xxxHolic sees Dimensional Witch Yuko gets a second UK outing after her cameo role in Tsubasa – but this time around she's in a starring role, and a whole lot less mysterious because of it. This time around, Watanuki Kimihiro is the one in need of her help, and accepting that help is about to lead him into a very strange life indeed…
What They Say
Watanuki has been haunted by spirits his entire life; a curse flowing through his bloodline that prevents his peace. When incessant demons dog him to the ornate door of the Dimensional Witch Yuko, he meets a mystical woman of insight and luxury, quick to help those in a bind - for a fee.
Audio is provided in English 5.1 and Japanese 2.0 versions – being mostly a creature of habit, I stuck to the Japanese track for this review. The show's heavy reliance on dialogue means that there's not a lot of opportunity for the soundstage to be given a workout, with vocals sticking mostly to the centre. Background effects get more placement, though, and while there's not much in the way of music, what there is comes across very well. There were no apparent encoding problems.
Video is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The visual style of the series is very minimalist – the colour palette is very muted and there's not a huge amount of detail to either characters or backgrounds, with "extras" normally being presented as simple outline sketches. Combine that with the gangly character designs which always look out-of-proportion to me, and you get a series that looks… strange. The overall look is quite soft-focus, and to be honest I'm not entirely sure if that's intentional or an encoding issue – either way, it means that this isn't what you could call a good-looking show.
No packaging was provided with our review copy.
Menus for each of the three discs in the set follow the same pattern – a black background with a frame in the centre of the screen containing some static character artwork (Yuko features on all three discs, paired with Watanuki on disc one, Maru & Moro on disc two, and Doumeki on disc three), and options for Play All, Episodes, Setup and Extras. There are no transition animations, making the system quick and easy to navigate.
Each disc has a gallery of screenshots from the series, and creditless versions of the opening and closing sequences. That's your lot.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review will contain spoilers)
High school student Watanuki Kimihiro is a young man who has been haunted his entire life by dark spirits only he can see, the result of a curse in his family - and it's driving him crazy. All he wants is some rest from what he sees that others can't, a chance to live a normal life - and a chance meeting (or was that perhaps a destined meeting?) with Yuko Ichihara, the Dimensional Witch, may see his wish granted. If he can pay Yuko's fee, that is - and what she's after is his soul. Or failing that, the use of his services as her part-time servant. Reluctantly, Watanuki agrees - and soon finds that life in Yuko's employ is even stranger than he thought possible...
I first encountered Yuko while watching Tsubasa, another series based on a CLAMP manga that in some ways ties in quite closely with xxxHolic. In that series, she's a mystery – someone who appears every now and then to help Syaoran in his quest, but who never hangs around long enough for you to get a feel for what she's like, other than having a vaguely ominous air about her. xxxHolic plays with the flipside of that tale, and lets you see what Yuko's up to the rest of the time – and in doing that, introduces you to a fun-loving, mischevious woman who enjoys helping people who need her help (often without even realising), but also makes sure that she collects appropriate payment. Watanuki is one of her unwitting clients, although in his case he at least knew what he needed help with – drawn into Yuko's shop almost against his will, like all her customers, to meet with her and make payment. For him, that's a part-time job doing her household chores – but as the series progresses, Yuko sees potential in him and begins testing his paranormal powers, to see if he's capable of carrying out her work.
You see, the problems Yuko deals with aren't your ordinary, everyday problems – they deal more with matters of the mind, the conscience and the spirit, areas that only those with particular talents are able to work with. That Watanuki can see spirits is one indicator that he has the required skills, but there's more than that needed and over the course of the 12 episodes in this set he's assigned a number of tasks by Yuko that test what he's capable of, and in doing so introduces Watanuki to a world he had only vaguely been aware existed.
The show has a very small core cast – other than Watanuki and Yuko, there are Yuko's live in assistants Maru and Moro (a pair of fun-loving twins), potential love-interest Himawari Kunogi, and classmate Doumeki, who may or may not be the object of Himawari's affections and who has his own spiritual talents. That's pretty much it – most episodes also have the helpee-of-the-week, but nothing more. That gives quite an intimate feeling to the series and also means that there's plenty of time available to explore the lead characters and give you a good look at what makes them tick. Perhaps surprisingly, it's the relationship between Watanuki and Doumeki that gets explored the most – the little triangle between them and Himawari makes Watanuki positively burn with jealousy, a feeling that he fully takes out on Doumeki. If it weren't for that one issue, he'd be a perfectly likeable character, but his refusal to deal with Doumeki unless it's absolutely necessary is a major flaw, and one that even becomes a plot point towards the end of this set.
For the most part, though, the series is very straightforward: a person to help, Watanuki and Yuko discovering what their issue(s) are, and a resolution – sometimes successful, sometimes not. The stories are interesting and intriguing, but also paced quite slowly, with them almost feeling like a slice-of-life tale, just with a bit more of the unusual about them. That pacing works against watching too many episodes in one sitting – this is a series you'll want to take an episode at a time – but there's still plenty here to like.
xxxHolic makes for a surprisingly decent series. The characters are great, if a little under-developed in places, and most of the episodes pique the curiosity just enough to pull you along even where it's not entirely clear where they're going. Put it all together, and it's a compelling package that's easily worth a look.
Japanese Language 2.0, English Language 5.1, English Subtitles, Image Galleries, Textless Opening & Closing
Toshiba 37X3030DB 37" widescreen HDTV; Sony PS3 Blu-ray player (via HDMI, upscaled to 1080p); Acoustic Solutions DS-222 5.1 speaker system.