A lot of fantasy and SF fiction, especially within anime, focuses on the hero as the central viewpoint character, or if the protagonist is not particularly heroic it will tell the story of their development as a hero or desire to become one. Generally this is through gaining physical strength, or fulfilling some quest. Even fish-out-of-water stories, in which a new protagonist tend towards this predictable plot arc, with other narratives stopping or becoming rapidly repurposed to assist the new viewpoint character. In essence, it is generally the case in genre fiction that the viewpoint character will be given significant agency in the main narrative; the epitome of this is The Lord of the Rings, which focuses strongly on how it is the inherently unassuming nature of its protagonists which is their greatest strength. The hobbits are out of their depths, but nevertheless are integral to the quest and ultimately are revealed to have an innate heroism which is superior to the strength of arms of their companions.
It is thus interesting to consider the animated series The Visions of Escaflowne in relation to the fantasy genre it is a part of. The initial setup of the plot is an apparently predictable story of an ordinary girl, Hitomi, transported to a fantasy world, with the implication that she will subsequently try to get home and that this will be the focus of the story. What then follows for several episodes is her introduction to the world she now inhabits with it made quite clear that nobody actually knows how she can return, and that this is not a focus of her new companions. Instead, she is firmly presented as being in the same position as the audience; an observer of an ongoing conflict that she can play no part in. For all intents and purposes, Van, the young prince she meets at the start of the plot, should be the protagonist; the focus of the initial plot arc is clearly on his ongoing conflict with enemies of his nation and a quest for vengeance. Hitomi is, being a woman of no status in a medieval fantasy world, not expected to play a part in this conflict of kings and indeed she has no great desire to. Her motivation for fitting in is quite the opposite of a desire to be a hero; she is happy to be the princess and object of desire, and let her contribution to the conflict be a supporting one. Her capacity for precognition allows her to be useful, but it is very much a secondary consideration to Van’s skill at combat or the other nobles’ and knights’ courtly connections.
In some ways this is similar to the unassuming nature of the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings; a character who apparently has no useful skill to directly be applied to the conflict remains on its periphery and ultimately ends up integral to success. Yet Hitomi’s distance from combat – not a self-inflicted rejection of violence as many protagonists of mecha anime seek to achieve but instead an utter lack of opportunity to fight and her being placed in a society that does not expect her to – makes her an interesting case. In essence, The Visions of Escaflowne is a traditional fantasy narrative at its heart from the perspective of the princess figure, yet Hitomi is not even that. She is unable to really make her presence known in the male world of fighting despite helping Van and his fellow knight Allen, and yet when she finally reaches the courtly environment that the pseudomedieval world of the series dictates is the female space she does not have the knowledge of etiquette or the noble family to properly fit in.
As a fantasy story focused on someone from the modern world transported to a fantastical setting, Escaflowne avoids many of the standard cliches; Hitomi’s inability to fit in at the court of Palas and her lack of understanding of the role of marriage in the setting’s monarchies plays out as an embarrassing and awkward sequence which culminates in little more than petulant rejection of it. It is not as simple as a rejection of the need to fit in, but instead a more naturalistic process of integration into the new world. Hitomi is still a transgressor, as her modern clothing and ignorance of custom show, but she does not seek to enforce her own values on the society as many such narratives in this vein have their protagonist do. In anime terms, it is interesting to compare Escaflowne with The Super Dimension Century Orguss, which has a similar basic plot. Orguss follows a fighter pilot who owing to an accident with an experimental weapon ends up stranded on an alien planet, and ultimately pursued by a military force eager to find out how he got there. He falls in with a group of merchants who themselves are enemies of the villains, and the story quickly focuses on everyone in the setting trying to work out where he came from and how to get him back. By contrast, Hitomi’s being stranded in an alien society is hardly a concern of Van or Allen, since they have their own war to fight against a nation which razed Van’s capital to the ground and is quite happily waging war on all comers. She simply has to follow the others to survive, and make herself useful wherever possible. For the first seven episodes of Escaflowne, almost no focus is given to Hitomi’s returning to Earth and even she begins to lose sight of it as a goal. This, combined with writer Shoji Kawamori’s heavy use of romance fiction tropes in the more courtly aspects of the story, make the tone quite different; any integration on Hitomi’s part is working against her ultimate return because she is increasingly becoming attracted to the idea of marrying into the nobility. Her preoccupation is on whether the handsome Allen is interested in her, and it is this which makes the series so intriguing.
To conclude, a narrative dominated by a viewpoint character eager to escape their predicament becomes a clear quest story which necessarily either implicates other narratives in this quest or rejects them. By contrast, Escaflowne has its main story – Van’s war against his enemies – not only continue to be given full prominence but also be initially unrelated from Hitomi’s predicament. In order for her to get by long enough to possibly consider returning, she must become a part of the society and play by its rules.