Judge Adam Arseneau is a review-writing-o-holic.
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Based on the popular ongoing manga series by CLAMP, xxxHOLiC: The Complete Series Box Set is a challenging anime to pin down into a single genre. Audiences get an attractive blend of the esoteric and the enigmatic, a spiritual drama into addictions, destiny, and introspection, as well as healthy doses of comedy.
As for the plot, well, that's the "enigmatic" part—I'll let you know if I find one.
Facts of the Case
Kimihiro has always been able to see ghosts and spirits. It's his curse, and he hates every waking minute of it. They are always following him, harassing him and even assaulting him, and he has no idea why. One day, he finds himself inexorably drawn into a mysterious looking parlor—his legs literally start walking in that direction—and meets Yuko, a fortune teller who claims to be able to grant wishes. From time to time, those who need her service walk in, and she can help…for a price.
Yuko agrees to help Kimihiro control his spirit problem, but in exchange for his employment (part-time) at the parlor cooking and performing odd jobs. He resents the job, because it takes him away from his love interest, Himawari, and gives her time to spend with his rival, Domeki, a somber and laconic teen whom Kimihiro despises. But it seems their destinies may be intertwined—while Kimihiro is to spirits what tequila is to college students, Domeki repels them with his very essence. The two must learn to work together under the tutelage of the tipsy Yuko in order to help others deal with their spiritual calamities.
A weird and wonderful presentation, xxxHOLiC (the three x letters are silent, pronounced "holic") will probably have a hard time finding a solid audience in North America, being just a bit too peculiar, a bit too low-key to resonate with the anime audiences this side of the ocean. The show starts off a comedy, with frenetic slapstick comedy and hilarious sight gags, but then segues unexpectedly into dramatic ghost hunting and danger, then reverses gears into a somber meditation on spirituality and the ineffable nature of our personal destiny, then a hard right turn into teen romance. The mind reels with the constant shifting, but the end result is certainly unique, and often quite enjoyable.
Take the art direction for example; in many ways, it perfectly personifies the weird-yet-wonderful mindset of this feature. Created by anime studio Production I.G, the design is animated, elongated, and whimsical, full of impossibly long limbs, gangly body forms, and ridiculous pantomimes. It is still immediately recognizable as Japanese anime, but I can't think of another feature that has the same stylized designs and curves. And so it goes with xxxHOLiC, formed out of recognizable elements of teen romance, ghost hunting, slapstick comedy, and spiritual introspection, but assembled into a wholly unique fashion as to be totally original.
All the elements work surprisingly well together; the comedic elements are genuinely hilarious, the romantic elements are cute and endearing, the character development is honest and forthright and the philosophical elements of destiny and human nature are profound and thought-provoking, usually revolving around themes of human fallibility and addiction (hence the series title, the suffix for addiction, "holic"). There is a simple joy in the storytelling, of the character development and storytelling, many of which resemble Japanese folklore or ghost stories, or mini-episodes of The Twilight Zone where hapless townsfolk get their comeuppance.
Where the series takes a risk is in failing to unite all these elements into a grand scheme, a story arc that takes audiences from point A to point B. Most episodes are standalone installments where Kimihiro ends up trying to solve some poor person's spiritual problems, while Yuko sits and smiles enigmatically, fully aware of how things will resolve, but unwilling to share, like a curvaceous and drunken Cheshire cat. This is what happens in the first episode, and this is what happens in the last episode, and in all the episodes in between. These are mini-vignettes, unrelated installments in the esoteric and the spiritual without a connecting story arc; a triumph of the individual episode narrative to be sure, but this weird and wonderful universe begs for something more substantial and unifying.
The transfer is reasonable, but lacks pop and vibrancy, with a clean transfer that exhibits too much haze and softness. Colors are washed at times, so much so that certain sequences seem to be lifeless and flat. As with many Funimation presentations, the picture exhibits some edge issues and compression artifacts, but should pass a cursory screening for most anime fans. Not a stunning presentation, but a serviceable one.
Audio comes in an English dub (5.1 surround) and Japanese (2.0 stereo) and to my surprise, I found the English dub the superior track not only in technical elements, but in the quality of the dub, but more on that in a moment. Dialogue is clear on the 5.1 surround track, with active elements in rear channels and excellent placement, especially during the more supernatural elements where ghosts and spirits are knocking on walls and scraping ceilings—everything sounds perfectly where it should. Bass response is particularly pleasing, with some gut-rumbling low frequency sweeps that pop up unexpectedly to startle audiences. The stereo Japanese track sounds tinny and unimpressive in comparison, lacking the warmth and expressiveness of the surround transfer.
As for the dub, I almost never enjoy English dubs on my anime, but the voice acting casted in this feature is top notch. The character of Kimihiro is actually twice as funny on the English track the Japanese, and Yuko is marvelous; a perfect mix of sensuality and hilarity. One element I didn't quite appreciate is that the English dub took some liberties in Westernizing many elements of Japanese culture and language jokes, which survive unedited in the subtitled version. A small gripe, but it assumes the audience is too unsophisticated to appreciate Japanese humor.
No extras to speak of—just textless songs and trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It is genuinely troubling that the show goes nowhere, and the closer one gets to the end of xxxHOLiC: The Complete Series Box Set, the more this realization becomes an insurmountable obstacle. The enigmatic themes of destiny, spirituality, and reflection make for a unique and enjoyable experience, but fail to really produce a cohesive narrative, and by the end, it is a deal breaker. In Japan, a second series of xxxHOLiC was produced, but I honestly can't imagine I'd be particularly interested in investing this much time in a series again that doesn't really pay out on the long-term.
xxxHOLiC has entertaining character development, hilarious comedy, and unique art direction give it just enough originality and flair to stand out in a flooded marketplace, but I wish the series had more of a story to back up its explorations, interesting as they may be.
It may not be the showiest or most exciting series on the market, but the integrity of the manga has been preserved here. A thinking person's series, xxxHOLiC is a clever introspective journey into love, destiny, and yokai spirits with as many genuine chills as side-splitting laughs. It certainly won't be loved by all that watch it, but there's enough charm, cleverness, and originality here to give it a chance.
A fun and fresh show with original design and execution—not guilty, but not quite as satisfying as it should be.
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