"CLAMP Double Feature": "Tsubasa" Is Too Short, But "xxxHOLiC" Is Just Right
If you read my review of the Tsubasa anime series, you know how hugely it disappointed me. I hated how Koichi Mashimo and his collaborators at Bee Train basically turned it into .hack//CLAMP. Fortunately for The Princess in the Birdcage Kingdom, the Tsubasa feature FUNimation recently released as part of its Tsubasa/xxxHOLIC double feature, they’ve been replaced by Itsuro Kawasaki and Production I.G.—and wow, what a difference that makes. All the wonder and epic feel of the manga actually makes it through and onto the screen.
The story has our heroes, Syaoran, Sakura, Fai, Kurogane, and Mokona, falling into a kingdom housed in a giant birdcage. The gang gets separated, and eventually Syaoran and Sakura meet the princess of the land, Princess Tomoyo. Seems Tomoyo’s uncle has taken over the land using an object of great power (which, if anybody’s been following the story, everyone quickly realizes early on is one of Sakura’s Memory Feathers) and is about to enclose the entire kingdom in darkness. Now, it’s up to Syaoran to stop the evil king while rescuing his trapped comrades and Princess Tomoyo to boot. However, the key to saving the land is a small ring of great power. Unfortunately, it can be used only once.
The first thing you’ll notice about the movie is its beautiful pastel coloring, which enriches the backgrounds and makes the characters pop a lot more than they did on television. The Birdcage Kingdom isn’t some dreary place where everyone is full of angst; it’s a rich, wonderful land that revels in its fantasy inspirations. The first impression lets the viewer see that this is clearly a fantasy world with magic and weird creatures and leaves one wondering what surprises await our heroes as they continue to explore the land—a far cry from the first impression of violence and death the series projected. The animation is similarly wonderful, with kinetic attacks and a final battle between Syaoran and the evil uncle that, though rushed, is simply beautiful to watch. I can’t really think of a single negative thing to say about the visuals. If only the TV series had been like this, then maybe I wouldn’t have had such a seething hatred for that pile of junk.
It’s a real pity the movie has to be so short: Clocking in at just over thirty minutes, it just does not get enough time to breathe, meaning that everything is smushed together for a quick resolution. The beginning starts off well enough, as Syaoran and Sakura walk peacefully through Tomoyo’s forest hideout while Kurogane and Fai have quite the fun battle with the nameless castle guards. But once Tomoyo is kidnapped, things shift into high gear and the movie quickly rushes toward its conclusion.
Two casualties of this rush are Kurogane and Fai, who are captured early on and basically sit in the dungeon until the very end when the battle reaches its climax. Even there, they only get to beat up the small fry and don’t actually do anything against the evil uncle. We also don’t get to see enough of the various magical creatures
Either I’m getting used to the two voice casts (despite not having watched Volume 1 since I reviewed it), or they’ve gotten better. I’m still not a big fan of Jason Liebrecht’s Syaoran, but he bothers me less now. I still like Vic Mignogna’s Fai and Carrie Savage’s Mokona, and I’ve even warmed up to Chris Sabat’s Kurogane (even though it’s the same voice he uses for Zoro in One Piece). However, I still can’t stand Monica Rial’s Sakura; luckily, she doesn’t have much to do in this movie. Amber Cotton does a fine Tomoyo, but since this version is less eccentric and crazy than her parallel universe counterparts, she doesn’t have much to do. Thankfully, the Indian music from the series has been replaced by a traditional orchestral score that does wonders for the film; at no time, for instance, does the music ever overpower the visuals and the voices.
The DVD comes with another feature, xxxHOLiC: A Midsummer Nights Dream. Kimihiro Watanuki has a problem. See, he was born with the ability to attract spirits. This is all well and good if you only get one spirit at a time, but it’s gotten so bad he has to take on dozens at a time. So, Watanuki visited Yuko Ichihara, a temptress who helped solve his problem in exchange for becoming her servant. One day, a young girl arrives at Yuko’s shop and asks her to investigate her old mansion. Yuko, in turn, drags along Watanuki and his rival Domeki, whose ability to innately drive away spirits counters Watanuki’s ability. The group finds a band of collectors who were invited to add to their collections, but they start disappearing one by one. Eventually Watanuki and Domeki are separated from the others and must find out what’s going on while avoiding the house’s deadly traps.
This movie is downright awesome. I’ve always liked a good suspense thriller, especially the more abstract ones animation can provide, and this movie is one of the best I’ve seen in years. Everything—the fantastic visuals, the intriguing plot, and the wonderful characters—is terrific. One of the best things about the movie is the mansion itself. Most of the time, haunted mansions just have spooks that will pop out and scare the protagonist. But this movie features a true haunted house, where the rooms change from one door to the next and the entire place is so vast it can be overwhelming. In one scene Watanuki is trying to find the bathroom and ends up walking a couple of miles and through about twenty rooms—a pretty funny scene after a while. In another, Watanuki and Domeki visit the various collections of the house. The duo wander endlessly through a tower that seems to go on forever, looking at collections of things one wouldn’t expect to be collected, which just adds to sheer weirdness of it all.
This feature has a longer running time—an entire hour—which is one reason it is better than its companion. The background is explained quickly, allowing the characters to get into their mindsets and the story to get into the plot. it also benefits from characters who are on top of their game. Yuko continues to be one of the best characters CLAMP has ever created, and every scene she’s in instantly brightens up. Watanuki is essentially Haré from Haré+Guu, only not annoying. Domeki doesn’t really get much to do in this film, but he does have some pretty funny scenes near the beginning. And he’s just so deadpan you can’t help but enjoy his reactions to everything.
There are a few weak spots: The story drags a little in the middle, and the one-time guest stars don’t have a lot of personality. Nor are the two main spirits all that interesting. The “villain” of the piece has an active imagination, but he doesn’t truly pull at the heartstrings like he’s supposed to, while the other spirit just feels like a plot device. Granted, I could say the same thing about half the stories in the manga, but it feels different in a movie.
Interestingly, xxxHOLiC features a diverse visual look. At times it looks like a normal anime movie; at other moments there is a herky-jerky quality to its animation; at still other times it seems to be done in Squigglevision. It’s almost as if the animation work was outsourced to a bunch of different artists recruited at random US arts festival, which makes it feel like something we’d see from Sundance or Spike & Mike’s rather than from Production I.G. This is especially evident during the final battle, when the animation goes through about five different styles. The character designs also take some getting used to. In some shots, they seem far too lanky and have heads that are far too small, and in some shots Yuko’s sagging chest makes it seem like she’s a doll or something. The coloring is darker and a bit more solid than in Tsubasa, and we’re treated to a lot of dark reds and whites throughout the picture.
In Episode 1 of the Tsubasa series, Watanuki was voiced by Vic Mignogna, and while he was decent, his “Ed Elric” voice didn’t really fit Watanuki. Luckily, FUNimation realized this and recast the part. Todd Haberkorn is a relatively new addition to FUNi’s talent pool, but he is simply perfect for Watanuki. The man is able to get Watanuki’s outlandish reactions, both positive and negative, down pat without making them seem too silly, and I cannot imagine any other voice for Watanuki now. Colleen Clinkenbeard continues to kick butt as Yuko. While her serious speeches are great too, she simply shines when Yuko plays catty and make those remarks whose only purpose is to anger Watanuki. J. Michael Tatum’s Domeki sounds a bit odd at times, but as Domeki has only about twenty lines in the entire movie, he doesn’t really get a chance to do anything. The music isn’t as sweeping as it is in Tsubasa, but that’s rather expected, and the downbeat soundtrack fits the movie a lot.
For Tsubasa FUNi at least delivered on the extras with a video commentary in which Miyu Irino (Syaoran), Yui Makino (Sakura), Mika Kikuchi (Mokona), and Producer Iwasaki give us substantial information, such as the hardest scenes to do and little in-jokes during the production. Much more disappointing are video recordings of question-and-answer sessions at two special premiere events. Both are dominated by very general questions and broad answers, giving us no insight at all behind the scenes. There’s also a short “Recording Session Montage,” more interview footage from Shibuya, production artwork, background slides, and an “Origin of the Birdcage Kingdom” that would’ve been quite a sight to see animated.
xxxHOLIC‘s extras are similar, being dominated by a video commentary featuring producer Iwasaki and actors Jun Fukuyama (Watanuki), Sayaka Ohara (Yuko), and Kazuya Nakai (Domeki). They give a lot of interesting comments about the production as well as some interesting tidbits about the visuals and how some minor details look in the theaters as opposed to on a DVD. And since the movie is twice as long, the actors get to mention a lot more inside info, especially since Iwasaki actually leads them into discussion instead of just saying a random sentence or two. Otherwise, “Opening Day at Shinjuku Cinema Milano” is another question-and-answer session; “Recording Cast Montage” at least shows the actors’ pre-recording warm-ups. Then there’s the character design sketches, background plates, Japanese trailers, and FUNimation trailers.
If you enjoy the Tsubasa manga, you should at least give the movie a rental, as it’s much better than the series. And if you like a good suspense thriller anime, few can do as well as xxxHOLiC.