Title: The Vision of Escaflowne
Manga, Anime: There are three different manga for this anime, and the two that were released around the same time as the anime are worlds apart. In order to understand this, you need to know a little something about the production.
Escaflowne was in development for about five years. Shoji Kawamori (famous for his work on the Macross series and Eureka Seven) came up with the initial idea for the series after a trip to Nepal, and hashed out the basics of the series with Minoru Takanashi at Bandai, with Hitomi originally as a curvy, long-haired, air-headed girl with glasses, and a decidedly more shonen bent to the series. Sunrise (famous for their work on the Gundam series and Cowboy Bebop) was originally selected to do the series, which was then planned at 39 episodes, and Noboteru Yuki worked with Kawamori, with the director at the time being Yasuhiro Imagawa. The director stuck around long enough to coin the phrase Escaflowne, and then left before production actually started, and the project was shelved. Two years later, Sunrise picked it back up and bought on Kazuki Akane (famous for his work on Noein -To Your Other Self- and the Birdy the Mighty 2008 remake), who then gave the series a complete makeover, bringing in shoujo elements to balance out the shonen, notably, making the men a bit more into bishonen and remaking Hitomi as the girl we know in the series.
The first of the manga titles to come out shared the anime's name, and was based on the original production ideas, which gave it far more of a shonen bent. This manga was done by Katsu Aki, and ran in Kadokawa Shoten's Shonen Ace magazine from October 24th, 1994 to November 26th, 1997. It was licensed Stateside by Tokyopop, and the eighth and final volume was released on September 14th, 2004. The second manga title, titled Messaiah Knight - The Vision of Escaflowne, later retitled Hitomi - The Vision of Escaflowne, was released around the same time as the anime, and was a shoujo adaptation based more on the final version of the anime. Yuzuru Yashiro did this adaptation, and it ran in Kadokawa Shoten's Asuka Fantasy DX magazine from April 8th, 1996 to January 18th, 1997, and has yet to be licensed Stateside. The final manga title is called Energist's Memories, which is an anthology of several stories from the Escaflowne universe done by several manga authors. It was released in January of 1997, and also has yet to be licensed Stateside.
Escaflowne is a twenty-six episode series (yes, you'll notice it was cut down from the 39 episodes originally planned) that was produced by Sunrise and Bandai Visual, and directed by Kazuki Akane. It ran on Japanese TV from April 2nd, 1996 till September 24th, 1996. It was licensed Stateside by Bandai Entertainment, and the latest full boxset was released on April 11th, 2006 as part of the Anime Legends collection.
Story: High school track runner Hitomi Kanzaki has a talent for stunningly accurate tarot readings. One day, she has a vision of a young man slaying a dragon, and, later that night, the same young man is transported to her world in a pillar of light, along with the dragon, and he slays it. As soon as the young man, named Van Fanel, has harvested the energist stone that lies in the dragon, the pillar of light returns him back to his world, Gaea, where both the moon and Earth (known as the Mystic Moon) hang in the sky - only Hitomi is taken back with him. As Hitomi tries to find a way home, her latent psychic powers are awakened, which in turn awakens Farnelia's mech (known as Escaflowne), and she becomes caught up in the politics and conflict between Asturia, Farnelia, and the Zaibach Empires.
You can tell that the story was originally meant for a longer series, but the decision to trim it down to twenty-six episodes came through just when the series came in just as production was beginning, and the director didn't want to sacrifice any of the characters or plot lines. So, instead, the already elaborately planned plotlines and character development was made to fit into a twenty-six episode series. And, admittedly, while the story and development is a bit jerky, slow at first but then speeding up in others, it still manages to completely and coherently wrap things up in its length, not to mention give the fairly extensive cast of characters good development.
And speaking of characters, I have so much respect for how they developed them. The characters all start out as fairly common shoujo tropes, but are developed into real people and incredibly engaging ones at that. Hitomi especially; she could've been this horrible Mary-Sue, but instead she is developed and even grows up a little as she makes her way through Gaea and reacts pretty realistically to her situation. Relationships between all of them are slowly developed, and you aren't hit over the head with it as they are; when they are finally bought to light or out and out pointed out, you realize, "Oh, that explains it!"
For those of you who are mech fans, you'll be happy to hear that the mech fights are paid as much attention to as the the story and character development; there's at least one major fight every other episode. And especially appropriate is how they developed the mechs to match the level of technology that's found in Gaea.
Gaea is general is built extremely well as a world; just about every aspect you could think of is given thought and explained in ways that don't make you feel like you're being hit over the head with the exposition hammer all that much.
The downside of all this is that you feel like you're getting bombarded with information, and there are a few minor characters that are mostly running gags and who they seem to forget exist for a few episodes here and there and then are bought back into the story to remind the audience, "Hey! They're still here!"
So, overall, while there is quite an overload on information, and a few gag characters are forgotten here and there, Escaflowne's story is still pretty good, and all elements of it are given equal loving attention.
Art: Compared to other shows that were airing roughly around this time (Ruroni Kenshin, Martian Successor Nadesico, Ghost in the Shell), Escaflowne's art is pretty damn good, if not gorgeous. Character designs are given the perfect amount of detail, not to mention as are all the different races on Gaea, mech designs, backgrounds, just everything is absolutely beautiful in this. There are some very strong lines used in this, like what we saw in Ouran High School Host Club. And overall, the quality of the art has aged quite well.
The style of the art has not aged well, though. Facial features are extremely exaggerated, notably with a few noses that could conceivably be used as swords with how pointy they are. Also, CG use in this is fairly obvious, which is a bit understandable, but it's still a bit painful to watch at times.
Music: The music for this is absolutely spectacular. Yoko Kanno did the work on this, and it's not the typical jazz soundtrack that I've seen from her in Darker than Black and Cowboy Bebop. Instead, here, we get EPIC orchestral scores, with beautiful string work and special emphasis on the cello (used to be a cellist, so it's always great for me to hear the instrument used so well) and excellent choral arrangements.
The OP is sung by Maaya Sakamoto, Hitomi's seiyuu, and is just a lovely ballad (well, waltz, actually, it is in 3/4 time) in general. It's always a good thing when I don't skip through the OP, and it's even better when I sing along to it; I did this every episode. The ED is a more stereotypical upbeat JPop number done by a guy instead of a girl, and was very easily skippable.
Seiyuu: This series is chock full of good seiyuu. Hitomi was Maaya Sakamoto's (famous for her work as Haruhi in Ouran High School Host Club and Aeris Gainsborough in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children) debut role, and her singing of the OP was her first work singing. Besides Ms. Sakamoto, Jouji Nakata (famous for his roles as the Count in Gankutsuou and Alucard in Hellsing) appears as Folken, and Juurouta Kosugi (famous for his roles as Akio in Revolutionary Girl Utena and Fernand d'Morcerf in Gankutsuou) appears as Dryden.
As for the other seiyuu, the voices fit well, and were acted well, which is all I ask for.
Length: Twenty-six episodes makes the series feel a bit pushed for time. Having the full run of 39 episodes probably would have helped this in the long run, and especially given it some time to breathe. Any shorter, though, and it just wouldn't have worked.
Overall: Escaflowne has an excellent story and characters, a well-built and animated world, excellent seiyuu and beautiful music. It has a few flaws, mainly from the compressed schedule it was given to air in, and the occasional forgetting of characters but, nonetheless, is a very solid series. It's not a ZOMG favorite series for me, but I would definitely recommend it for anyone looking for a good series.
Overall: 41/50; 82% (B)