Even as current events take on an unnervingly apocalyptic tenor, cinematic armageddons continue to circulate through the media market. Japan has long been a source of such apocalyptic stories, that nation which has been beleaguered with cinematic ends-of-days for coming on a half-century now. Persistently harangued in manga and live-action monster flicks, Tokyo once again faces annihilation in director Rintaro’s X—a lavish, if fairly confusing, movie about superhuman forces whose war for universal dominion takes its toll mainly on Tokyo’s sprawling skyline. It’s a familiar sight: as good duels with evil, the megalopolis’s highrises tumble spectacularly to the ground one by one, unlucky casualties of an epic battle whose scope and magnitude dwarf the scale of mere mortals.
This being the case, it’s odd how few mere mortals there actually are in X. It’s easy not to notice this when you’re distracted by the effort of sorting through the movie’s religious symbolism—something to do with pentagrams, the Big Dipper, and cosmic custodians known as the Dragons of Heaven and Earth. But having cut my teeth on Japanese apocalypse by watching more kaiju-eiga—live-action monster—movies than I care to recall, I associate crumbling skyscrapers with air-raid sirens and hordes of terrified civilians running toward the camera. After a while, the absence of these fleeing throngs in X becomes hard to ignore.
Tomokazu Seki, Junko Iwao, Ken Narita, Toru Furusawa
Partly, the movie’s barrenness results from anime’s characteristic aesthetic—endless urban sprawl lovingly rendered as though from a great height, and the screens and enormous lighted billboards of Tokyo’s business district. These images are long on landscape and technology, short on people, or activity on any intimate scale. Which is why X feels like it’s been inexplicably evacuated before it even began, in advance of a cosmic battle no one actually could have seen coming. For a second, we might glimpse anonymous lines of traffic inching along Tokyo’s labyrinthine overpasses, but never the huddled, panicky masses who, in the Godzilla oeuvre, are in such dire need of rescue. In anime, it seems, only the technology—and those few who comprehend the world’s hidden driving forces, its occult signs and prophesies—need be saved.
Why make a movie about imminent apocalypse with hardly any people in it? One possible reason X‘s Tokyo is already a kind of wasteland is that the characters battling over the city’s (and by vague extension, the planet’s) fate differ only on what kind of wasteland they feel the planet is destined to become. This makes the movie’s whole theology—to the extent it can be deciphered—airlessly pessimistic.
The Dragons of the Earth advocate the wholesale extermination of humanity since this would give the Earth an opportunity to renew itself. The Dragons of Heaven, unsurprisingly, take the opposite view, that the human race should be allowed to survive. There’s a quirk in the way the Dragons of Heaven explain their ideology, though. Their argument is not that humanity, if allowed to endure, is bound to improve its conduct in time to save the Earth. They don’t even bother to argue that humanity’s survival is, irreducibly, a good thing. They just angrily reaffirm their eternal will to fight and instantly the fur is flying, figures rocketing through the air and hollering out war cries. This is all good for making action scenes, but leaves the movie in a dicey spot thematically: it’s tough to pick sides when one is in favor of exterminating the species and the other is in favor of ruining the planet.
Another possible reason for the deserted Tokyo is that everything in X is so uncompromisingly big. The Dragons of Heaven and Earth are hybrids of the X-Men and characters from Mortal Kombat, with similar supernatural powers—they can move earth, shoot fireballs, that kind of thing. This makes their battles huge, fought on high-rise helicopter landing pads or amid great heaps of rubble. Unlike kaiju-eiga movies, anime needn’t worry about keeping the scales of action small. After all, live-action monster movies have to acknowledge the stubborn paradox of a signature image—actors in rubber suits, wrestling with each other on soundstage models of cities—that is large and small at once, and depends on the audience suspending disbelief. And besides, the kaiju-eiga movie’s planet-saving visionaries—a motlier crowd than X‘s Teen-Titan heroes—are usually pretty small, at least as measured by political and military power or social integration.
The Tokyo of anime may be the dominion of the gods but the world in kaiju-eiga‘s David-v.-Goliath ethos belongs instead to nerdy, picked-on latchkey kids; socially isolated, marginally employed inventors; shiftless forty-something bachelors; misunderstood teenaged scientists who can’t talk to girls. After the military delivers its predictable and repeated failures—its vast arrays of tanks that melt pitifully; its fighter planes that fall out of the sky by the squadron—one of these misfits saves the world without even trying. This misfit might be a kid who has established a psychic link with Godzilla to make up for the lack of real friends in his life, or an inventor whose useless trinket—designed to emit an irritating noise nobody can stand—proves the perfect secret weapon for turning back marauding alien hordes. Completely by coincidence.
This, such as it is, is the Godzilla movie’s cosmology: a faith not so much in logic as in luck, not so much in vigilance as in idle daydreams. Making humanity its own defender against such 40-story foes is a tricky proposition, but kaiju-eiga movies generally manage to do it. Since their heroes are usually one kind of pariah or another, these heroes are one small step away from the teeming throngs who flee, panic-stricken, as the giant monster-du-jour inexorably approaches the city center. And X‘s Dragons of Heaven aren’t completely unlike Godzilla’s pariahs. They have also been cast out of society, although generally for weightier reasons: because of matricide in Kamui’s family history, or because of an ingrained sense of separateness that leads Karen Kasumi to be a stripper, so that she can “work in brothels where no one asks questions.”
On the other hand, the trajectories of this alienation in X make the movies’ protagonists a thing apart from humans, rather than strugglers, or stragglers, within the species’ ranks. These are looming deities who solve their problems with variants on military weaponry: great spasms of lethal fire and rubble. No wonder their world was evacuated long ago.
Japanese armageddon is a cinematic history that branches in at least these two directions: toward an ample and varied human species that prospers by widening its border to include ever stranger-seeming members within its ranks, and toward a corrupt elite that endlessly trades death high above its long-barren cities. We can choose which one we prefer.