Watanuki's part-time work continues, and Yuko seems to be giving him more and more responsibility – is she testing him for something? And if so, for what? If there's testing going on, a dalliance with a strange older woman could be the incident that fails him…
What They Say
The beautiful witch Yuko Ichihara will grant any wish - for a price. But it is a price that high school student Kimihiro Watanuki is nominally willing to pay to be rid of the spirits that are inexplicably attracted to him. To this end, he becomes a part-time employee at Yuko's shop. However, working for Yuko soon proves to be much more than life as a glorified houseboy; wish-granting requires up close and personal encounters with the supernatural - and the sinister. As Watanuki's employment at Yuko's shop draws him further and further into her world, it becomes increasingly clear that all of the things happening to him are happening for a reason.
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 (Watanuki features on all three discs, paired with Himawari on disc one, and with Yuko on the other two discs), 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)
This set brings us 12 more episodes of Watanuki's adventures, each one essentially a standalone story that presents a problem for him or Yuko to deal with, or puts Watanuki into an unusual situation to see how he'll handle it. If you've seen the first volume of the series, you'll know the setup, and this volume doesn't do much different.
There are a couple of stories that stand out: the first is a two-parter where Watanuki is infatuated with an older woman who turns out to be something other than she appears - he'd looked like he was having so much fun while she was passing the shop that she couldn't resist stopping to say hello. Watanuki's quite taken by her & her friendly nature, but they soon part ways. Later, he receives a 'phonecall from Yuko - she's out of town on business, and is unlikely to be back for a while, so she gives him some time off. Time that soon ends up being spent mostly with his new lady-friend, but when he starts feeling unwell after his meetings with her, it becomes obvious there's something unusual going on.
I thoroughly enjoyed this arc – once I'd managed to put aside the little detail that Watanuki's so taken by Himawari that you can't see him playing away like this – as it explores parts of his personality that you usually don't get to see, and makes clear that Doumeki does see Watanuki as more than just an acquiantance. It's also the clearest marker that's given that Yuko's testing Watanuki, perhaps to see just how much potential he has with a view to taking over her "work", perhaps with something else in mind – it's never really made clear here (there's time for such things to be dealt with in the second season, assuming it's released in the UK), but the way the story plays out is fascinating.
The other highlight in the visit to the world of monsters by Watanuki and Doumeki, where the pair run into problems when their cover is blown and the monsters realise there are humans amongst them. It's not a deep or meaningful episode by any measure, it's more of a sidestory that reminds you that there's a world of the unusual running under the whole series and gives you a curious little glimpse at how that world works.
Apart from that, it's the usual routine, with people with problems and Watanuki and Yuko trying to solve them. It's a format that work well, but only up to a point – watching the series as broadcast, an episode at a time with a decent gap inbetween, helps the series keep its appeal, while marathoning the set over a day or two just points out the repetitiveness of the basic idea. The show relies a lot on atmosphere, with its laid-back feel and undercurrent of the unusual providing a lot of the appeal, but there's only so much problem-solving you can watch at a time before you get a little jaded with it.
None of which is to say that xxxHolic is a bad series – there's plenty to like about it, both in terms of the characters themselves and in the underlying world that they inhabit, and I've thoroughly enjoyed watching it. If anything, there's always a desire to know more about them, as even after 24 episodes there's still a lot about the leads that's only hinted at. For example, what exactly is the status of the twins, who can't leave the shop under threat of dire consequences? Do Doumeki's spiritual powers come close to Watanuki's, and why does Yuko seem to take against him during these episodes? What is Yuko actually up to? You get occasional hints dropped, but no real explanations are given, something that leaves you both intrigued and frustrated.
If I had to nitpick, I'd complain about the standard of the artwork in some places. I'm not sure if it's intentional or not, but there are some scenes scattered throughout the set where the characters look positively deformed, with their designs noticeably "off" from their usual appearances. It's very noticeable when it happens, but fortunately doesn't happen often.
xxxHolic has its ups and downs, but overall, what annoyances there are about the series are minor, especially if you pace your viewing of it. There's just something about the feel of the series that makes you want to see more, to see what the next problem is going to be and how it's handled. Well worth watching.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, Image Galleries, Clean Opening, Clean Closing
Toshiba 37X3030DB 37" widescreen HDTV; Sony PS3 Blu-ray player (via HDMI, upscaled to 1080p); Acoustic Solutions DS-222 5.1 speaker system.