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.