Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Sep 9th 2010
DVD Complete Series
The battle for the fate of the world is approaching. On one side are the Dragons of Earth, or the Seven Angels, seven powerful individuals who believe that the Earth should be reborn and humanity purged. On the other are the Dragons of Heaven, or the Seven Seals, seven equally powerful men and women who believe that humanity should be spared and the current world preserved. Should the Seven Angels succeed in destroying each of the Seals, humanity will perish. Should the Seals destroy the Angels, humanity will live. Both sides are equally matched, but their seers—stargazers and dream-trippers with their fingers on the pulse of fate—foretell of an undecided one whose choice will tip the balance. His name is Kamui, and his fate is a particularly cruel one.
Often during the dark, bloody course of its running, X feels like an outlet for all that is black, ugly and despairing about CLAMP's work. The famed manga collective suffuses even their lightest fare with dark undercurrents, often in the form of tragic pasts and painful secrets. Even the sweetest of their sweet—Cardcaptor Sakura—had menace in its magic. But X is another beast altogether, a relentless outpouring of misfortune, tragedy and betrayal soaked in end-of-the-world doom and good old-fashioned blood.
The series follows, more or less, the fates of the Seven Seals as they carry on a running battle for the fate of humanity with the Seven Angels. That basic summation may lead to certain expectations of shonen-styled action, and on some level those expectations are not entirely misguided. Strip the series to its bones and you have a superpowered boy and his six companions pairing off against their villainous counterparts to fight in a series of battles that leads inevitably to a climactic bout between leaders. Which is basically the plot of every shonen story arc ever written. But there the similarities end. X isn't played for fun. There is no catharsis in the fights and little satisfaction in their conclusions (though plenty of top-notch action). Its outlook is unremittingly bleak, its ambitions heavy, and its plotting pointedly sadistic. In short, it is absolutely not an action-adventure lark.
Its bleakness can make the series rather difficult to stomach, particularly when it gets around to killing or emotionally flogging its more sympathetic characters—which it does with gusto after the first of CLAMP's inevitable twists about halfway through. But there's a method to the show's S&M madness. Its ambition is nothing less than the creation of a modern myth, and suffering is an integral part of its mythology. It supplies it with its iconography (crucifixion, blood) and most importantly, plays a crucial role in its vision of fate-with-a-capital-F; namely in its long and visceral demonstration that Fate can only be changed at the expense of unspeakable sacrifice. Again and again characters give up their happiness, their sanity, and their lives to alter their fates—futilely in the short term, but fruitfully in the long. In that light, the series' obsession with the evil and ugliness that the good must suffer becomes a kind of backhanded optimism: if one only gives enough, it is possible to shift the very axis of the universe. Empowering, that; though in a sick kind of way. And powerful. CLAMP's dark fin de siècle myth may not always make sense—the specifics of its mythology are easier to punch holes in than a rice paper door—but it is undeniably resonant.
None of which, however, makes it any easier to watch. That the characters are on a whole strong, memorable, and instantly likeable (Kamui excepted) doesn't help either—after all they live under constant, and excruciating, threat of death, dismemberment, madness, or some admixture thereof. They do, however, make watching compulsory. The series may be less than elegant in its plotting (it does love its bald plot devices), but it is unimpeachable in the establishment and tragic evolution of its characters and their relationships. Especially their relationships. From the doomed love of Arashi and Sorata, two Seals whose romance was foretold to bring death, to the infinitely fragile first love of teen Seal Nekoi (for a much older man on the opposite side of the Final Battle), X's relationships are delicately constructed, powerfully involving, and brutally imperiled. And therein lies the series' evil little Catch-22. As hard as it is to watch the cast and their almost pathetically vulnerable relationships being pummeled by the savage storms of fate CLAMP summons, it's torture to stop before figuring out whether they will survive. Once the characters, and their relationships, work their way into you—and work they will—you're stuck, right to the bitter end.
Madhouse top gun Yoshiaki Kawajiri, making a rare foray into television, does his best to make sure that being thus stuck isn't as dreary and unpleasant as it might otherwise be. He directs with cold precision, moving the series so smoothly and efficiently from one signature twist to the next that you hardly even feel it hit the plot holes in between. Perfectly calculated cliffhangers keep the episodes flowing one into the other while masterly execution of the plot's midway shift and the subsequent kinks in the cast's relationships obscures their essential arbitrariness. His vision of the tale is chilly and distant, yet so gorgeously composed and fluidly executed that it never feels stiff, and so dramatically accomplished that it never comes across as unfeeling.
It isn't his best work on a purely technical level, though. As carefully as he has reproduced the intense eyes, feathered lashes, and razor lines of CLAMP's designs, he can't make them move and emote quite the way he wants—courtesy of his television-sized budget no doubt—and he of necessity limits full animation to a handful of truly beautiful, and surpassingly important, scenes. Nevertheless he manages to fill the series with unforgettable images (the sleekly forbidding beauty of nighttime Tokyo, the menacing Matrix coolness of Kamui's "twin star") and powerfully realized sequences (the awakening of Shadow Kamui). His use of Naoki Sato's operatic score, and its signature composition (a rising surge of drums and strings that can also be played on a lonely piano if the mood dictates) is aimed straight at the gut, adding melodramatic punch to both the action and drama. All in all, it's as clean, quick and absorbing as a slow-motion, death-riven march to the Apocalypse can be.
Funimation adds nothing (and removes but a little) from Geneon/Pioneer's original releases. The extras are basically the same: fairly pedestrian interviews (15 minutes of them) with Kawajiri and the two male leads, Episode 0 (an OVA teaser for the series proper), and clean versions of the superb opener and quietly forgettable closer. The dub is also the same: same attention to casting, same fidelity in scripting, same spotty acting that sabotages a few too many of the more devastating scenes. It's worth watching only if you absolutely cannot stand Japanese, or absolutely must get your Crispin Freeman fix (his Fuma—Kamui's best friend—is its one genuine highlight).
As of this writing, it's still possible to pick up floating copies of Geneon/Pioneer's superior releases on the cheap, which makes this re-release, while an invaluable service to future generations, a less than ideal purchase for any current serious X fan. But if you're a curious newbie with bucks to blow, this economy package is a fine way to introduce yourself to one of the more ambitious and potent, if flawed, series of the early 00's.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : B+
+ A gorgeously realized fin de siècle epic with intellectual ambitions and heartbreak to spare.
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