Friday, April 20, 2012

FOX Kids and "Escaflowne"

Ready for a little anime history lesson? This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the FOX network, which will be airing a special this Sunday to remind us of all the good times, and their best shows like "The X-Files" and "24" and "Arrested Development." However, one corner of FOX's television history I'm sure they're going to ignore is what happened to FOX Kids, which had the top rated children's programming in the country for most of the 1990s, before it and most network children's television was scrapped or farmed out in the early 2000s. And there's no chance that they'll acknowledge what remains the worst thing I ever saw them put on television: the FOX Kids edit of the Bandai anime series "A Vision of Escaflowne."

First, some context. Anime series have been acquired and edited for American cartoon viewers for decades. However, starting in the mid-90s, we had a significant boom. "Pokemon" got huge, and then the Cartoon Network started Toonami in 1997, their afternoon action block that started bringing in the anime titles that skewed a little older and little more risky than the shows that ran on the networks. The emerging young otaku population, which was starting to get their anime unedited and unfiltered through smaller distributors and the internet, made the Toonami block a hit. In the year 2000, they attracted a lot of attention with the success of shows like "Gundam Wing" and "Tenchi Muyo." The big networks, namely Kids' WB and FOX Kids, got interested. This resulted in a brief arms race as the different channels went after popular anime series. That fall, Kids' WB nabbed "Cardcaptor Sakura," renamed "Cardcaptors," and "Yu-Gi-Oh!" Fox Kids had "Monster Rancher," "Flint the Time Detective," and "A Vision of Escaflowne," a fantasy series Toonami had previously expressed interest in.

It became very obvious very quickly that FOX had no idea what they were doing with "A Vision of Escaflowne," retitled "Escaflowne." The original version was an adventure serial made for older children and teenagers. Its protagonists were a girl, Hitomi, and a boy, Van, both about fourteen years old. The story was mostly told from Hitomi's point of view, a girl from Earth mysteriously swept away to Van's world, the fantastic planet Gaea. FOX wanted an action show that would appeal to its target demographic of 6-12 year old boys, and edited "Escaflowne" to fit. They deleted the entire first episode, deemed too slow, and too focused on Hitomi, opting to insert parts of it into later episodes as flashbacks to fill in any story gaps. Poor Hitomi, like Sakura in "Cardcaptors" the same year, was heavily de-emphasized in favor of the male lead. All the romantic storylines were cut or minimized. Episodes were edited for time and inappropriate content, but also to speed up slower scenes, to provide more blatant exposition, and to make the action sequences more prominent.

Imagine "Game of Thrones," edited for the time and content constraints of network television. Now imagine that it's edited so that the child characters in the ensemble are now positioned as the lead characters. Now imagine that it's also edited to appeal to the sensibilities of teenage "Twilight" fans. You get my drift. "Escaflowne," ironically, didn't have all that much objectionable content. There wasn't nearly the amount of violence as something like "Gundam Wing." However, the show had mature elements like an ongoing war, missing and illegitimate children, arranged marriages, and lot of the story revolved around romantic relationships. "Escaflowne" was a terrible fit for FOX Kids from day one, and the going theory at the time was that the show had been acquired by the network solely to spite its competitors.

Existing fans were already bracing for the worst when the promotional material started being released, but nobody was really prepared for how bad FOX's "Escaflowne" would turn out to be, or the unusual strength of the backlash. In the end, only ten episodes of "Escaflowne" aired on FOX Kids before it was cancelled and replaced with "NASCAR Racers." The entire run aired in Canada on YTV, where it came to light that the series had been shortened to 23 episodes from the original 26, due to the extensive cuts. So much material was removed, that several episodes ran short, and had to be supplemented by adding scenes from the next episode. This resulted in a string of installments that were actually the back half of one episode grafted to the first half of the next. This played havoc on the show's existing story structure. And by removing all the slower-moving incidental and character building scenes, and relentlessly focusing on the action and spectacle, the result was a severely simplified and dumbed down "Escaflowne" that was practically unwatchable.

There had been badly localized anime before, but the notoriety of this particular adaptation was fueled by a couple of other contributing factors. One was access. This was one of the first cases where you had a significant number of fans who were already familiar with the original anime and understood how severe the changes were. Bandai, through the AnimeVillage label, had already released the entire series with English subtitles on VHS tapes in 1998. I had rented my way through the whole set the summer before the English language version premiered. Also, as the FOX edit was being broadcast, one of the story editors who had worked on it, using the pseudonym "TVGuy", was posting about the adaptation process to one of the Usenet anime groups. He was very forthcoming, and clearly very frustrated by the situation, detailing a constant struggle behind the scenes to keep the edits from being worse than they already were. He attracted a lot of debate and discussion that otherwise might not have happened.

TVGuy not only provided an insider POV, but he also confirmed the existence of a lot of the lousy network practices that had only been suspected up to that point. For instance, acquired programs had their existing scores replaced by music composed in-house, to make the editing easier. This meant that "Escaflowne's" highly praised orchestral score, composed by Yoko Kanno, was replaced in many places by a new techno-heavy one. Kanno's score would have been replaced entirely, but Bandai fought to keep it. However, the surviving pieces, rearranged and credited as "additional music," didn't mesh particularly well with the new themes. And thanks to a network rule that no cartoon was allowed to have silence for more than 90 seconds, the new "Escaflowne" was terribly overscored. All the quieter moments were remixed to add music, changing the tone and atmosphere considerably.

"Escaflowne" got a happy ending, though. The original Japanese series was already a worldwide hit, and when the unedited version was released on DVD later in 2001, it sold well. The kids who saw "Escaflowne" on FOX and were curious about it could easily get a hold of the originals, which was rare in those days. As for FOX Kids, they were part of the Fox Family acquisition by ABC, and ceased to exist after 2002. The FOX version of "Escaflowne" also had a home video release, but it was quickly cancelled after only four volumes.

Oh, and there was an "Escaflowne" movie, released in Japan in 2000. It had a limited run in 2002 in the US, and aired on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim in 2005, with no apparent edits.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks! I had been reminiscing on shows I watched as a kid and I decided to finally search for what happened to this anime and why it got canceled. It did intrigue me as a kid and I was upset when it got canceled however I did not know any of this stuff being so young at the time. Haha thanks again.