xxxHolic: Season 1 - Part 1
What a year Funimation are having! They are well on their way to becoming the OCP of the anime world, at least in America, as while all other companies were being credit crunched, Funimation wound up in the best position to pick up the pieces. First Geneon faltered, then ADV's deal with Sojitz fritzed out, leaving over a dozen titles hanging. Then this summer it turned out that Funimation picked up those lost ADV titles, and will complete them, leaving US fans happy at least, while Geneon signed a deal with Funimation that sees them distributing Geneon product in the US. Quicker than you can spell monopoly, all is well once more in the anime world on the other side of the pond. Not so in the UK. Originally Funimation product was distributed through anime veterans MVM, but a couple of years ago, when Funimation was bought by Navarre, it was decided to use a sister company in the UK to distribute Funimation anime exclusively. That means that for the last eighteen months or so, Revelation Films has had the exclusive distribution rights. The thing is that Revelation is something of a boutique label, able to handle a certain amount. This was all well and good when Funimation was still a relative minnow, but given the rate at which Funimation has expanded, keeping up with the Joneses is no longer an option, and Revelation already seem to have their hands full with the seven or eight anime titles that they are in the process of releasing at this time. The biggest difference though is that Funimation have listened to anime fans, changed strategy, and moved to half season and season boxsets from the off, instead of single volume releases. After all, it's the way we get our regular TV DVDs. Now who in the UK has experience releasing anime direct to boxset…? No more exclusivity. Manga Entertainment are now releasing Funimation product, and to kick things off, they bring us Season 1, Part 1 of xxxHolic.
For the first time, I actually feel obligated to review a title, which isn't the best frame of mind to start these things. It's too much like work. I first encountered Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle and xxxHolic in their manga forms, and what struck me was that both were sort of two halves of one story. xxxHolic would do its own thing, and Tsubasa would do its, but on a regular basis, the two would crossover, and characters from one story would have an impact on the other. When I began reviewing the DVDs of Tsubasa, the adaptation was pretty close to the manga, and that meant that the xxxHolic characters made more than one appearance in the anime. It was a pretty small leap of logic to assume that just as in the manga, this anime series of xxxHolic would similarly complement the Tsubasa anime. Funny thing about logic…
Kimishiro Watanuki would appear to be a normal young high school student, except for the fact that he can see spirits. Worse, they can see him, and are attracted to him like bees to honey. Being weighed down by spirits isn't easy on Watanuki, especially when nonplussed bystanders just see a boy behaving very oddly, so it ought to be a godsend when he finds himself at a mysterious old fashioned shop in the shadow of a skyscraper. When the owner of the shop, Yuko Ichihara offers to free him of the curse, she asks a heavy price, his soul. In this case his soul is equivalent to working off his debt part time in the shop, but Watanuki is unprepared for the strange world that he is about to enter.
The first twelve episodes of xxxHolic are presented on three discs from Manga Entertainment, which to all intents and purposes look just like either the Funimation discs from either the US or the Madman discs from Australia, with a Manga logo slapped on the front end. Incidentally, and before you get the wrong idea about the show's content, it's pronounced 'Holic', and the xxx is just a placeholder for whichever vice may be appropriate at the time.
1. The Inevitable
Kimishiro Watanuki had no idea that he'll wind up working part time in a 'wish granting shop' when he woke up that morning to another day of being plagued by spirits, but while trying to escape a particularly bothersome apparition, he wound up at the door of Yuko Ichihara's establishment. But as he is informed, those who have a need that the shop can fill will inevitably end up there, whether they expect to or not. Whether they make the trade that the capricious, selfish, languorous and glamorous owner will inevitably demand is their choice. It seems like a good trade at first, working off his debt part time in the shop in exchange for losing the curse that plagues him with dark mournful spirits, and he can just about handle the bizarre girls, Moro and Maru who also work for her. But he isn't expecting the talking black rabbit like creature called Mokona, and he certainly isn't prepared for what losing his curse actually means.
Watanuki may be slaving away in Miss Yuko's kitchen, preparing her meals to her finest specifications, but he's currently flying high, as Himawari Kunogi, a cute girl at school actually spoke to him. He's brought crashing back down to earth when Yuko does a reading. Did I mention she tells fortunes? Himawari definitely isn't the girl for him, while his detested rival Doumeki will have a major role in his destiny. Then a young woman comes into the shop, unwittingly seeking help. Her little finger is paralysed, and no doctor can help. Yuko offers her a ring that she thinks may solve the problem, but asks that in return, the woman try to examine herself to see what may be causing the problem. She's nonplussed, but when Watanuki looks at her, he sees black smoke emanating from that finger, growing thicker with every word that she speaks.
Himawari shows up while Yuko is teaching Watanuki the finer points of baseball. As with all people drawn to Yuko, she has a question, a wish that needs fulfilling. Something odd is going on at her friend's high school, and to avoid the need for restitution, Yuko volunteers Watanuki to investigate in her stead. Only she states that Watanuki will need Doumeki's help along the way. The two rivals head to the school, but it's only Watanuki that sees the massive spirit encircling the building, it's only Watanuki who can smell the foul stench permeating the building, and it's only Watanuki who sees the three girls playing a chilling game on the school roof.
Himawari is into astrology, and Watanuki is thrilled when she states that they are compatible signs. Yuko isn't impressed by the amateur prognosticator, and decides to take Watanuki to see a real oracle, her own fortune-teller. Watanuki is surprised to hear that a fortune-teller can't tell her own future, but there is a very good reason for that, as he is about to find out.
5. Game Of Letters
Coming back from reluctantly supporting Doumeki in an archery competition, Watanuki is ensnared by a divine scent. The smell leads him to a bizarre food cart that sells oden. It takes a while for his brain to come to terms with the fact that it's run by a father son pair of foxes, but typically they know of Yuko, and soon Watanuki has some delicious food to deliver. Yuko wants to return the favour the next day, but it's the night of the full moon, coinciding with Friday 13th. It's when evil spirits are abroad, and when Watanuki will be particularly prone to their attentions. He needs protection, but he doesn't understand just what part an innocuous word game will have in all this.
Once Yuko has gotten over her hangover, she decided to go shopping, although Watanuki was hoping for a more conventional means of transport. Yuko wants a baseball bat, and lots of sake, but more importantly, they have to pay a visit to one of Yuko's customers, a housewife who's neglecting her home and her family for the lure of the Internet.
It's a rainy day when a mysterious red-haired girl who knows his name confronts Watanuki. She's an Amewarashi, a rain sprite that is looking for Yuko's help. Yuko volunteers Watanuki, and much to his dismay Doumeki as well. There is a giant hydrangea plant, which has started blooming bright red flowers, and the two rivals are to investigate. Hearing the cries of a little girl, Watanuki gets pulled into a strange netherworld, but if he's to get back out again, he'll need to rely on Doumeki.
Yuko drinks tea and relaxes, while Watanuki spring-cleans the warehouse. It means taking the contents of a veritable Aladdin's cave out to be aired, and one of the items attracts the attention of a passing university student. It's an ornate cylinder that she simply must have, but Yuko warns her that it must never be opened. Of course once you dangle a warning like that in front of someone, it becomes an irresistible temptation. When the student starts as a trainee teacher at Watanuki's school, he takes it upon himself to keep an eye on her. But there are some things that Watanuki is powerless to prevent.
9. Pinky Promise
There is the old superstition, that two soulmates destined to be together, are linked by an invisible red string connecting their little fingers (the little finger being directly linked to the heart). When Himawari tells Watanuki about this, he's thrilled, could it be that the apple of his eye is finally winking back? Yuko's about to throw cold water on the idea though, especially when a new customer walks into the shop seeking help. At first glance it looks like a familiar problem, a woman with a paralysed pinky finger, and when Watanuki takes a closer look, there is a stream of black smoke emanating from the digit. As before, Yuko gives her a ring, and tells her to figure out the flaw in her character before it is too late. But Watanuki is determined to help her, so when he races off after her, Yuko gives him a strange spirit creature, a Pipe Fox, to point him in the right direction.
The heat wave continues, Yuko melts, and Watanuki is depressed as Himawari is going on holiday for a month. Yuko suggests that he ask her out on a date, but when Watanuki comes over all shy, she has no other choice but to chaperone, and set things up. So much for romance, as Yuko's idea of a date is heading over to Doumeki's family temple, where all four of them can spend the night, telling each other ghost stories by candlelight. The trouble is that there is a corpse in the next room.
Another festival is impending, and that means that Watanuki is back slaving in the kitchen making Ohagi, a special sweet. Yuko's appreciation is shown in the speed with which the food disappears, although there is one piece left at the end, which Watanuki decides to give to Himawari, forgetting of course that she's on vacation. It's in Watanuki's kismet that it's his rival Doumeki who ends up eating it, but this time there is a strange result. A sad looking girl appears in the park where the two boys meet. Watanuki thinks she's a member of the Doumeki fan club, but when she reaches into Doumeki, and pulls out the Ohagi, with his soul attached, Watanuki realises he's in a lot more trouble.
12. Summer Shade
A strange building, a woman's voice, mysterious writing appearing on the walls, and the sense of anticipation, as if she is waiting for someone in particular. That would be the summerhouse at the beach where Yuko is spending her holiday, and she's invited Doumeki and Himawari to join her, her slave Watanuki, and Mokona to enjoy the sun. It's a chance for Watanuki to see Himawari in a swimsuit, but actually getting into the ocean… well he'll need a little help first.
This is one of the better serial anime transfers I have seen of late. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is clear and sharp with strong colours, free of artefacts, with just the slightest hint of NTSC-PAL conversion issues. It's worth comparing it to Revelation's Tsubasa, which has a softer and hazier feel to it. The contrast here is strong, image much better defined, and the only nitpick I'd have are a couple of colour gradient issues that you can't get away from on DVD.
The look of the show is worth commenting on, especially with reference once more to Tsubasa. Both series were created in manga form by CLAMP, both feature stylised artwork, elegant character designs, and a somewhat similar feel. When it came to the anime adaptations, Bee Train (Madlax & Noir) handled Tsubasa, and other than the rangy character designs, theirs was a rather conventional anime that would appeal to general audiences. Production IG (Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Otogi Zoshi) handle the work on xxxHolic, and they've produced something a whole lot quirkier and attractive. It may also account for the cleaner and crisper look to the transfer. xxxHolic is very much a spooky, Gothic mystery of an animation, and that is reflected in the show's look. The characters' leanness is emphasised here to an exaggerated degree, lines are simple and elegant, and simplicity is the order of the day. This contrasts with ornate world designs, detailed graphics of everyday objects and a very lived in feel to the world. The animation is eccentric and prone to exaggeration, especially when Watanuki flies off the handle, while non-important characters, massed crowds are represented by monochrome, generic, outlined figures. There's something altogether pleasant about xxxHolic that really appeals to me.
You have a choice between DD 5.1 English and DD 2.0 Japanese, and thankfully Manga have kept the original subtitle streams, so you get a translated subtitle track to accompany the Japanese audio, as well as a signs only track to go with the English dub. I was perfectly happy with the Japanese stereo, but for the first time in ages, I was less than impressed with an English dub. The 5.1 mix is an improvement on the stereo, as there is a fair bit of ambience and presence to the sound, but the direction of the dub is questionable, the majority of the voices seemed miscast, or the result of poor character decisions, and after ten minutes of listening to the English track, I simply had to switch it off. It actually sounded like a cartoon, which isn't what you want from anime.
1:09 into the first episode, there is a sound blip on the Japanese during the opening credits, while I also noticed a typo in the subtitles early on, with 'complete' spelt 'completele'.
I just received the check discs, so I'm unaware of what you may receive with the packaging, but the discs themselves seem identical in content to their region 1 Funimation counterparts, albeit bundled up in a three-disc set as opposed to being released individually. So all you will find on each disc are static menus, jacket pictures, textless credits, and a brief image slideshow gallery specific to each disc.
Well, all but the most oblique references to Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle have been stripped from this adaptation, which renders my sense of obligation to this title pretty pointless. On the other hand, it does turn out to be a rather enjoyable episodic supernatural mystery show, beautiful to look at, with some intriguing characters and entertaining stories. It's certainly the right note with which Manga are kicking off their relationship with Funimation, as it's a show that should appeal to the majority of fans, while being quirky and original enough to make an immediate impact.
It's not too original though, as the supernatural anthology format is one that is explored often in anime, with shows like Mushi-shi, Hell Girl and even Vampire Princess Miyu. xxxHolic is on the lighter side of the spectrum though, keeping one eye on the sense of humour and the more ridiculous aspects of its characters while telling its spooky and unsettling stories. The divorce from it's stable mate definitely does it some good though, as while Tsubasa is a more mass audience family friendly show, xxxHolic retains enough of an edge and a subversive feel to appeal to a more mature demographic. Also Yuko adds a little sexiness to proceedings, she's impulsive, egotistical, playful, sly, sultry, and her relationship with Watanuki sees her as more of a dominating tormentor than just a mere tease.
There is a long history of mysterious shops in entertainment, stretching all the way back in my memory to Mr Benn's adventures. You know when you wander into an odd establishment off the beaten track, you're in for a thrill ride, and when Watanuki is drawn to Yuko's shop, he enters a whole other world. It's a wish shop, a place where people who need wishes fulfilled inevitably wind up, and it's Watanuki's constant plague of spirits that needs healing. As with all mysterious shops, money isn't the medium of exchange used here, it's your soul, or rather what you hold dearest to your soul. For Watanuki, that means his time, as he winds up working off his debt at Yuko's shop, working in the kitchens, and performing whatever duties her whim demands. Obviously the goods will be delivered when payment is completed, as while Watanuki's attendant spirit is quickly despatched, his ability to see them isn't. And it would be a pretty short show if it were.
If you've seen Tsubasa, you'll be familiar with Mokona Modoki, a white long eared chubby creature with mystical abilities and a playful personality. In xxxHolic, we meet his black counterpart, just as mystical, but with more of a teasing personality. This Mokona is Yuko's familiar, but he soon latches onto Watanuki as a source of food and a target of torment. We also meet Yuko's servants Maru and Moro, a couple of cute girls who fawn over their employer. At this point they are just eye-candy, but hopefully as the story progresses, their characters will develop. The point is that Yuko sees something in Watanuki that needs developing and nurturing, and her employing him is her way of training his abilities and opening his eyes to a wider world. And all through his bitching and whining and bellyaching, he actually begins to grow as a person.
That's the thing about Watanuki, he's an obnoxious ball of negativity when we meet him, and it's only gradually that he becomes likeable. That would normally be detrimental in a main character, but the Japanese voice actor makes him likeable enough to appreciate and stick with through the episodes. (Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the American VA). The only bright point in Watanuki's average day is school friend Himawari, on whom he has a tremendous crush. The problem is that he has a (perceived) rival to her affections, Doumeki. Doumeki is a lot calmer and collected, self-assured and confident, everything that Watanuki isn't. This triangle immediately catches Yuko's eye, especially when it transpires that Doumeki has his own spiritual abilities, abilities that complement Watanuki's. Thereafter it's her mission to open Watanuki's eyes to the fact that he and Doumeki are a matched pair, stronger together than apart. It's something that Watanuki objects to constantly, strongly, and vehemently. What's more interesting is her reaction to Himawari, who appears in every respect to be a likeable, friendly and utterly normal girl. Yuko on the other hand tells Watanuki that she is bad news, especially for him. It's something that he obviously denies, but on the odd occasion there is a hint of something more to Himawari that suggests that Yuko isn't just meddling for kicks.
This is the overall story that takes place in the background of the show, it occasionally comes to forefront, but generally lives in the subtext. Although there is the odd bit of continuity, the passing of the seasons, parties in one episode may lead to hangovers in the next, and the odd recurring guest character, xxxHolic is very much an episodic mystery show, with each episode presenting a different story. There is decent variety in tales here, from all parts of the spooky continuum. The majority of episodes begin with someone coming, willingly or otherwise, to Yuko for help, although the problems may be different, from a compulsive liar, Internet addict, serial adulterer or avaricious college students. Some episodes may just have a mystery that needs investigating on the spur of the moment, such as the spirit besieged high school, or the haunted summer retreat, while others delve headlong into aspects of mythology and superstition, as when Watanuki encounters a couple of foxes running a food stall, or a rain sprite visits Yuko for help. The impressive thing is that there may be a large variety in stories, but they maintain a high standard of storytelling. You also don't always know which direction a story will take, some are comic, while others may be bleak and moving, while still others may switch direction half way though. It's all enjoyable stuff.
xxxHolic is limited a bit by the episodic format though, and I want to see more of the characters developing and their story coming to the forefront. Watanuki may be mostly annoying, but his interactions with Himawari, Doumeki, and especially Yuko more than hold the attention. And were it not for the characters, xxxHolic would be just another run of the mill supernatural anthology series. With them, it's elevated above the norm, the unique visual feel to the show makes a lasting impression, and it's tremendous fun to watch, the Japanese version that is, I wouldn't wish the dub on anyone. It's perfectly timed for Halloween too.