I’ve mentioned it here before, but my favorite anime series of all time is Tenkuu no Escaflowne (The Vision of Escaflowne), from 1996. I’m aware there are anime with fewer flaws, probably tighter (or at least neater) plots, and a few others that most would probably consider “objectively” better (like, say, Cowboy Bebop, which I also love, but ultimately not as much; funnily enough, the incredible Yoko Kanno scored both series, they were produced in the same era, and both comprise only a single 26 episode series and one tie-in film). I first saw it when I was 13, back in ’99, and was immediately, deeply moved by it. I still am today, any time I rewatch it. I often even wear a pendant inspired by the main character’s that a friend made for me years ago. I’m pretty sure no one outside of Comic-Con has ever recognized what it actually is; people usually just think it’s a pretty rose quartz necklace with an unusual clasp.
But this post isn’t actually about “fate,” despite its title (which is simply a quote from the series), because that’s not a concept I buy into, in a chaotic universe. The series itself, however, seems deeply concerned with it. Unmei was one of the first Japanese words I divined the meaning of, long before taking any classes, because so many characters throughout its run throw it around. (This series is 20 years old now — oh god — but, just in case, beware of spoilers ahead!)
This is on my mind today because of recent personal, emotional battles I’ve been fighting, and various useful epiphanies I’ve been reaching. I had a movie on TV last night while browsing the internet, mostly for background noise, not really watching it (which is not unusual for me, especially when it’s one I’ve seen before); El Rey was showing Ladyhawke. Toward the end, there’s a scene in a great church of some sort with a lot of chanting going on, and hearing it, I was suddenly reminded of the main “theme” of Escaflowne (not counting its actual opening sequence), modeled after spiritual chanting, featuring monk-like dirges, which plays very often throughout all different sorts of scenes in the series.
It must have planted a seed of sorts in my mind, because I found myself thinking late last night, and on into this morning, all about how the series ties in almost uncannily with the things I’ve been working on improving in my own life. As obsessed as many of the characters are with the concept of fate, that’s not ultimately what the series is truly about. It’s actually about the acceptance of only having control — not even over your own “fate,” but — over your own emotions and happiness. As Hitomi says to the main antagonist* in the final episode, demonstrating her major growth as a character: “I don’t believe in a predetermined fate.”
(*The fact that this dude is heavily hinted to be none other than Isaac Newton is still one of my all-time favorite examples of anime non sequitur. And if you know anime, you will know that this is a hotly contested honor, because Japanese — heavily pun-based — humor invites a LOT of non sequitur.)
To explain this connection, I’d have to explain Hitomi a bit. I’ve often seen her disliked as a character, for reasons that struck me as rather unfair. I’ve seen her painted as fickle (she’s a teenage girl struggling with new emotions; not just love, but personal responsibility, and self-conviction); shrill (she’s suddenly transported from Earth to some alien planet that’s been hiding behind the moon and is currently ravaged by war, y’all); and just not a “conventional” shoujo lead. But that was what I loved about her. (Let’s not even get into the fact that you really can’t pigeonhole Escaflowne as merely a shoujo series; it blends together sci-fi, fantasy, mecha, romance, comedy, shougo, and shounen elements pretty seamlessly). I loved that Hitomi didn’t look like any other female anime protagonist I’d ever seen. She was lean and lanky, not busty, and had short (borderline boyishly cut) hair. She was a track runner, a little tomboyish and awkward. She had a tendency to burst out thoughts without planning ahead as to how they might come across, with all manner of facial expression (unlike many “demure” or more feminine characters), then flush with embarrassment and awkwardness. Her struggles felt very real to me, even if the setting was pure fantasy.
I realize now, more clearly than ever, how deeply rooted the plot of Escaflowne is, not in fate, but in anxiety. Considering that I’m a compulsive overthinker whose lifelong, myriad anxieties have been causing some serious problems lately… this hits home pretty squarely for me. Hitomi may be a hobbyist tarot reader/fortune teller, and come to believe — as several supporting characters do — that her readings influence actual events, but what really affects the people and events around her on Gaea is her heart. Her emotions and anxieties dictate her influence on that world. In a way, Gaea is a stand-in for her heart. She arrives deeply in conflict with herself and her desires and sense of place and purpose, and lands literally in the midst of a war that threatens to tear apart the entire fabric of Gaea’s various nations. Different characters begin to attempt to use her powers for political maneuvers and personal gain, and greater conflict results. Her heart feels torn between two men — one (Allen) rooted in her homesickness for Earth, as he looks strikingly similar to the track coach she had a crush on before being transported there; the other (Van) the one she genuinely grows to love and appreciate as a true ally as they strengthen one another, and the one who understands her heart — and all hell essentially breaks loose. In the episode I pulled the quote from with which to title this post, one of the main antagonists (and greatest characters), Folken, creates a machine that attempts to literally Alter Fate, and swing her heart away from Van, because when she and this person who brings her strength and understanding are too close, it interferes with the fate the villains desire. They stage and score it like an opera, it’s so dramatic. (It is also awesome.)
Hitomi’s pendant is revealed to be the physical manifestation of her heart, and whenever she’s gripped by anxiety or fear, it reacts; it either transports her from one planet to another, or merely from one location on the same one to another. In the end, it overloads the machine Dornkirk (or is it Newton? never gets old) has designed to steer the entire world toward a conflict-free fate, and destroys it. Human emotion dictates there can never be a world rid entirely of conflict, but as she turns peacefully to him and smiles, saying she no longer believes in fate, that’s her greatest triumph, and what ultimately begins to allow Gaea to cease fighting within itself, and begin to heal and rebuild. She gives Van (her true love) the pendant before leaving, as a symbol of sharing her heart with him, and a means to communicate in the future, as they now have come to understand each other fully and honestly.
I suppose I never completely recognized — somehow, despite wrestling with anxiety every damn day of my life — how much anxiety as an emotion dictates… basically the entire plot. But looking back on it now, that seems so obvious. The episode where Hitomi reads an outcome in her cards she does not want to see happen, causing her to shuffle the cards around and present a false reading, brings about further conflict because she is attempting to cheat — not fate, but instead — her emotions. She is lying to herself, saying that what she wants to happen for selfish reasons is the way things should be, and tries to force it to happen. Naturally, since this involves the lives of others, things don’t go very well. (A real tower might actually crumble and nearly crush a dude, as a very literal depiction of “The Tower” card, pretty much just to drive home the point: “Girl, you done fucked up.”) She’s forced to admit that she can’t abuse fate in such a way, but what the lesson really is is that her emotions and desires are not the only ones that matter, and the selfish motivations behind them will never bring about any kind of peaceful or harmonious outcome. This brings to mind my own current, personal anxieties — my worries that I cannot talk to someone the way I once could; that, despite my progress and his assurances to the contrary, things between us still feel “off” somehow — and how I can’t allow my own anxiety to rule my reactions to things, either. I have to remember what I’ve learned about examining them and dismantling them, so they don’t bleed out to the others around me. My friend is still here; he just wants to be sure that the work I am doing to care for myself continues. And it will. I haven’t lost him, or anything else; I’m simply going through the process of dismantling the strength of my anxieties, and not allowing them to rule my heart or mind so much.
Though there is an episode where Hitomi has a vision of Van’s mother, Varie, who literally tells her that the unrest in her heart is causing conflict, that doesn’t mean that simply having that knowledge fixes everything right away. Hitomi may now recognize that her feelings influence others, but that doesn’t mean she magically knows how to best handle this information. She even attempts running away from the people she sees herself as having harmed by these conflicts — the way back to Earth! — only to find that this doesn’t solve the core issue, either, and returns to Gaea to make things right. She still has to learn to reach peace within herself first.
The culmination of all of this comes, of course, in the final episode. Just when it seems like basically everything is going to hell — the world is tearing itself apart by war, people she cares about are fighting each other — Hitomi has a vision of Folken. She is defeated on her knees on the ground, while his spirit looks down wisely and kindly at her from beyond the grave, and gently reminds her of the power she has within herself to resolve things:
It will be alright if you believe. […]
People’s emotions sometimes move the heavens.
But when those emotions conflict, it causes great ill will.
If people can rid themselves of that, they can change.
In the end, it’s all about trust and faith, in both yourself and those you love. The only way to walk that path completely and freely is to rid yourself of anxiety. Hitomi finds herself standing alone in a field in bright sunlight, birds chirping, wind blowing through the grass; she is solitary, but it is beautiful, idyllic. This is a place she can only reach within herself, not through or with anyone else. She smiles, accepts what she feels, accepts that she has to dissolve her anxiety in order to stop all the conflict, and arrives at last at a sense of peace. The warring stops. Van is able to come find her, and they escape the compound she was trapped in, together. Van’s wings may allow him to lift her up with him, but it is Hitomi’s pendant — and her now peaceful heart — that carries them outside to freedom.
This is — much like my apparently complete amnesia about making books as a kid constantly, yet only now beginning to make a career of publishing — so uncanny it’s incredible to me I didn’t recognize it when I was younger. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rewatched this series, yet somehow never picked up on how this message resonates personally with me. Who knows, maybe I just wasn’t equipped to recognize it then, as I am now. But this just makes me love it even more, as if that were even necessary. I’ll gladly take it.
Hitomi’s final words (not just to her vision of Van on the rock, once she has gone back home to Earth, but of the entire series)? Softly, peacefully, looking out to sea with a small smile: “I’m doing fine.”