Escaflowne (Esukafurōne)

Wow, talk about a shift in tone!

Escaflowne (Esukafurōne) 2000

I’d always considered the Escaflowne movie as only vaguely related to the series but now that I’ve re-watched both recently, it’s even more obvious that the movie is not meant to be considered a ‘re-telling’ at all.

The shift obviously plays out visually and via a new tone to both storyline and characters, but something I hadn’t known until checking out the special features, is that director Kazuki Akane very deliberately made those changes.

He mentions that a key audience for the series, ninth-grade girls, would have grown old enough to reach college or join the workforce and “hit various roadblocks and probably have a lot of worries”. Upon reflection, he felt that due to making a film for them, that “the story couldn’t help but become more serious and dark.”

This idea that, four years later, teens who loved The Vision of Escaflowne series might be struggling with disappointments in life really does play out on the screen, not just via Hitomi’s listless, depressed temperament, but the darker, angrier more viscous action that has all but replaced the romance and intrigue from the series.

At first I’d thought that this had been a shift toward the clichéd things sometimes aimed at teenage male audiences, but the comments from Akane really put the film in a new light for me.

The changes that obviously matter the most to fans are around character, and some I really love. It’s nice to see Millerna happy, and while Allen is now under-utilised, at least Merle is no longer tediously jealous. I’m in two minds about Van, whose bloodlust can be a bit overdone, whereas folks like Jajuka have less time onscreen… but he certainly has an interesting role still.

Biggest among the adjustments, and perhaps most divisive among viewers, is Hitomi, who changes from decisive and ultimately positive, to listless and depressed. She might even take on the damsel role a little here but I feel like it mostly worked in the context of the movie – she doesn’t get a lot of time to adjust to being thrust into a terrifying new world.

Many of the character designs were changed for the film too (still by Nobuteru Yūki*) and some of them I like a lot, or at least can appreciate re: how they suit the film’s darker mood. First among them could be Jajuka, but Allen is ‘tougher’ now (same with Van) and Folken has gone from a vaguely Bowie-ish hairstyle to full on Labrythin-era locks.

I won’t go over the plot now, but it’s a classic portal fantasy with ‘save the world’ stakes – instead, I’ll mention a few other things I really enjoyed. Of course, the music by Yoko Kanno and Hajime Mizoguchi is great once more, especially everyone’s favourite piece Sora. (Okay, maybe it’s not your favourite but the constructed language is haunting and the little homage to Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie is tops too).

Masahiko Minami and co had only just left Sunrise to form Bones when they did Escaflowne and the studio really pulls out all the stops here.

I’ve read that a few sequences were also doubling as showcases for animators and so if you liked the work of Yutaka Nakamura in things like Sword of the Stranger then the you’ll enjoy the action here – most of all perhaps that opening fight sequence. It’s a real high point, especially due to the non-conventional lighting and colour. [Spoilers in the next paragraph].

Now I’ll switch to a couple of criticisms.

In an echo of the television series, I didn’t feel that Folken’s motivation was shown all that well. However, probably my biggest issue with the storyline is probably his final encounter with the heroes. On one hand it satisfies due to a certain character striking the killing blow. Their motivation is strong, even with no more than single piece of foreshadowing.

But on the other it was surprising than neither Van nor Hitomi actually play a role in that ending. In a way, the climactic action scene is actually the mech fight between Van and the cool, calm and collected Dilandu.

Of course, the finale of a film doesn’t have to include a fight (action-genre or not) for me to enjoy things. But I’m sure the trade off disappointed some people with Folken’s last scene, as that moment of surprise comes at the cost of some emotional impact, I reckon.

In the end, this might appeal most to action and fantasy fans rather than romance viewers. Perhaps treat the Escaflowne film as something quite unlike the series, and let it stand ‘as is’ – a beautifully animated, dark action film that mixes fantasy and a little mecha with only slight touches of romance.

4 Stars

*Probably one of my favourite character designers, who has also worked on things like Kids on the Slope,The Weathering Continent, X, Record of Lodoss War, Battle Angel Alita and RPGs like Chrono Cross and Seiken Densetsu 3.

(I had to share the horse laughing, even though my screencap is obviously a little ‘off’ here :D)

The Cat Returns (Neko no Ongaeshi)

The Cat Returns (Neko no Ongaeshi) 2002

After 1995’s Whisper of the Heart I imagine at least a few folks were saying ‘I wish we could read one of Shizuku’s stories about Baron’ and luckily, that’s the premise of The Cat Returns.

It’s a loose sequel to Whisper of the Heart (as the carry-over characters are limited to the Baron and Muta) and it follows more of an adventure/isekai storyline – and those aren’t negative differences for me. The movie is also a little shorter than most Ghibli films but Aoi Hiiragi is still involved with the writing so the Baron is his usual charming self.

As ever, the animation is great. Both the real world and the Cat Kingdom that main character Haru finds herself dragged into are bright and memorable but for me, despite Haru being a good lead, I was mostly thrilled to see Baron get to take (mostly) centre stage. There’s daring rescues, thrilling chases and even a bit of swordplay, and also comedic moments here and there too – not just slapstick, but also things like the neat little pun in the form of the CIA-like tuxedo cats.

And in a way, the film is worth it to see Muta in action too 🙂

During the years of Ghibli powering along and releasing back to back blockbusters, it seemed like maybe there wasn’t much time for the leaders of the studio to support new directors as much as they’d perhaps like… although, I haven’t read deeply on the subject but I’m very curious nevertheless.

Because obviously Miyazaki, Takahata and Suzuki have at times given the reins to other staff members and results have mostly been great, I reckon – especially with the most obvious choice in Yoshifumi Kondō (who directed Whisper of the Heart.) Here, in The Cat Returns, Hiroyuki Morita was given director’s chair. Over the years, he’d been involved in a lot of impressive titles before being given the spotlight, like Akira, Lupin III, Memories, My Neighbors the Yamadas and GITS2 among others.

In the end, I don’t know if The Cat Returns ended up being overall as enchanting for me as Whisper of the Heart but obviously they’re different films by design, and The Cat Returns is still worth watching at least once.

3 Stars