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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Special Guest Edition: X/1999

by Shaenon K. Garrity,

Special Guest Edition: X/1999

CLAMP's longest series until the twin monoliths Tsubasa and xxxHOLiC, X is the exemplar of the group's early manga, combining the epic scope of RG Veda with the contemporary setting and stylish psychic battles of Tokyo Babylon, plus the bleak, gothic tone of both. It ran for over ten years in the nerdy girls’ maagzine Monthly Asuka before ending on an abrupt, eternally unresolved cliffhanger. In Japan, it inspired video games, a TV anime series, and a 1996 film, directed by the acclaimed animator Rintarō and cowritten by CLAMP member Nanase Ohkawa, which provides an ending to the saga (although not necessarily the ending that would have been used in the manga). Of all CLAMP manga, X just may be the CLAMPiest.

As the story opens, rootless teenager Kamui Shiro is returning to Tokyo after six years, having received a message from his mother from beyond the grave. Kamui is soon reunited with his childhood friends, the stoic Fuma and his angelic little sister Kotori, who live together in their family's temple. Kotori is a budding “dreamseer” with the ability to project herself mentally into other people's dreams. Within pages, the trio is under attack by a series of other psychics, mostly hot but troubled teens like themselves.

It seems Kamui is at the center of an apocalyptic battle between two factions of psychic warriors. One group, the Dragons of Heaven, gathers under Hinoto, a powerful dreamseer who lives in the basement of the Diet Building in Tokyo. The other group, the Dragons of Earth, follows Hinoto's jealous sister, Kanoe, who operates out of the basement of City Hall. The Dragons of Heaven want to save humanity; the Dragons of Earth want to destroy it for the good of the planet, having concluded that humans are beyond redemption. Eventually the Dragons of Heaven and the Dragons of Earth accumulate six members each. Kamui's role, it's revealed, is to choose a side, becoming the seventh Dragon and leading the team he chooses to victory.

Each of the Dragons has a different power, backstory, and plotline, which the manga spends volume after volume developing. The cast includes such eclectic characters as Shiyu Kusanagi, a friendly soldier who can telepathically bond with plants and animals; Karen Kasumi, a Catholic call girl with fire powers; and Satsuki Yatoji, a computer expert who has a disturbingly close relationship with her massive, sentient computer, the Beast. Some of the characters are new to X, while others hail from CLAMP doujinshi and other early projects. Hot blond civil servant Yuto Kigai, for instance, originated in an early short manga called Hagun Seisenki, as did Yuzuriha Nekoi, a fourteen-year-old girl whose spirit companion takes the form of a dog only psychics can see. Arashi Kishu, a martial artist who can manifest a sword from her hand, came from an unpublished story. Nataku, a synthetic, androgynous humanoid, was a character in an early, never-produced anime project. Other characters are in-jokes, like manga editor and “wind master” Seiichiro Aoki, named after the editor-in-chief of Asuka who hired CLAMP (the names are pronounced the same but spelled with different kanji).

Early published CLAMP series also get callbacks. Subaru and Seishiro, the protagonists of CLAMP's previous series, Tokyo Babylon, are Dragons fighting on opposite sides. Their rivalry, established at the end of Tokyo Babylon, forms one of the major plot threads in X. The protagonists of Clamp School Detectives, now teenagers, appear in an advisory capacity and reveal the true purpose of the CLAMP School campus.

The early volumes keep busy just establishing the enormous cast. With no fewer than seventeen (!) central characters and countless supporting players, there's little time for any action that doesn't involve characters introducing themselves, fighting, and becoming either enemies or friends, usually against dramatic backgrounds of feathers, religious symbols, Tokyo landmarks, and washes of black.

The story changes direction in Volume 8, the halfway point of the series, in which—spoilers!—Kamui finally makes his decision and sides with the Dragons of Heaven. This precipitates a heel-turn plot twist of the type beloved by CLAMP, which had previously included similar shockers at the climaxes of RG Veda and Tokyo Babylon. (Since CLAMP never ended X, perhaps it's just as well they put the twist ending in the middle.) Fuma suddenly reveals that he's Kamui's twin, turns evil, and joins the Dragons of Earth. The two teams are now perfectly balanced and launch into a final battle for the fate of life on Earth.

Theoretically, anyway. After the dramatic division between Kamui and Fuma, the story loses narrative drive. The characters spend a lot of time hanging around, waiting for prophetic things to happen so they can go out and shoot at each other with psychic blasts. The central plot slows down amid flashbacks, exposition, and symbolic dream sequences.  One by one, Dragons on both sides get picked off; some die, while others lose their powers or simply leave in despair. It becomes clear that the sprawling cast will ultimately be whittled down to Kamui and Fuma, and Volume 18 ends with Kamui deciding to force the confrontation. In the final published page, Hinoto announces that the final battle is nigh, and then…nothing.

Relentlessly dark, intense, and humorless, X disturbed many readers—not to mention parents who flipped through their daughters’ copies of Asuka. From the beginning, the magazine received complaints about the manga's content. Then, in 1995, the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck downtown Kobe, killing over 6,000 people and leaving 300,000 homeless. In the wake of one of the most devastating natural disasters in Japan's history, the apocalyptic earthquakes used as a plot device in X suddenly seemed in bad taste. CLAMP contacted Asuka with its concerns, and it was agreed that X would be pulled from the magazine until the quake was no longer fresh in the public mind.

In 1997, Kobe was struck by a smaller, but no less horrifying, tragedy, the “Sakakibara Incident.” Two schoolchildren were murdered by a fourteen-year-old boy, dubbed “Boy A” by the authorities (Japanese law protects the identities of minors accused of crimes) but referred to in the media as Sakakibara, the name signed to a note left with the second victim. Although “Boy A” was a uniquely disturbed individual who tortured animals and fantasized about murder from an early age, reports that he also enjoyed gorey movies and TV shows sparked a wave of panic about violence in the media. In response to complaints about violent imagery, X was once again pulled from Asuka.

X returned to serialization after a few months, but readers continued to complain whenever a popular character died a gruesome death, and the members of CLAMP were getting tired of regular threats of cancellation. Beyond that, they were increasingly worried about the impact of their work on readers. It felt like a good time to move away from bleak, depressing subject matter. In 2003, when the editors of Asuka raised concerns about the graphic nature of the planned ending of the series, CLAMP elected to stop drawing X rather than censor it. They were unable to find another magazine willing to publish the ending, which remains unfinished.

Visually, X begins as a more polished iteration of the gothic excess of RG Veda, with some of the urban stylishness of Tokyo Babylon (but none of the amusing fashions). Pages sprawl lavishly. One sequence in Volume 1 consists of no fewer than eight double-page collage spreads in a row. Symbolic imagery crowds the artwork, suggesting everything and nothing: feathers, cherry blossoms, pentagrams, swords, flames, angel and devil wings, religious iconography from a plethora of faiths. As the series goes on, the art gets rougher and looser, looking on some pages like a preview of the shonen-style action art in later CLAMP manga Angelic Layer and Tsubasa.

X often seems like a catalog of characters and arresting images in search of a story. The thin plot thread is in constant danger of getting totally lost amid the characters and their countless side stories, and it's never clear if all the symbolism means anything, or if it's just there because it looks good. Religious imagery abounds—each of the Dragons of Heaven represents a different religious faith, there are references to the Book of Revelation, a crucial death occurs by crucifixion—but is this really a story about religion?

In the end, the central theme of X is the nature and need for human connection. All the Dragons of Earth have trouble forging human relationships; they're either emotionally disconnected or more attached to animals, plants, or machines. Meanwhile, the bonds between the Dragons of Heaven become their greatest strength. It's a theme CLAMP would return to many times, in manga as different as Chobits and Clover and Cardcaptor Sakura. In the manga of CLAMP, basic emotional connection is one of the most fragile and fleeting, but most vital, forces in the universe.

As with most of its suspended projects, CLAMP periodically talks about reviving X. At their 2006 Anime Expo panel, the members said that they planned to finish the series at 21 volumes, to match the 21 cards of the Tarot. However, there have been no new chapters since 2003.

X was the first CLAMP manga translated into English. Retitled X/1999 because of copyright issues with an existing Dark Horse comic called X, it launched in 1996 from Viz as shojo manga was just starting to take off in the U.S. The Viz edition ran first as a monthly 32-page comic, then as a feature in the magazine Animerica Extra, and finally as a series of graphic novels. More recently, Viz has reprinted the series, now titled just X, in a fat Three-In-One omnibus edition. And yet when you reach the end, those haunted psychics are still poised for their final battle, never to touch, while the dark fate of the Earth hangs forever in the balance.

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete GuideKing of RPGs and H.P. Lovecraft's Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. He also reviews manga for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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