The Japanese animated feature "X," opening today at the Nuart for a one-week run, is a convoluted apocalyptic fantasy centering on an unwilling hero who holds the fate of the planet in his hands. A mysterious entity, the Dragon of the Earth, threatens to destroy all human life: It can only be stopped by its counterpart, the Dragon of Heaven--with the aid of the teenage Kamui.
For most of the film, which has been dubbed into English, Kamui refuses to shoulder responsibility for the fate of the planet. He returns to Tokyo to protect his old girlfriend Kotori and her brother Fuma; as long as they're safe, he's willing to let the Dragon of the Earth ravage Tokyo (and the rest of the globe). But Kamui can't escape his destiny, which is to fight in the rapidly escalating conflict; just as Fuma is fated to join the side Kamui opposes.
Both Dragons are aided by teams of humans with standard anime super-powers. As the war begins, they fly through the air in duels involving floods, fires, explosions, lightning bolts, severed limbs, gouts of blood and shattered buildings. These characters are killed off before the viewer gets to know them (or even sort them out), which robs their deaths of any meaning. The battles climax in a fierce duel between Fuma and Kamui.
Much of the story is told in dreams and dreams within dreams until it's difficult to tell what's actually happening. In one dream, Kamui's mother disembowels herself to give him the sword within her body. In other dreams, Fuma wrenches a similar sword from the torso of the sleeping Kotori. The myriad twists of the story line are accompanied by an endless blizzard of cherry blossom petals, which symbolize the fleeting beauty of life.
Although the characters talk constantly, dealing out expositions like hands of blackjack, they leave many key points unexplained: What are the Dragons and where do they come from? Why do characters confuse Kamui and Fuma when they're drawn differently? Why don't the citizens of Tokyo notice all those explosions and shattered buildings? What is the significance of the supporters of the Dragon of Heaven corresponding to the stars in the Big Dipper? Why is a wind always dramatically blowing Kamui's cape?
"X" features some interesting animation of scarlet and white dragons fighting amid the wreckage of Tokyo. The character designs retain some of the Art Nouveau look of the original manga: Hinoto's long hair appears to have been copied from an Alphonse Mucha poster. But the flamboyant visuals can't disguise the paper-thin plot or inept storytelling. Numerous anime works have dealt with similar themes in recent years, from the ultra-violent "Crimson Wolf" to the extended romance "Mysterious Play"; almost all of them told their stories more coherently.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: pervasive and graphic violence.
An X Committee Clamp and Manga Entertainment production. Director Rintaro. Executive producer Tsunehiko Kadokawa. Producers Kazuo Yokoyama, Masanori Maruyama, Kazuhiko Ikeguchi. Script Asami Watanabe, Nanase Ohkawa, Rintaro. Editors Harutoshi Ogata, Yukiko Itoh, Satoshi Terauchi. Character design and director of original drawings Nobuteru Yuhki. Art director Shuh-ichi Harata. Music Harumitsu Shimizu. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 478-6379.