X is an apocalyptic fantasy from the famous manga collective CLAMP. A teenage psychic called Kamui Shiro returns to Tokyo after a six-year absence and finds himself caught up in a battle between two opposing forces. The Dragons of Heaven want to save mankind, while the Dragons of Earth want to wipe us out and let everything start afresh. Soon Kamui will have to choose sides, but whatever he does he'll end up having to fight his best friend to the death.
X is almost a textbook example of how to do a mature action anime. It has absorbing characters, a hefty body count and genuine uncertainty about who'll win any given fight. I hated the "zeroth" OVA with a passion, mind you. Destiny is a major theme in this series and so the OVA is a psychic flash of the entire conflict to come, told in a bewildering montage of clips with no context and no concessions for the newbie. I'd recommend watching it after the series, not beforehand. Nevertheless once I started on the series proper, I found myself really getting into it.
There's also a 1996 movie which tries to tell the entire saga in a hundred short minutes, with tragedy and a cast of nearly twenty major characters. Like the OVA, it's beautiful but almost impenetrable. It's also too short. The TV series on the other hand was made five years later, so had more story to adapt and didn't have to let things drop quite so soon.
Mind you, they still don't have the right ending. No one does. CLAMP worked on the manga from May 1992 to March 2003, whereupon it abruptly ceased publication. I've heard that their editors in Kadokawa Shoten's Monthly Asuka were becoming increasingly concerned about the violence and CLAMP chose to axe it rather than water it down. It's been collected in eighteen volumes with five uncollected chapters left over and I thought that despite starting out dull and exposition-heavy it ended up being not bad at all. Despite testing my patience at times, CLAMP can produce some amazing imagery and have a real knack with character. The story keeps improving as the cast grows, becoming particularly good when Cute Dog Girl shows up. And boy, can CLAMP do cute. You'll need a bit of bloody-mindedness to get through the early volumes, but I was glad I stuck with it. Unsurprisingly it also has interesting points of difference with both anime adaptations, despite of course being unfinished.
Reading it also lent a new perspective on my low opinion of the usual structure of 26-part anime series. The manga of X is barely a 6-episode OVA. It seems obvious that full-length series are generally adapting manga with nowhere near enough story and so are wildly padding it out. Ironically longer and shorter series are both more likely to have well-constructed plots, but for opposing reasons. Nevertheless even in this 26-part TV adaptation, the cast's size is a problem. Everyone's drawn in CLAMP's trademark pretty-boy style and so even fairly late in the day, I wasn't always sure who was who. Think "eyes half the size of their heads" and "the pointy chins of death".
The cast's size also allows for an impressive body count. Our heroes drop like flies, without a reset switch to be seen. The dead stay dead and you feel their passing. Furthermore there's no script immunity. The first fatality was one of my favourite characters, after which I often got scared when other people I liked put themselves in danger. You genuinely don't know who'll live!
Fortunately also the OVA ends with a run-down of the cast, with both pictures and names. I'd suggest watching that bit a few times, or perhaps downloading an episode guide from the internet. The characterisation is sufficiently strong that you'll be glad you took the trouble to get everything straight in your head.
That OVA had me dreading an endless stream of pretty boys, but in fact it's not that bad. There are girls too! More seriously, the artwork and animation by Madhouse is superb. This show is rich in tragedy, but also in love, death, treachery, superpowers, mystical prophecies and a theme of the inevitability of fate. Everything about this story is so complex that I suspect it's even better on rewatching, since you'll have a better grounding in the characters and more appreciation of what's happening in the early episodes. It's a big cast, but everyone has their own story to tell and their own headlong drive towards their destiny. The Dragons of Earth are fulfilling their desires. The Dragons of Heaven are looking for something to believe in and protect. In the end everyone must make their own choices, often with tragic consequences. This series is at once gorgeous, understated, apocalyptic and very human.
It's dripping with symbolism. There's religious imagery, both familiar to Westerners and otherwise. The Dragons correspond to the two major divisions of Kami in Shinto, those of Kunitsu (Earth) and Ametsu (Heaven).
Overall, this is a quality piece of work that hardly does anything I'd change. This kind of story isn't for everyone (the Chosen Few fight with their magic powers to avert the prophesised destruction of mankind) but within its chosen genre it hits all its marks. Prophecy epics can sometimes get boring, but that's not a problem here even when you can tell what's coming. The most important thing is that the fights serve the characterisation, not the other way round. Possibly a bit serious for those who prefer their anime fluffy and laugh-a-minute, but it's solid, admirable work.