xxxHolic (TV)

Adaptation is one of the most imperfect arts there is. Do you make a copy, or does that make  your work a pointless duplicate? What do you change? How do you change it and still capture its essence? Do you want to capture its essence or do you want to do something else? Will doing something else get you burned at the stake? Caught somewhere in the middle of all of this is xxxHolic, an animated retelling of Clamp's famous manga that is stilted in many ways, most notably its attempts to grab a wider anime audience while still attempting to keep its gothic-horror-style-meets-Japanese-horror-mythology that was so pronounced on paper.

It is even more curious given the director is Tsutomu Mizushima. He's a somewhat big name now with Shirobako being a critical and audience hit, but he is better equated here as being the director of Blood-C, a devious concoction of super cute Clamp designs and extremely gruesome violence. The response was divided, but it at least showed he could mix styles that were normally toxic with horror and strike a chord with the audience. xxxHolic is extremely safe, going so far as to take cautionary tales inspired by "The Monkey's Paw" and softening their caution save for an episode that's a complete on-the-nose reference.

Perhaps it would be most fair to explain my history with the title. I was never a big manga collector for the longest time and xxxHolic was the first one I really made an effort to grab right when the latest volumes were off the presses. Well, at least when it looked like the story was going somewhere. The art was amazing, the supernatural one-offs were effective, and it had a growing cast of enjoyable characters (or at least ones that distracted from the main character having the exact same conversations ad nauseam). When the adaptation was announced, I had my vision of what it should be like, and this wasn't it save perhaps the opening. From the first spirit's appearance that seemed too colorful and CG to Yuko's Japanese voice actress not having a deep or mysterious enough voice, it didn't feel right. I think nine years is long enough to wipe the slate clean. Even so, while I certainly don't have the extremely picky concerns of my younger years (Shut up, younger me. Sayaka Ohara is fine as Yuko), it still feels lacking.

Kimihiro Watanuki has not been blessed with good fortune. His parents died in an accident and he can see spirits both good and evil. The awful ones are constantly drawn to him because he smells particularly delicious. This makes even walking home from school a frightening prospect. During one afternoon's flight from a nasty spirit, he finds himself at the shop of Yuko Ichihara. She doesn't sell anything, but rather grants wishes. The only strings attached is she doesn't kill anyone and proper compensation must be made depending on how difficult the wish is. His wish is to no longer see or interact with the spirit world, and his price is working for Yuko until he has worked enough that it compensates the cost. Unfortunately, Yuko is a witch who handles all sorts of deals across the spiritual world and is also a raging alcoholic who loves parties and gatherings with her assistants Marudashi and Morodashi (Their full names stand for showing off your naughty bits public, so just call them Maru and Moro) as well as tiny, cute creature Mokona. With Watanuki as their errand boy, his job features many dangerous brushes with spirit world plus cooking and purchasing nightly hangover cures.

Watanuki has a few acquaintances in high school who tag along on his jobs. Himawari is a cute classmate he's smitten with that Yuko insists will only lead to his misfortune. Doumeki is the son a shrine priest who can't see spirits, but can eliminate them with his bow if pointed in the right direction. They have a dynamic in which Watanuki swoons over Himawari endlessly, Doumeki solemnly calls Watanuki an idiot, and Watanuki gets angry and fumes endlessly even as Doumeki will have saved him dozens of times throughout the course of the series. At one point, Doumeki sits ten hours in the rain to give Watanuki a proper exit from the spirit world when he gets trapped there, and Watanuki can't even bring himself to say thank you. Get used to this because this is xxxHolic's main comedic schtick besides Yuko's boozing.

The episodes are usually divided into two separate categories: The cautionary tales and the stories expanding the spiritual world. By far the better ones are the episodes expanding the universe. Besides having more characters that actually develop as time goes on, the anime takes a much softer view of the world than the manga and it doesn't quite fit. The plots are built off supernatural tales and short stories about human ego and obsession. In the title xxxHolic, the first three letters are silent and it's simply pronounced "holic," meaning the three x's stand for (blank)holic. It's about people becoming obsessive or addictive with whatever and the dark paths it leads them on (Oddly enough, one of the central characters trying to assist them is an alcoholic themselves). These stories as they are in the manga are meant to play off the more macabre short stories by Edgar Allen Poe and his ilk, and the anime either makes the works more consumable by putting a little more light at the end of the tunnel or makes the outcome more ambiguous.

Take for example the first story after the introductory episode. It's about a woman who is a compulsive liar. The lies she tells are beginning to create so much negative energy as to affect her body and paralyze it. Yuko agrees to help her condition by giving her a ring that deteriorates and absorbs the energy as long as she wears it. Despite some prodding to be honest, the woman never stops lying, and eventually, the ring falls off and she's hit by a truck while her body can't move. In the manga, her fate is much more up in the air on whether she lived or died, but the anime chooses to put a note about how she's recovering in the hospital. Later on, there's a beast that consumes a girl's soul with no hope of recovery, but the anime prefers to say it only took a part of it and it can recover with time and effort.  I suppose it's a matter of preference, but I like darker elements that don't put on kids' gloves. Even the best ghost story in a night of telling ghost stories is removed and placed in something else entirely, wiped of its menace to give credence to a beach episode. "Atonement" is a quality standalone if you're hunting for one, though.

Thankfully, the spirit world finds its way to animation more-or-less untouched. The unseen powers that govern what's around us are personified as cute, abrasive, or weird individuals and collectives. Many of them pop up multiple times throughout the series and provide a flavorful universe. A rain sprite who is not particularly fond of humanity wants a body removed from a hydrangea bush to keep the flowers at peace rather than giving the soul under it a proper resting place. A pipe fox becomes an adorable pet with a transformation that may be less than adorable. Even a protective spirit crushes heavily on Watanuki. It's all charming, fun, and provides the show with other things to do than Watanuki and Doumeki having another spat for laughs that dry out before the fifth episode. Even with the repetitive interactions, Watanuki and Yuko's talks at least have at least some substance to them as they get into the nature of human beings in-between Yuko's sake binges. But Watanuki and Doumeki pretty much stay the mismatched team that really don't like each other, and Watanuki 'srage at a guy who has been nothing but help gets despicable at points.

The animation is a bit wonky. By far, the greatest aspect of the manga is its magnificent art which lives up to Clamp's reputation. Extremely detailed with many outfits and elegant trimmings, it would take a bit of money to get it properly animated, so a scaled-down production is to be expected. Yet that's not really the problem here. Sure, all of the outfits look like they're made of the same material (even the embroidery), and the monsters never look frightening at all, but that's not it. The anime gets caught between adapting the source material and making a typical anime. The look is very bright and very broad with many of the surroundings looking like they would be in half the shows out there. It's weird, since they sometimes completely nail the look and some decisions like the one to have all of the characters who have no business outside of Yuko's sphere completely whited out are inspired. Yet most of the time, it looks completely pedestrian. The character models also borrow a great amount of elongated style, but nobody ever seems to know how much is enough. The normal models look good in closeups, but in medium and long shots, anything goes. I've seen shots where Watanuki's proportions are so out of whack, his crotch is where his lungs should be. Skin tone even changes from normal to pallor in-between shots. Everything smooths out over time, but the issues never completely go away.

xxxHolic's manga had the selling point of being crossed over with Clamp's epic celebration of their entire oeuvre, Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle. Since Bee Train had the rights to Tsubasa and completely blew it to make yet another dull waste of a beautiful Yuki Kajiura score (Seriously, go look up "Blue Clouds" from the soundtrack), they had to cut some of the massive amounts of Clamp references littered throughout the manga. However, some exist, like when Watanuki has to use Chobits ears as a two-way radio with Yuko. Also cut down–I assume for copyright reasons–is Yuko's character quirk as a closet otaku. Various references to other properties are removed, but enough exist that you get the idea if you pay enough attention (At one point, when her circle of acquaintances decide to have a snowball fight, she creates a soldier from Jin-Roh). It may feel like all of this waters down the experience, but it does the opposite and cuts distractions down a bit, allowing it to be its own thing.

One detail you should be aware of: Since only a 24-episode part of a rather large manga that was still ongoing when the series was made is available in the U.S., there is no animated conclusive ending you can get legally. It gets about halfway through the manga and ends on an extremely personal and bittersweet moment for Watanuki. If you were wondering if it explains why Himawari is bad luck or gets to the solution of Watanuki's problems, the ending of this anime won't entirely satisfy you. You have to go through Kei, Shunmuki, and Rou to get to that. Or you could read the manga.

As it is for this release, xxxHolic is okay. It's certainly watchable and gets enough of the moments and the characters right as to not to be bad. Yet its trimming of the darker edges and its stripped ornateness bring its best qualities down and allow some of its repetitious flaws to multiply. Most of all, it makes something about the supernatural and occult ordinary. While that may make it more attractive to an average person, it takes a good amount of the experience out of it as well.


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