X (1996)
AKA X/1999, X: Their Destiny Was Foreordained 1999

Starring Tomokazu Seki, Ken Narita, Yūko Minaguchi, Atsuko Takahata, Junko Iwao, Tōru Furusawa, Masako Ikeda, Kazuhiko Inoue,Mami Koyama, Rica Matsumoto, Kotono Mitsuishi, Issei Miyazaki, Jōji Nakata, Yukana Nogami, Toshihiko Seki, Emi Shinohara, Hideyuki Tanaka, Kōichi Yamadera

Directed by Rintaro

No, the title X has nothing to do with the film’s rating. It is in fact rated R. There’s no sex anywhere, and the only nudity is in the incredibly creepy opening scene where the main character, Kamui, confronts his naked mother. Before Kamui can do much of anything, his mother rips open her own stomach with her bare hands and pulls out a massive sword, which she then stabs into Kamui’s stomach. And just to end the scene on a confusing note, because it wasn’t confusing enough apparently, Mommy dearest spontaneously explodes in a spray of blood and severed limbs. Things like this are why Japan has cornered the WTF market. It certainly grabs your attention, but even after watching the film I’m not sure whether that scene was a dream sequence, or literal event. It doesn’t matter much though, as there isn’t much difference between the two in this movie. People travel through dreams, and the film is filled with apocalyptic visions.

The movie is about the end of the world, and the two groups fighting over it: the Dragons of Heaven who want to preserve modern civilization, and the Dragons of Earth that want to return the world to its natural state. Each side has six members in addition to the two fortune-telling sisters that lead them, and that means there’s obviously going to be some limits on how well we get to know them. Many characters have a sort of “Hi! Bye!” feel to them, just getting enough time to show off their stuff before dying. This film is an adaptation of a comic book series, and the problem of condensing a longer story will always be present. Rintaro has learned a few things in the decade since he directed The Dagger of Kamui, though, and the pacing in X is smooth throughout the film, giving a balanced focus to as many characters as it could.

All the characters have their own unique abilities they use while constantly fighting over the course of the film. The battles have a strange, dreamlike quality to them that matches up with the apocalyptic visions the two prophet sisters keep seeing. All of the combatants seem to be able to fly, or at least drift lazily through the air anyway. Lots of buildings get blown apart, people die, and the battles continue within the wreckage, but the pace of the fights is slow and mesmerizing. It keeps you watching not from frantic excitement, but from something more like hypnosis. There is an artistic elegance to the action scenes that you may find alluring, or perhaps just boring. I loved it, and the action sequences are by far the best part of the film.

At the beginning, they are mostly fighting over which team Kamui will join. The two sisters have seen that Kamui will be the deciding factor in the war, and both try to get him to join their side. This is where the film runs into some problems. It becomes immediately obvious that the Dragons of Heaven are the good guys, and the Dragons of Earth are the bad guys. It plays up the decision that Kamui must make, but then makes the decision so obvious that it really isn’t much of a choice at all. I think they missed a good opportunity to put in some depth and moral complexity to the story and to Kamui’s character. Instead it has a basic good versus evil story that feels a bit stale.

We find out that Kamui’s childhood friend, Fuma, is destined to join the opposite team from Kamui, and here we run into the really big problem with the film. There is little reason for Fuma to do any of his actions at the end of the movie. His personality suddenly and completely changes, and the only reason given for the change is “destiny.” Now some people might consider destiny to be a good motive for a character, but I do not. If you want to tell a story of how man cannot change his fate, that’s fine, but at least give it a plausible method. The rest of the film felt like it was setting up something more compelling, which makes the sudden fumble of Fuma’s personality all the more disappointing. I kept expecting an explanation to come along and make sense of it all, but it never happens. It feels like they just gave up trying to figure out the plot, and decided to end it regardless of how or why. It’s here at the end that some of the Dragons of Earth get a more sympathetic treatment, but underneath the confusion of Fuma’s actions it looses any value it could have added.

With all the problems of the story itself, the movie is mainly held up by those mesmerizing battle scenes. And if that’s going to be the only thing worth watching, they had better look good. Fortunately the animation fits the bill for this one. Mediocre animation would have killed the artistic styling of the action, but this is good stuff. It’s all well done, and brings out the best from the action sequences. The 90s is for me the best period for anime. Standards of quality had risen from earlier decades, yet the use of computers was still limited. X has a few minor CG effects, but nothing that overwhelms the film. Even if the plot ultimately fails, the movie as a whole is gorgeous to watch.

The beauty of the film keeps it from becoming a disaster, but it’s really only enjoyable as an action film. If you turn your brain off and enjoy the explosions, this might be a good ride. But if you want a story that makes some kind of sense in the end, you’ll be better off looking elsewhere.