Gay Geeks


I made an interesting discovery last week while cleaning out my closet.

Apparently, back in the day I purchased a collector’s VHS box set of Escaflowne, a fairly famous anime involving mechas, high school girls in love, chivalrous samurai (who really are more like medieval knights), mechas, annoying cat girls, mechas, Tarot cards and mechas. By “back in the day,” I mean, of course, the early 2000s before DVD players became bigger than Jesus or The Beatles and successfully killed both video and the radio star. Which means that this anime was new and exciting in, oh, 1998 or so.

Yes, go on, commence your laughing. I am, after all, further behind on my anime-viewing than is fashionable to admit. In some ways. How many of you have watched all 2,430,248,028,402 episodes of Sgt. Frog or Bleach?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

But back to Escaflowne. I really expected to like this, geeky ones. I really did. I mean, my track record with shōjo (the typically romantic anime marketed to girls) is pretty good, and this one also had robots and lots of explosions. Plus, I’m also embarrassingly easy to please.

By about episode nine I took a break and I haven’t picked it back up.

See, the explosions and the giant robots were awesome, but everything else just felt so … well … bland. For example, there are a number of tropes that appear in a lot of shōjo anime series. Basically:

1.    A shy, awkward jr. high or high school girl;
2.    Who is somewhat obsessed with a cute, popular boy;
3.    And/or with the idea of falling in love;
4.    Who gets transported to a magical world;
5.    Populated by elves/orcs/wizards/fairies/lizard people/other magical things;
6.    Which therefore feels like an interminable and really boring D & D campaign run by your Tolkien-obsessed little brother;
7.    And then obtains either a harem of men;
8.    Or a love interest;
9.    Or a love triangle;
10.    Alongside whom she must fight to save the kingdom/the planet/the universe as the mystical savior from another world.
11.    Oh, and a cat girl may or may not be involved.

Now, despite what a few confused denizens of might think, tropes are not clichés, and not necessarily a bad thing. They are simply common components of story that appear time and time again. Largely, it is what you do with them is what makes your story interesting.

And oh, what Escaflowne doesn’t do with its tropes. In a lot of ways, the show really does feel like your little brother wrote it as part of his dorky campaign. From Hitomi, our rather shy, romance-obsessed heroine to Allen, our pretty and chivalrous but not much else knight in a shining mecha-suit, to Merle, the annoying cat girl I’ve mentioned, nearly every character is so paper-thin, a strong wind could eviscerate them. There really just is nothing more going on with Hitomi other than she’s kind of awkward and crushing on Allen or with Vaan, a young, recently crowned king of a devastated city, other than he’s young and angry and wants to kill the people who devastated his city. The only one who is remotely interesting is Folken, Vaan’s treacherous older brother who has a nifty mechanical arm. But mostly, I just feel sorry for him for being surrounded by a bunch of dweebs.  

As far as Escaflowne’s world building goes … well, tell me if this sounds familiar. A world with a bunch of little kingdoms, populated by humans and some (albeit nifty) non-humans, which is being threatened by an evil empire which is sort of … just evil and mean because it’s evil and mean.

Seriously, I’m beginning to wonder if the explosions and the mechas were the only reason anybody liked this anime.

I know that this show is, at least in the oft-recycled world that is anime, older than God. I know that far better shows have come along since 1998. But I’m picking on Escaflowne because it’s just the most recent example of storytelling fail I’ve seen. As a writer myself, I know how tempting — and easy! — relying on time-tested formulas and characters can be — especially when the reward for doing so is often having your work see the light of day and acquire a huge fan following. But I also know that it is much more fun to break those time-tested formulas.

Here’s what would have made Escaflowne (or really, any anime that follows familiar tropes) stand out for me. Instead of the list above, what if Escaflowne had done something like this:

1.    A shy, awkward jr. high or high school girl who is nonetheless awesome at playing the harp;
2.    Who has an on again/off again relationship with a cute, popular boy;
3.    And is nonetheless a hopeless romantic;
4.    Who gets transported to a magical world;
5.    Populated by fire-breathing unicorns/syphilitic lizards/gigantic burning angels/an evil empire that sees itself as the only force for good in the world;
6.    Which therefore cannot be credited to your dorky little brother;
7.    And then obtains a harem of women and men;
8.    Or a transgender love interest;
9.    Or a love triangle;
10.    Alongside whom she must fight to save the kingdom/the planet/the universe as the mystical savior from another world. While, of course, learning how to hone her harp skills.
11.    Oh, and the cat girl is also a cat boy.

I don’t wish to be impudent, or to suggest that all Escaflowne or any shōjo-clone needs is a few good homos. Plenty of stories that include gay and transgender characters and love triangles also screw things up by writing queers as stereotypes or confused heterosexuals (Nuriko from iFushigi Yuugi, I am so looking at you!). Still, heterosexual, cisgender romance plots are kind of overdone, and a properly written gay or transgender character can often make a story more interesting. Well, that and making your characters real human beings and not walking clichés, or characters from your brother’s dorky campaign.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some hot, new anime to watch that will hopefully have 50 percent more explosions and mechas and not 50 percent more eye-rolling genericness.

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