In a comment thread on The Hooded Utilitarian that I don’t seem to be able to find now, in which the discussion had turned to CLAMP, I remarked that xxxHOLiC was pretty good. When Noah said that he liked CLAMP mainly for the art, I suggested he try xxxHOLiC, on the grounds that it had “lots of swirly stuff.” On that point, my memory had not played me false: xxxHOLiC does indeed have lots of swirly stuff, some of it quite pretty. However, upon rereading volumes one through three, I realized that my memory of these volumes as a whole had been rose-tinted. Or maybe I’ve become jaded with supernatural manga with formulaic, Twilight Zone-ish plots and one-dimensional characters. Actually, my feelings about the writing are much the same as Kinukitty’s, so I may wind up repeating some of her points.
xxxHOLiC is a cross between the “magical shop” and “supernatural detective” genres. Like these genres, it is episodic, and it stands or falls largely on the quality of its individual episodes. In these three volumes, however, the episodes are often simplistic morality tales (the habitual liar and monkey’s paw episodes) or end in anticlimaxes (the ghost storytelling and “angel-san” (a Ouija-like game) episodes). I think Kinukitty’s first instinct on the habitual liar episode was correct: it really is thuddingly moralistic. The wages of habitual lying are generally not death, and especially not death in such a contrived fashion as here: becoming completely paralyzed at the exact moment a truck is bearing down on you. (And what was the point of giving her the ring? It appears to have made matters worse, if anything.)
The monkey’s paw episode is even lamer. To anyone who’s read the short story the monkey’s paw comes from, it’s obvious that things will end in disaster for its user, so there’s no suspense. (When I first read this volume and got to the introduction of the monkey’s paw, my reaction was “You’ve got to be kidding.”) And because the paw’s user/victim is so dense, I couldn’t even feel any sympathy for her. Again, why does Yuko give her tube with the monkey’s paw inside in the first place? (Maybe her strategy is to give the “unworthy” enough rope to hang themselves.)
I said the angel-san and ghost storytelling episodes end in anti-climaxes. In the latter, it turns out that Yuko set the whole thing up and Watanuki was never in any real danger. And as for the angel-san episode, WTF? A giant snake appears out of nowhere and saves Watanuki and Domeki? Talk about a deus ex machina. We can add to the list of bad episodes the thirty-odd pages devoted to the crossover with Tsubasa. It may pay off later in the series, but for now it just takes up space.
Not only is the plot weak, there are problems with the storytelling as well. Many of the episodes feel padded, not because of decompression-style techniques but because of the lengthy, dull, and sometimes nigh-incomprehensible explanations Yuko is in the habit of giving. There are also some storytelling glitches. The most conspicuous is during the ghost story-telling episode. After Himawari, Domeki and Watanuki have told their stories Yuko announces that it’s her turn and says: “Now, that thing showing on the shoji paper door behind me: what do you think it is?”* Her words are illustrated by a two-page splash panel depicting said paper door, and on it a silhouette of an enormous ghostly-looking figure. It’s undeniably an effective moment — except that, as far as we see, none of the characters react to it at all. And while Watanuki is attacked by spirits shortly afterward, there’s no indication that this particular spirit is among them, leaving the reader to wonder what the point of the splash panel was.
On to characterization. Of the recurring characters, only Yuko and Watanuki receive any real characterization. But these characterizations are little more than sets of quirks: Yuko is capricious, loves booze and exploits Watanuki; Watanuki has exaggerated reactions to everything, is infatuated with Himawari and irrationally hates Domeki. Apart from these quirks, Yuko and Watanuki are pretty much empty shells as far as character is concerned. And while the quirks are amusing at first, they become tiresome long before the end of volume three. (Maru and Moro, Yuko’s almost identical child assistants, are annoying from the first.)
Throughout volumes one through three, Yuko stresses that you must take responsibility for all your actions, and that you are the only one who can change your behavior. This theme could have served as a means of deepening Watanuki’s character. But it’s weakened by the fact that Yuko’s actions towards Watanuki completely contradict it. She magically compels him to enter her shop against his will, and virtually coerces him to make a “contract” with her, high-handedly overriding all his protests. And I see no indication that we are supposed to notice the discrepancy between her words and her deeds.
I’d be more inclined to share Vom Marlowe’s love for Yuko if she were more of a character and less of a plot device. Also, she really doesn’t look middle-aged to me, especially when I look at her bare-midriffed figure in the Internet addict episode. Of course she could be middle-aged and extremely fit — though she doesn’t seem to be big on exercise — or magically preserved.
In general, xxxHOLiC’s writing is best when it’s most restrained. Largely for this reason, the Internet addict episode is the best episode in these volumes. There’s a wordless two-page sequence showing the addict, who has agreed to never touch her PC again, trying to resist temptation. This sequence is extremely well done, and all the more welcome for its contrast to all the talking and yelling in the rest of the volumes. In fact, these are my favorite two pages, despite their lack of “swirly stuff.”
This segues neatly into the subject of xxxHOLiC’s art, which is far superior to its writing. Vom Marlowe already pointed out the Art Nouveau influence, which is obvious and strong, but at the same time integrated into the volumes’ overall style. I suspect that Yuko’s appearance, in particular, was inspired in part by Mucha’s depictions of women. I don’t really see much of an ukiyo-e influence, but then I’m less familiar with that tradition (and haven’t really had time to bone up on it since Vom Marlowe sprung it on me). In addition, the pages flow well visually; and while I’m not sure what Vom Marlowe means when she praises the “ink,” the solid blacks are well placed on the pages. A nice touch which I just noticed is the visual rhyme between Himawari’s hair and the black smoke CLAMP sometimes uses here to represent malignant spirits.
I don’t hate xxxHOLiC, although I’m not sure I’d say, as Kinukitty did, that I don’t dislike it. It’s a decent enough time-killer, if you can put up with most of the episodes ending disappointingly. (Come to think of it, based on the other CLAMP series I’ve read, they seem to have a problem with endings in general.) And the art is good, although you might be better off getting your Art Nouveau directly from the source. But if you’re looking for a good supernatural mystery series, I recommend you look elsewhere.
*I’ve inserted my own punctuation because if I used the ellipses used in the book, Yuko would sound like Swamp Thing.
Update by Noah: You can read all posts in the xxxholic roundtable here.