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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Under the Influence of Heroines

Going back through tons (boxes and binders and teetering piles) of old artwork over the past few weeks, it’s been much more illuminating than I anticipated to see the works of my younger self. I had almost completely forgotten just how many “epic” stories I attempted to start, but of course never finished; I have been a terrific non-completer of “books” for as long as I can remember — the incredible prevalence of plastic spiral-bound (and even more rudimentary staple-bound) reams of lined paper containing the first few to, at most, dozen or so pages of my Next Great Story, among all this old work, is unintentionally hilarious to recognize as a larger pattern now. Once I got older, there were a few I even gamely stuck with across a few years; in grade school I would start and stop them within single volumes and quickly move on to the next concept, but once I hit junior high, I began to obsessively plot out and outline, often in astounding levels of detail (considering how little actual “book” ever followed all this preparatory work), to sketch out in fuller detail characters and concepts. I would enter periods where I would draw nothing else, in which these worlds became as fictionally real as I imagine any writer’s do. I would sketch scene upon scene from some great work that would never be anything more than disjointed pieces, with no serious concern for how I might stitch it all together later. All of that was already somewhere in my head, even if I would never draw most of it.

This “style,” if it can be called that, even spilled over into my writing. I started playing around with fanfic at around the same age, and on into high school; when writing it, I always gravitated toward scenic stories, rather than anything deeply plotted. (To this day, there’s still a huge Word document sitting somewhere on one of my backup hard drives, containing the thousands of words of all the X-Files fanfic snippets I ever wrote, which I added to randomly whenever inspiration struck. It’s essentially just one huge collection of post-episode vignettes, which was far and away my favorite thing to write. At some point, I had a vague but grand vision of connecting it all together via some large, interactive art piece and some creative coding.) My preference for this style was so great, I even once created a new formatting style on LiveJournal, incorporating small graphics — via plenty of extra CSS code — into a story, purely as a means to add a visual element to give the disjointed nature of this type of storytelling better flow for the reader. It won a community award, and was even mimicked by a few other writers for a time afterward, though I don’t imagine anyone knew what my real reason was for doing it: I’m just a heavily visual thinker. (But mostly, I’m just a huge nerd.)

In revisiting all this old art and all these old stories I started, the theme that connects them all is as obvious a sign of my influences as anything anyone that young creates: badass (often magical, though not always) ladies. Why was this? Sailor Moon. Obviously.

I was introduced to the series by a friend just around when I was turning 13. I can’t imagine a better time to be indoctrinated into the magical girls club. At the time, the only way you could read the original source material — Naoko Takeuchi’s beautiful (highly stylized) manga series — was Mixx (which would later become TokyoPop)’s English translations. They were poorly bound, and even more poorly translated. It took my nerdy ass roughly three months to figure this out. What did I do then? I bought the manga in its (much more finely bound, as tankouban have always been in comparison to American comics) original Japanese format from the Kinokuniya bookstore at the local Japanese market, then sat in my room and stared at the panels, attempting to figure out what the symbols in them meant. Considering I had never attempted to learn a foreign language before, looking back at the notes I made as an adult — and as someone who eventually did study the language formally for three years in high school, can still read and write it well enough, and was for a time conversationally fluent — I’m rather amazed at how much I was able to figure out entirely visually, just from trying to read a comic book. A note, in one margin: my poorly written (not having studied Japanese calligraphy yet) kanji for “senshi,” followed by its hiragana counterparts. Next to it, I wrote, “must mean ‘soldier’ or ‘scout’.” This is essentially correct (senshi indeed means “soldier”); the Mixx translation of Sailor Moon (and dubbed Toei anime series) opted to refer to the girls as “Sailor scouts” rather than soldiers, but I was apparently astute enough to recognize where and when this character would appear, and what its context must mean. I had several sheets covered with such inferred word usage investigations I undertook on my own.

This was an understandably slow process, and entirely based on making educated guesses, with no one to correct any mistakes I might make. So, I next rode my bike to my neighborhood Barnes & Noble, sat on the floor for an hour in the language section, and picked out a Japanese language guidebook. (The selection was overwhelming, and ultimately I picked the one co-written by a woman who shared my first name, because that’s as good a reason as any to choose one book over another when you’re 13 and wholly ignorant to the nuances of translation. Fortunately, it turned out to be a very good edition. I still have it, with all my old handwritten Post-Its stuck in.) By the time I started to study Japanese formally in school, at age 15, though much of my self-taught calligraphy stroke order was a bit backwards, I had a fairly strong basic understanding to work from. (Along with trying to read through comics, the first full anime series I watched, which will always be my favorite, Tenkuu no Escaflowne, is a series heavily concerned with the concept of fate or destiny. The word is discussed so often during its run, I realized at around the same age what unmei must mean. This applied to iinazuke — “fiance” — with Ranma 1/2, and its plot’s comedic obsession with rotating engagements, as well. As I picked up more, I also gained an appreciation for Japanese humor, which — being heavily pun-based — does not translate easily, and on which you can blame the ridiculous title of this very post.) All of this work, almost entirely thanks to the power of magical girls.

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Sailor Mnemosyne (left) with her sister, Sailor Lethe (right).
© Naoko Takeuchi

My years-long obsession with Greek mythology was deepened by this as well, as the original manga series of Sailor Moon features a rich, heavily Greek-inspired mythology, and almost all major character names are tied to it directly or indirectly (apart from the majority of the villains, whose names are largely tied to gemology). I’d spend hours on library and school computers — for at least half of high school my only means of accessing the adolescent Internet — poring over all those quirky old Geocities fan sites, soaking all of the character dossiers up, learning how everything tied together. (The one character I briefly considered cosplaying as a teenager only appears in a single chapter of the manga, and her name is Sailor Lethe; she appears alongside her sister, Mnemosyne, and they are named after the rivers in Hades. Their names’ connection to forgetfulness and memory in mythology tie in directly to their powers and actions within the story.)

I’m old enough now to look back on old works and see their obvious — and even some of their less glaring — influences. It’s easy for me to laugh at how heavily I matched so many of the same notes from that series (c’mon now, younger self, did you really think no one would notice?), but it’s hard for me to find fault in it. I can only view Sailor Moon‘s affect on my younger self as positive. But what was it that made it so special to me, exactly? To answer that, I looked more closely at my longest enduring creation; the character I worked hardest at, to develop the most fully, and drew for the longest period of time.

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Kaea’s early character design concept, from my high school notes, circa 2000-01. Heavily manga-inspired in style.
© Eleanore Studer

Her name was Kaea (an obvious crib from “gaea,” alternately “gaia,” and all the Greek mythological and Escaflowne-inspired — the fictional planet just near the moon, where most of that series takes place, being called Gaea — carryover that implies). She far outlasted any other character I ever conceived. She first began to appear somewhere midway through high school, likely in my sophomore year, but she can still be found as far on as in the margins of my latest notes in college, up to eight years later, and possibly even a bit later than that. As my style evolved with time and more extensive art study, so did she.

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Kaea’s design evolution, from one of my college notebooks, circa 2006-07. A much more hybridized style between Japanese and American influences.
© Eleanore Studer

Originally she was far more obviously Japanese in style, but as I grew older and studied graphic novels more broadly, she took on a more hybrid look somewhere between Japanese and American styles: still large, though not as large, eyes; more prominently defined nose and lips; a less pointed and angular, smoother face; less spectacular hair, in both color and length. She also aged with me; in early drawings she is clearly intended to be a teenager, but once I was in college, her face had elongated slightly; she seemed to have become older, too.

Looking back now, though I didn’t realize it as I conceived her, she was everything I wanted to be. In many ways, her creation and sustained presence through my creative development and life stands as the most protracted and intricate example of escapism for me. She was, like me, a tall girl (my same height, in fact, because if things aren’t completely on the nose when you’re young, what are they?). I attended a high school with over 4,000 students, and was probably only the same height or taller than a dozen of them at most, and thus stuck out everywhere I went like a sore thumb. In her story, she had a male love interest (something I would never have) who was — unconventional in any shoujo series, and against the typical Hollywood romantic comedy archetype — shorter than her, as all the boys I knew then were. (He was originally named Seki, though I suspect I may have changed it to something else at some point. I wish I could recall my thought process in choosing that particular kanji, considering its meaning is, oddly, “blame” or “to condemn.”) Kaea had long hair, like mine, but it started off wildly, ridiculously colorful, unlike mine (and a few years before I would finally dye mine, as I had wanted to do for ages). She dressed somewhat similarly to me; a bizarre hybrid of tomboyish baggy pants and more girlish, fitted shirts, or skirts at times. I’m sure I even drew her a few times in a long, black trench coat, which was my own lone signature clothing item throughout high school. She was more beautiful than I could ever imagine I would be. She was also braver and stronger than me — the tough one; the rescuer and aggressor — but simultaneously a loner with few close friends, just as I was. She had a strange, tragic backstory to explain her unusual personality and various neuroses, which I had (and still have) no such convenient excuse for, yet almost longed for, in that shameless self-mythologizing manner of children (which is why, among other reasons, I’ve always suspected so many children’s stories are focused around orphans — from Dickens to Mary in her Secret Garden, through Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and the Boxcar Children, and the hundreds of others in between). Like me, she was bitingly sarcastic, and fond of raising one eyebrow to intimidate or communicate bemusement. She had secrets of the sort we all wish we had, rather than the secrets we live with. She may have been a strange outsider, but — unlike her perpetual misfit creator, who fit in nowhere — she had a destiny, and when you are a young dreamer with an overactive imagination, that is everything. Some incarnations of her, at various points in her ever-growing mythos, had wings (another aspect that can be equally blamed on Escaflowne). She had weapons: originally a gun, until I grew a bit older and more uncomfortable with them, which was later replaced by a sword, but then replaced yet again by, ultimately, inevitably, some form of staff, tied to… magical powers. Why? Because: Sailor Moon.

Sailor Moon is still extraordinary to me, whether viewed as a product (or an outlier) of its time of conception, or on its own. Created by a woman, it describes a universe almost entirely composed of women. Powerful women. Soldiers. Badass ladies guarding, fighting for, saving the goddamn universe. The main male love interest is the one who keeps needing to be rescued (constantly getting brainwashed and/or kidnapped), because his own powers are both what might be considered traditionally feminine (healing, psychometry) and significantly weaker than his girlfriend’s. When I drew one of my longest standing favorite images of Kaea and her own fellow, she is the primary focus; he is standing behind her:

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Kaea and Seki, still in the early (heavily Japanese-styled) design stages, right down to the friggin’ cherry blossom petals. (Boy, did I have way too much fun with that hair.)
© Eleanore Studer

Thanks, Sailor Moon.

All women. Strong, diverse women. (Jupiter was my favorite, because I saw myself most in her: tall, tomboy, perceived as intimidating but secretly big-hearted and romantic, loved to cook and bake, fiercely protective of her loved ones.) But really, you and your friends could find at least one girl in that series you saw yourself in, if not several, because there were so many to choose from. We made a game of it, my five core female friends in eighth grade and me. (Which Sailor Scout are you!?) And the series itself, despite being considered primarily shoujo, had everything: action, drama, comedy, romance, intrigue. Gender swapping, lesbianism, implied pre-age of consent sex, asexuality, destiny. There are even arguments to be made that Sailor Moon was — particularly during its later, nightmare-centric SuperS and galaxy-wide hit squad-focused Stars arcs — a horror series.

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Sailor Chi, acting as an agent for the dictatorial Sailor Galaxia, murders Princess Kakyuu by impaling her through the back with her staff. Sailor Moon never shied away from blood, violence, or horrific imagery, but this panel always stuck with me personally as one of the most brutal and shocking of the entire series.
© Naoko Takeuchi

It did not shy away from lending immense power to its female characters, either. Sailor Moon is the ultimate power source in the universe, but her protectors are total badasses in their own right.

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The Sailor soldiers, outer and inner planetary squads (left to right): Pluto, Uranus, Moon, Saturn, Neptune; Venus, Mars, Chibi-Moon, Mercury, Jupiter.
© Naoko Takeuchi

They were gorgeous — one of my all-time favorite things Takeuchi ever said was that she just loved to draw “beautiful women” (who doesn’t?) — but they could, and would, beat the shit out of you. (Kaea’s story featured, of course, three support soldiers, complete with obvious element-inspired names. HMM. Apparently young me genuinely believed that if I assigned her three of them, as opposed to four (or nine), no one could possibly know where this idea came from.) The anime may not have liked to overtly depict much death, but in the manga, the soldiers behaved as soldiers typically do, and did often kill their enemies, whenever they were found to be beyond redemption. Sailor Pluto’s lonely duty guarding the gates of time alone meant she could stop time. Sailor Saturn? Her single power was to come in when everyone else had irrevocably fucked everything up, lower her scythe, and end the entire goddamn world.

Of course, in my drawing, growing up with these women, the woman I drew would stand in front.

The ultimate lesson of the series is arguably that pain and struggle, suffering and loss are inescapable, but love and friendship are worth living and fighting for. Sailor Moon chooses to live, despite the chaos of the universe — and the temptation to end any future conflict by throwing herself into the Galaxy Cauldron to be destroyed — because of her friends and those she loves. She will not sacrifice their existence simply to save herself the burden of forever fighting. Her greatest power throughout the entire series, but particularly by the end, is the strength of her heart, her ability to accept and love anyone, even her enemy.

For all these reasons, and probably plenty more, Sailor Moon permeated everything I wrote and drew for many years. As all young, developing artists do, I began by copying favorite panels, before eventually developing my own style and characters. (Coming across many samples of this through my recent trip down memory lane has been pretty entertaining, too.) The themes of her story bled into any I wanted or attempted to create, helped feed my creative drive. And while I can initially laugh at that transparency… the more I consider it, the more grateful I am that — of all the series I could have fixated on during my most feverishly productive artistic years — I found her and her friends.