February 13, 2003 -- "X" is a Japanese feature-length animation about an apocalyptic fight to the death among groups of opposing forces. The fate of the world hangs in the balance, fate being the operative word here. It sounds like a lot of action, but it turns out to be a pretty slow-moving story. Part of the reason it moves so slowly is that it takes time to introduce the 20 or so main characters in the film. It also takes some time to show each of these characters being hacked to death with swords. This later activity makes up the bulk of the film. To say it is dark is an understatement. There are two versions of this anime in existence, one is a feature film version and the other is a television version which is considerably longer. Both are apparently based on a story from a manga. What I am reviewing is the feature film version, which is probably inferior to the TV version.
The story has to do with two groups of dragons, the dragons of the earth and the dragons of the sky. Most of the time, these dragons look like people, but sometimes they look like dragons. These dragons have magical powers, but they prefer to fight with samurai swords. If the earth dragons win the battle for Tokyo, all humans on earth will be killed in order for the other animals and plants in the world to thrive. The earth dragons are the ultimate eco-terrorists, carrying the environmental ethic to its ultimate "final solution" conclusion. If the sky dragons win, what's left of Tokyo and humanity will be saved. The central characters, Kamui Shirô, head of the sky dragons, and Fûma Monô, head of the earth dragons are unaware of their roles in the coming battle and don't even know they have special powers. In fact, they are best friends. They have to fight each other to the death because they are told it is their destiny to do so. Kamui can choose sides (well, not really), but Fûma has no choice but to fight against Kamui.
This is all foretold early in the film by dream-catching sisters Hinoto and Kanoe who are on opposite sides of this cosmic struggle. Kamui's dead mother comes to him in a dream with more prophecies, complete with a bloody and hilariously over-the-top oedipal image. This "tell 'em what's going to happen, then tell 'em again, then show them" kind of story telling makes the story crawl along at a glacial pace. About the third time I heard the words "the war has already begun," I was thinking "I got the message already! Can't we just move it along?"
This film includes some interesting imagery, but it is nowhere near the best in the field of anime. There was little or no movement in many frames. Character movements were stiff and formal. There was a lack of detail in the faces. The film is extremely violent and misogynistic. Not once, but twice, viewers are subjected to the gory, sadistic, phallic vision of long swords being pulled from the guts of women, one of them nude. One young girl is stabbed in the gut with a very long sword while hanging on a cross. Christian, Oriental and phallic symbols litter the screen from beginning to end. The screen is awash with blood.
This is a very sick film. It is also quite predictable, since much of what happens in the film is foretold in a number of dream sequences early in the film (which further slows the pace of the film). I've seen some reviews which claim there is a twist at the end. There is no twist. The ending is no surprise (unless you fall asleep during the film, which is a distinct possibility) and the final battle is disappointing. None of the battle scenes is very well done. A blur of action, and it is over. Extreme close up angles prevent the viewer from seeing any real swordplay or fighting skill. A number of people are literally stabbed in the back, which is neither sporting, nor interesting. Battles can be made interesting, these were not. They were boring, bloody and repetitious.
I can understand the notion of destiny in the context of this film. The problem with everything being destined is that the characters in the film have no choice. Since they have no choice there is no reason to go through the motions. They might as well have mailed in their battles. All of them, and Tokyo, would have been better off if they had decided to go on vacation and skip the whole apocalyptic battle business. There is little in the way of character development, but you don't really need it if every character is destined to behave as they do.
I'm glad, by the way, I don't live in Tokyo. It is always getting destroyed, either by Godzilla, or by feuding dragons. The story was written by a famous Japanese writing team known as "Clamp," but Clamp would not be famous if this is the best it could come up with. I saw this film on DVD with English dubbing. The dubbing was poor, with very stilted, formal dialogue. This film probably makes more sense in the original Japanese and it probably makes more sense to those who have read the manga or seen the TV shows on which it is based, or are familiar with the legends and traditions upon which it is based. To the rest of us, who are not swayed by these particular legends and traditions, it has to stand on its own. It rates a D, as in dull and depressing.
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