April 06, 2008

Escaflowne: A Girl in Gaea

Of the common fantasy motifs, perhaps the most resonant is that of the protagonist who, discontent with the banality of the "real" world, stumbles across, or is pulled through, a doorway to another world. Through perseverance, bravery, sacrifice, and direct action (Joseph Campbell's twelve-step program for heroes), she achieves the knowledge and self-confidence necessary to save herself and/or her adopted kingdom.

Shadow of the Moon being a case in point. Consider as well: The Wizard of Oz, The Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Shoji Kawamori and Kazuki Akane's Escaflowne is a fascinating addition to the genre.

Here, Hitomi, an angst-ridden Japanese high school senior, is transported to the world of Gaea, in a parallel universe from which you can see the Earth and the "dark side" of the Moon (adorned with a giant stone eye). She is the "Wing Goddess," disgorged as if born from the heart of the War Dragon Escaflowne, yet with no knowledge of how to call or control it.

From the onset, Hitomi’s is an almost existential presence. Her helplessness in organizing her own fate is of no small moment, for the control of Escaflowne will determine the victor in the apocalyptic war between Van and Folken, two brothers locked in an interminable internecine conflict that echoes Jacob and Esau. Van’s first impulse is to kill her for refusing to yield control Escaflowne to him, while Folken attempts to kidnap her to gain the same power, a power she does not believe she possesses.

Hitomi’s role in the conflict finally becomes apparent as the showdown between Van and Folken reaches its inevitable fury. Her role is, in fact, simply to be. She becomes a talisman who, according to her own desires, will catalyze either the apotheosis of Van’s abnegation or Folken’s annihilation. She must choose between the rightful but dispossessed king, and the severe elder brother: the overman.

In Jungian terms, she is their anima, and they her animus. The heroic journey is one of the self through the long, dark night of the soul. Hitomi’s once frivolous toying with thoughts of suicide suddenly sharpens to a point in the substance of Folken’s Nietzschean offer of eternal peace and infinite atonement through total extinction, the promise to resolve all internal doubts in glorious self-destruction.

The alternative choice is that of forgiveness, of reconciliation. And so it is at that cathartic moment of abreaction when Van accepts himself, accepts Hitomi, accepts Folken as brother, that the war abruptly ends. And the moment in which Hitomi accepts Van, accepts Gaea in its totality, Gaea vanishes. She disappears from the reconciled world on silver wings, for she is the Wing Goddess.

To be sure, the movie is perhaps better judged in terms of its theme and intent than by the particulars of story and plot. The film is specifically titled Escalflowne: A Girl in Gaea, to distinguish it from the series. In the process of truncation, gaps show up in the galloping plot and characters that spring onto the stage with fully-developed vendettas and alliances that must be explained in a few lines of dialogue.

At any rate, the intricate complexity of the world, the wonderful matte art, is compelling enough on its own. The screen spills over with that medieval post-modernism that Japanese anime art directors love so: soldiers in 16th century samurai garb flying around in massive dirigibles, firing cannon out portholes like tall ships (a trope later used in The Last Exile). That is, when they're not whacking each other's heads off with swords.

As mentioned, the movie is a redacted retelling of the television series. A good deal of Hitomi’s backstory has been left out, along with the romantic sub-plots. Director Kazuki Akane's explanation is that the fan base for the series was overwhelmingly female, and he wanted to broaden the base for the movie version. Well, maybe.

He also engineered a complete character redesign for the movie. Character design is one of those specializations that emerges when an industry reaches a critical mass in relationship to everything else in the field (like the position of "story runner" in Hollywood television production). The only example of obvious character redesign in an American production I can think of is between the first and later seasons of The Simpsons.

The "look" of animation in Hollywood is typically considered the product of the studio, unless the source is directly attributable (i.e., Peanuts cartoons look like the Peanuts strip). In Japanese animation, though, there are specialists in character design as well as mechanical design (to handle the robots and all the things that go whrrrr). A particular artist's name in the credits will raise expectation about the "look and feel" of the final product.

These changes not unexpectedly outraged devoted fans of the series. But I found I quite liked these editorial decisions (and even more so after watching the series). Despite the redactions and adaptations, anybody familiar with fantasy should be able to fill in the blanks on their own. After all, the real fun in practicing literary analysis is being able to ignore what the author might have actually meant in the first place.

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