An Interesting Take
On the surface xxxHOLiC doesn’t look too different from your typical “dark bargain” kind of story. There’s a shop that grant any wish you desire, at a price of course. In several ways it is reminiscent of something like Pet Shop of Horrors or the plethora of other stories just like it. Except xxxHOLiC has a bit of a twist; it’s a comedy. The question is: does it work?
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, high school student Watanuki can see spirits. Sometimes though, he wishes they would just leave him alone. That’s when he fatefully walks into a strange shop run by a woman named, Yuuko who claims she can do just that. Instead of granting his wish though, Yuuko hires Watanuki as a “part-timer” working as her personal assistant. The job is a demanding one, and though he complains, Watanuki learns more about the supernatural that has plagued him for all these years.
This setup is all fine and good, as it lends itself to telling all kinds of stories. It’s almost as if xxxHOLiC is an anthology series, but with a lot more cohesion as the episodes are frequently built on what came before. As a result, the anime sits comfortably in a unique space for this and its tone.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to give this series as much praise as it probably deserves. For everything it’s doing right, xxxHOLiC has troubles making its unique points work with the more traditional pieces. While the series is labeled a “comedy”, most of that comes off as obnoxious instead.
Watanuki is the real crux of the issue. Depending on the episode he can be wildly annoying or a good lead to follow. One of the reasons for this is his complaining, which gets stale as a point of “comedy”, but he’s also usually yelling about his “rival” Doumeki. When he’s not doing that, he spends roughly 10% of the show saying, “Himawari” (his love interest’s name), which if anything, is something I will never forget.
Still I can’t blame Todd Haberkorn for the vocal performance given in the dub. In a lot of ways his delivery reminded me of his work on Sgt. Frog as Keroro since Watanuki goes from that level of energy to far more serious moments at almost a drop of a dime. His range really was quite on point here so I wanted to mention it while I was on the topic of Watanuki.
Of course, the main character isn’t the only character I take issue with. Mokona ends up being perhaps consistently worse. The scenes where he and Yuuko just boss Watanuki around are the worst parts of the show. It makes liking either of them rather difficult, even if Yuuko has more redeeming qualities in the end.
As a result, the cast isn’t the most likable. I haven’t even mentioned Maru and Moro which are two characters that simply act as a cheering squad for most of the run, but not much else. When it comes to the focal characters for each episode, things improve, but a one-off character isn’t exactly hard to do that with.
This may make it sound like I absolutely despised the cast and the show itself, but this is far from the case. Rather, it is a notable detraction from a show that is otherwise pretty good. The characters are clearly the way they are as a result of the story emphasizing the comedy aspect while still engaging with the more traditional story of “be careful what you wish for” running alongside it.
Since xxxHOLiC bounces between these two tones, it wouldn’t be surprising if one aspect takes away some from the other. While some of the comedy is genuinely funny, I thought the “counting Mokonas” joke was great (though let’s be real, Yuuko’s dry humor is good almost all the time), when it falls flat, it really falls flat. However, the serious stories were almost all good and absolute highlights for the show.
The finale (note, not final episode), is the best example of this. It was easily the best story the show told and I’m a bit disappointed that it couldn’t keep up that quality throughout. We get to really see Watanuki as a character, the culmination of his life thus far and where it is ultimately headed. Tension between the rest of the cast is palpable, yet they are largely absent. It works very well.
Putting the story aside now, there’s just no avoiding all the Clamp quirks the anime contains. The group has produced various works ranging in quality, perhaps most famously Cardcaptor Sakura, resulting in quite a library and reputation since its founding in mid-1980’s. If you know them for anything though it’s probably these super lanky exaggerated designs. Just look at these examples:
They look particularly absurd in animation, and xxxHOLiC is no exception. In fact, I’d go as far to say that this anime is perhaps the worst offender in that regard as it is distractingly noticeable and frequent. There’s no real sense of scale as the characters can be as tall as buildings in one scene and then a somewhat normal height in the next. Fortunately this enhanced the comedy of the series for me, but your mileage may vary.
While I’m the topic, the anime does have a distinct style that occasionally knocks it out of the park but compared to the manga it’s nothing special. I just have to show you some of these manga covers so you can see what I mean. Naturally, it’s unreasonable to expect the show to be quite on this level but it’s still disappointing that the show only captures a fraction of how good these look.
In addition to the designs, the anime has no shortage of references to other Clamp works, and even the group itself. The big obvious one is actually Mokona’s character, which is where you get the counting joke that refers to their staff. Of course you have your visual nods such as the not-so-subtle Chobits reference in an early episode and a whole host of Cardcaptor Sakura ones throughout.
These nods may seem innocuous, and from a casual viewing perspective they very well are, but Clamp works are all interwoven to tell a larger story. This is true for the anime obviously, but it’s extra cool as it transcends things such as studio and staff involved on a given project. Some of the these individual series play a larger role than others, and if that sounds like something that may interest you, it warrants looking into further as it is fairly interesting.
As it would feel incomplete for this review, I’ll make passing mention of the soundtrack… or I would if any of it was memorable. Aside from the OP, “19sai” and the second ED, “Kagerou” there’s not much to write home about. The former being interesting on both the musical and visual front with the latter being memorable solely for the visuals.
While I was fairly excited to watch xxxHOLiC, as I wasn’t sure exactly what the series would be like, there’s a part of me that can’t help but be disappointed by this one. The anime was far from a bad experience, and ultimately I do think it is worth a watch if it sounds interesting to you at all, however, it feels lacking as a singular season. Good news, there is more show. The bad news is that nobody ever bothered licensing it in the West so good luck hunting it down. From what I’ve read, it really sounds like that has what this show needed but given I can’t confirm that’s all I can say on the matter.
Have you given xxxHOLiC a watch? How about that elusive second season? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the series and this review in the comments below. If you enjoy my work please consider becoming a patron or making a one-time donation via my Ko-fi page. You can find the info for that by clicking either of the corresponding buttons. Thanks so much for reading and I hope to see you again soon!