xxxHolic Volume 1

“There is no such thing as coincidence. There is only inevitability.”

Kimihiro Watanuki is a high school student with a big problem. Spirits – usually unpleasant ones – are attracted to him. They pursue him wherever he goes, even in broad daylight. So is it chance – or inevitability – that leads him one day to the mysterious shop of Yuko Ichihara?  The enigmatic and exotically beautiful Yuko has the power to grant wishes. But no one’s wish may be granted without a price being paid. So in return for Yuko’s freeing him from the spirits, Watanuki must work part-time for Yuko at her shop, doing household chores, cooking and running errands. Little by little, he is reluctantly drawn into Yuko’s strange world, as he assists her in solving the problems of the customers who are drawn to her shop. And, of course, he has to pander to her whims and changeable moods – not to mention her extraordinary appetite for sake (and beer and wine and…) Life in Yuko’s unconventional household is never dull; for company he has the two little girls, Maru and Moro, who are bound to the shop and can never go outside it, and the mischievous black furry Mokona, twin to the white Mokona in ‘Tsubasa.’    

Watanuki has a crush: Himawari, his classmate, is the object of his affections and when she consults Yuko about a friend of hers, Yuko sends Watanuki to investigate. But not alone; she insists that another classmate of his, the taciturn Doumeki (the son of the local priest) accompanies him. For it seems that, although Doumeki can’t see spirits, his presence is enough to drive them away. Thus begins an unconventional friendship between the three: Watanuki constantly ranting at Doumeki, infuriated that he should be so dependent on his indifferent classmate, whilst Himawari erupts into delighted laughter at his antics. 

CLAMP’s ‘xxxHolic’ manga has been running alongside its partner series ‘Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle’ since 2003. The two series cross over, but the creative team for ‘xxxHolic’ took the decision not to introduce the story of the dimension-travelling Sakura and Syaoran, probably a wise choice, as it allows the viewer to concentrate on Watanuki and his unique relationship with Yuko. And where ‘Tsubasa’ is true to its shonen origins, highlighting fighting and action sequences, ‘xxxHolic’ is very different. In the context of CLAMP’s work, it’s closest to ‘Tokyo Babylon’ in the way that it tells contemporary morality stories, bringing in elements of traditional Japanese mythology and folk tales, sometimes charming, sometimes macabre. This means that much of the drama is psychological: one tale focuses on the consequences of telling lies; another on the dangers of losing touch with everyday life by becoming obsessed with the internet. ‘Be careful what you wish for’ is also a theme that constantly recurs; a dried monkey’s paw wreaks havoc in ‘Contract’ – but only because the young woman who borrows it from Yuko chooses to ignore the warning that she is given.

To my mind, the stories weaving in elements of Japanese folklore are the most delightful – and sometimes the most disturbing. In ‘Game of Letters,’ Watanuki is drawn by a delicious odour of cooking to a mysterious food cart run by a fox and his little son. ‘Hydrangea’ introduces a spiky young woman who floats down on a day of torrential rain using her umbrella as a parachute; she is an Ame-Warashi, or rain spirit, who has come to ask for Yuko’s help. What begins as a simple-sounding errand for Watanuki and Doumeki turns into a dangerous mission with a poignant and surprising outcome.  

This series has its delights, but I have to admit that it’s not without its longueurs; one or two of the episodes drag a little (and this is from a CLAMP fan!) But there are a few genuinely scary moments for those who love ghost tales and there’s much to be enjoyed in watching as Yuko begins to bring about changes in the uptight yet  vulnerable Watanuki.

One of the strongest features of the ‘xxxHolic’ manga is the elegant artwork, reminiscent of Beardsley (who was, in turn, influenced by Japanese prints.) The creators of the anime have managed to reproduce something of this elegance and the rich colour palettes, especially those used for Yuko’s clothes, are exquisite. The striking character designs by Kazuchika Kise are closely based on Mick Nekoi’s drawings, retaining the impossibly elongated legs and slender bodies. And an interesting decision was taken – which CLAMP experts will know is highly significant – to show passers-by in faceless grey, as insubstantial as shadows, as if Watanuki and the people he is interacting with were the only real people in a world of dreams.   

The mercurial Yuko – a gift of a part for any seiyuu – is subtly voiced by Sayaka Ohara, but Colleen Clinkenbeard in the English dub, is equally persuasive, giving an  excellent performance. Jun Fukuyama sounds rather younger than Todd Haberkorn as Watanuki, although both cope well with Watanuki’s tendency to overreact. And for my money, at least, J. Michael Tatum is the ideal Doumeki, with a wonderfully deadpan delivery, tinged with just the right hint of irony – or concern – making a great foil for the volatile Watanuki. The music (by S.E.N.S project) manages to be evocative yet not intrusive. The only extras, apart from textless opening and closing songs, are image galleries, but as there are twelve episodes in this set, I’m not complaining!

Above all, ‘xxxHolic’ is a treat for CLAMP fans who will have fun spotting the fleeting references to other CLAMP mangas (look out for passing nods to ‘Chobits’ and ‘Legal Drug,’ for starters.) After these twelve episodes, I’m eager to see which stories have been dramatized in the concluding three discs that make up Part 2 – and if any of the mysteries surrounding Watanuki’s cursed gift – or his parentage – are to be revealed.

In Summary
‘xxxHolic’ is an atmospheric, episodic series, flavoured with little touches of Japanese folklore, some charming, some genuinely chilling. It may not appeal to viewers in search of an ongoing action-packed drama but nevertheless there’s much to be enjoyed.  

8 / 10


Sarah's been writing about her love of manga and anime since Whenever - and first started watching via Le Club Dorothée in France...

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