Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review: X/1999

With the start of a disastrous, fatalistic new presidency, I think it's finally time to take a look at the CLAMP work that best sums up the feelings this new era embodies.

At least this version of the apocalypse has a lot more bishies and far fewer fascists than our own.

X/1999 (Ekkusu), by CLAMP.  First published in 1992 and first published in North America in 2003.


The year is 1999, and the apocalypse is nigh.  The fate of Tokyo and the world rests on the shoulders of a mysterious young man named Kamui.  As other, strange folks find themselves drawn to the city, Kamui finds himself among his childhood friends Fuuma and Kotori.  They don't know it yet, but all of their lives are about to change.


It's hard to look back at X with fresh eyes.  Even if you've never read it in your life, you know about the controversy it attracted during its original run and its perpetual lack of ending.  Yet even now it's easy to see what drew people to this manga in spite of its melodrama and fatalism.  It's ambitious and sweeping in a way that not a lot of 90s manga was, and that shines through even its somewhat shaky beginnings.

Make no mistake: for a shoujo work, X is unusually grim.  This is made clear right from the start with the introduction of Kamui.  Like a lot of guys in shoujo, he is dark and tormented.  The big difference is that unlike those other guys, Kamui has no interest in finding redemption through love.  He's got a plan, even if he doesn't feel like sharing it with the rest of us.  That's something of a larger problem with the story.  Either it's playing EVERYTHING close to its chest and being incredibly cryptic or the plot will stop for a few pages while others explain the rules or the backstory.  Meanwhile, CLAMP does lay it on rather thickly how fucked Fuuma and Kotori are.  Their lives and their attitudes are just so perfect and sunny that it's almost laughable.  Kotori in particular is ridiculously naïve, as she spends most of the volume pining for Kamui while remaining utterly in denial that she's hopelessly smitten with him.  These two might as well show pictures of their family to everyone while stating how they only have two days until retirement.  

After that, though, it's nothing but backstory.  Characters just keep pouring in from the sides, many a monologue is had (along with a few vision and dreams), and sweeping magic battles are had as everyone prattles on about prophecies and apocalypses.  It's a lot to keep straight, especially since CLAMP isn't always good about introducing all the newcomers by name.  Yet in spite of all those flaws, it's still compelling.  For all its faults, CLAMP managed to capture just the right kind of mood and lays down just enough narrative bread crumbs to keep the reader going.  For a moment, you feel yourself getting swept up in the drama, and that sort of visceral reaction is X's greatest narrative strength.


Of course, the real star of the show here is the art.  I've often described X as the CLAMPiest work that ever CLAMPed, and it's not a complete exaggeration.  X is the pinnacle of CLAMP's old-school style laid in almost Baroque levels of excess.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the visions and dream sequences.  Mokona goes all out with many a one- or two-page spread, casting Kamui as both angel and devil as he looms giant over a literally shattered world, all as feathers and clockwork float about him.  It's all very surreal, but it's also stunning to behold.

It's also very evident in the fights, as the large panels threaten to be swallowed entirely by the massive bursts of magic energy and motion.  Even the composition and paneling is dynamic, striking a fine balance between the flow of the story and sheer dramatic effect.  The only thing that really needed work at this point were the character designs.  They're very much in CLAMP's usual vein, with tall, lanky, angular boys and delicate women that seem to almost swim in their long, flowing hair, but in comparison to the rest of the visuals around them they seem a little plain.  Maybe it's the thick linework they use to draw them, but they look a little stiff even as they threaten to drown you in their big, dark, lushly shaded eyes.  Still, that's a fairly minor fault in what is already a fantastically dramatic-looking manga.


Viz really went all out with their omnibus rerelease of this series.  First and foremost, it's unflipped, unlike the previous single volumes.  Secondly, it's printed in a larger format which lets that decadent artwork truly shine.  Best of all (at least for me), there are LOADS of color splash pages up front and between every volume.  There are even notes from CLAMP in the back explaining where all of those color pieces first appeared, what mediums were used, and a few interesting details about their thought process about making them.  They even throw in a color illustration on the spine, a spread of the entire cast that can only be appreciated when all of the volumes are collected and displayed together.


X starts off a little obvious and shaky at first, but this is more of a manga to be seen and experienced than to be read.  Despite its trouble history, it's earned its place as one of CLAMP's most notable works and one that is still worth experiencing even now.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is unfinished in Japan with 18 volumes available.  All 18 have been published in both single volume and 3-in-1 omnibus form.  The single volumes are out of print; the omnibuses are currently in print. 

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