may leave American audiences
scratching their heads.
by Coury Turczyn
Back in primordial timesthe early 70sI enjoyed Japanimation without even realizing it. As an urbane first-grader, my after-school hours were consumed by logging on to the most impressive technology of the day: UHF. Whereas the three main TV channels were only good on Saturday mornings, the UHF channels made it their business to service my demographic each and every weekday. Thus, from about 4 o'clock onward, my gaze was locked on to our B&W Panasonic, mesmerized by three cartoon shows: Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, and Speed Racer.
I'm sure my parents couldn't make much sense of them. The episodes consisted of stiff animation, nonsensical plots, and characters who all seemed to talk and look alike. Produced in Japan, the shows had been imported to the U.S., redubbed but still inscrutable. Nevertheless, I loved them, and gave them much more attention than my homeroom teacher. Much the same thing is happening today with the Pokémon TV show, movies, trading cards, and tie-in products ad infinitumlots of fanatic kids, many befuddled parents. While I ought to be feeling a pleasant tingle of deja vu, I am instead chagrined at the regimentedness of it all and wonder if kids aren't just succumbing to mass marketing and media hype. Back in that long-lost era of UHF, you could gently discover things on your own instead of having every cable channel, website, and magazine drill it into your head that next month's movie or toy or game is going to be HOT! so you'd better buy it as soon as you can.
Nevertheless, Pokémon's popularity has brought widespread attention to Japanese anime (cartoons) and manga (comic books); once cult items here, they now have American publishers as well as their own magazines targeting the teen set. What's more, Hollywood studios are actually importing some movies for stateside distribution, such as Miramax's all-star dubbing and release of the epic Princess Mononoke last year. And now we have X, an apocalyptic tale directed by none other than Rintaro, the 30-year veteran behind the original Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. I ought to be thrilled; the only problem is I can't make much sense of it.
Originally produced in 1996, X is based on a manga series drawn by Clamp, an art studio in Japan of four women. Extremely popular there, it has all the hallmarks of great manga storytelling: a brave young hero with superpowers, a love interest, prophesies, wisecracking side characters, mystical beings with psychic abilities, and grand themes about humanity itself. In Japan, manga and anime are more than just childish diversionsmuch of the content is quite adult in flavor, and often resides on bestseller lists or top box office charts. These are whole universes of imaginative stories being told outside our Hollywood system, so any peek we can get of them is akin to stepping into a new world with different icons, references, myths. While such opportunities can be exciting (such as Akira, Ghost in the Shell, or Princess Mononoke), I'm afraid X is mostly confusing.
Here's the gist of the story: Kamui Shiro is a young fellow with incredible powers. He has a dream in which his mom strips naked then yanks a big sword out of her gut and gives it to him. He goes back to his home in Tokyo to look up some old friends, Kotori and her brother Fuma. Unfortunately, it looks like he'll have to decide the fate of the Earth instead; he's the chosen one of god, so he'll have to pick whether to fight the Dragons of Heaven (super-powered people who want to protect humanity from doom) or the Dragons of Earth (super-powered people who want to wipe humanity from the face of the Earth so it can be reborn). He really just wants to hang with his pals, but he keeps getting bugged by an albino oracle in the employ of the government who insists on showing him the "possible" future of a destroyed Tokyo via dream journeys. Meanwhile, her dark sister (who's also an oracle, but not in the employ of the government) convinces Fuma that he's really Kamui, and that he should side up with the Dragons of Earth and kick some human ass. (Of course, why humans would want to annihilate humanity, I'm not sure. Or how Fuma could be convinced that he's really his best friend Kamui. Or why that matters.) Anyway, Fuma gets his own super-sword by yanking it out of the gut of his sister Kotori (whom Kamui really likes) and the showdown is onfriend against friend, and the winner gets to do whatever he wants with the Earth. Oh, and did I mention the power shields over Tokyo?
Well, different cultures beget different ways of storytellingbut this sheesh! What's worse, the same dialogue gets repeated over and over with only slight variations. Kamui: "I can't take on responsibility for the future of civilization! I didn't return to Tokyo as part of any grand design, but for simple reasons of my own." Oracle: "Please, Kamui! Think again! Will you let the Earth perish though you have it within your power to prevent that?!" And on and on until the final showdown. You never get a real sense of the characters (or the story itself) before they're lopping heads off. Fortunately, the graphics are dreamy enough to be appealing and the "shots" are more cinematic than most video-release anime.
Apparently, X was hugely popular in Japan, and it's gotten raves here in the U.S. from fan publications and mainstream newspapers alike. Perhaps I just don't know what I'm missing, but I do believe X lacks a coherent storyline in any country.