There's something about Japanese animation that lends itself to extremes, particularly when it comes to the plot. Alas, this means that much of the time animé comes in one of two flavours: either it's so overloaded with everything the authors had hoped to fit in as to be nearly incomprehensible... or it grabs just one concept by the jugular and squeezes until it chokes, rendering the whole show an empty and somewhat dissatisfying attempt at storytelling.
X more or less falls into that latter camp. Despite the starkly polarised response this movie received after its Western theatrical release in 2000 (it came out in Japan in 1996), it's not a 'bad film' per se. Rather, it merely sets out to achieve what most fans of the original story consider to be a very lacklustre goal... namely, to render the final confrontation between two warring supernatural factions as a spectacular deluge of lavish battle scenes and not much else.
The original manga [Japanese comics] on which the film is based is at its heart a fairly bog-standard apocalyptic tale of 'Good' and 'Evil', represented in the X universe by the Dragons of Heaven and the Dragons of Earth, two camps which can safely be said to have a marked difference of opinion over what 'saving the Earth' means. To the Dragons of Heaven, this means saving humanity. The Dragons of Earth take a more literal approach, and think that the Earth would be a lot better off if Mankind was eliminated entirely. (You know, the standard arguments about us mucking up the environment, causing mass extinctions of other species, and generally trying to kill each other at every available political opportunity.)
Each of these groups consists of seven dragons which (when not in their stylish end-of-the-world guise) manifest as humans. In point of fact, they all were humans before they were recruited to serve in this new capacity as harbingers of Armageddon. They owe their new positions – if not their new powers – to the 'Dream Watchers', two mystical ladies gifted with the ability to move freely through the dreams of all Mankind and (as a fringe benefit) perceive the various potential futures in store for the Earth. As is always the way in such cases, these women are sisters. Hinoto is a childlike, blind, deaf mute who communicates only via telepathy, advises world leaders (OK, the Japanese government) and has assembled the Dragons of Heaven to help protect the Seven Seals of Heaven (which, what a coincidence, are all located in Tokyo). Similarly, Kanoe – a grown woman who is supposed to be Hinoto's 'younger' sister – has gathered together the Dragons of Earth with the primary goal of destroying the Seven Seals in order to clear the way for Armageddon.
No, we're not done yet. Thrown into this already volatile mix are three childhood friends – Kamui (a boy), Fuuma (a boy), and Kotori (a girl). Somewhere in his early teens, Kamui leaves the two of them with the promise that he would return someday to protect Kotori. Why Kotori needs protecting and why Kamui had to depart in the first place aren't entirely clear, but several years later Kamui encounters his mum in a disturbing vision where she instructs him to return to Tokyo... and it's around this point that the film actually begins. Yes, that's right – the previous two paragraphs are backstory that the film doesn't bother to include (even in the form of flashbacks).
And this is why those fans who hate this film really hate this film. They point to the story in the manga (which last I checked ran to almost twenty weighty volumes) – wherein each of the aforementioned nineteen roles receives a great deal of individual attention and character development – and proclaim, 'This is X! Forget the film!' Their frustration is understandable, as from what I gather the personal histories and long-running interplay between the lead characters in X are what really make the story worthwhile. As these details are never even addressed in the film, all the viewer is left with is a beautiful, painfully-stylish, and ultimately-hollow spectacle.
Which is not to say the show doesn't also have its fanatic devotees, primarily people who are unfamiliar with the manga and new to animé in general. For these viewers, the combination of exciting battle sequences with the gorgeous look and feel of X proves satisfying enough. And indeed, the film is beautiful to behold. But with its extremely sketchy – and in places non-existent – character development, it's very hard to actually care about what happens to anyone in the film. They fight, they die. Rinse and repeat. (In fact, some of the leads die before they are even named, which is pretty inexcusable.)
Curiously, X's lack of backstory and character development doesn't render it incomprehensible. It's certainly very fragmented, but the actual plot of the film isn't all that hard to understand; it's merely shallow and formulaic. In the on-disc interview with the director, he reveals that this was intentional... that he realised early on that to make the show self-contained would require ditching most of the story elements from the manga. A shame then that most of X's fanbase loved the print version for its story.
When it comes to picture quality, X is no slouch. This is an exceptionally nice looking show, a prime example of animé executed in the last few years with a full feature-length budget. The animation is exceptionally fluid and comes across as particularly impressive during the film's many fight scenes. (And I do mean 'many'!) The production values are quite high, from the use of Mad House (the animation studio responsible for the famous Ninja Scroll) to bringing Yuuki Nobuteru on-board to create the character designs (if you've seen Escaflowne, you've seen his work).
On a side note, there seemed to be some confusion over whether this film wanted to be a shoujo [girls'] or shounen [boys'] show. Nobuteru's character designs fall very much into the former camp – particularly with Kamui possessing a vaguely-androgynous beauty – and this seems to be backed up by the never-ending swarms of cherry blossom petals floating about in every other scene. On the other hand, fan service [conveniently exposed female flesh] abounds, and the characters from the X manga only seem to come together in the film to fight one another... both of which suggest the show is aimed at guys. Weird.
X benefits from a widescreen (1.85:1) cinematic presentation, but I'm afraid that – unlike the Japanese R2 version – this Manga release isn't anamorphic. Ignoring this one niggling drawback, the video transfer itself didn't have any problems I could detect... other than maybe being ever-so-slightly soft overall. Colours were bold with no washed-out tones, lines were crisp, and even in the many night scenes I only noticed macroblocking once or twice.
The sound on this disc is also quite good. Manga was kind enough to provide Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround tracks in both Japanese and English, as well as a DD 5.1 track in English only. I watched the film the whole way through in the original Japanese but only spot-checked of each of the English tracks here and there. What I found is that there seems to be very little difference in audio experience between the Surround tracks and the 5.1 on this DVD. Either way you get room-filling sound coming at you from all sides and good stereo directionality. The 5.1 may have had that little extra bit of punch, but it's a hard call. (Apparently the Japanese R2 release features a truly superb Japanese DD 5.1 track, but that's the way it goes...)
As for whether the dub or the sub is the way to go with X, I'd recommend listening to the Japanese track rather than the English one, but not for the usual reasons. This isn't one of those animé where the English voice acting is atrocious... in point of fact, I'd say both the English and Japanese VAs are about on par with one another (which is to say, merely OK). However, the English dub takes many, many liberties with the translation – and there's even one point early on in the film where over a minute's worth of explanatory English narration has been added over what is only music and atmospheric sound effects in the original Japanese version.
Speaking of the music, it's not bad at all. X being a recent production, it features J-pop [Japanese popular music] stars on the soundtrack, particularly the main theme ('Forever Love') by Yoshiki. The instrumental score was done by Harumitsu Shimuzu and I think really carried the film well.
The menus on this disc are very flash, and remind me of the ones on other quality releases by Manga (Blood: The Last Vampire and Perfect Blue come to mind). Both the main menu and the special features menu are fully-animated and look great, with music flowing in the background and superb transitions between each screen. By contrast, the Scene Access and Disc Set-Up menus are static and silent, and the former is a bit confusing to navigate with its weird pentagram layout. (On the plus side, though, it does provide a very generous 15 chapter breaks.)
There's a good spread of special features on this DVD, including: Tarot Cards, Photo Gallery, Director's Interview, Theatrical Trailer, and Manga Extras.
Of these, the most useful is certainly the Tarot Cards, which helpfully present the capsule biographies of the 19 main characters of X, accompanied by still images for identification purposes. I didn't want to give myself any spoilers, so I chose not to look at these before watching the film. Don't repeat my mistake... unless you've already read the manga, I would highly recommend reading through each and every one of these tarot cards before playing X, because you'll get a lot more enjoyment out of it that way.
The Photo Gallery consists of 26 widescreen stills taken directly from the film itself, which is a little disappointing when you realise there must be a great deal of production artwork that could have been included as well. The Director's Interview is a text-only reprint of one conducted with Hayashi Shigeyuki for ANIMERICA magazine, and has 23 static pages of content. It's a pretty good interview, with interesting bits and a few interesting revelations... although mostly about the director's other projects. (He's been in the business a long time, and has worked on everything from Dagger of Kamui to Harmagedon to A Wind Named Amnesia to Metropolis.) He also goes into a fair amount of detail concerning his working relationship with CLAMP, a renowned group of four female Japanese animators/writers who have together produced many fan-fave animé series over the years (e.g., Card Captor Sakura and Magic Knight Rayearth)... and the ones responsible for creating the X manga in the first place.
The Theatrical Trailer is good – in some ways, better than the film – with plenty of action, cuts to and away from a few excellent battle scenes, and a pounding soundtrack that really pulls you in. (Strangely, the music from the trailer doesn't seem to appear in the actual film.) If I had seen this in the cinema just before X was set for its Western theatrical release, I would have been very interested in catching this film.
Manga Extras is essentially a sub-menu which features previews for other Manga DVD releases, merchandise and catalogue information, and links to various related websites. Overall, the special features on this disc are very respectable for an animé release.
X has a lot going for it... and almost as much going against it. The animation is lovely (albeit unrepentantly gory and violent, even for an apocalyptic animé), the character designs attractive (too bad then that almost everyone gets killed), the audio immersive (even if the voice acting itself is only middling), and the extras quite decent.
Unfortunately, the film isn't great. Which is quite the let-down, as the original manga allegedly chronicles a sweeping tale that incorporates little things like character development and an examination of backstory. From the research I did in preparation for writing this review, I get the distinct feeling that there's a great story behind this film... which unfortunately never quite makes it into the chaotic jumble that is the film itself. So if you want spectacle, go ahead and rent it... but if you want story, well, maybe go read the print version instead.