I want to lead off by saying that I’m a huge fan of CLAMP. I say this as the article title makes clear I’m not giving xxxHolic a terribly positive review. This is not because there is anything at all conceptually wrong with the show. After all, it made a great manga, and it and Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles shine as bold, experimental, yet utterly engaging and accessible stories. They also made for a loving tribute to two decades of CLAMP’s amazingly creative work. Referential at every turn, they are a joy to read and to see how and where different references creep in.
The anime adaptations of those series haven’t been so awesome, and xxxHolic feels particularly knee-capped. The ties to Tsubasa? All but obliterated, save for a few stray visual references. The ties to other CLAMP works? Well, if you’re really sharp you might notice a few things, and some of the more blatant nods like Chobits-styled headphones make the cut, but if you were expecting anything like the manga, you’re out of luck.
In fact, a lot of what made the manga so compelling seems lost in the translation to animation. The elongated design that worked so perfectly on the page comes off as bizarre at best. Characters with such seemingly elegant lines move choppily like epileptic muppets. The sense of mystery, the raw suspense: all of it just seems somewhat muted compared to the manga. Strip xxxHolic of those elements, and you’re left with CLAMP moralizing, and while those moral punchlines work wonderfully, it becomes a tough sell without the eerie feel of the manga. It’s not just been superseded in spookiness by contemporary horror series like When They Cry; the episodic, shocking reveals are vastly better handled by Boogiepop Phantom. This doesn’t make xxxHolic a particularly bad show, and occasionally it wanders somewhere slightly compelling and intense, but all to often it swings and misses where the manga hit dead-on.
The basic story is the same. Watanuki, a spazzy high-schooler plagued with visions of spirits who are then hyper-attracted to him, ends up at the doorstep of Yuko, a mysterious lady who claims to grant wishes. While he vehemently denies that he has any wish in his heart, it soon becomes clear that it’d be nice to not be pursued by spirits. Thus, to pay off the debt such a wish would require, he has to work at Yuko’s shop. Pretty soon, he’s also involved in the various wish-granting exercises. Sometimes this means helping rain spirits save a hydrangea from the ghost of a dead girl; at other times this means standing by as some idiot runs head long into an easily avoidable fate. Rinse and repeat for 20-something episodes, barring some almost sitcom-like romantic awkwardness at points. Oh, and occasionally Domeki, a fellow high-school student and perceived rival of Watanuki, helps out on these errands, but even that relationship doesn’t engage like it should. It’s all basically culled from the manga, but rarely does it seem to hit the same intensity. I would chalk it up to lackluster pacing, but with these short, episodic stories, I don’t see how they could be tightened up either.
FUNimation hasn’t done a bad job with this release, though. For being packed onto a mere 4 discs, it does have solid video and audio quality. The packaging is pretty snazzy, though the cardboard sleeve holding the slimcases should not be handled roughly. The dub is nice when Watanuki finally calms down a bit as well—until then, his spazzing in any language is perhaps too much. Keeping a remote handy to mute him might be wise. Everyone else punches in with listenable work, though the listless story often leaves one wondering if the performances were a little dull, or whether the script left people with nowhere to go.
The best part may be that I’ve taken so long to get this review out the door that FUNimation, as is traditional, already has another edition of this series out, so this older release should turn up cheap before long. Whether it’s worth laying out for … Well, that’s tricky. If you’re devoutly following the manga from DelRey, it’s only worth it if you’re some sort of CLAMP superfan, in which case, you might have bought it in singles back in the day, and if you haven’t bought it yet, you might wait to see if FUNi snags the new second season and the OVAs. If you have the FUNimation Channel, it’s probably only worth a watch through on that. However, if you’re not truly into CLAMP, or even just not that into spending money on a show unless it’s dirt cheap or grade-A, I can’t really recommend xxxHolic. Maybe at twenty bucks, but not even at the reissue’s MSRP. It’s just not that entertaining, and I really don’t see it having rewatch value because you’ll know all the episodes’ twists. It’s barely mysterious once.