When I was invited to do a guest post on xxxHOLiC vols. 1-3, I took the assignment literally. Even though I had read the whole series (though not recently), I wrote my review with reference to the first three volumes alone. Since these volumes are episodic and largely self-contained, this struck me as reasonable. But I can see why fans of the series might be unhappy. So I took up Kristy and Kate’s implicit challenge and read the entire series so far, including scanlations of what del Rey hasn’t published yet: these cover volumes 15 and 16, and a few chapters of what will be volume 17. (For those who want to do the same, the new stuff begins with Chapter 171.)
It is quite true that the first three volumes are not representative of the series. It’s also true that the later volumes fix some of the problems with the first three. For one thing, they gradually drop the episodic structure and focus on the regulars rather than the customers, so the “simplistic morality tales” I complained about are gone. For another, some of the characters’ annoying quirks are minimized. (Not all, though: Watanuki’s irrational dislike of Domeki is still prominent, and still not funny.) But for most of the series, Watanuki and Yuko
remain one-dimensional characters, and Yuko is still more of a plot device than a character.
Moreover, the later volumes provide an additional ground for complaint. As the series progresses, the link with Tsubasa becomes much more important. Although it’s still possible to read xxxHOLiC without reading Tsubasa, unless you read Tsubasa you won’t know the full story of who Watanuki is, or why Yuko’s shop exists in the first place, among other important questions. I have read Tsubasa, or tried to. Not only is it long and bad, its plot is a labyrinth which few who enter ever find their way out of. To be fair, Tsubasa does provide a thematic counterpoint to xxxHOLiC; but that’s not enough to make it worth slogging through all 28 volumes.
The first volume of xxxHOLiC I really enjoyed was volume 15. For one thing, the characters of Watanuki, and to a lesser extent Yuko, finally acquire some depth. For another, something big actually happens, as opposed to Yuko telling us that something is about to happen, as she does repeatedly in the preceding volumes. (Even though xxxHOLiC originally appeared in a magazine for young men, CLAMP seems to think that they need to explicitly explain important points over and over, or their readers won’t get them.) And for once, the ending doesn’t disappoint: it’s powerful and affecting, more so than anything else up to that point. And there’s some beautiful and striking art.
It turns out that volume 15 and the first chapter of volume 16 mark the end of an arc that encompasses the entire series up to that point. And when the second arc starts, there are major changes, including in characterization and tone.
If xxxHOLiC ended where the first arc ends, I’d conclude by saying that one good volume isn’t enough to outweigh fourteen mediocre ones. But the second arc feels like it will be a long one, possibly as long as the first. And while it starts off slowly, it may wind up being good enough to redeem the series as a whole. While I stand by what I wrote about the first three volumes, all I can conclude about the series as a whole is that it’s too soon to say.
Update by Noah: The entire xxxholic roundtable is here.