X, sometimes called X/1999, is a 1996 feature film that’s notable for the varied talent behind it. The film is based on the manga of the same name by CLAMP (Tokyo Babylon, Card Captor Sakura, and numerous other works), directed by Rintaro (Astro Boy, Galaxy Express 999, Dagger of Kamui), and a cast featuring a number of popular voice acting talents. And yet, I have a hard time deciding whether or not all of this talent met what they set out to do, or if it was squandered.
The weakest aspect of X is, by far, the script. The manga was still far from complete at the time that production began, and in fact remains incomplete to this day. Not because the story is still ongoing, but because production was halted by a mixture of concerns over its content and CLAMP’s desire to keep the story’s eventual ending unchanged.
Incomplete stories haven’t stopped movie adaptations before; the film Akira, for example, is a heavily truncated version of the tale told in Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga that leaves out a tremendous amount of the complete plot. But because so much of X had yet to be written at the time of the film’s production, and because there were so many characters to give screen time, the greater backstories and character arcs were sacrificed. The movie became a straight-forward action film with a bare minimum of plot and next to no characterization.
What little plot there is can be summed up fairly easily. After the teenager Kamui watches his mother die in a fire (but not before she presents him a sword that she tears out of her own flesh), he returns to Tokyo to be with his childhood friends, the brother and sister Fuma and Kotori. As he returns, however, two warring factions, the Dragons of Heaven and the Dragons of Earth, begin a final battle to determine the fate of humanity. If the Dragons of Heaven win, life goes on as normal. If the Dragons of Earth win, humanity is cleansed from the planet so that nature can restore itself. Each side is made up of seven people from all walks of life.
Kamui, meanwhile, is the Chosen One. The side he picks will ultimately influence the outcome, but with unforeseen consequences. Namely, by picking his side, he unwittingly drafts Fuma into the same role on the opposing force, and Kotori is caught in the middle. He had come to Tokyo with the desire to protect his friends, but fate derails those desires in rather spectacular fashion.
Beyond these important points, almost everything else that’s said and done is purely done in service to the action, as the Dragons of Heaven and Earth battle each other with mystical and spiritual powers. They leap hundreds of feet in the air, summon elemental forces, slash at each other with swords, and one character even has a supercomputer at her beck and call and can use the city’s electrical infrastructure as a weapon.
It’s good, then, that these action scenes are so well done, with great choreography, pacing, and attention to smaller details like the way water begins to flow from a character’s hands or electricity arcs from fingertips. Blood alternately flows, oozes, and splashes, painting a picture that’s both gruesome and eye-catching. The violence on display is often graphic, but is also treated with a sense of artistry, rather than the grotesque.
The other half of what makes X worth watching is made up of the dreamlike visuals on display, both in between and intermingling with the violence. Visions of futures that are yet to be, premonitions of characters’ fates, and the ways that these dreams mesh with reality give the film a stylish visual flair that could be summed up, as a friend of mine has often said, as “blood and cherry blossoms.”
I’ve mentioned how bloody and violent that the film is on multiple occasions now, but truthfully, these aspects are present throughout X. Those that were introduced to the storyline in the 2001 TV series may be in for quite a shock, as the film is a much more bleak, darker vision. The ending in particular couldn’t be more different. There is no noble sacrifice here; only personal tragedy and cruel fate.
Before I close, I’d like to offer this personal anecdote. I was in college when X was first released in North America, and prior to the DVD release, Manga Entertainment gave the film a very limited theatrical run. A theater near my university happened to host one of the first (if not the very first) theatrical presentations on this continent, and I went to see it with the rest of the university’s anime club. And while everything I said above held true then as it does now, it was also my first and only experience with the English dub, which can only be described as comical in its awfulness. Part of this is no doubt due to a shoddy English translation of an already thin script, but the acting itself does it no favors. The final scene, meant to be tragic, left the entire theater in a fit of laughter because of the line delivery (though the actual context does admittedly provide for some unintentional comedy on its own, outside of any voice work). I have no plans to make commentary on subs versus dubs a regular part of this feature, but when it comes to X, if you are ever given the choice, I’d strongly suggest watching the subtitled version.
Regardless of what language X is viewed in, and despite its bare-bones, scaled-back plot, X is well worth watching for its visuals alone. It’s a movie that I can still pop in and watch when I just want to unwind; easy to digest, beautiful to behold. Those that want a more substantial take on the storyline would be best-suited to look elsewhere, but for those looking for a visual treat, it’s one I’d easily recommend.
X is not rated, but contains graphic violence and nudity. The movie was released on DVD through Manga Entertainment.