A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 459 – Escaflowne: The Movie

Escaflowne: The Movie – June 2nd, 2011

Back when I was in college we worked for a video store that had a rather decent collection of anime. I’m pretty sure we had some slightly gray market stuff, things not officially available for distribution in the US at the time, but the section was a popular one and something that distinguished us from our larger competitors. I was also friends with a couple of people who were a lot more into anime than I was and who had friends who were more into it than they were. Therefore I’m fairly certain that I’ve seen at least parts of the series this movie is based on/connected to. But I remember almost nothing about it aside from knowing that I’ve seen it.

Girl in a school uniform with an improbably short skirt gets transported off to a magical world? Yeah, you know what? Not exactly a unique hook for a story. Giant mech armor that holds the key to the world’s salvation or destruction? Seen it. As story elements go, they’re not bad but they’re also not revolutionary. This story is standard fare, really. Or at least it feels so to me. And in the movie treatment I admit there’s not a whole lot that distinguishes it as anything particularly special. It just manages to put a whole lot of familiar elements into a single story and then let them run their course.

I would have to say that while I have a very specific complaint about the end of the movie, my single biggest complaint is that the movie is so shallow. There’s the vast world of Gaea and its problems and it serves as the setting and impetus for the whole movie. And yet we really get very little in the way of worldbuilding. The movie offers some expositional dialogue and monologue about the Black Dragon Clan and its leadership and what the sinister Lord Folken has done to the various peoples and creatures native to the world (in short, Folken’s trying to usurp power from his younger brother, Prince Van, and has subjugated or wiped out various minor clans and villages and groups to do so). But none of it’s ever really shown. We know there’s a variety of beast-people who live on Gaea and they’ve all got reasons to dislike Folken, but we don’t see those reasons. There’s one in particular, a sort of felinoid with long hair, and he’s key to the climax! But what’s his specific problem? Why is he so damn important? I admit, I looked down a few times to deal with stuff on my computer, but looking down for a few seconds shouldn’t make me miss the entire purpose for a particular (eventually important) character’s beef with the baddie. And that’s pretty much how everything is. You meet someone, get a line or two from them or about them and that’s it. Same for the whole world. I found it very hard to care about the young woman Folken has with him and whatever her issues might be because the movie doesn’t seem to care about them. The movie doesn’t seem to care about much at all.

And the thing is, I’d like to know more about this supposedly epic conflict between Folken’s forces and Van’s. I’d like to know the background to the huge armor that Van recovers. There’s a lot I’d like to know and maybe if I went back and rewatched the series it would tell me more. But with only the movie to go on? Nope. It’s got way too much backstory and world to fit into just over an hour and a half, which is a pity. It’s left to rest everything on the well-worn tropes its built from. And that’s a very risky venture indeed. It would take some strong examples of those tropes to keep things steady and solid. Unfortunately for the movie, they’re not that strong here.

We meet our main character, Hitomi, while she’s still in the real world. She’s depressed and detached from the world, sleeping as much as she can and thinking idly about suicide which she knows she’ll never bring herself to commit. Before long she’s whisked away to Gaea, thanks to a mysterious man we later learn is Folken. She shows up inside a huge suit of armor that’s described as a mech but seems more organic than mechanical. Whatever. It’s not like it matters much here. The armor is on board a ship full of Prince Van’s people and Van himself. Hitomi emerges from the suit, finds herself proclaimed Wing Goddess, and then proceeds to stumble around somewhat cluelessly for the remainder of the movie. And I’m not exaggerating. Things happen around her and Hitomi has no clue whatsoever what’s going on. Kidnapping? Sure, but let’s not bother to tell Hitomi (or the audience) why the enemy’s sent agents to nab her. Fights and the like? Go for it, but Hitomi (and the audience) just get to sit on the sidelines and watch and wonder just who all these people are and what’s going on.

By the time the big climactic battle rolled around I was really and truly expecting Hitomi to summon the super special magic armor, climb on in and kick some ass. There’s another suit (which we don’t get much explanation for but why would we need it, right?) and clearly there’s going to be a mech fight over the city. Except when Hitomi summons the armor Van climbs on in and takes control. And what does Hitomi do? She stands on the sidelines (again) and hopes really hard that Van does the right thing. Yup. That’s her big key moment. Wing Goddess Hitomi! Summoned from Earth to help save or destroy Gaea! And she gets to hope and desire. So incredibly pathetic. There’s a bit in the end where Folken tries to get control of the armor from Hitomi, saying that his desire to destroy the world (and oh he is an angstmuffin about that) is clearly shared by her since she showed up in Gaea when he called to her. While she was depressed. Folken, by the way, is apparently super pissy because his little brother, Van, was chosen to lead the Black Dragon Clan instead of him. As motivation for destroying the world goes, that’s on the juvenile side. And by juvenile I mean toddler-like.

It just all seems so ridiculous and the movie doesn’t have nearly enough depth to it to make all of this angst as weighty as it wants to be. Its got this fantastic epic orchestral soundtrack by Yoko Kanno, whom we adore, but it can’t quite live up to it because none of the things that are scored in such a way that they must mean something actually have enough meaning to merit it. None of the characters are more than two-dimensional and I barely learned more names than I need one hand’s worth of fingers to count even though there are quite a few more characters with enough lines that I should have known who they were. And then when all is said and done and the incredibly anti-climactic ending happens, I figured well, the whole point of this was Hitomi, right? I mean, sure, huge battle between brothers, even though they never directly fight each other. And the salvation of a whole world and Hitomi being there because she was depressed. And that should matter, right? Because Van tells her they’ll be together until she’s summoned back to Earth and oh, how romantic and he’s made her life whole! And then she sprouts wings and disappears and the credits roll. Anti-climax on top of an anticlimax. Which, given how the rest of the movie went really shouldn’t have been a surprise.

June 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Escaflowne – The Movie

June 2, 2011

Escaflowne – The Movie

It has been many years since I last watched this movie, and even longer since I saw the anime series that preceded it. I do remember having some issues with the movie though. There are a couple anime movies I can think of off the top of my head that attempt to encompass larger series within the time restrains of a feature film. On the more successful end there’s the Macross Plus movie, which is actually better than the series it is derived from (we’ve reviewed that for the movie a day project already if you’re curious.) On the other end of the spectrum what leaps to mind for me is X (1999) which was a movie that attempted to cram so much back-story into such a short amount of space that it ended up simply not working at all. This movie is closer to X than to Macross Plus. It takes a twenty six episode series and tries to fit roughly the same plot into an hour and a half movie. The result doesn’t quite work.

My recollection (an again, it has been a long time since I watched the series) is that the movie version here is not simply an edited version of the entire series (which I think would be impossible) but is an entirely separate entity created from scratch but with many of the same characters and some of the same story beats.

As a series and as a movie Escaflowne is amusing in that it seems to encompass just about every anime trope in a single glorious hodgepodge. There’s a Japanese schoolgirl (complete with sailor uniform) transported to a magical world where she is welcomed as the “Wing Goddess”, a figure foretold in legend to be instrumental in an epic confrontation. There’s a savage young prince, last of the line of Dragon Kings who is fighting to re-gain his kingdom. There’s the angst-ridden brother of the prince who has userped his power and now heads the Black Dragon army which is laying waste to the previously peaceful world of Gaea. There’s a rag-tag band of unlikely rebels including a bishoujo swordsman, a sexed up princess of some sort, a cat girl, a buck-toothed red nosed monk, a cocky knife wielding rogue… you get the picture.

At the heart of the conflict between the dragon brothers is an ancient bio/steampunk mecha armor suit called Escaflowne that is destined to destroy the world. or maybe not. The gaunt and oh-so-emo Folken wants to use Escaflowne to end all suffering on Gaea by ending all life. To this end he summons a suicidally depressed schoolgirl named Hitomi from Earth so that she can awaken the armor. She ends up with the exiled prince Van instead though, an angry young man who the movie takes great pains to assure us is lonely and isolated. Van is travelling with a whole crew of dispossessed rebels who are trying to find a way to stop the Black Dragon armies. They think Hitomi is the key to their ambitions too.

The biggest problem this movie has is that its subject matter is so grand in scope and so melodramatic, with so many factions and characters involved, that it simply doesn’t work in the time frame available in a movie. Most of the characters in this movie have only a brief few lines to explain everything about themselves and then they’re swiftly forgotten in the headlong rush to get to the final confrontation. Particularly the rebel band that Van travels with – they each have only a couple seconds of screen time, then they’re gone. One of Folken’s generals has a trio of loyal compatriots who seems like nice enough folks except that only one of them ever speaks and he only has two lines. The movie is full of characters who have no purpose and simply muddy the storyline like that. I have to assume this is because they’re folks from the series who had entire plot arcs to themselves and are wedged into the movie as cameo appearances, but they do make the film feel crowded with non-essential characters.

The other problem the movie has, which is related to all the undeveloped minor characters, is that it ends up feeling rushed. There’s so much plot to cram in here that by the time we get to that epic confrontation with the entire world hanging in the balance, well, it simply lacks impact. You don’t know anybody well enough to be invested in any way with the world that is at risk. Sure you know who’s good and who’s evil, and there’s this fantastic stirring music, but I simply didn’t feel myself caring at all. Then another of those minor characters from earlier in the movie shows up and does something heroic and abruptly the movie is over. I know how it’s supposed to work, but the movie was in such a hurry to get to this point that it didn’t provide enough background to give it any impact.

The music, however, is great. In fact it’s the entire reason I bought this movie in the first place. I think I might have downloaded some of the soundtrack before I saw the movie even and bought the film to see what the music was intended to evoke. It’s because this score is by Yoko Kanno. This is the most large-scale and orchestral music I’ve heard from her to date, and I wanted to know what this grand music was attached to.

Sadly, a fantastic score is not enough to make a great movie. In general I’d say that virtually anything Yoko Kanno touches turns to gold, and I’ve not often been disappointed by anything that has her name attached to it, but this movie is the exception that proves that rule. I do enjoy the plot, filled with cliches though it may be, and I like the world and the epic struggle too. I think though that for any future return visits to Gaea I will stick to the full series. It might not have as much blood, the animation might not be as impressive, and it might not have Yoko Kanno doing the score, but it feels more epic and grand nonetheless.

June 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment