured out from the Macross shows, Kawamori is into innovative mecha, rousing music, and mega-love-polygons. The Macross Valkyrie fighter was different from the popular Gundam mecha because it was transformable, faster, and generally sleeker and more stylish than the Gundams. The mecha's variable fighter plane, GERWALK (do you know what GERWALK stands for?), and Battroid modes captured the imaginations and money of anime fans and toy buyers, and toy Valkyries still sell for high prices at anime cons.
In Escaflowne, we have varied and highly stylized mecha, and Kawamori always includes fast-paced and gracefully brutal mecha fight sequences in his anime, whether it be Valkyrie vs. Valkyrie with big guns or Escaflowne vs. Dilandau's Alseides with even bigger swords. Not satisfied by ground battles alone, Kawamori treats us to fabulous scenes of Escaflowne (in dragon mode) and Zaibach mecha in flight.
Music is a supremely important theme in Macross, and even though it isn't so important to the plot of Escaflowne, the superb music of Escaflowne is one of the factors which make it a top-flight show. The music was composed by Yoko Kanno, who also did the music for Macross Plus, and was performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic orchestra and chorus. (Buy the soundtracks!)
And lastly, Escaflowne has some really complicated and highly entertaining soap-opera-like love polygons, just like the best Macross shows -- perhaps even better. All of these factors, the mecha, action, music, comedy, and romance, coupled with a highly detailed fantasy world, give Escaflowne a very rich flavor to satisfy many types of anime fans, from the mecha-phile to the romantic sentimentalist. Character designs by Nobuteru Yuki (Five Star Stories, Record of Lodoss War, and the X movie) don't hurt, either. Furthermore, do not forget the many cool secondary characters; my favorite character being Dilandau, the sadistic psychopath.
I watched the 26 episodes of Escaflowne in 2 days (8 hours one day, 5 the next) with my friends. It was worth the time and effort, as I was fully entranced by the story that Kawamori wrote and presented. Besides, I didn't want to stop on a cliffhanger, and guess what? Most of the episodes are cliffhangers. Having to wait for the next episode of Escaflowne to resolve a plot point, one might be tempted to scream "We Want It Now!" So yes, the show grows on you, and you end up writing really long articles like this one.
[12/2/04 Update: For further articles by Lawrence Eng, see his anime page.]