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The Fine Print
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Escaflowne © 1996-2000 Sunrise, TV Tokyo, Bandai Visual/Bandai Entertainment, Inc./Egan Loo.
An introduction to the epic, parallel-world fantasy TV series coming in August to Fox Kids. By Egan Loo
White-winged dragons. Robotic armor mecha Fortune telling. Levitating airships. Warring empires. A Japanese schoolgirl named Hitomi. A striking allegory on fate and choice. A complex yet elegant love story.... What do they all have in common? In a word, Escaflowne, the awe-inspiring parallel-world story from the creators of Macross, Gundam, and Yoroiden ("Armor Legend") Samurai Troopers (a.k.a. Ronin Warriors).
Young Hitomi finds herself transported to the world of Gaea - a world where dragons and floating fortresses share the skies with the Mystic Moon (better known to us mundane humans as Earth). It is a world where medieval armadas wage battles with huge mechanized armors, and a world irrevocably altered by an encounter between a girl from Earth and a mythical dragon god. It is against this marvelous tapestry called Gaea that Hitomi meets the headstrong warrior Van, and the mighty armor Escaflowne looms over the fate of nations.
Escaflowne first began life back in the early 1990s as a proposed television series. The original creator was none other than Shoji Kawamori, the co-creator of Macross (adapted as part of Robotech in North America). On a trip to Nepal amidst the fog-enshrouded mountains, he envisioned a land surrounded by mist and invisible to outsiders, a land where a great epic about fate and divination could take shape.
He brought his ideas to Bandai Visual and the renown Japanese animation powerhouse Sunrise. It was almost poetic that Kawamori turned to Sunrise; it was the Sunrise's flagship franchise Mobile Suit Gundam that originally inspired the former engineering major to pursue animation as a livelihood. As Kawamori retells it, his pitch for the new series was simple: if Macross was robotic mecha and love songs, why not a story about robotic mecha and divining powers?
Bandai Visual producer Minoru Takanashi and Kawamori pored through books about Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, and other mysteries for inspiration. The creators started with a typical mecha-action male lead, but scrapped those plans for a female main character instead. They brought aboard Nobuteru Yuki (Record of Lodoss War, X) to design the heroine Hitomi and the rest of the cast. Yuki is used to adapting other people's characters, so he notes that Hitomi eventually became his favorite animation design - for the first time, he gets to design an animated main character completely from scratch.
Slowly, the other characters took shape: the troubled young king-to-be Van, the dashing knight Allen, and the playful cat-girl Merle. The creator created one enemy commander, but later decided it would be more interesting to split the character into two: the Machiavellian genius Folken and the delightfully psychotic Dilandau.
Kawamori and Sunrise first hired the quirky Yasuhiro Imagawa to helm the planned 39-episode series. (Imagawa is the iconoclastic director behind such retro works as Giant Robo and Mobile Fighter G Gundam.) In fact, Kawamori says Imagawa coined the name "Escaflowne" itself after a Latin-based take-off from "escalation." Imagawa envisioned a male-oriented action series decidedly different from the final version. His conceptual version was filled with dramatic mecha battles and a cute, shapely heroine inspired by archetypal shônen manga ("boys' comics").
Unfortunately, Imagawa left the project, and went on to direct G Gundam, the first alternate-timeline Gundam TV anime, which debuted on Japanese TV in 1994. Sunrise shelved Escaflowne for almost two years, while Kawamori worked on the Mobile Police Patlabor movies and new Macross projects. Finally, Sunrise revived the project under up-and-coming director Kazuki Akane (Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Startdust Memories, Future GPX Cyber Formula).
Wishing to leave his personal imprint, Kazuki Akane says he tried to broaden the appeal of the series by including elements inspired by shôjo manga ("girls' comics") - then particularly popular with the success of series such as Sailor Moon and the then up-and-coming Fushigi Yûgi - as well as shônen manga. Out went suggestive, male-oriented "fan service" - in came tarot cards and devastatingly handsome knights. He even asked Yuki to change Hitomi's looks - instead of the befuddled, long-haired girl with glasses, Hitomi became an athletic, short-haired girl on the track team.
Last but not least, Kawamori brought in the virtuoso duo of Yoko Kanno (Macross Plus, Memories) and Hajime Mizoguchi (Please Save My Earth) to compose the music. At first, the two were confused by the eclectic, evolving plot - Kanno recalls with amusement that she was only told initially that the story was about a high-school girl who does fortune telling while riding a mecha. Fortunately, the story coalesces enough for them to take their cues and compose some of the most dramatic music in any soundtrack, anime or live-action. Their soundtrack gives the project that final touch of epic the creators were looking for.
For better or worse, the series length was shortened to 26 episodes before the scriptwriting and actual animating began due to production constraints. However, Takanashi noted later that the creators decided that instead of cutting the story, they would keep the overall story and simply tell more story per episode. This gave the Escaflowne series the breathless pacing for which it would later gain renown. Escaflowne finally made it to the television screens in Japan in 1996 - almost six years after Kawamori first dreamt up the story. Now, four more years later, Fox Kids is airing the acclaimed masterpiece on American television for the first time.
(By the way, if you noticed Escaflowne has a lot in common with another multi-dimensional story Ronin Warriors, you're rather astute. Director Akane's first job ever in animation was shooting scenes for that series in Sunrise Studio No. 2 - the same studio that later tackled Escaflowne.)