Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 27th 2010
CLAMP Double Feature: Tsubasa Chronicles and xxxHOLic
Adventurers Syaoran, Sakura, Kurogane and Fai have been hopping from world to world, searching for the magical feathers that make up the fragments of Sakura's lost memory. Their latest journey takes them to the Birdcage Kingdom, where a tyrannical king is trying to take over with dark magic. To stop this calamity, Syaoran and his allies must protect the kingdom's princess so that her powers cannot be used for evil. Meanwhile, in another world, the dimensional witch Yûko Ichihara—who has been aiding Syaoran in his quest—faces magical challenges of her own. She has been given a key to a mansion where the owner can no longer enter, and now she must find out why. Accompanied by long-suffering assistant Watanuki and his stoic schoolmate Dômeki, Yûko must unravel the mysteries of a mansion filled with spontaneously changing rooms, dozens of trapped souls, and one very obsessive-compulsive inhabitant.
Two for the price of one! That's the promise of the Tsubasa/XXXHOLiC double feature, although when one considers the running time, it's more like two halves for the price of one. The Tsubasa adventure clocks in at about 35 minutes, and XXXHOLiC's supernatural wanderings last just under an hour, adding up to the length of one "normal" feature film (and a short one at that). Even those who judge by quality rather than quantity may feel shortchanged, given the story content: both efforts are ambitious, but Tsubasa is an epic fantasy trying to squeeze into a TV episode timeslot, while XXXHOLiC is an art-student rant in search of meaning. Add them all up, and it's not quite the bargain deal some might have imagined.
Like their manga counterparts, the plotlines of the two movies connect to each other, but can still be viewed as stand-alone tales. The Tsubasa segment is the honor-student entry among the two, full of lush colors and animated virtuosity that would fall under the traditional definition of "good art"—all the while sticking to the franchise's formula of Syaoran and company fighting off bad guys while visiting exciting new worlds. It is, simply put, a high-budget filler episode, perhaps wishing that it could have been more. Some of the set pieces are stunning enough to qualify for a Ghibli production—especially the aerial dogfight at the film's climax—and there are enough story ideas to have filled out a two-hour feature. In fact, the extras on the disc include an "Origin of the Birdcage Kingdom" segment that shows what the producers must have originally intended: a fully imagined fantasy world, Miyazaki-esque in scope, just waiting for the series' main characters to drop in. Why those deleted storyboards (and the entire overarching plot) didn't make it into the movie is anyone's guess; the final product ultimately feels incomplete for having lopped off all the back story.
The XXXHOLiC portion, meanwhile, is the slacker-genius counterpart to Tsubasa's straight-A mannerisms—an anime feature for fans who might consider Studio 4ºC to be the pinnacle of animated genius rather than those guys with the Totoro logo. Like its companion piece, this movie is filled with stunning visuals, but in a more experimental vein—lots of surreal imagery, unexpected shifts in viewpoint, and (occasionally) clunky CGI. The house's eventual collapse in the final act is the big highlight, especially the short-lived "Rabbit in the Moon" portion, but there remains the issue of the character designs being difficult to animate—the lanky style that works in the manga ultimately translates into freakishly long limbs and shrunken heads that just don't look right.
If anything, Yûko and company's haunted house tour goes on too long, and probably should have switched places with Syaoran and friends for the half-hour slot. The problem is that it ceases to be XXXHOLiC after about the twenty-minute mark, descending into one extremely bad acid trip full of horror tropes and creep-out visions that may or may not be consistent with the XXXHOLiC universe. (If there's one thing that is true to the original, it's Watanuki comically lashing out at Dômeki or screaming like an idiot at every little thing, thereby ruining the horror aspect.) The themes and psychology of the film make good food for thought—exploring some fairly twisted corners of the human mind—but the execution of the actual plot is flimsy at best, turning this into ... well ... a high-budget, double-length filler episode to go with the other high-budget filler episode.
The contrasting personalities of the two franchises even manifest themselves in the music. Tsubasa shows more populist leanings, with a generic rock opener and Yui Makino crooning the ending theme, and Yuki Kajiura providing the background score. Thankfully, Kajiura avoids the bombastic choral clichés for once, but spins out some battle music that is too tuneful for its own good—it's great for listening to on a soundtrack CD, but stands out too much during the actual film. By contrast, the moody score to XXXHOLiC does a better job of blending in; some of the creepiest moments in the film are underscored perfectly by vague, ominous tonalities. A jazz-tinged ending song by Suga Shikao (who went on to perform a couple of themes for the TV series as well) adds the ideal finishing touch.
As usual, both Japanese and English audio options are available on this disc, and the English dub manages to get some pretty strong emotions out of the cast (albeit with some overacting during intense scenes). On the XXXHOLiC side, Watanuki somehow manages to be an annoying brat no matter what language he speaks in—maybe his brand of sarcasm only works on a silent page—but Colleen Clinkenbeard's Yûko is a worthy match for the original. Meanwhile, Tsubasa's English-language cast sounds like the typical adventure anime ensemble, but with the added quirk of being bad at pronouncing Japanese names.
As a Blu-ray package, this disc is a clear upgrade over the DVD, with clarity and color levels that surpass the original release. These movies are already the best-animated adaptations of the double franchise, so tacking hi-def onto that is sweet icing on a visually delicious cake. Naturally, all the requisite extras are included—actor and director interviews, promotional movie events, and production sketches—but they're in standard definition only. One particularly notable bonus, however, is a commentary feature that switches between movie footage and footage of the actors in the studio, making it a different experience from the usual disembodied voices.
With all its shortcomings, both story-wise and artistically, the Tsubasa/XXXHOLiC two-pack seems like the kind of thing that would only appeal to hardcore CLAMP completists. Yet it is those fans with a purist streak who might actually want to steer clear, seeing as the Tsubasa feature keeps trying to be Miyazaki, and XXXHOLiC keeps trying to be The Twilight Zone, and neither film actually wants to be CLAMP. In fact, the ideal audience might be those who simply like to compare, contrast and dissect various forms of artistic expression, flaws and all. Both movies are ambitious, both movies succeed in some way, and both movies fall short in some way. The end result is far from perfect—but that's why it's so interesting.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B-
+ Top-notch animation with contrasting styles, plus a wealth of ambitious ideas, show some great creative minds at work.
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