Altering Fate

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.)

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Hitomi Kanzaki

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.

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Hitomi and Van

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.)

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Hitomi holding her pendant

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.

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Hitomi’s tarot deck

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.

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The threads of Hitomi’s conflicted heart and mind

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.”

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Delayed Reaction

I had originally wanted to talk to someone about this, but now I can’t. This is entirely my own fault. I did tell a different friend, yesterday, but if I could go back to that moment, I know now that I would have chosen differently. Getting the worst of it out here is all I really have left to do.

I had hung around the courthouse for a little while after being dismissed by the judge, because my mother and my friend Matt, who is an attorney, wanted to know how it had gone, and I didn’t want to text anyone while driving. I was standing in the shade of the building to get out of the hot afternoon sun.

He had come in late and sat in the same row of seats as me, which was empty, but still he chose to sit only two chairs away. He may have overheard, when I checked in with the bailiff, where I work, what part of the city I live in. He had cracked a strange joke to the group of us in the elevator on the way down from the fifth floor, but while he waited for someone to laugh, he looked at me. Women are socialized to appease men who bother us, in hopes they won’t bother us further (until they do, at which point we’re blamed for inviting the consequences). I chuckled politely and awkwardly, looking away, just waiting for the doors to open, so I could leave.

He must have waited around while I did, exited the building behind me, because I don’t recall seeing him walking ahead of me, and he approached me from behind. There were three police officers sitting on the front steps, with their backs to us, and I don’t think he saw them. I’m not sure it would have made any difference if he had.

He waited for me to put my phone back in my bag and start walking to my car, where it was parked the next block over. He had sneakers on, and I’m half-deaf in my left ear; it’s often difficult for me to hear people approach me. My sensory perception of my surroundings is good, though, and I got a strange enough feeling at the back of my neck that I turned around just before he grabbed me. He was shorter and stocky, but I was in the middle of turning around and I’m scrawny, and he managed to get his forearm across my stomach, while he half-hugged me and tried to reach up my skirt with the other. I dug my heel back into the instep of his foot, and elbowed him where the neck meets the shoulder. He threw the arm from around me up toward my face and grazed my nose slightly. My arm kept moving backward to hit him across the cheekbone with my knuckles. They still hurt now, and might be sore for days, but I don’t tend to bruise visibly on my arms and hands, only my hips and below. My skin burned under my blouse from him pulling at me, but there is no mark left there now, either.

My mind blanked out except for a single thought, which looped around nonsensically at least three times as all this happened: My knife is in the car. My knife is in the car. It’s not in my bag. My knife is in the glove compartment. You can’t bring weapons into a courthouse, of course. You pass through a metal detector before you even know which floor to go to. I had remembered this on my way driving in, and tossed it in there as I parked. My fucking knife is in the fucking car.

I know I yelled something at him, or perhaps at anyone within earshot, but I don’t remember what it was. It might have been, “Hey!” or “Help,” but I don’t know. It rattled him enough, after I struck him, to give him pause. His hand somehow got stuck in part of my hair, and yanked a bit of it out as he ran off. He ran in the direction I had been walking to my car, but I couldn’t move. I pulled my skirt back down, and discovered my hands were shaking. I felt disgusting. My ears were ringing, and I saw the officers sitting on the steps, less than 50 yards away. I couldn’t find the words to say, “Why the fuck didn’t you DO anything?” I suppose I didn’t have to, because after a moment of me staring at them in shock, two of them laughed. It took me a moment realize they were laughing at me. I said, “Why–” and the one didn’t let me finish. He said, “I’m on break, honey, sorry!” The other two just laughed some more. The guy was gone by then, maybe even blocks away, anyway.

My nose was bleeding a little, and my knees were trembling, and I couldn’t remember feeling such a combination of hatred, terror, and fear since I was 13, the last time I had been assaulted. I wanted to scream at them, too, but I had only just been dismissed from a citation that, though I was not guilty, would likely have cost me a month’s rent, a point on my license, and an increase in insurance I also couldn’t afford. I was lucky the officer who had wrongfully cited me hadn’t bothered to respond to his subpoena, but did that make him better or worse than the three other men in uniform, laughing at me, who couldn’t even bother to stand up to defend me? Which one was the worse cop? If they’re both bad, why should I feel lucky for one dismissal, but suffer physical harm for the second?

I turned back around and walked to my car. There was nothing else to do, and nowhere else to go. If I was out of luck in front of a bunch of cops, in front of a building full of judges, I was out of luck anywhere. I didn’t know whether or not I was going to cry, but that is something I will never do in front of strangers; if I can help it, I won’t do it in front of anyone. The parking attendant looked at me like I was out of my mind after I handed him my ticket, then handed me a Kleenex from his pocket in return. I stared at it, and he said, “Your nose is bleeding.”

I sat in my car with my hands on the steering wheel, looking at nothing, for a while. I waited for the nosebleed to stop, which took a few minutes. Eventually I drove back to my part of town, ran an errand on autopilot, sat at a cafe for a while and tried to draw, but my hand was still sore, so I couldn’t get much done. I spent most of my time reading. I must have looked fine by then, because no one there who knew me looked at me strangely, like the parking attendant had. All I could think was, At least I still have a good poker face. That’s good.

I got back in my car. I lashed out at someone who didn’t deserve it, in the middle of trying to tell another friend what happened. She’s been through some shit; I knew she would understand, but that still wasn’t the choice I probably should have made. I couldn’t decide what I was angrier at myself for: being too afraid to tell the person I wanted to tell, for how I behaved toward him instead of doing so, or for not making a bigger scene earlier, on those steps. I knew it probably wouldn’t have mattered, and at worst would’ve caused me even more law enforcement-related grief, but I still felt like a coward. I went home. I sat down with ice on my feet, as usual in the summer heat, and ice on my hand, unusual but necessary, and tried to forgive myself.

I think the idea is, if I post this now, that might become an easier thing to do. I hope it will. That’s a hard enough thing for me to do on a good day.

(If anyone happens to actually read this, I kindly request that you do not repost it.)