It’s hard not to see some added significance, now, in how this epic focuses on a balancing pendant…
The VISION OF ESCAFLOWNE show was notable, among many things, for finding an all-too-rare middle ground between shonen and shojo. It was an epic fantasy that managed to appeal to gals just as much as guys, smoothly oscillating between mecha action and courtly romance. It never felt like a slug fest with kissy scenes thrown in, nor a soap opera reluctantly peppered with fights.
This balance proved to be quite precarious as assorted iterations of ESCAFLOWNE emerged over the years. The heavily re-cut English dub that ran on Fox Kids still stands as one of the most egregious, flinch-inducing examples of ‘translation’ as an act of butchering. The movie version really just came and went without making much of a mark. Most fans who remember it today kind-of shrug and say it wasn’t that great.
It’d seem then that the success of the show lied in a very precise recipe: the right talent working together at the right time with the right resources. Alter or remove any one individual ingredient in that mix, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, and ESCAFLOWNE really just lays there like a flying carpet without a magical incantation.
To demonstrate: this manga adaptation by Katsu Aki has the same basic premise as the show. Hitomi, a school girl with an interest in the Tarot, gets inexplicably whisked off to Gaea, a magical fantasy world home to the gem-powered, steampunk-like Guymelef mech suits. Before she can even comprehend what’s happened, she finds herself tagging along with the hot-blooded warrior prince, Van, and the fair knight, Allen, for their war against the evil Zaibach empire. And the first foe they must do battle with is the sadistic, androgynous Guymelef pilot Dilandau.
That could all rather easily be the same copy you’d read on the ESCAFLOWNE box set’s packaging. Regrettably the experience of reading this manga is about as enthralling as reading a synopsis. Some manga can feel like rough preparatory documents for their anime counterparts; this feels like a preparatory document that was junked very early on in pre-production.
See, I went on that long preamble because ESCAFLOWNE was the first long-form anime epic I ever watched, as an eager 13-year-old - - and you never stop being precious about anything you loved at that halcyon age. For the entirety of my time at Anime Vice, I’ve been frustrated by how the show hasn’t persisted in fan discussions the way that contemporaries like EVANGELION and, basically, everything that ever happened to air on Toonami have.
Thus, I picked this dog-eared book off the discount shelf with one or two nostalgic hopes. Simply revisiting one of my all-time favorite stories in a different format was appealing, in and of itself. Getting new insight into the show’s creative process held another level of interest.
Again, when the sub tapes were first making their rounds in the late 90’s, anybody hyping up the show made a big deal about how it was so “cross demo” that it was actually adapted into separate shonen and shojo manga series. That little factoid was always a real curiosity piquer. Really, how would this anime look if it embraced its anima or animus more fully?
Well, the answer given makes me regret the question asked.
Getting back to the pendant and all its metaphors of balance… this book demonstrates that ESCAFLOWNE really doesn’t work if it slides too far at any one angle. Getting in touch with your masculine side apparently translates to cardboard archetypes, dumb action and the absence of any compelling hook in the plot.
The show’s brisk pacing becomes rushed, the staging of the Guymelef duels are too cramped to please the viscera and the beloved characters don’t even feel like… characters. Hitomi's been reduced to nothing more than glorified tag-along to Van. The 'hot-blood' in Van is now mostly represented by him spouting off gangster-era one-liners that float in a please-no-one no man's land where they're neither setting appropriate, nor actually even that hip. And all the differing designs, from Dilandau to Hitomi, look like quick sketches that were torn off the drawing board, crumpled and then tossed in the trash.
A little research reveals that this manga actually was, in fact, based on rough drafts that were discarded (and subsequently improved upon during the show’s production). A little further research reveals that the shojo version was actually cancelled earlier on. I can't picture how, but I have to guess it must’ve suffered even worse for leaning in the opposite direction. This time, I'll just let the question lay, and pick up my old discs of the show instead.