There’s something completely fascinating to me about tales where a person tries to make another, whether from scratch, as in the original Pygmalion myth, or by attempting to permanently re-shape another person’s mind or body. Every aspect of the conceit bewitches and absorbs me—the process by which the metamorphosis occurs (or fails), the fraught relationship between creator and created, the end result of these sorts of experiments. Thus, this year I’m selecting twelve Pygmalion stories—or stories that contain echoes of the Pygmalion myth—and essaying on them. I already have a few in mind, but please feel free to suggest others in the comments or on twitter @molly_the_tanz. Or email me, emollytanzer [at] gmail.com. I’m woefully underread in comics specifically, but any and all recommendations are welcome!
As January’s column on The Bride featured a storyline that directly referenced the Pygmalion myth, for February I decided to write on something with a much more esoteric relationship to Pygmalion: Vision of Escaflowne, one of the most mid-90s animes ever to come out during the mid-90s. That probably doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you, like I, are a veteran of 90s anime, but I’m really not sure how else to describe it… Vision of Escaflowne is a baffling, indescribable thing, and one impossible to meaningfully discuss without revealing major series spoilers. So, you’ve been warned.
Vision of Escaflowne gets real weird, but it begins like any other magical girl anime: Kanzaki Hitomi is just your every day high school girl. She has a crush on her senpai, is on the track team, seems to be generally liked by her peers. But Hitomi is special because she can tell accurate fortunes by using Tarot cards, possesses a pendant necklace from her grandmother that has magical powers/can tell accurate time (I dunno), and occasionally (meaning 3x an episode at least for the first half of the series) has prophetic visions.
During a normal everyday track practice, Hitomi, mid-run, has one of said visions, of a young man holding a sword, who appears to her in a pillar of light. This then turns into a different vision of the earth breaking under her feet, her falling, and some winged guy swooping down, angel-like, to save her. Then she awakens in the infirmary—it was just a dream! After a sexually tense interaction with Senpai she does a Tarot reading for them and sees—gasp!—the cards for the Tower, which means separation of lovers (OH NO!! AMANO SENPAI!!) and a dragon. Or serpent, I don’t remember. It looks like a dragon, and dragons are important in Escaflowne. Anyways, this reading inspires her to go back to school with Senpai that night, where she asks him to time her with her magic pendant. If she can run fast enough, he’ll kiss her as a prize.
But instead of that, Hitomi’s earlier vision comes true: a pillar of light appears, containing one (1) mysterious pretty-boy with a sword, and… a dragon. The dragon chases them all to a convenient temple complex where Van, AKA the mysterious boy, kills the dragon. After he takes its heart-stone (“energist”) he and Hitomi are transported via pillar of light (there are roughly 900000000000 pillars of light in this series) to Gaea, a mysterious world invisible from Earth, but from which you can see the earth and the moon in the sky.
Whew! That was episode 1. There are twenty-six episodes. None are any less insane. Here, just watch the opening credits:
So yeah, Gaea is a feudal world with European-style kingdoms/knights and also samurai, and all kinds of other shit, like mole-men, eight-eyed sky-dwarf-mechanics, mermaids, whatever. People fight one another inside of vaguely steampunk mech suits called, ahem, “guymelefs.”
There’s also an inevitable, much more technologically advanced evil empire called Zaibach. You know what? It’s basically just the setup for Final Fantasy VI, right down to the evil emperor being out-eviled by his psychotic, effeminate, bloodthirsty, gigglepuss captain. Huh.
Anyways, the first thing Zaibach does is pretty Final Fantasy, too… see, the dragon hunt was a rite of passage, and since Van succeeded he’s now king of Fanelia. He uses the energist he won from the dragon to take control of Escaflowne, the legendary guymelef that belongs to the king of Fanelia, and it’s awesome, everything’s awesome… until one of Zaibach’s Magitek-esque floating fortresses shows up to burn the kingdom to the ground. Much evil! Such dickishness!
Van and Hitomi escape when her pendant reacts to the energist inside of Escaflowne, and they are borne away via pillar of light (told you) and end up in a neighboring kingdom. There they meet many of the other main characters, most importantly to this essay a sexy knight named Allen Schezar who has a pet owl and a tragic past including a deadbeat dad, a dead mom, and a long-lost sister.
Unfortunately, as the true object of Zaibach was not to burn Fanelia to ashes, but rather capture Van and Escaflowne, this causes the agents of the evil empire—namely the seriously emo, face-tattooed, bemulletted Strageos Folken and the psychopathic, pyromaniacal, vain, giggling Captain Dilandau to chase Van and Hitomi and Allen all over Gaea for the rest of the series.
Why might Zaibach do this? What is up with them? Glad you asked, because that is at the heart of what the heck this mishmash mess of an anime has to do with Pygmalion. Though it takes you the better part of the anime to find any/all of this out, I’m here to tell you all the secrets of Vision of Escaflowne. Ready? Okay, good:
Zaibach is run by the decrepit, insane, sort-of reincarnation of Isaac Newton (yes, that Isaac Newton) who on his deathbed was transported (via pillar of light, natch) to Gaea. There, he pursued his obsession with “the gravity of fate” (?) and began to develop technology that would allow him to alter fate by harnessing the power of Atlantis, AKA the power of human will. Escaflowne kiiiiinda plays into this, but for obscure reasons that I’ll just elide over. The important thing is, Atlantis was once a real place, populated by angel-winged people called Draconians. These Draconians successfully harnessed said power of human will via something called the Atlantis Machine, but it led to their annihilation after they created Gaea itself. Somehow. Oh, also… Van and his brother Folken are half-Draconian, meaning they can sprout wings at will. I mention this because it’s important when I (eventually) get to my point. Anyways, Gaea and its people were never meant to uncover the power of Atlantis for themselves, blah blah blah, but Isaac Newton didn’t/doesn’t care about that. Nope, all Isaac Newton/Emperor Dornkirk cares about is creating an “ideal future” via the power of Atlantis, and to that end he builds all kinds of goofy-sounding machines such as the Fate Alteration Engine. Though his eventual purpose is to create a “Zone of Absolute Fortune” that will guide Gaea to its ideal future, he starts small, by… you guessed it…
See… we got there eventually. Woof.
There are four characters in Vision of Escaflowne who have had their fates artificially altered by Dornkirk/Newton for the purposes of building an ideal future: Strategos Folken, who is actually (gasp!!) Van’s presumed-dead older brother, the captain of Zaibach’s elite squadron of guymelef pilots, Dilandau (who also has a secret identity) and two twin cat girls, Naria and Eriya. They don’t have a secret identity, they’re just hot. Anyways, what’s interesting to me for the purposes of this column is that this fate alteration takes place concurrently with some kind of physical alteration, with these changes allegedly making them better suited to effect Zaibach’s goals of creating Gaea’s ideal future. Dornkirk is basically the ultimate Pygmalion, trying to shape not only individuals, but reality itself, and while one might argue his goals are noble (eliminating war and stuff seems like a good idea) it’s “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas” all over again. Dornkirk is absolutely ruthless—he has drunk his own Kool-Aid, and is willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to achieve his ends. He uses everyone, even those closest to him, and with compete disregard for their opinions, personal safety, or mental health.
None of this turns out well.
Once upon a time, Folken was the gentle, mild-mannered heir to the throne of Fanelia. On his kingly dragon-hunt, he was tricked by a wily dragon, resulting in his arm being torn off. As he bled out, he had a change of heart and had the epiphany that dragon-hunting, and violence in general, was bad for mankind.
Unlikely as it may seem, Dornkirk found Folken in this state, took him into his care, built him a cybernetic arm, and revived him with the power of his “Sorcerers.” I… dunno. Anyways, upon awakening the Six Million Dollar Folken, Dornkirk tells the distraught former prince that he was saved for a reason: Dornkirk needs his help to create an ideal future for Gaea, the ostensible goal being that Gaea will become a land free from strife and war. Folken is convinced to follow Dornkirk, and while it’s not spelled out it sure seems like it’s not just Dorkirk’s high CHA that drives the once-peaceful Folken to commit atrocities such as… oh, burning his homeland to ash and helping hunt down his brother. It seems as though through cybernetic and fate alteration Folken becomes willing to make brutal sacrifices for the greater good, whereas before, such things would have been repellant to him. And, later, when Folken calls Van to him and shows him that his white Draconian wings have turned black, he calls it “a reaction of fortune” (?) that has “shortened his life.” What does that mean? Who knows! But, it does make it seem as if his fate has been altered.
Folken was my favorite character as a kid… I was down with the angst and the weirdness. Also his theme is the best, and even better, he’s the only character with a comprehendible arc. Everyone else is kind of all over the place in this show, which works fine, but when Dornkirk finally pushes Folken too far, he snaps… and it’s great.
Naria and Eriya are… Folken’s servants? It’s not wholly clear. He rescued them from a violent mob when they were just girls/kittens (shudder) and raised them himself. Under his care they have become cat ladies-cum-babes who harbor feelings toward Folken that are as romantic as they are mutual. It’s mega-creepy, but hey, allegedly the animators were told “no panty shots” when it came to animating Hitomi, so there has to be fan service somewhere, right?
Naria and Eriya are victims of violence, just like Folken, which grooms them for recruitment by Dornkirk, who preys on the weak and disillusioned. Their parents were murdered before their eyes when they were just kids, and they would have met the same fate if not for Folken’s daring rescue. The flashback that tells us all this shows that their first response was to bite and scratch Folken, who coos at them that they are poor things who have never known kindness. It’s worth noting that at the point we learn this about Naria and Eriya, Folken has murdered those who would have been his subjects, burned his homeland, psychologically tortured his own brother, &c. It’s a bizarre moment that illuminates Folken’s psychology as much as it demonstrates why exactly Naria and Eriya are so intensely devoted to him.
Naria and Eriya also undergo physical manipulations as part of their service to Zaibach—both agree to have their blood replaced with an artificial serum infused with luck (?) to make them into super-lucky super soldiers. For a short period of time, this makes them invincible—everything that could go wrong for their adversaries in the course of combat does indeed go wrong. Until, of course, their bodies reject this serum, aging them and eventually killing them. Even so, they remain loyal to Folken even unto death. (It’s this that causes Folken to snap, btw. But it's okay, because after they all die, we're treated to this blue ghost of them in the afterlife. Folken hits the anime jackpot.)
Dilandau Albatou is the character most affected by Dornkirk’s fate alteration experiments, and is perhaps the most vexed character in the entire show. I don’t even know how to write about him, because he’s so problematic, but is perhaps also the most interesting character in Vision of Escaflowne. Here goes…
When we first meet Dilandau, he’s a cackle-happy psychopath with a super-powered guymelef that not only flies, but shoots metal claws and spews oceans of liquid fire. He’s the captain of the Dragon Slayers, the elite squad of Zaibachian soldiers assigned the task of hunting down Van and capturing Escaflowne. Dilandau is perhaps the prettiest of all of Escaflowne’s pretty-boys, even Allen Schezar, and… how do I put this? He is definitely a totally stereotypical “evil queen.” He’s effeminate, effete, self-absorbed, ruthless, tittering… and when Van slices his face open during a duel, it’s Dilandau Meltdown Time. Cue all the scenes of sitting in the darkness with a bottle of wine and crooning “my face… my beautiful face…” and freaking out on anyone who tries to comfort him or tell him that he should probably stop stroking the cut with his dirty fingers. It’s deeply problematic but I was raised on Dr. Frank N. Furter so I confess I kind of love it. MY FAAAACE!!
Dilandau, once he recovers, becomes obsessed with Van, and his only joy is in hunting him down. While his orders are to keep Van alive, Dilandau is clearly out to kill him. The only problem is, when Dilandau and his Dragon Slayers roll up on Van, Van is playing in God Mode and straight slaughters them all, save for Dilandau, who turns tail and runs. This isn’t good, for while Dilandau was never above slapping the shit out of his Dragon Slayers, or being mean to them verbally, he depended on them. Once he’s alone in the world he starts to crack up. He begins having visions of being in a strange room, all alone, but the weird thing is… in these visions he’s about five years old. And wearing a dress.
I mentioned above that Allen Schezar, knight of Asturia, had a missing sister. Well… as it turns out, following Ebert’s Law of Economy of Character, Dilandau is Celena, Allen’s long-lost sister. Sort of...
Turns out, Dilandau/Celena was kidnapped by Zaibach at a young age—maybe five or six—and subjected to involuntary fate alteration processes that warped her body into that of a boy, and her mind into a madman’s. When Dilandau becomes unstable, he begins shifting back and forth between Dilandau and Celena, which is terrifying for both of them. Dilandau has no memories of being Celena, and Celena, now a young woman, has no idea what has happened to her between the ages of five and (presumably) fifteen.
I go back and forth on this. On one hand, the representation of Dilandau/Celena smacks of transphobia, in that we are invited to wonder about and gawk at his/her body, and the shift between the two is clearly traumatic for them. It’s also weirdly gender essentialist… why did they have to change Celena into a boy to get her interested in war and guymelefs and fighting and stuff? It’s never clear, except that (duh) girls are gentle and like flowers and pretty animals and boys like fighting, obviously.
On the other hand, the tragedy of Dilandau/Celena can be read as an interesting Star Trek-style social commentary about the problem of sacrificing children’s bodies on the altar social stability. The accounts written by intersex individuals who were forced to undergo physical reassignment surgeries without their consent in order to “normalize” them are horrifying. Dilandau/Celena’s story, their being changed to suit a social need, and the ensuing trauma (even though neither is able to remember the process) is vaguely reminiscent of those stories, intentionally or not.
One thing that is good about Dilandau/Celena is that they don’t die. Dilandau is eventually exorcised from Celena, who chooses that form in the end, and she survives the show (unlike Folken and his cat-twins). Often, genderfluid characters are marked for tragedy in media representations, and Celena makes it out okay, which is good. I think? I dunno.
With The Bride I was able to analyze the story in terms of it inverting the romance of the Pygmalion myth along with commenting on My Fair Lady. I (obviously…) have no such thesis here. The thing is, as long as this essay surely is, Dilandau, Folken, and Naria and Eriya are minor characters in Vision of Escaflowne. While more interesting than Hitomi, Van, or Allen, they are sidelined, and mainly exist to demonstrate the brutality and hypocrisy of Zaibach. Which, fine, okay… the message of “people aren’t playthings” is a good one, but the incoherence of Escaflowne works against them in that they are given short shrift in favor of the really boring “omgeeee which boy should I pick??” love story between Hitomi and Van/Allen.
Isn’t that always the way, though?
Next Month: Probably Watch and Ward, as I’ve done only visual media so far. Fun, a novel!