Reviewby Carlo Santos, Oct 11th 2008
Kimihiro Watanuki has the ability to see spirits, a skill that is both a blessing and a curse—as well as the main reason he works in the service of mysterious shopkeeper and sorceress Yûko. Not everything is a spiritual matter, however, as one of Yûko's clients turns out to be a young woman with a self-destructive streak. But at least Watanuki can be pretty sure he's dealing with otherworldly issues when he's asked to join an annual Procession of Monsters ... there's just the sticky issue of humans not being allowed. Things can get strange in the real world too, with a snowball fight that comes to life in unexpected ways, and a cursed photo that hides a shocking secret behind its innocuous appearance.
The fifth disc of xxxHOLiC shows, all at once, what makes this anime so great and yet so disappointing. On the one hand, the idiosyncratic characters and tone of the series allow it to approach a variety of genres: human drama, fantastic folk tale, even light spots of comedy. On the other hand, that kind of variety—along with the lack of a continuous plot—makes it difficult to find a cohesive center. Of course, some of the blame can also be placed on the source material; the manga doesn't hit any major developments until the chapters that would eventually be adapted into xxxHOLiC: Kei. What these episodes do offer, however, is a stylish and distinctive world, filled with stories about the mysterious ways of spirits—and the even more mysterious ways of humans.
No episode explores the mysterious ways of humans better than the first one in this set: the appropriately titled "Self-Mutilation," about a girl who repeatedly sabotages her own life in order to avoid success and happiness. If that doesn't sound like anything from the manga, you'd be absolutely right; this episode is actually an adaptation of NISIOSIN's "OuterHOLiC" spinoff short story. Because of that, perhaps, it is also more cerebral than the typical xxxHOLiC outing—the grand climax is an intense philosophical discussion between Watanuki and Yûko, which, although it worked decently in prose, actually comes out in animation as deadly boring. Fortunately that's offset by the visual delights of the Monster Procession episode, where Watanuki and his rival Dômeki travel through a folklore-inspired otherworld. Although scant on story and character depth, the art and design alone are enough to impress—as well the the always-comical interaction between the two boys.
The snowball fight episode, meanwhile, is purposely designed to be scant on story: this is a pure diversion, a chance to see the characters' personalities as portrayed through snow sculpture. Although amusing enough with its slapstick and action—especially when Yûko gets her comeuppance—this episode also exemplifies just what is wrong with the series. We could be learning about just how Watanuki's character is "changing" (come on, it's Episode 19 already), or digging into exactly why Yûko happens to own all that memorabilia from the CLAMP universe (sharp eyes will spot it in an early scene), but no ... we get 22 minutes of a snowball fight. And the last episode on the disc, although appropriately suspenseful, is about as typical as they come: client comes up to Yûko, presents a personal dilemma, and then eventually gets what's coming to her. It's been done, folks. This kind of spook-of-the-week treatment is exactly why the xxxHOLiC anime never quite reaches the potential of what it could be.
Even the animation itself is an example of not reaching full potential; one only needs to go a few minutes into the first episode to see what happens when animators fumble their way through the show's unusual artistic sensibilities. (Watanuki goes tromping down the street like a malformed man-spider.) And really, it's a recurring theme: the spindly character designs, which look so effortlessly stylish when standing still, become almost nightmarish when put into motion. Even the Monster Procession—with its panoply of colors and literally dozens of unique creature designs—show signs of cutting corners with sloppy linework and jerky motion. Special effects aren't immune to lousy animation either; the tale of the cursed photo loses all its subtle horror by going way over the top with dramatic dripping and fading. With a little more polish and subtlely, this anime could have really captured the unique aesthetic of the series.
Visual inconsistency aside, at least the music gets it right—the combination of light electronic ambience and orchestral grandeur perfectly compliments Yûko's mysterious world. And sometimes, it is silence that speaks the loudest: a tense scene can be made all the more powerful once you realize that the only sound is that of the characters speaking to each other. Suga Shikao's opening song also captures the series' air of enigmatic mystery, with a minor-keyed, jazz-tinged number, but the rock ending by BUCK-TICK is perhaps a little out of character.
Speaking of character, the English dub continues to be marred by one very noticeable shortcoming: Todd Haberkorn's high-pitched overacting as Watanuki. Yes, we know he's supposed to be cantankerous, but doing it in the style of a screaming wailing Nabeshin comedy character just doesn't fit. On the opposite end, Colleen Clinkenbeard's cool-headed Yûko pretty much nails it; the other side characters fill in their roles quite nicely as well. The dub script takes its fair share of liberties from the original translation, mostly to re-structure a sentence or make an idiomatic phrase work better in English, but one can always switch to subtitles anyway, which are accurate even to the point of honorifics and Japanese food names. Aside from language options, though, there's little else to find on the disc unless you're a really big fan of textless credit sequences or pathetically undersized image (read: screencap) galleries.
The best thing about the grab bag of episodes on this disc is that there's probably something to suit most personal tastes—whether that taste runs from to intense philosophical drama to ... comical snowball fights. What will probably not suit anyone's taste, however, is the gloriously sloppy animation that continues to waver between decent and freakish. The characters and situations in xxxHOLiC continue to fascinate, but this is one of those times when the old adage holds true: the source material is still better.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : D
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Stellar music, unique artistry, and a variety of episodes and moods will appeal to viewers of different tastes.
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