High school track runner Hitomi Kanzaki entertains her friends with surprisingly-accurate Tarot-divined predictions about their lives, but she’s having a little trouble getting the attention of her own “King of Cups.” In a bid to impress her crush, another runner, she tries to pull off a 100-meter off in 13 seconds. But, wouldn’t you know, her dash gets interrupted by a ferocious bout of dragon slaying. With a flash of light, prince Van Fanel and a dragon suddenly appear on the track, locked in the heat of battle. After Van kills the beast, the same light dragoons him and Hitomi to Gaea, a fantastical “hidden planet” where both Earth and the Moon hang in the sky.
Before anybody can even begin to get their bearings, Hitomi’s tagging along for Van’s coronation at his home, the kingdom of Fanelia. She gets a catty welcome from Merle, a feline courtesan who’s very protective of her prince. After presenting the slain dragon’s heart as proof of his completing the regal rite of passage, Van is pronounced king, but his ceremony’s cut short by a treacherous attack. The enemy Zaibach empire has sent the pyromaniac Dilandau Albatou and his outfit of vicious guymelef pilots to lay siege to Fanelia. These "guymelefs" are giant armors best described as magic-powered mecha.
Van fetches his own guymelef, the legendary Escaflowne, but despite his valiant efforts, he can’t save his kingdom from being sacked. Once again, a flash of light whisks him and Hitomi away, and they wind up in different parts of the neighboring kingdom, Asturia. Hitomi’s saved by Allen Schezar, a dashing knight who bears an uncanny resemblance to her track team crush. As anybody would guess, this girl swoons over him.
Trouble follows these hapless youths, however - - like a wolf with a scent. Dilandau and his raiders attack the castle Allen’s guarding and quickly burn it to the groud. After reappearing with Escaflowne, Van lures Dialandu’s crew away so Hitomi and Allen can flee to Asturia’s capital. Van’s efforts bring him face to face with Folken, his disgraced older brother, who’s shockingly fallen in liege with Dilandau and Zaibach.
The series runs at a breakneck pace and everything that's just been described only takes up six episodes. Hitomi gets swept in a worldwide conflict full of heroic battles, daring escapes and shocking surprises.
This epic series has an impressive ensemble of characters. Not only are there two armies in opposition, there are also numerous factions who stand on their own points between the “Good and Evil” poles. Actually, these characters are all well fleshed-out - - there aren’t just pure-heart goodies and truly heartless baddies, but heroes with tragic flaws and villains with noble intentions. In the interest of conciseness, I’ll only list the “top five” here…
A bright, sporty track girl who had a simple life before all this madness. She has a pendant and a Tarot card deck that she's used for simple fortune-telling but, after she gets Shanghaied to Gaea, she finds her parlor tricks amplified into world-altering, fate-shaping powers. Among other abilities, her pendant allows her to sense cloaked guymelefs which are invisible to the human eye.
Just call this guy “Prince Charming.” A chivalrous knight of of the Asturia kingdom, he charms not only Hitomi but also Asturia's fair princess. Of course, tragedy and indiscretion lurks beneath all the smoothness. He's got an illegitimate son running around and his kid sister was kidnapped and imprisoned by Zaibach years ago.
You just have to mention this feline courtesan, even at the expense of Emporer Dornkirk - - she’s too darn cute! She’s fiercely protective of Van and, since she's got a crush on him, too, she doesn’t like Hitomi at all.
What Can This Be Compared To?
Of all the anime series I've watched, this is probably the most accessible for new viewers. If you’ve been a fan of any of the sweeping heroic fantasy trilogies that have dominated the international box office over the past decade, then you’re going to love this show. The “elevator pitch” for ESCAFLOWNE is that it's THE WIZARD OF OZ meets STAR WARS by way of LORD OF THE RINGS with a dash of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. Gaea's a high-fantasy setting with many allusions to medieval times and the renaissance, but the tech is decidedly futuristic. I liken Hitomi to Dorothy, because the larger plot of this series follows the archetypal girl's fantasy story (she's even the center of a love triangle!) Be certain that this show has plenty of testosterone-fueled action and mecha battles, though.
What Should You Watch?
Like I said, I first watched this show subbed on a 8-tape box set for the VHS (and it's still available online!) I haven’t minded watching dubbed versions of other series, but I’d really recommend sticking to subbed versions of this as you’ll run the risk of getting a lemon. There was a dubbed version of this show that aired on American that was heavily censored and edited, even going as far as to make Hitomi a secondary character! As for DVD, there's the SUPER LEGENDS BOX SET, which is available for only $30 on Amazon - - and that really is a steal. I haven't seen the feature length ESCAFLOWNE movie that came out in 2000, but all the fans I've talked to didn't dig it. It's tough to boil down a multi-hour series into a 90 minute feature while still adequately retaining what was so fun about the show.