Reviewby Carlo Santos, Aug 16th 2009
xxxHolic DVD Box Set (Hyb)
All his life, Kimihiro Watanuki has been able to see spirits—and unfortunately, they keep following him around. Looking for a way to rid himself of this nuisance, Watanuki stumbles across a mysterious shop owned by the equally mysterious Yuuko Ichihara. Yuuko gladly offers to relieve Watanuki of his problems ... but only if he is willing to do some part-time work for her. As Watanuki spends more time at the shop, he learns more about Yuuko's pragmatic philosophy, that every occurrence in this world is a result of inevitability. Because of this inevitable chain of events, Watanuki ends up dabbling in the spirit world and learns that even ordinary humans—some of them his closest friends—may not be exactly as they seem ...
Every now and then, there comes a manga series whose visual qualities make it "un-animatable." You know the kind—unique nuances of light and shadow, linework so detailed that it would be murder at 24 (or 16, or 8) frames a second, and stylistic choices that are best left in still frames. As this DVD collection shows, xxxHOLiC is one such series: a work of stunning beauty that ceases to be one when it's put on the TV screen. Some of that can also be blamed on production issues—one does not simply send in a second-string animation staff, have them copy the character designs, and then pray that whatever comes out is representative of CLAMP's most stylish and haunting work. Although this show makes a valiant attempt to capture the series' pensive mood, it often gets lost in its own sloppy execution.
Animation quality, however, isn't the only thing to fall by the wayside: even the plotting is a hit-or-miss affair, relying on an episodic format that's meant to invoke the tradition of ghostly short stories. Sometimes this works, especially when stringing together multiple chapters from a single arc in the manga—the tale of the Monkey's Paw and the Night of a Hundred Ghost Stories are fine examples—but there are also botched attempts at turning a single manga chapter into a full episode. Do we really need to spend 22 minutes learning why clipping your nails at night is bad luck? Even more questionable are the original creations, like an incredibly boring tale of contrary twin sisters, while an adaptation of an adaptation—the first story from NISOISIN's AnotherHolic novel—proves that an author's wordy ways don't always translate into great animation.
There's at least one thing this series gets right, though: when the time comes to slow down the pace and reflect on the mysteries of life, everything just works. Generally, this involves the foibles of human nature—why do good people bring bad fortune upon themselves?—and results in a thoughtful mood that can't be found anywhere else. Of course, much of that credit goes to CLAMP's original story concepts, but it's good to know that there are some things in this series that can't be ruined by sloppy animation. The sense of wonder that comes with making new discoveries in the spirit world (rain sprites and flying goblins and foxes, oh my!) also falls into that category. One can't help but be in awe every time Watanuki stumbles upon yet another unearthly creature or opens up another trans-dimensional realm.
Art and design are also major contributors to that sense of wonder, especially in fantastical episodes like the monster procession and Watanuki's journey into a vase of purified water. It's here that the animators really get a chance to flex their creative muscles; unfortunately, these are also the moments where technical limitations become clearly visible. Poorly drawn creatures, cheesy special effects (that gray/purple smoke seems to get everywhere), hastily drawn backgrounds, and flat color schemes all detract from the visual richness of the series. But what hurts the most—and what people will notice more than anything else—are the lanky, misproportioned character designs that are so striking in the manga but so difficult to get right in the anime. Skip to a random scene and you might see crazy giraffe necks, or mutant arms threatening to detach from their bodies, or shrunken pygmy heads. The fact is simple: quirks of anatomy that work in static illustrations end up looking really weird in animation.
Fortunately, the audio aspect isn't quite as jarring, and in fact the moody soundtrack by S.E.N.S. Project is one of the most consistently pleasing features of this series. When coupled with the right imagery and storyline, the rich arrangements and mournful melodies really do have the power to transport one to another world. Shikao Suga's smoky, jazzy opening theme also sets the right mood, although out of the two ending themes, Fonogenico's easygoing ballad "Reason" is a much better fit than the unnecessarily melodramatic "Kagerou."
Speaking of unnecessarily melodramatic, it is unfortunate that the weakest voice in the English dub ends up in the mouth of the main character. Todd Haberkorn's Watanuki has a tendency to whine his way through everything, turning a troubled young man into, well, a very annoying young man. Watanuki's trademark fits of anger—which are supposed to be played for comedy—end up as an embarrassment more than anything else. Yet the rest of the cast is remarkably on point: Colleen Clinkenbeard strikes a wonderfully sultry tone as Yuuko, and J. Michael Tatum's deadpan Doumeki provides the perfect foil to Watanuki. The translation and adaptation, however, will not sit well with fans who expect the characters to say what they mean. The dub script is quite happy to veer off in a completely different direction from the original translation—sometimes even during a crucial moment like one of Yuuko's monologues. The Anglicization of various Japanese foods and other cultural aspects is also another point of contention.
The final word on xxxHOLiC, then, is that although the anime gets some things right, it's best to stick with the original. Even hardcore completists who insist on having every single piece of merchandise related to the series will probably find themselves laboring through this adaptation. Some of the episodes succeed when the source material is meaty enough to work from (and when the animation staff puts enough effort into it), but there are also too many attempts to stretch out an inconsequential manga chapter or pull a completely new story out of thin air. Comedy moments are distorted into awkward farce, suspenseful ghost tales carelessly slip into boredom, and human body proportions are mangled beyond comprehension. There may be moments of genuine supernatural wonder in this show, but they're too often drowned out by moments of genuine mediocrity.
Overall : C+
Story : C-
Art : B-
+ Fantastical imagery, subtle storytelling and moody music come together to tell exotic tales of the otherworld.
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