"Was it all just a dream? Or maybe a vision... no, it was real!"
While there have been some strong contenders in the last ten years, no anime has yet managed to take the crown of "Best Anime Series" from the one, the only, the incomparable Vision of Escaflowne.
Budding track star Hitomi Kanzaki is apparently an ordinary girl, aside from her amazing fleetness of foot and an uncanny ability to read accurate futures from tarot cards. During a practice race, she has a sudden vision of a strange young man, and then other frightening scenes that make no sense, and collapses.
Otherwise unhurt, Hitomi also discovers that the upperclassman she has a crush on, track superstar and dashing bishonen Amano, is about to leave for the United States. This gives her the courage to ask Amano if he would time her as she re-runs that practice race that evening… and, if she beats her own personal best time, give Hitomi her first kiss. (Note: "First Kiss" is a VERY big deal in certain circles in Japan, so this was a very important symbolic event for Hitomi).
Amano agrees, seeming genuinely touched, possibly also genuinely attracted to her. But as she sprints down the, blazing her way towards a personal best –
-- the strange boy appears before her again.
This time, instead of running through him, she bounces off, for he is very real and solid, dressed in strange armor and clothing and bearing a very large sword. His name is Van Fanel, and he is here hunting a Dragon – a Dragon that is also, somehow, in our world.
The monster gives chase to Hitomi, Amano, and Hitomi's friend Yukari, who was there to watch her race. They flee up to a nearby temple, but the beast follows them there; only Van's last-second arrival keeps it from slaughtering the three high-school students. Van's sword does not seem to be effective against the iron scales of the monster, and suddenly Hitomi has a clear vision of the tail of the monster, arching over and striking down like the sting of a scorpion, impaling Van. She screams a warning, and Van leaps back at the last possible second. The tail is momentarily stuck in the ground, and this gives Van the opening he needed; he kills the dragon with a strike to its underside, and then retrieves a strange crystal that appeared to be the dragon's heart, a crystal he calls an "energist".
At his triumph, a column of light appears – and draws both him, and Hitomi, upwards into the sky.
They appear on a dark plain… and above, in the sky, Hitomi can see the Earth and the Moon.
So begins The Vision of Escaflowne, one of the grandest adventures ever put to film. Trapped on the world called Gaea, a planet just one tiny step removed from our own, Hitomi must search for a way home… while discovering the truth of her own heart, her heritage, and the power of choices made and unmade. Prince Van Fanel of Fanelia will know terrible loss and crushing defeat and rise above it; his rival Allen Schezard will learn truths he would rather forget and gain a greater strength than he has known. And all the world will be transformed by these three people.
Escaflowne has pretty much everything in it, something for everyone – and all of it done well. There are giant semi-steampunk mechs, called Guymelefs, with the most dangerous of all being the eponymous Escaflowne, hereditary Guymelef of Fanelia; there are magicians and shapeshifters, prophets and scientists. This is a world with heroic swordsmen and treacherous politicians, and the greatest antagonist of the piece is someone so startling that I had to rewind the tape and re-watch pieces to realize that, yes, he was EXACTLY who I thought he was.
While it does have a lot of eye-candy (for both male and female viewers), Escaflowne avoids "fanservice" -- even at points where it could have been excused by the necessities of plot or convenience. Despite the romantic competition surrounding her, we are not made to view Hitomi as an object to be desired; what makes her attractive is her personality and her courage in the face of impossibility.
Escaflowne is a story of destiny, and a story of choosing destiny, or not. It is a tale of power, its use and abuse, the choice to be corrupted or exalted by it… or to abandon it completely. It is a story of romance… and of choosing to be defined by romance, or not. It is a story of war and hatred and courage and love. It is one of the nearest approaches to perfection in a show I have been privileged to watch.
This near-perfection is helped by the artwork and the music. While the character designs may take a bit of getting used to for some, with their angular features (especially the sharp noses), overall the artwork is gorgeous – brilliant, rich colors for the majesty and beauty of Gaea, dark and shadowy for the dimness of night and treachery, sparking light to dark in combat. The action flows smoothly and with tremendous energy, carrying us along with the heroes as they match swords and strengths with their opponents. In addition to being one of the most engaging anime I've seen, this is also one of the prettiest.
The score for The Vision of Escaflowne was composed by the incomparable Yoko Kanno. Kanno has done a number of other soundtracks, including those of Cowboy Bebop and Macross Plus, but I think her work for Escaflowne is extraordinary even for her. It is a deep, rich, varied set of orchestral themes which evoke the moods and essence of the characters and lands around which they are written, and contains some of my favorite tracks of all time, particularly "Angel", and "Fanelia".
If you have never seen this series, I strongly urge you to try it. Journey with Hitomi to that mysterious world in the sky, and discover the truth of her visions… of the Vision of Escaflowne.