"xxxHOLIC" Vol. 1: Spirits Distilled and Diluted
When starting a new series, checking out a new movie, or even just stopping on a random TV show, I will often give it what I think of as a “three strikes” test: I’ll track the number of times it “hits” or “misses” with a scene, a joke, or a bit of business, until either I’ve become comfortable with it or until it has accumulated three “strikes,” in which case I’ll go looking for something else to watch.
But occasionally I’ll run into a problem you sometimes get in baseball after a hitter has accumulated two strikes—an endless sequence of tip-of-the-bat fouls; hits that aren’t quite hits, but aren’t quite misses, either. In a TV show it will be scenes or bits that are almost good and almost interesting, that suggest something neat might actually be just around the corner, but whose promise never quite gets delivered on. This kind of infinitely delayed coitus (to abruptly substitute metaphors) can be agonizing.
And that, you see, is my problem with xxxHOLIC, which FUNimation has just started releasing stateside to DVD.
The first volume starts promisingly enough in “The Inevitable” with Kimihiro Watanuki marching grimly down a busy urban street while pointedly trying to ignore the kaleidoscopic smoke of swirling colors, as big as a locomotive, that is following him. Watanuki, you see, has the rare ability to see spirits, and these in turn are attracted to him. (Apparently, for him it’s a bit like being chased by invisible elephants that aren’t sure if they want nuzzle him or trample him to death.) On this particular day Watanuki winds up (inevitably, he is later told) at a shop belonging to the mystical Yuko, who agrees to help cure this little problem of his if in exchange he goes to work for her. This, in turn, further exposes him to a world that he desperately would like to leave behind, because Yuko’s “wish shop” brings in customers trailing problems not dissimilar to his own.
The setup, then, is for something a bit like a mystical detective show: Watanuki is basically working at an agency-for-hire that specializes in occult problem-solving. There is clearly lots of opportunity in such a show for lots of good spookiness, some imaginative effects, a little metaphysical reality-bending, and (thanks to its eccentric cast) more than a little character comedy. These possibilities are, to large extent, realized in “Angel,” which has Watanuki and another new hire, his classmate and rival Shizuka Domeki, investigating odd goings-on at a high school. Among other things, it features a trio of girls who aren’t what they appear to be, a giant snake, and a lot of sarcastic back-and-forthing between the excitable Watanuki and the deadpan Domeki. And yet, as good as it is, “Angel” takes its sweet time getting started, as it has to fold Domeki into the continuity and further complicate Watanuki’s relationship with Himawari Kunogi, a classmate he has a crush on. There is some fun to be had amidst all the exposition, but it’s very mild indeed, and mostly it’s the promise of mayhem ahead that makes it bearable.
And that’s a good way of characterizing the first volume of xxxHOLIC, which collects the first four episodes of the series. “The Inevitable” stylishly sets up Watanuki, his problem, and Yuko’s proffered help. “Angel” actually sends its characters into danger. And, to the series’ credit, it apparently has ambitions to be more than just a kind of edgier Scooby Doo. It takes its mystical spirituality fairly seriously, for instance: In “Fortune Telling” Yuko mercilessly exposes a fake fortuneteller in a way that would earn James Randi‘s approval, and in “Falsehood” she and Watanuki help a woman whose health is being undermined by a moral flaw that she prefers to ignore. And yet not a lot happens in these latter two episodes.
When there’s not much going on story-wise, you have to find your consolations with the characters. Again, there’s potential, but the show doesn’t push itself as hard as it might. Watanuki has good reason to be jumpy, but it’s a jumpiness that infects the rest of his personality; he is, constantly, pretty much just a stubbed toe away from suffering a major freak out, and he stubs his toe (so to speak) far too often. Domeki, who doesn’t see spirits—whose presence, in fact, repels them—is a welcome contrast to Watanuki, but his deadpan stoicism is sometimes as unyielding as cement. Yuko is the most vivid character, occasionally casting off her air of hooded mysticism and indulging the playful malice of a screwball comedienne. But even when these contrasting characters collide, they don’t often strike sparks off each other. They can drive each other to exasperation, but they don’t often provoke each other into saying or doing anything really interesting.
Otherwise, there are some fun visuals to keep you occupied. Characters are often elongated, so that Watanuki sometimes looks like a pencil that has sprouted a couple of limbs. This style gives the animators a bit more variety to work with when people get excited: they’ll express a tangle of fears and exasperations with jangled arms and legs pointing off in all kinds of directions. Fewer actual spirits show up on this DVD than you’d like, but they’re always fun to look at when they do appear. Unfortunately, what eye candy there is may only serve to remind you of Goblin Cat without actually sating the expectations such a reminder will raise.
Still, you keep waiting around for something good to happen, and occasionally it does. Now that the main characters have been introduced and firmly associated with other, there seems to be a good chance for interesting things to happen. That, however, is a promise for the second volume of the show to fulfill. By itself, though, the first volume doesn’t have a lot to recommend it.