Review: X (1997)

Directed by:

Distributed in Australia by:

Let’s just get this out of the way first shall we. This is a film about titanic cosmic struggles, colossal psychic powers and the beginning of the end, and it’s violent.

Not as violent as some anime available granted, if you’ve ever had the extremely questionable pleasure of Urotsukidoji, but Digimon the Second Generation it isn’t. So if you’re upset by the sight blood, even of the animated variety, or multi-story buildings collapsing (and after what’s happened in the world, it isn’t exactly easy to watch) then perhaps you should go and rent Sakura Card Captor. It’s pretty cool, and there are cute things flying around everywhere.

If however you’re not the squeamish type, can distance yourself from reality and have a hankering for something a little more intellectual than aerial battles in machines that look like people anyway, Clamp’s X may be the film for you. Yes it’s nasty at times, but its moral dilemmas are a little more complex than average. And yes, there might be a fair amount of blood, but the shedding of it has a certain violent beauty that’s hard to resist, from its ground zero battle scenes right down to the tragic figures of its cast.

In fact, there’s a lot about X that’s beautiful. There’s an undeniable visual grace in the animation, long quiet moments where surreal, dreamlike states take hold, the soundtrack weaves a sometimes haunting spell that slides around in the back of one’s consciousness. And then there are Clamp’s trademark characters – attractive, uber-slender men with shoulders as disproportionately broad as their hips are narrow and limbs are long; delicate, creamy complexioned women with possessed hair and eyes so large that they may or may not have been engineered through extra-terrestrial genetic experiments. They populate this Armageddon Drama with all the style, sophistication and seductive allure of Lucifer himself. Which is altogether appropriate since the world they are living in is just about to go to hell.

Fate’s a bitch, apparently.

As with most anime, X is based on a manga series of the same name. Clamp is a creative collective of four (originally eleven) women who started in the industry as doujinshi-ka — the Japanese equivalent of fanzine comics creators. Doujinshi-ka sometimes enjoy huge distribution and sales and it is possible for many artists to become successful enough to support themselves and their work. Clamp became wildly popular and so moved from doujinshi to manga-kas, publishing professionally under the Asuka Comics banner and turning their skills to writing and drawing shoujo, or girl’s manga.

Shoujo is a genre that usually targets girls around 6 to 18 but is not entirely limited to that age group and gender or by misconceived notions of exclusively romantic content. Rather it emphasises emotions, atmosphere and mood rather than action, uses a slightly less literal, sequential storytelling treatment, is more expressionistic (in the visual arts sense of the term) and very, very rarely is anyone or anything ever really ugly.

But don’t let this idea put you off other Clamp work. In-depth information in English about the group is rare and brief (and unfortunately my Japanese isn’t quite that good yet), but it seems the group are not known to be limited to the terms of the genre within which they write. They have an awe-inspiring track record with several diverse, hugely successful manga series in Japan, including Sakura Card Captor, Magic Knights Rayearth, Clover, Tokyo Babylon and RG Veda, and tend to write dark, graphic depictions of both violence and love, for male and female audiences and at a slightly more adult level. X particularly is a figurehead work of more mature subject matter, a complex moral tale in its manga form and certainly not for the young or squeamish in its animated incarnation.

It is a little unfortunate that this complexity couldn’t be brought into the animated film as it seems to be general consensus across the net with anime and manga fans alike that this isn’t the best work that Clamp has ever done. Non-Japanese speaking (or reading) otaku however have to take what they can get, where they can get it and as an anime there is little to complain about. The voice overs, public enemy number one when they are done badly, have a minimum cringe factor, the music and visuals are sumptuous, and the action is balanced with plot. It’s a fun, thoughtful and bloody romp towards the apocalypse. Considering the quality of some anime available, I found it much better than average.

Unfortunately, admiring the intricacies of the manga I couldn’t help but want a little more. The bonds between Kamui, Kotori and Fuuma are there yes, but there isn’t really a lot of time to become truly involved in them. Considering the translation from 17 and counting books into 90 or so minutes this is understandable and only occasionally does the film fail in the trade off between the detail of the original story and the need for plot cohesion in the time given. Things are a little rushed and there are a couple of unanswered questions but this is more than made up for with all the trippy dream sequences, cool psychic battles and bloody smackdowns that ensue as destiny starts looking more like reality.

Not exactly for the faint-hearted, X is a dark tale of moral gray areas, a twisted, apocalyptic journey in which fate is inevitable and resistance may be futile. The characters might be pretty, but they die in glorifyingly ugly ways and the coming end of the world is as horrific and final as you might ever want to imagine.

8 bloody, sword-wielding Angelic Harbingers out of 10.
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