xxxHolic Vol. #1 (also w/box) (of 6) (Mania.com)

By:Chris Beveridge
Review Date: Friday, March 28, 2008
Release Date: Tuesday, March 25, 2008



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.

To be free of his visions, Watanuki agrees to work in her shop of dreams and visions. Helping Yuko with her customers, Watanuki quickly learns that those looking to fulfill their desires should be wary, for the price may be higher than they ever wanted to pay...

Contains episodes 1-4:
The Inevitable
Falsehood
Angel
Fortune Telling

The Review!
When Watanuki stumbles in front of a strange little house, his life takes a drastic change in a surprising direction.

Audio:
xxxholic gets a pretty good treatment for its audio portion of the release but it really doesn't seem to get much from the bump. The bilingual release includes the original Japanese stereo mix which is encoded at 192kbps as well as an English stereo mix which is done at the same rate. Both of these mixes are pretty good as the show is dialogue heavy with only a bit of music here and there to add some extra atmosphere. The inclusion of an English 5.1 mix at 448kbps is surprising since it really doesn't seem to gain much from it. Generally areas such as the opening sequences come across as a bit bigger and more vibrant but even this great opening song feels the same as the stereo mix. Dialogue doesn't gain any greater clarity or placement either. All in all, the mixes are good and we had no problems with them during regular playback.

Video:
Originally airing in 2006, the transfer for this TV series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is enhanced for anamorphic playback. xxxholic is a series with a good mix of real world designs that meets the supernatural. The visual design of the show is one that has a good sense of depth to the backgrounds while the characters feel a bit out of place because of the designs. The transfer for this captures it pretty well and for the first three episodes it's really solid for the most part. The small problematic areas are inherent in the source there as elements like Mokona shows some gradient problems and a bit of noise. The fourth episode is where things seem to break down some as there is a significant amount of background noise to everything. It's not quite as strong at first but it is apparent. Once it gets further into the episodes, it's far more noticeable in many places. It turns out to be pretty distracting at times and reminded me more of what FUNimation's encodes were like for the last few years. On the plus side, some of it may just be part of the source as the bitrates for this episode is just as consistent as the previous episodes.

Packaging:
The opening volume of xxxholic sets the stage for expectations for the series and it pays it off in spades. With a great piece of framing around the central artwork, we get a wonderful if familiar image of Yuko and Watanuki together in their finery with some smoke wafting about. The artwork for this show has always been a huge draw for me and this piece is great looking as it showcases something that's very different from the norm. There's a simple elegance here that's very appealing. The back cover takes the general design and reworks it nicely with a brief summary of the premise and a pair of small strips that contains shots from the episodes. The episode numbers and titles are clearly listed below it as well as the extras that are on the disc. The remainder of the cover is given over the technical grid - which is really small again - and the standard production credits. The reverse side of the clear keepcase has a full length anime image of Yuko stretched out with lots of dark colors around her. It's very appealing in the same way she is on the front cover. No insert is included with this release.

In addition to the first volume, a starter set was also released that contains the first volume and a box. This starter set is a bit of a surprise coming from FUNimation because it's pretty tame and without any of the usual flair that we've seen from a number of their sets in the last year or two. That said, it's the perfect box for the show with its understated and classy look. The box is done in a good heavy chipboard form with matte black finish to it. The top portion of all three panels just has the logo done in small form both in English and Japanese while below it is a wraparound strip of artwork. Only not a complete wraparound as one main panel features a shot of Yuko that doesn't blend with the others. The other main panel which does wrap to the spine has a great visual of Yuko while the spine is given over to Watanuki and Doumeki with a sense of wonder in their faces. The colors and overall layout for this is just spot on and very appealing.

Menu:
Taking its cues from the front cover design, xxxholic utilizes many of the same elements and layout ideas here. The simple black background has the same kind of framing throughout it while the main part of the cover artwork is used as the main visual draw. The navigation strip is kept to the right where it has basic submenu access and the play all selection. Add in a nice bit of music to it and overall it's a fairly standard and serviceable menu that fits into the theme well with a bit of simple style. Access times are nice and fast and the layout easy to navigate. The disc did not read our players' language presets unfortunately and defaulted to English 2.0 and sign/song subtitles.

Extras:
The extras for xxxholic aren't much of a surprise but the couple we get are certainly welcome. In addition to the clean opening and closing sequences, we get a brief image gallery for these episodes.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on the manga created by CLAMP, xxxholic is a twenty-four episode series that even saw release across eight discs in Japan. When the manga launched, it was tied heavily to the event of Tsubasa being launched and the series have intertwined since then, though more apparently in the Tsubasa manga than in the xxxholic manga that I've read to date. While the two series are linked with some of the characters and early situations, xxxholic as an anime series stands alone from the start here as we get to know the primary cast of characters that populates it. While you may get more out of it if you watch Tsubasa, you won't be lost in the slightest by just watching this show.

xxxholic is a very small show in that there aren't many characters to it just yet and the stories are done in a manner that speaks to what's inside of us. The lead character is that of Kimihiro Watanuki, a young man who has faced adversity and continues to do so while trying to hold his head up high. He lost both his parents at a young age in an accident and is now living on his own while attending school. Those experiences have tempered him a fair bit but it's also domesticated him in a way as he's quite good about keeping up his appearance and his apartment. He's grown to excel at sports and to be a generally good guy though there's something slightly off about him at times that seems to keep most people from him.

That small something is that Watanuki can see and sense spirits that move all around us. And not only can he sense them but he can also be affected by them, which we see right from the start as some amorphous blob is plopped on his back and is weighing him down. This has been going on all his life and he's managed to cope with it but he's looking for a way out of it so he can lead a normal life. As with any story, it's a chance meeting that changes things for Watanuki when he ends up stumbling in front of an old style house and the spirits on him simply up and disappear. He's drawn inside only to discover a pair of cute little girls named Maru and Moro who are apparently waiting on him to arrive and they bring him in to meet the mistress of the house.

Though not named thus just yet, Watanuki meets Yuko Ichihara, the "time space witch" that launched the journey in Tsubasa for those individuals. This takes place prior to that event however and is the first proper meeting of Watanuki and Yuko though she's keenly aware of who he is and what his role in things will be. With a very laid back manner, much like a spider drawing in the fly, Yuko entices Watanuki with the possibility of removing his problem with the spirits and is able to capture him as a servant of sorts to perform duties around the household. In exchange, once equal value has been given to her in this manner, she'll help him with what his problem is. Watanuki can feel the truth of these statements but he's terribly unsure about falling into her trap. Events don't give him much choice though and before he realizes it, he's agreed to her terms.

It's from there that the strange journey Watanuki goes on begins as Yuko uses and abuses him in subtle and not so subtle ways. The residence that Yuko operates out of is essentially a draw to those of a similar nature who are dealing with unusual supernatural problems that she can solve - for a price. Watanuki being there is one such thing, but Watanuki ends up becoming something more than just a case due to the way he can sense supernatural things and become involved in solving them. His ability to sense what isn't the norm and to realize it is important, something that we see in this volume when the very cute character of Mokona is introduced. The little creature is something that many, including a fake fortuneteller, see and think of as just a cute stuffed animal. Watanuki isn't caught up by this issue and knows exactly what Mokona is, which leads to the pair of them having an interesting relationship that has some tones similar to the white Mokona with Kurogane in Tsubasa.

While there is a fairly relaxed and mellow tone to the stories of the show and how they play out, there are more spastic moments throughout as well. Watanuki is someone who is very physically expressive and he tends to do a lot of flailing and other gestures to deal with the situations he finds himself in. A lot of his frustration comes from dealing with the straight man of the show, a classmate named Doumeki who will become far more important according to Yuko. The way the two play off of each other is pretty straightforward but it works incredibly well and is very appealing. In addition to Doumeki, Watanuki has the love of his life that he's doing his best to impress and get close to, another classmate named Himawari. The cute and free spirit that she is, Himawari ends up in a good bond with both Watanuki and Doumeki as everyone is introduced and that provides for some tension for Watanuki since he's doing his best to get close to her and he sees Doumeki as some seriously bad competition.

Similar to when Tsubasa came out, xxxholic got raked over the coals by many for its character designs. The characters are all incredibly thin and lanky with very long legs that are disconcerting for some. This is a little more problematic in Tsubasa since it was dealing with mostly known characters that were being newly interpreted. With xxxholic, it's almost all original characters so there isn't quite so much of a connection. It's easy to see why people wouldn't like them but I find myself still very drawn to the style since it's not a cookie cutter thing and it allows for some slight variations on how the characters move about in their world. While Yuko may be a bit too top heavy with the frame she has, everything about the visual design of the show is very appealing. The backgrounds have a great real world look to it and the color palette alternates well between smooth and soft to very vibrant and energetic. xxxholic had me hooked right from the opening song with its animation style and design.

In Summary:
Having enjoyed the characters appearances in Tsubasa and being a fan of the manga series, the anime version of xxxholic had me pretty much from the start and it didn't falter. The relaxed pacing, the enjoyable characters and the story possibilities therein have me very excited to see more of how this show will progress. There is something very enjoyable about shows that play well between the light and dark aspects of stories in seeing how well they manage that balance. xxxholic looks to be working it well so far and this release hits just about all of it right outside of some video encoding issues. Fans of the show will definitely lap this up and it's a series that should get a lot of exposure because it's a solidly entertaining piece of work. Very recommended.

Features
Japanese 2.0 Language,English 2.0 Language,English 5.1 Language,English Subtitles,Image Gallery,Clean Opening,Clean Closing

Review Equipment
Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70" LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.



Mania Grade: B+
Audio Rating: B+
Video Rating: C+
Packaging Rating: A-
Menus Rating: B
Extras Rating: B-
Age Rating: TV PG
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: FUNimation Entertainment, Ltd.
MSRP: 29.98/39.98
Running time: 100
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: xxxHolic