X is a film not much talked about these days. Probably because the franchise has been out of the limelight since Clamp put the manga on hiatus way back in 2003, so the film, released in 1996, has had only its reputation to live by — and not a particularly good one. Upon its US release, fans felt, at best, ambivalence towards it, or, at worst, outright antipathy. I don’t necessarily intend to argue otherwise — it is indeed a critically flawed film — but, sixteen years later, there’s a lot to admire that was once taken for granted.
The film begins with our protagonist Kamui returning to Tokyo after a long absence. He’s come to the home of his two childhood friends Fuma and Kotori, but their reunion is cut short by ambassadors from two factions fighting to determine the fate of the world: the Dragons of Heaven, who wish to save humanity, and the Dragons of Earth, who wish to destroy it. Kamui, wanting only to protect his friends, will be forced to choose a side in the conflict, one that will determine the fate of the world.
When put that way, it sounds simple enough. Problem is, X has a prodigious cast of seventeen characters and a story that spans volumes and volumes of manga. Condensing it all into a single, self-contained film was never going to work.
In an interview given to Animerica magazine, Director Rintaro hinted at a few of the difficulties. According to him, the original screen play written by Mami Watanabe (best known as scriptwriter on Record of Lodoss War) was repeatedly revised by Clamp’s head writer Nanase Okawa. Finally, it was decided that with only 90 minutes to work with, there was little choice but to anchor the story around the climactic final battle. Rintaro focused on getting the major scenes right, while Okawa worked to come up with a proper ending for the film. Subplots by necessity were cut and character introductions were kept short or absent altogether.
For the first time viewer, it’s a bewildering experience akin to watching the final act of a Greek tragedy play out with no knowledge of the previous parts. “What the hell is going on?” “Who the hell are all of these people?” “Why should I care about any of this?” Are some of the questions you’ll ask as the world of X explodes before your eyes in ever more dazzling ways.
The film has so much to juggle — seventeen characters, world building, flashbacks, conflict, and so forth — there’s little time left for crucial character development. Only the main trio of Kamui, Fuma, and Kotori receive any real attention, mainly through flashbacks from childhood, but even they suffer from a script with out sized ambitions. As for the other fourteen cast members, forget it; the audience is forced to glean what little it can from their dialogue, look, or demeanor.
Thankfully, the film has a lot more to offer.
Inspired by works like Devilman, Clamps X manga deftly balanced shocking violence alongside startling beauty, and Rintaro’s film follows suit. It’s very first scene sets the tone: after informing him of his fate, Kamui’s mother disrobes, pulls a blade from her womb, hands it to her son, and then explodes into bloody pieces. Expect apocalyptic visions, surreal dream worlds, gruesome violence, and a grand tragedy. And Rintaro works zealously to sell the ensuing drama using all the skill, technique, and know how he can muster.
Technically, the film is first rate. Shot composition is effective, occasionally inspired. The editing is seamless. The visuals stunning. Yet despite these heroic efforts, the tragedy unfolds without the desired impact. But given that the script’s deficiencies undercut the drama at every turn, the film is more effective than it has any right to be — a testament to the talents of the director and the rest of the staff.
The film’s wonderful animation, a feast for traditional animation lovers, is another highlight. Individual tiles slide off rooftops. Concrete cracks and ruptures. And in scenes reminiscent of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, skyscrapers explode and crumble, raining down iron and steel, as gigantic plumes of smoke and debris fan out across Tokyo. Meanwhile, characters’ leap, hover, or fly from one toppled — or soon to be toppled — building to another, pausing only to attack with psychic energy, ki, or the elements. The resulting images are fluid, detailed, and occasionally mesmerizing. A lot of talented animators worked on X, and it shows. Everyone from Madhouse alums like Takeshi Koike, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and Yutaka Minowa to even Yoshinori Kanada who animates the battle between the cosmic dragons in typical Kanada fashion.
The Art direction by Shuichi Hirata, who also worked on Rintaro’s stunning Metropolis, is no less impressive. The background artists render incredible cities, apocalyptic landscapes, and a bevy of other battered environments.
The character designer on X was Nobuteru Yuki. While known for his character design work on stuff like Battle Angel, Record of Lodoss War, and Yamato 2199, Yuki is equally adept when working on Shoujo works like Escaflowne, Paradise Kiss, and Kids on the Slope. On X his familiar style is subdued in service of matching Clamp’s original designs, which he modifies ever so subtly, imbuing them with just a dash of his own sensibilities. His new designs are slightly more masculine, angular, and less ethereal than the originals, yet still suitably elegant –-in short, they’re beautiful.
The original Clamp designs are also worth noting. Good designers understand instinctively how designs may substitute, like a type of visual short-hand, for character writing. Think of how, at a glance, a character’s clothes, hairstyle, or demeanor can instantly express their personality, status, or values. Clamp’s original character designs operate exactly in this way. For example, Sorata is all flash, with a bright yellow jacket, sunglasses that look like swimming goggles, and a traditional Buddhist necklace. His outfit reflects his outgoing personality, while his necklace provides insight into his background and origins. Other characters receive similar attention, and this attention to detail, at the design stage, does compensate, if only a little, for some of the script’s inadequacies.
Another aid to the film is the voice talent. The performances are solid across the board and the many parts are well cast. When characters speak for the first time, you’ll think “ah, of course, that’s how they sound” without giving it a second thought. Tomokazu Seki, playing Kamui, really gives it his all, but I especially enjoyed Sorata, voiced by Koichi Yamadera, whose voice, when he deems it, just oozes cool.
Rintaro has stated that he thinks the music can have just as if not more impact on a film than the script. That may be right, but it requires the right type of score. Knowing that, the completely non-traditional score for X, composed by Yasuaki Shimizu, who often scores for live action, is a puzzling choice. More concerned with creating frightful soundscapes, mood, and tension than trying to match the bombast of the visuals, the strange, atmospheric score Shimizu creates largely dispenses with melody or memorable themes; instead, he uses an assortment of instruments: drums, bells, chimes, the traditional Japanese flute, and the saxophone, along with occasional synths and choral work, to create an eerie, low-key score that mostly bubbles just under the surface. It’s more keenly suited to the film’s many surreal dream sequences than its other parts, and, for the most part, it barely makes itself heard. An odd choice.
Rintaro as a director is often said to have as many hits as strikes. X is definitely a strike but only just. Given the restraints, the film was likely doomed from the start — how exactly does one cram that much story into a single ninety minute film? The fact that the film engages at all is the remarkable thing; it’s thanks largely to the sum of its other parts: the capable direction, the gorgeous artwork, the fantastic animation, the arresting visuals, and sheer spectacle of the destructive conflict. X may be a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess. Remember Steamboy? For all its faults, it’s still a pleasure to behold. X isn’t nearly as grand as that film, but it’s a veritable showcase nonetheless, a feat of pyrotechnics that scratches the same itch. The appeal is simple: sometimes, like a kid with a firecracker, we just want to watch stuff explode.
9 thoughts on “Review – X: The Movie”
I sort of discussed this with you the other night, but I’ll post it anyway for the sake of potentially sparking reader discussion.
Basically, this film is the reason why people in the film and entertainment industry are so goddamn crazy sometimes. Despite the fact that its production knocked it out of the park with direction, animation, cinematography and everything else that goes into the art of the scene; there’s still the screenplay element that mires the rest of the production. Despite the fact that 9 of the 10 ingredients were on point, one bad one will spoil the stew. That’s got to be infuriating from a production perspective. I can tell you from firsthand experience that I mostly forgot about this film almost immediately after seeing it because of how incoherent the plot was and how little anything seemed to matter, which leads me to my next point…
Why the heck didn’t the director decide to get some re-writes? Sure, the writing is ultimately the direct result of the writer, but the director can ask for re-writes or even get an entirely different writer on the project if he thinks things aren’t going to gel properly. If confronted with a scenario where there’s like 17 characters and the plot is being stretched as thin as possible between them all, the first thing I’d do is look into getting the script revised. I’m wondering if the production team/directer were either unable to go for re-writes or if they were in some way obligated to adapt this story as-is for some reason. I dunno, another few passes at the script and maybe we’d all be remembering this film fondly.
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Very well said and absolutely true.
I wish I was privy to more of what went on behind the scenes. If you read a little between the lines in that Animerica interview, the director definitely seemed frustrated by the writing process. Ultimately, I think it became a matter of just getting it done and moving on with the project. If the creators had been given three films to work with instead of one, the results might have been quite different.
If I might address your larger point, I think film quality animation may have a slight advantage over live action in that the beauty of animation as a medium can more easily overshadow or mask problems on other fronts. Animation is ultimately just a collection of still images, right? But those still images are each individual pieces of art with a power to captivate all their own independent of anything else (as all of our art-book collections attest). So, as a visual medium, animation, has perhaps the unique advantage of combining that same appreciation we get when viewing a piece of art with the spellbinding power of moving pictures or animation. It more easily overcomes the senses, which is why once or twice a decade, I can go back and re-watch certain anime films — really problematic ones like this one — and quite enjoy myself simply by soaking in the visuals.
This was beautifully said and pinpointed, and I’m glad to see someone else that has watched this <333
X is the best work of CLAMP, for my ofc, and I liked both adaptations. I think for a smoother ride it's best to watch X TV first and then the movie, or ofc, having read the manga also helps x)
It's funny you said that about it being one the artist from Escaflowne, I had no idea and I really love Escaflowne! ❤
X movie is definitely something you experience with yours, but I find you can still see the plot and everything else is deep, just that it didn't have time to show it all :'D
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You are right, having seen the X TV series, I couldn’t help but use my knowledge from that to fill in some of the gaps upon this latest viewing of the film. I think fans of the manga were in a similar position when the film first arrived, which may be why there was so little time given to the characters because it was expected that the audience would have some familiarity with them already. Speaking of the manga, I wonder if Clamp will ever finish it? I would really like to read it, but don’t want to start on something without an ending.
I really love Escaflowne, too! I think the Escaflowne Movie is much better film than X but in many ways they are close bedfellows: they both feel rushed with narrative problems that hurt the story, but damn if they aren’t pretty to look at. The Escaflowne film even more, which is just utterly gorgeous!
X TV really does help fill the movie’s gap~
CLAMP said they’d finish it after TRC finished……which ofc didn’t happen, since they did a NEW TRC, Holic, 7 Gate, and then put on hiatus (again) Drug and Drop (which is the continuation of Gohou Drug). /sighs deeply
CLAMP are why I never start reading manga that is ongoing, I’ve been burned so hard by all this fuckery, I’m just nope at it all.
Oh man, Escaflwone movie was a gorgeous thing to behold. The artist matured so much, and everything looked utterly gorgeous. I watch it just for the sheer prettiness, and that it’s kinda of a retelling/AU story. TBH, I’m weak to anything Escaflowne hehehe
True, X and Escaflowne Movies do have that in common, but they’re still worth watching without a doubt~!
I’d never heard of this but now I’m kind of interested. Thanks for sharing.
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You’re welcome. Not surprised if newer fans haven’t heard of it; the film is twenty years old this year and by no means a classic, after all. If you’re new to the X /1999 franchise, I would recommend starting with Clamp’s manga, since, even in its unfinished state, it’s undoubtedly the best version.