X: Volume 1
You'd think that an anime based on a manga by CLAMP, directed by the master of stylish violence and atmospheric horror, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, would be enough to tingle my taste buds like a year's worth of fizzy sherbet. It was as well, I was salivating over the prospect of X: The TV Series a few months ago, but then I made the mistake of watching X: The Movie, which Rintaro directed five years prior to this television adaptation. The film attempted to adapt the unfinished manga and squeeze the story into less than two hours. To say it was an unpalatable mess is probably an understatement. It's pretty to be sure, but there was no way I could tell what was going on, the story was compressed beyond belief, character development fell by the wayside, and all that was left was a succession of action set pieces, without context or motivation. There may have been more of a manga to adapt by the time the series came along, but it at least has the scope of a 25 episode run in which to tell its story. But for me, the damage has been done. 100 minutes in the company of the movie has left me dreading this series, and I approach it with less than a favourable frame of mind.
Still, X: The TV Series is a fan favourite of long standing. It has been released twice in the US, the first vanilla release was stretched over eight discs, and this was later followed by a remix release with 5.1 audio in both languages and remastered video, which collected the episodes onto five discs. Obviously, with the current climate, an eight disc release wouldn't work here, but it seems that MVM have opted for something between the first and the remix release, and as usual, Australia's Madman Entertainment have co-authored the discs. We will be getting X across 6 discs, and while there will be a 5.1 English track; the Japanese will be limited to stereo. Curiously, X was released as a three disc, barebones stereo boxset by Siren Entertainment in Australia, but I can find no mention of a Madman release (The difficulty of searching the Internet for 'X' not withstanding). It may be that we are getting this upgraded release before the Australians. I would have been a little concerned at an eight-year-old television anime series coming to the UK after such a long time, but MVM have already paved the way with their releases of the Slayers series, showing there is a market for older anime. To top it all off, Funimation in the US have recently license-rescued X, and plan a third release of the series in 2010. There's plenty of life in the old dog yet.
The millennium is impending, which as we all know means the end of the world. In this case, the end of the world will come about when the Dragons of Earth battle the Dragons of Heaven for the fate of mankind. The Dragons of Earth aim to destroy humanity, and give Earth a clean slate to start afresh. The Dragons of Heaven are their counterparts and they aim to protect humanity. The seer Hinoto has foretold that the fate of the world rests in the hands of one man, Kamui Shiro, and how events will unfold will depend on which path he chooses. When Kamui returns to Tokyo, he's reluctant to even get involved, staying aloof and uninterested. But he's forced to make a choice when his childhood friends Fuma and Kotori Monou are drawn into the conflict.
The first four episodes of X are presented on this MVM disc, as well as the direct to DVD preview episode.
0. An Omen
Kakyou Kazuki once saw his friend Hokuto Sumeragi killed, as he tried desperately to save her. Now he's confined to a hospital bed. He's also a Dragon of Earth, a dreamseer, and all he sees now are visions of the future, all he witnesses is the end of the world, as the Dragons of Earth battle the Dragons of Heaven for the fate of the mankind. And it will all begin with the return of Kamui Shiro to Tokyo, for he is the key to the future.
1. A Reunion
The stars have shifted, the time is at hand, and from shrines and temples (and one brothel) all over Japan, six individuals are drawn to Tokyo. Kamui Shiro also has returned to Tokyo, but only to visit Togakushi Shrine to pick up the Divine Sword that is his birthright. At the last minute, he learns that he has to face a test to earn it. Meanwhile, in Tokyo a young girl named Kotori Monou also dreams of the future, but her most recent dream is much more pleasant, as she sees her childhood friend Kamui finally returning to Tokyo and showing up at her school. Sure enough her dream comes true, but it's not the happy reunion she dreamt of. Kamui is cold and distant, and going out of his way to avoid her. No surprise really, as he's being watched and stalked by mystical forces.
2. A Nightmare
The Dragons of Heaven are watching Kamui; they are the ones testing him to see if he is worthy of the Divine Sword, all based on the vision of seer Hinoto, who believes he is the Kamui of destiny. It isn't a widely shared belief, as some feel he is too selfish and arrogant to be the true 'Kamui'. Kotori is worrying about Kamui's change in personality, although her brother Fuma reassures her. Fuma is about to find out for himself though, as he runs into Kamui after his latest 'test'. Bruised and bloody, he brusquely brushes aside Fuma's offer of help and leaves. Fuma follows him into another world, literally. One of the Dragons of Heaven, Sorata Arisagawa has been keeping an eye on Kamui, trying to find the perfect moment to talk to him, only a curious adversary, Yuto Kigai, interrupts him. Their psychic battle could wreck the area, but Sorata can construct a Barrier Field that puts an area of the city into another dimension, where their battle can take place unobserved and undisturbed by normal people. Except that Fuma passes through the barrier as if it doesn't exist, on his way to Kamui's apartment.
3. A Pledge
Sorata is Kamui's new guardian angel, something that Kamui doesn't take to. In fact he tries to kill Sorata, and the young monk has to make a quick exit before he can finish delivering his message to Kamui. Meanwhile Yuto has taken notice of Fuma's ability to pass through Barrier Fields, and has him down as a person of interest for the Dragons of Earth. Kamui still has an attitude problem, although he does manage to calm down for a moment when he meets Kotori in the school library. He's quickly riled up again when he runs into Arashi, another Dragon of Heaven, who has been ordered to observe him. There's more aggravation when he talks to Fuma, who has been reminiscing about their childhood, and his promise to protect Kamui, after Kamui saved Kotori's life. Kamui roughly tells him to forget about it, casually ignoring their friendship. Suddenly lightning flashes, and both men are struck with a vision of the two of them fighting to the death, in the sky around Tokyo Tower. Kamui's stubbornness finally comes back to haunt him, as Sorata's undelivered message, a vision from his master comes true. The Togakushi Shrine is broken into, Fuma and Kotori's father is attacked, and the Divine Sword is stolen.
4. A Sacrifice
Hinoto is the seer guiding the Dragons of Heaven, and she keeps seeing visions of two Kamuis, two divine swords, which make no sense. Her sister Kanoe is the seer that guides the Dragons of Earth, and she's been stealing her sister's visions, seeing the same thing. The Dragons of Earth are a powerful group with extensive connections. One of their number, Nataku, genetically engineered to be free of emotion, is the one who attacked the shrine and stole the Divine Sword, and that sword is now being analysed by a team of scientists. Despite his stubborn intentions and self-reliance, Kamui is being drawn into the 'Final Battle' following the theft of the sword, the attack on Fuma and Kotori's father, and Sorata's revelations about the future. Part of Kamui's attitude can be explained by his tragic past. He's the last of his family, or so he thought. He's surprised to meet Tokiko Magami, a woman who is the spitting image of his mother, and who claims to be his aunt. She's here to tell him why his mother died.
X gets a 4:3 transfer reflecting the original source. It's a splendid presentation, up there with the best of anime releases, smooth and clear, and as sharp as possible given the inevitable NTSC-PAL conversion. About the only flaw I could pick at is some minor shimmer on fine detail, but it crops up rarely enough to be a major issue. From 2001, this is one of the earlier anime shows to be accomplished within the bowels of a PC, instead of hordes of animators using inks, paints and cel acetate, and it does show, with a uniformity of colour in the characters, and a somewhat excessively clean feel to the animation. But the animation is of decent quality, certainly holding up well today. As you would expect from a director like Yoshiaki Kawajiri, it simply drips atmosphere and style. CLAMP's designs are evident too, in the tall, elegant characters, with distinctive features. X as an anime from the early part of the decade has aged visually, but it has aged well indeed.
As mentioned before, you have a choice between DD 5.1 English, and DD 2.0 Japanese, along with an optional translated subtitle track. It's disappointing that there isn't a separate signs only track, as there is plenty of onscreen text that has to be translated, and it means that dub aficionados will be flipping the subtitles on and off to see what various signs and captions mean. As usual, I only sampled the English dub, and despite such anime dub stalwarts as Crispin Freeman, Lia Sargent and Michelle Ruff in the cast, it's aged worse than the animation has, sounding very much of its time. It's a shame really, as the 5.1 audio is very impressive. It's vibrant, expressive, and put to good use to convey the atmospheric action sequences. X also boasts grand orchestral themes for its incidental music, and helps the show sound epic in scope and scale. Another shame then, that the 5.1 Japanese mix created for the US remix edition couldn't be sourced, although the 2.0 stereo option does sound quite pleasant given the pro-logic polish.
There's nothing too thrilling about the extras on this disc, as they offer just the usual trailers for other MVM product, Shana and Black Lagoon. Of a little more interest is the original trailer for the direct to DVD episode 0, An Omen, but when all is said and done, it's still just another trailer.
It isn't often that I start an anime, stony faced, daring it to entertain me, but the X Movie left a nasty taste in my mouth, and ensured that I dreaded this anime series adaptation with an intensity usually left to vaccinations and dental appointments. The first episode didn't help any, although it has to be stated that it's actually a bonus OVA episode, designed to serve as a quick who's who for fans already familiar with the manga. For me however, it was an unwelcome reminder of the film, serving as a 20 minute burst of action eye-candy, loads of set pieces, random character appearances without context, and absolutely no explanation or idea as to what is going on. Fortunately, this isn't the series, it's just a taster, and the way that it's set up is another example of the old adage, 'there are no new stories, just new ways of telling them'.
The first episode tells the story of Kakyou, Dragon of Earth, and Dreamseer. He has the psychic ability to see the future, somewhat haphazardly it must be said, while he sleeps. It's through his visions of the future that we get an early introduction to the various players in this drama, and the apocalyptic events that are about to befall. However, we have no background to the interrelationships between the characters, nor do we have any explanation as to why these things must happen (which is most reminiscent of the movie). Then I saw the first episode of Flash Forward. At least in this adaptation of X, we get to meet and understand the characters, and the story is developed to greater detail. We've seen a glimpse of what is to happen, and in the subsequent 4 episodes on this disc, we begin to learn how it all does so.
Episode 1 starts, and we get into the story proper… and it's still just like the movie, in that we're thrown in at the deep end, with little context, and not much to go on regarding the characters. Of course, that is how most stories begin, very rarely do we actually start with once upon a time, and usually we start somewhere in the middle, but it's that movie's after-effects that are making me approach this series negatively. It took me a good couple of episodes to shake that negative perception off, and it's all because the series started doing what the film never had the space to do, it began by developing the characters, and filling in the back-story. We begin with the Dragons of Heaven and Kamui; all drawn to Tokyo by the portents in the heavens, realising that the time of prophecy is at hand, and the fate of the world soon to be determined. At this point, it seems that the Dragons of Heaven are yet to be acquainted, and the seer Hinoto only has Arashi at her side. On the other hand, the Dragons of Earth appear to be one step ahead of their foes, being better organised and funded.
This time around, we actually see this characters encounter each other for the first time, there's room to develop the friendships and antagonisms in fits and starts, and there are plenty of flashbacks to give us hints at these characters' pasts, and explain just why they are the way they are. That's very useful, as for much of this first volume, I was dying to know why Kamui was such an asshole, single-minded in his aims, and abusive of all those who got in his way. It's not the best trait to have in a series protagonist, and quite frankly he was putting me off the first half of this volume. Fortunately, the brother sister pairing of Fuma and Kotori were much more amiable. They have been friends of Kamui since childhood, and have had a relatively normal upbringing, although they aren't too pleased to see the changes in their friend, and the awkwardness of their reunion. But, slowly and surely, we're beginning to see the pieces being put together, and getting the background of these characters filled in. The story is developing in a much more robust and rounded manner as well. It all seemed pointless and futile to me in the film adaptation, but here there is more reason behind what is happening, and with the various characters all being developed, it's a much richer and detailed narrative. Of course at this point in time, there are many more questions than answers, and I still get the feeling my most pressing question, just why these individuals have these fantastic abilities, won't be answered any time soon. It's one of those things we are meant to take for granted in the context of the story.
By the end of the episodes on this disc, I was engrossed in the story, and beginning to warm to the characters. It's a thousand miles away from the movie in that respect, and I definitely look forward to finding out what happens next. It doesn't look too long of a wait either, as MVM have apparently opted for a monthly release schedule for X. Still, I have to admit that this isn't exactly my cup of tea. I'm not all that tickled with immutable fate and unchangeable destiny as a story, while the supernatural apocalypse impending in X is just a little vague and unexplained. That will probably be remedied in time, and perhaps a little more depth to the story will make it more palatable. CLAMP's storytelling is a big draw though, and unlike most shows with a cast this big, it's effortlessly simple keeping track of who is who, as the characters are so well defined. Then you have Madhouse's high quality animation, always a big draw, and you have direction from Ninja Scroll's Yoshiaki Kawajiri. There's every reason to buy X, and precious few not to. Just make sure you don't make the same mistake I did. Avoid that misfire of a movie at all costs.