#1 A well-crafted fantasy world
Escaflowne is an old school isekai story about a Japanese girl being transported to the fantasy world of Gaea after a bizarre portal opens up at her school. She suddenly finds herself in this strange realm, unsure of how to return home, but able to see Earth floating in the sky above. Turns out that the residents of Gaea believe Earth to be a moon of their planet, even though nobody on our planet even knows Gaea exists.
Gaea offers an interesting mixture of fantasy tropes that come together as an enjoyable whole. It is a world of many kingdoms, empires, and duchies, a world with politics and different races of people that don’t all exactly get along. Even if a lot of these are familiar ideas, they are executed well here and make Gaea feel richly detailed and complex.
In a broad sense, it’s a medieval fantasy world. Its societies are strictly feudal and its technology is limited, but it does have some steampunk influences. Most notably, its military is largely mechanized, in the literal sense that they have mechs with all sorts of fancy tech worked into them. Funny how they figured out how to mass-produce towering robot suits, but people still live in unheated huts and travel around with horse and wagon.
#2 A king on the run
Van Fanel is the king of Fanelia, following the death of his father and the disappearance of his older brother. He meets Hitomi whilst slaying a dragon, a requirement if he is to ascend the throne of his country, and vows to help her find a way back home. However, on the day of his coronation, Fanelia is attacked by a technologically-superior Empire and its army is overrun. Van Fanel retreats from the battlefield and later learns that the entire kingdom was put to the torch.
He is on the run and his army & retainers are completely wiped out. All he has left are his lifelong friend Merle the Catgirl and the mysterious Hitomi, neither of which is of immediate use in combat. He is hungry for vengeance and he wants it quickly, but as he finds a new friend in the knight commander Allen Schezar of nearby Asturia, Van Fanel learns that he is not yet ready to take the fight to The Empire. He must train his swordsmanship, learn to control his emotions, and become a pilot worthy of controlling Fanelia’s mighty Escaflowne.
Van Fanel’s story is very interesting. You really see the boy mature over the course of the adventure, turning him from a pompous hothead into a proper knight worthy of respect. It’s fun rooting for him as he enacts his vengeance and begins striking back at The Empire, and it’s also nice to see him grow more appreciative and respectful of the people around him, including his rivalry with Allen that becomes progressively more friendly.
#3 Hitomi’s tarot reading
Hitomi is a bit of a strange character. She is able to cope pretty well with being stuck in this bizarre world and ends up becoming invested in its conflict as she forges friendships and grows a romantic interest in one of her companions. This means that the overall goal of getting her home gets more-or-less side-lined in favor of the war story, but her background in sports doesn’t exactly help in combat when everybody gets cool robots.
However, Hitomi has an interest in tarot reading and since her arrival in Gaea, she feels that her powers have grown stronger. Not only can she use cards to interpret the future, but she also receives premonitions when she or her friends are in danger, which allows her to intervene and save lives. As the story goes on, Hitomi discovers more of her capabilities, like being able to accurately pinpoint somebody’s location using her pendant or seeing invisible objects and people.
Having to accompany an emotional teenager during a war to retake your kingdom might seem like a burden, but thanks to Hitomi’s abilities she ends up being a vital character to have along. She isn’t the kind of protagonist I usually enjoy in anime, yet she makes herself so useful that I was willing to put up with her until her character arc started going into more interesting directions. In the end, I actually came around to liking her more than the other main characters.
#4 Mech battles in medieval towns
It’s giant robots, it’s Studio Sunrise, you can probably fill in how this will go.
Escaflowne is a Gundam series in disguise, which makes it a treat that it was actually picked up by the studio responsible for those. The mechs all have nice designs to them and Escaflowne features many action scenes to put those big bots to good use. The Empire’s machines all have advanced technology like devastating projectiles that pin their enemies against walls and stealth cloaks, whereas the other nations focus more on melee capabilities and siege engines. And watching the titular Escaflowne cleave an enemy’s upper-body in two before turning around and smashing straight through another mech’s pilot cabin is so rad.
I do have to say that the show starts a bit tame, especially if you’re like me and you watched the movie version before the original anime. However, it quickly picks up from there as the battles become larger in scale and more violent, with more corpses and blood being shown as the story continues. The final battle is suitably amazing and offers some final clashes between several of the story’s rivals, making it extra satisfying.
#5 Great rivals
The bad guys in Escaflowne are fantastic and fit well in this story about knightly chivalry and vengeance. Dilandau is a deliciously evil lunatic, constantly acting against orders and putting his every sadistic thought into action. He commands an elite unit of knights and is prone to lashing out against anybody who fails him or questions his loosely-defined strategies.
Folken, by comparison, is a strategic and manipulating mastermind. He is Van’s long-lost brother, now working on behalf of The Empire and plotting against the heroes at every turn. He coerces friendly nations into shunning them, he makes them out to be villains, and covers up for any problems caused by Dilandau’s antics. Yet, you are never entirely sure what he is working towards. Is he truly a pawn for the bad guys or is he, in his own way, trying to create a better future for Gaea. Whatever the case, it puts Van before an emotional and physical challenge, as he may one day have to fight and slay his own, beloved brother.
Of course, there is the emperor himself. Though he is the one behind the entire war and directs the actions of Dilandau and Folken, very little is known about him and he rarely addresses anybody in person. There’s a constant mystery around who he truly is and where he came from, which gives him a lot of presence in the story and keeps him feeling like this constant, unpredictable threat.
And helping these three out is an interesting and often sympathetic cast of sub-villains, such as Dilandau’s loyal knights or the two catgirls who work for Folken. It’s a shame I already published that countdown of the most tragic villains in anime, as Escaflowne could have definitely made the list.
#6 Love troubles
The politics of Gaea are very medieval in nature and, as any Crusader Kings player will tell you, medieval politics are all about that marriage. Romance is a very central theme in Escaflowne, starting with Hitomi being separated from her would-be boyfriend on Earth, only to then find herself falling in love with Allen in Gaea.
However, Allen is a knight and he has been around. The Princess of Asturia fancies him, putting her and Hitomi in competition. However, the Princess has been betrothed to a duke, which everybody except she herself takes very seriously. Even as she is about to be married off, she still tries to pursue Allen, consequences be damned. Meanwhile, Hitomi begins to doubt between staying true to her crush on Earth, pursuing her romantic interest in Allen, or Van, who she begins to discover has a lovable side to him under that rough exterior.
That is just a snippet of the complicated sequence of events surrounding Escaflowne‘s characters and their romantic escapades. It’s a story full of marriage, love triangles, scandals, and affairs. And what impresses me is that these are driving factors in moving the story along, while never feeling like it’s too lovey-dovey. It’s still very accessible for a shounen audience that has little patience for romantic storylines. In fact, I’d say Escaflowne has interesting qualities for all main demographics and doesn’t deter anybody, except little children, of course.