The Vision of Escaflowne: an anime that managed to meld philosophy with romance

Published on March 1 2016

Anime's three biggest selling points: Giant robots, pretty boys & philosophical determinism!

Anime's three biggest selling points: Giant robots, pretty boys & philosophical determinism!

As I type, the #1 name in American anime publishing, Funimation, are on the edge of reaching their primary $150,000 kickstarter goal to create a new HD dub for The Vision of Escaflowne. This being the 20th anniversary of the series, it’s hard to conceive of a more glorious and fitting celebration for a fantasy epic that, whilst rather unsuccessful in its initial Japanese broadcast, joined with the Young Adult novels and JRPGs of its day to become a defining Western window into the limitless imagination of its medium. Now considered a masterpiece two decades later, Kazuki Akane and Shōji Kawamori’s tale of divination and robotic warfare was the closest thing to a Game of Thrones or Broken Empire series in my childhood (even in its censored form), and whilst I’m thrilled to finally see the uncut show in English, my excitement travels beyond the usual anime staples of giant robots, bishonen boys and cat girls. It is, above all, a story that dealt with philosophical ideas like determinism, Stoicism and Epicureanism, and melded them all into the most unlikely of places: Romance.

Please note, there will be minor to major spoilers from this point on.

The Vision of Escaflowne follows an amateur high-school track runner and tarot card reader named Hitomi, who finds herself whisked away to a mystical world named Gaea where the Earth and Moon hang in the sky (our planet itself is called ‘The Mystic Moon’ – Pluto must be ecstatic). On the subject of whisking, she also initially meets Van Fanel, the young prince of Fanelia, and later the dashing knight Allen Schezar of Asturia, with all three becoming trapped in a love triangle as their once peaceful kingdoms fall under siege by the unstoppable Zaibach empire. Standard fantasy fare to begin with sure, but Escaflowne quickly takes several turns for the complex as it begins adding concepts like The Lost City of Atlantis, dragon-born energy crises, fantastical racism and human experimentation to the proceedings.

The heart and soul of the series is the notion of fate, where events are predetermined and decreed, and attempts to merge it with determinism, where such events are merely the result of causal chains. In the real world the coexistence of these concepts seems paradoxical, but in Escaflowne their intersection turns out to be the goal of our primary antagonist: Emperor Dornkirk. A not so subtle reference to Isaac Newton, this villain believes that both fate and destiny are governed by a single universal force, and his master plan to is to utilize his ‘Destiny Prognostication Engine’ (or ‘Fate Alteration Machine’) to not only foresee the course of history, but physically change it.

Dornkirk is both the ideal enemy and fellow spirit of Hitomi, whose card reading and pendulum divination turn out to be invaluable assets for her Gaea allies – precisely because she too is capable of altering future events. But whereas the Emperor treats free will like a scientific discovery i.e. something to be found and manipulated with, Hitomi’s eventual character development relies on her accepting fate as natural, and as a “choice” destiny. Her initial entry into the series is that of a immature young girl obsessed with seeing into the future and steering it from danger, regardless of whether she’s predicting whether a boy will like her, or whether a kingdom will see another tomorrow.

After numerous instances in which her fortune telling actually influences events for the worse, fanning the flames of conflict and putting her new friends in further harm’s way, her final revelation as our protagonist is resigning to a concept many philosophers have dealt with over the years – ‘Amor fati’, or “love of fate”. In Nietzsche’s mind, for example, ‘Amor fati’ holds that greatness in human character comes when we accept an un-changing reality, and admiring the beauty that exists simply in the inevitability of loss and suffering.

Admittedly, suffering does take a more subjective meaning when you're a bishie prince with angel wings and a giant robotic dragon. And you thought Disney princesses were entitled...

Admittedly, suffering does take a more subjective meaning when you're a bishie prince with angel wings and a giant robotic dragon. And you thought Disney princesses were entitled...

Escaflowne is so unique exactly because it takes these musings on free will and causality and centers them on romantic attraction. In the first episode, Hitomi posits that if she can beat a running track record, her high school crush will grant her a first kiss. It’s a charming metaphor for putting fate in one’s hands, and an even better precursor for the series latter events. Predestination is explored as a means of linking characters together in various methods, some subtle and others less so. The titular mecha of the series for example, Escaflowne, becomes fused with Van and binds the two’s lives together, and whilst Hitomi’s relationship with Van is of course developed naturally, it’s also finally revealed to be itself destined (indeed, it’s Hitomi’s acceptance of that bond that finally destroys the Fate Alteration Machine).

A pivotal moment is when Dornkirk himself has a go at playing matchmaker. In order to stop the ethereal bond between Von and Hitomi from ruining his ultimate plan – explained momentarily – he alters fate so that Hitomi and Allen seemingly become an item, right in front of poor Van. In order to bring about this classic romance novel misunderstanding, Dornkirk has to stage a similar scene between his subordinate Folken (Van’s brother) and one of Folken’s…leopard servant girls (anime will be anime). The jealousy that erupts from both parties shows off true love not necessarily as the flawed notion that Tim Minchin would mock, but as a multi-faceted manifestation of fate. In the case of the leopard girls, it is a custom of their race to become heavily loyal and duty-bound to their carer, whilst in Van and Hitomi’s case, it’s literally the universe being pulled asunder.

There's the friendzone, and then there's being forcibly DESTINED to be in the friendzone...

There's the friendzone, and then there's being forcibly DESTINED to be in the friendzone...

This mixing of love and laying down new future events might come across a bit cold when written here, but unlike a Christopher Nolan script, it’s kept firmly rooted in the human condition thanks to the quality writing on the characters. Hitomi is, after all, a high school girl, and despite pining for Allen during the bulk of the series, she comes to learn the folly of such fickle infatuation through her fortune telling. When she does a tarot reading for Millerna, Allen’s bride to be, the cards read that the marriage will be unbearable and that Hitomi herself will end up as Allen’s secret lover. Her attempt to lie about the reading and thus change fate (through the usage of a ‘luck’ tarot card) ends up empowering Zaibach’s latest ‘luck’ infused soldiers, thus making her a folly of her own emotional naivety.

This same desire to make the desirable possible is also what ultimately dooms Dornkirk. His eventual plan is to use his science to bring about the "zone of absolute fortune", or in other words to create a utopia. This falsely applied epicureanist philosophy – the wanting of total tranquility – is what supposedly doomed the lost land of Atlantis, and which turns out exactly to be where the emperor draws his power. His final acceptance of a “choice destiny” and the salvation of Gaea demonstrate his character as a tragic case of one man chasing for a perfect future, whilst blinding themselves to the lessons of the past.

If fine story & philosophical depth aren't for you - there's still the giant mech dragon.

If fine story & philosophical depth aren't for you - there's still the giant mech dragon.

Underappreciated in the fantasy realm at large and becoming more of a cult hit with each generation, the decision to bring The Vision of Escaflowne back in a definitive Blu-Ray release grants an excellent chance to re-examine these notions of devotion, and linking one’s destiny to finding a fellow spirit. All of that says nothing of the stellar animation, quality action scenes and industry-class art design.

By the time you finish reading this, chances are Funimation’s Kickstarter will be funded, but there’s still plenty of stretch goals that any diehard fan would want to reach, so I highly encourage you to contribute if you can, with what you can.

Whether they’re for feedback or discussion, comments are always appreciated!

Find out when The Urban Shepherd goes on his next diatribe by following him on Twitter!

Written by The Urban Shepherd

Published on #Film Articles

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