Manga Video // 1996 // 100 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // May 8th, 2002
"Your dreams are in bad taste." -- Kamui to Hinoto
Poor Kamui. For his part, it all starts with a creepy Oedipal dream: his naked mother pulls a sword from her bloody torso and hands it to him. Oh well, this is destiny, after all. And Kamui returns to Tokyo for the final battle.
What final battle? The apocalyptic confrontation between the Dragons of Heaven and the Dragons of Earth, two cadres of psychic warriors whose war will decide the fate of the world. But Kamui does not want to fight; he only wants to protect his girlfriend Kotori and her brother Fuma. But those two have a part to play in the apocalypse as well.
X, a product of the art studio collectively known as CLAMP, is an uneasy fusion of two genres. As shojo manga (or "girl's" comics -- CLAMP is all female), its art style is marked by effeminate characters, hints of homoeroticism (apparently quite popular in Japanese romance comics), lots of sentimentalism, and moist eyes bigger than a Keane painting. But X is also a fighting story -- and by now we know what that means. A brooding hero faces off against a cadre of smirking villains with more arterial spray than all the cherry blossoms in Tokyo. While the former genre tends to stress character development (although for the record, I must say that I have never been a big fan of CLAMP's style over substance aesthetic) while the latter stresses pure action, director Rintaro approaches this movie version of CLAMP's long-running manga series with -- well, let's be completely honest: he throws out the character development for a non-stop series of portentous (and occasionally pretentious) hallucinations and kick-ass fight scenes. As usual with his work (Galaxy Express 999, Metropolis), he does this very well. But for all the film's attention to detail, it is all surface and no depth.
X is beautifully animated eye candy, but it ultimately fails on many levels. It does not develop thematically any of its apocalyptic mythology. Judgment, responsibility, free will -- who cares when we can have gloriously rendered carnage? Kamui's toughest decisions are made for him, and Fuma's conversion from faithful friend to evil psychopath is unconvincing, as if Fuma becomes evil simply because the script says so. Perhaps the fact that we are effectively coming in on the last act of this story is the heart of the problem. All the characters are already established from the manga. On the other hand, adaptations of lengthy manga series have succeeded before, when they take some time to establish the characters on screen rather than assume we know them already. Instead of character psychology, we get melodrama: lots of running and weeping and speeches about how this character wishes she could have fallen in love once before she died, or that character regrets being unable to protect a family member. The sentimentality is laid on more thickly than the carpet of cherry blossoms that fall all over the screen.
And without strong characters, the story is drained of suspense. We are told so often that everything is "preordained" that we become numb to the destruction. Besides, the apocalypse seems to lose its urgency when this Tokyo seems remarkably depopulated. Buildings crumble, streets crack -- and few people ever seem to be around. Crushing a lot of real estate may be fun to watch, but if the stakes are the fate of humanity, why do we see so few people? Instead, we get the same images over and over: dream sequences, cherry blossoms, speeches about fate, sentimental reveries, cherry blossoms, and property destruction galore.
All these images are beautiful, to be sure. Rintaro's direction in X cannot be faulted. But he does not have much of a script to work with, and it all becomes tiresome by the final act. The battles are fun to watch, and the chaos has its intended cathartic effect. In the end, though, the film's heartfelt pleas for the salvation of the Earth seem rather calculated and shallow. Perhaps there is a muddled sense of purpose here. The Earth Dragons talk about cleansing and renewal: their agenda is to destroy civilization in order to punish it for corruption. The Dragons of Heaven are engaged in protecting the status quo at all costs. But rather than debate the dangers or merits of change -- and the thematic core of the apocalyptic narrative (which we looked at to some length in several Deep Focus columns here at the Verdict) -- the film simply portrays the Earth Dragons as evil, the Heaven Dragons as good, and that is that. Thus, change is bad, urban sprawl is to be protected at all costs, and environmentalists are psychopaths that want to destroy the human race (or, at least, are puppets of evil forces that want to kill us). In a culture like Japan, so precariously balanced between nature and culture, such reactionary Calvinist rhetoric seems odd. And given that both Dragons hide under Japanese government buildings, the subtle political message must have been noticed by CLAMP. Perhaps this explains the empty streets of Tokyo in the film: the script is obligated to depopulate the city rather than confront the implications of the story. Take out the politics and play up the superficial flash.
In a print interview with Animerica magazine included as a supplement on this disc, director Rintaro conspicuously avoids discussing the film's story, diverting the conversation over to topics like the film's musical score (which is quite excellent). He admits that he had to jettison most of the manga story in order to achieve some closure for the film: "We had to show a full-frontal tragedy." The interview does give plenty of background on the director's career, and he gets a change to plug the vastly superior Metropolis at the end. Other extras include an English language trailer (why no Japanese version?) and a set of "tarot cards" with detailed character profiles. Since almost none of these characters gets developed in the actual film, you will need these if you want to tell the characters apart on screen.
As for what the characters are actually saying: the English dub is terrible. It contains at least twice as much dialogue, most in the form of awkward exposition, and the voice actors seem at pains to cram it all in rather than focus on performance. Where Rintaro has at least the good sense to let the visual speak for themselves (as if he knows that the dialogue is going to be nonsense anyway), Manga Video seems intent on trying to explain every plot point, whether necessary or not. And as usual, Manga Video offers the original Japanese soundtrack in 2.0 only, while reserving the 5.1 mix for the English. Oh well, at least the movie is presented in anamorphic widescreen. You are probably better off just turning the sound off (pity there is no music only track -- the score is fine by itself) and watching the pretty pictures.
Is Rintaro making this film in response to Akira (made by occasional artistic collaborator Katsushiro Otomo), trying to pretty up its cyberpunk apocalypse with cherry blossoms and operatic style? If so, the cramped space of the story, with its empty Tokyo and underdeveloped characters, makes the film hollow. One excuse, offered by the director himself in his interview, is that the manga series was unfinished when the film was made, obligating him and CLAMP story editor Nanase Okawa to invent their own climax. But plenty of successful "apocalyptic" films -- Otomo's own Akira or Miyazaki's Nausicaa for instance -- manage to find the time to develop their characters and blow things up within their running times -- and both were produced long before their respective comic book versions reached their rather different finales. Even Rintaro himself managed to juggle, albeit with mixed success, a large cast of characters and cause plenty of property damage in his 1982 film Harmagedon.
Overall, all this criticism of the style-over-substance approach of X may make it sound like an awful film. It is not. It is visually stunning throughout. But it seems like such a missed opportunity, a hollow treat from a director whose talents seem wasted. You will enjoy it as a rental, and marvel at its beautiful imagery, but you are not likely to find yourself returning to it to plum its depths. It just does not have any.
And did I mention that this film has a lot of cherry blossoms?
The members of CLAMP are to be buried in cherry blossoms for not providing a better script for this film. Director Rintaro is released for making a valiant effort to give visual flair to what he had to work with. Manga Video is forced to listen to the English dub of this film until their ears bleed. This court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Manga Video
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Japanese, original language)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Tarot Card Character Profiles
* Photo Gallery
* Interview with Rintaro