New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews
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Sakura Kinomoto is a 10-year-old fourth-grader whose father is a college archaeology professor. She opens an ancient book in his study, which is a case for a mystic set of Clow Cards (a Tarot-like deck), which come to life and escape. The deck's supernatural guardian, Kero-chan (a winged lion cub, very obviously designed for plush-toy potential), who had been asleep on the job, gives Sakura a magic baton so she can recapture the cards, each the personification of a different elemental (Wind, Rain, Fire, Wood, Shadow, etc.) before they use their arcane powers to cause havoc in the world. At first the only person who knows Sakura's secret is her best friend, Tomoyo Daidouji, a rich girl with the hobby of designing clothes. Tomoyo insists on referring to Sakura in super-hero terms ("upholder of justice") and creating a new "battle costume" dress for each of her adventures (while Kero-chan provides fashion-show commentary for the audience). Tomoyo also tags along to videotape the adventures on her camcorder. The lighthearted plot gradually grows dramatic as Sakura starts encountering more powerful and darkly ominous cards; and a new cardcaptor, the boy Li Shao Lang from Hong Kong, tries to push her aside and take over the "man's job." As the series progresses, the background of the special cards and Clow, their wizard creator, becomes important as Sakura and Li learn to work together.

Twenty years ago, most magical little girls anime TV series let the six-to-twelve set fantasize themselves with the power to try out grown-up roles instantly: a nurse in one episode, or a businesswoman, a TV news anchorwoman, etc. A decade ago the fashion was to transform them into teen pop singing idols with a horde of handsome boy admirers. Sakura goes for the late ‘90s trends: Tarot cards and the trappings of New Age mysticism, an unlimited wardrobe and your personal paparazzi. (Animation production by Madhouse.)

Appealing to older teen girls, The Vision of Escaflowne is a TV series directed by Kazuki Akane. © Bandai Entertainment.

The Vision of Escaflowne. V.1, Dragons and Destiny. V.2, Betrayal and Trust. V.3, Angels and Demons. V.4, Past and Present. V.5, Paradise and Pain. V.6, Fate and Fortune. V.7, Light and Shadow. V.8, Forever and Ever.
TV series, 1996. Director: Kazuki Akane. V.1 & V.2, 4 episodes/100 minutes each. V.3 — V.8, 3 episodes/75 minutes each. Price & format: $19.98 dubbed VHS/$29.98 bilingual DVD. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

Escaflowne, plotted and story-edited by Shoji Kawamori with character design by Nobuteru Yuuki, has some similarities with Cardcaptor Sakura; both are primarily for girls, use Tarot cards for a motif and were edited for American kids' TV. Otherwise they are very different. Escaflowne is a fantasy-drama-romance for older girls. Hitomi Kanzaki, a high school girl who tells her friends' fortunes with Tarot cards, is caught up in a dimensional portal and brought to Gaea, a world combining elements of high fantasy, Medieval warfare and technological sci-fi. It is the eve of warfare between the conquering Zaibach Empire and several smaller kingdoms trying to remain free. Hitomi initially just wants to return to Japan, her family and friends. But ties are gradually formed with the new people she meets, human and otherwise, notably young King Van of Fanelia (wearer of the holy Escaflowne battle armor), handsome knight Allen of Asturia and the cat-girl Merle. Hitomi's skills with Tarot divination give her an important role in the resistance, and a reason for Hitomi's mystic affinity to the world is provided. The political history, warfare and ecology of Gaea are given sufficient depth to appeal to male viewers. By the time an opportunity comes to return to Earth, Hitomi must decide which world is her true home. The Vision of Escaflowne was a smash success with teens in 26 episodes on Japanese TV (April 2 -- September 24, 1996), with music by fan-favorite anime composer Yoko Kanno. It was one of the first anime titles released when Bandai entered the American anime video market in September 1998. Continued popularity in Japan resulted in a June 2000 theatrical feature, Escaflowne: A Girl in Gaea, which Bandai intends for an American theatrical release this summer. With all this popularity, Escaflowne was picked up for the Fox Kids network, debuting on August 19, 2000. But it was so heavily edited (not surprisingly, since one of the main villains, Dilandau, is arguably the most psychotically sadistic killer in any anime) that those familiar with the original series complained that the result was hopelessly confusing. Ratings were poor, and Fox dropped it after only nine episodes. The uncut Escaflowne has been available in America on video for two years now, but the current DVD release has special features such as music videos and cast interviews. (Animation production by Sunrise.)


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