Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: xxxHOLIC

Well, as CLAMP Month comes to an end and my birthday grows ever nearer, it's time to take a look at not only my favorite CLAMP work, but one of my favorite manga ever.  Consider this a birthday present from myself to my readers as we conclude:

xxxHOLIC (Horikku), by CLAMP.  First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2004.

Kimihiro Watanuki is a lonely young man with a big problem.  You see, not only can he see spirits, but they are voraciously drawn to him, tormenting and threatening him on a daily basis.  Their torments lead Watanuki to stumble (quite literally) upon a mysterious little shop that drives them away.  The shop belongs to Yuuko, a self-proclaimed witch who grants wishes to those who need them.  She recognizes Watanuki's gift, and she makes him a deal: she will find a way to keep the spirits at bay, but in turn he must work for her.  Watanuki agrees, but he soon finds himself over his head.  Not only is he now stuck as Yuuko's in-house cook, servant, and go-fer, but he discovers that Yuuko can indeed grant wishes, sometimes at a terrible price.

Being my favorite CLAMP series, it's hard for me to explain this series without either launching into fangirl squeeing or massive spoilers, but I shall try to do my best.

So, what makes xxxHolic so appealing?  I think part of it comes from our two leads and the way they play off one another.  Watanuki is a surprisingly comic lead, as he is often angrily (and vocally) overreacting to...well, just about everything that's strange.  It's never stated outright, but it's clear that Watanuki wants to be normal.  He's also stubbornly independent, wanting to be dependent upon no one save for his lovely classmate Himawari.  Of course, being responsible, he'll do what he's told, he'll just grumble the whole way through, especially as Yuuko teases him and presses all of his buttons.  Still, we do occasionally see him in calmer moods, where he gets to demonstrate some compassion and understanding of others, and it's these moments take keep Watanuki from being purely comic relief. 

So what about Yuuko?  The long and short of it is that she's a genuinely fun character, even if you can understand at times why Watanuki finds her frustrating.  Off the job she's a playful tease and a lush, taking delight in commanding Watanuki and setting off his all-too-short temper to get a reaction.  Yet when she's on the job, she's at once cryptic, sage, and deadly serious in her efforts to help her customers.  We also occasionally get glimpses of something more affectionate in her, be it the way she coddles her familiars Maru and Moru or her own admiration of Watanuki's potential.  These shifts in tone never feel too jarring, like one is something affected for the benefit of others; it simply feels like part of a single, complex, and endlessly interesting character.

The title "xxxHolic" is meant to represent addiction, with the "xxx" standing in as a blank space.  This theme of addiction is prevalent in the customers we meet in this volume: one who is habitual liar, and another who cannot tear herself away from the Internet.  Yuuko's solutions to their problems are unconventional, to say the least, and not always in the client's favor.  But then, as Yuuko notes, she can only do so much unless the client wants to change - she cannot simply magic their problems away.  The story does feel rather episodic in a 'monster of the week' sort of way, at least until the end when the story collides with its sister series, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles.  At this point it's impossible to say how the interweaving of the two series will play out.  CLAMP is notorious for bring characters from their multiverse into their works, but it's usually only in the form of cameos, little nods or in-jokes for long-time fans.  How well this more direct form of crossover will work out will partially depend on the plot of both series, and partially on one's own opinion of both xxxHolic and Tsubasa.

Ultimately, xxxHolic's appeal lies in how well crafted its lead are and how well they play off one another, which for me was more fun and interesting than the more obvious supernatural elements.

xxxHolic features what may be some of my favorite artwork by CLAMP, as it marries the more ornate, Gothic style of their past with the simpler, more streamlined qualities of their modern works.  The character designs are very much in line with CLAMP's modern style - in other words, a lot of long limbed crazy noodle people.  They also have a lot of fun playing dress up with these weird, gangly people, and nowhere is that more evident than with Yuuko.  Yuuko is visually striking with her long dark hair and wide variety of robes and dresses, each more lovely and fantastical than the last.  Mind you, on the covers and chapter splash pages, every cast member gets a chance to lounge about in gorgeous, heavily patterned robes and things.

What is most striking about xxxHolic's art is not in the details, but its overall visual style.  There's a sleekness and elegance about the characters which makes them work in spite of their gangliness.  It also can be found in the panel composition, as CLAMP makes a lot of use of stark black washes for backgrounds, where the only highlights come from the characters faces and the ever present curliques of smoke, magic, and spirits.  The panels are tightly focused on the characters, but CLAMP uses a lot of different angles and a lot of panel sizes to keep things interesting.  The page composition is rather straightforward, but spacious, giving the art plenty of breathing space.  Backgrounds are variable, ranging from well-drawn and mundane to dense hatching to blank white.

The art of xxxHolic is sleek, dark, elegant, and beautiful, and it's a perfect match for the story within.

Those who are lucky enough to have a copy from the first print run may have color pages in the front, duplicates of the first few pages and the chapter splash page.  True to form for a Del Ray/Kodansha release, there is an honorifics guide in the front and copious translation notes in the back. 

Did you expect anything less?  xxxHolic is first and foremost a visual treat, but it's also fun to read thanks to the dynamic between its two leads and the fact that unlike its sister series, it's not so entrenched in CLAMP cannon.  It's one of my favorite manga ever and I heartily recommend it.

This series is published in the USA by Kodansha, formerly Del Ray.  The series is currently being rebooted in Japan, but all 19 volumes have been released and are currently in print. 

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

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