I’ll be honest: I was nervous about being assigned to run the anchor leg of this week’s xxxHOLiC relay. By now, I’d fully expected that the other participants would have exhausted all the clever things I’d wanted to say about the series, whether it was pointing out the artwork’s sensuous, Jugenstil-meets-ukiyo-e vibe or critiquing the effectiveness of the Tsubasa crossover. Then a funny thing happened: the other contributors did praise the art and, to a lesser extent, the unobtrusive handling of the Cardcaptor subplot, but they were pretty tough on the series as a whole, suggesting it was dull, overwritten, and just plain silly at times.

Well, yes. But that’s exactly the point.

The early volumes of xxxHOLiC provide CLAMP an opportunity to have their cake and eat it too, poking fun at the mystical claptrap that’s part-and-parcel of the wish-granting-emporium genre while offering them a vehicle for staging creepy, effective morality plays. In Adam’s post, he notes the tension between what Yuko says about personal responsibility and how she interacts with Watanuki:

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.

On one level, I agree with Adam: there is a gap between Yuko’s preaches and practices. Yet I think that inconsistency is intentional in the early volumes, not an accident of careless writing. We’re not meant to take Yuko’s Yogi Beara-esque glosses on fate — sorry, hitsuzen — too seriously; after all, she quotes the dictionary, which seems like a deliberate jab at the kind of overblown, careful-what-you-wish-for speeches that crop up in Pet Shop of Horrors and Nightmares for Sale. Moreover, many of Yuko’s monologues are punctuated by slapstick: early in volume one, for example, she lectures Watanuki at length about fate, then bursts into an effusive rendition of the Romper Room theme song, while in other volumes, the hitsuzen-speak gives way to drunken revelry with the round, bunny-like Mokona.

At the same time, however, by introducing the concept of hitsuzen (which translates roughly as “inevitability”), CLAMP is also setting the table for the morality plays that are generously sprinkled throughout the first three volumes. It’s de rigeur in comeuppance theater to construct some kind of philosophical framework around the action; here, CLAMP’s set-up gives them more flexibility to do something interesting with the stories instead of simply punishing people for their character flaws. All four of the morality plays — the tale of the chronic liar, the tale of the Internet addict, the tale of the ouija-board players, and the tale of the overly confident graduate student — have unexpected twists that illustrate the importance of personal responsibility. In the first story, for example, it’s the liar’s inability to be honest with herself that ultimately leads to her demise (which, I agree, seems a bit extreme), while in the third, it’s the students’ fervent desire to see proof of the supernatural that creates a malicious presence at their school.

Even the monkey paw episode is, at base, a meditation on owning one’s choices. The paw’s owner, a graduate student, wants what all PhDs-in-training want: praise for the quality and originality of her research. (I know: I am one!) Her punishment stems not from over-confidence in her abilities, nor from genuine ambition, but from her assumption that her success stems from an inherently lucky nature. By placing so much stock in coincidence, she denies herself the opportunity to succeed or fail on the strength of her own hard work; when her wishes yield terrible results, she completely loses her sense of self.

I’d be the first to concede that the early volumes of xxxHOLiC aren’t as gripping as the later ones. But if you take them at face value — as both send-up and tribute to one of the most enduring tropes in manga — they’re a lot of fun to read. Oh, and the artwork’s pretty nifty, too.
Update by Noah: The entire xxxholic roundtable is here.

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