xxxHolic and Duping the Audience

Watanuki Kimihiro

source: Pixiv

xxxHolic is a difficult series. The manga has a convoluted continuity tied up in several different franchises. The anime adaptation is easier to follow, but has its own hurdles with the extremely stylized designs animated on a modest budget. Truth told, I procrastinated on this series when I’d seen the roughness of the animation coupled with the relatively comedic tone of the first few minutes of the first episode. It wore through slapstick and familiar Japanese comedy routines, setting up certain expectations as I watched. I let my preconceptions doubt the story. I was wrong.

Watanuki Kimihiro is a high school student who can see spirits. He’s rather unique in this ability, and his choleric nature sees that he always comically overreacts to being pestered and affected by these beings. But this is a feint. Much like how sweetness can accentuate the comedic, the comedic does wonders to augment the melancholic.

In Episode Three, Watanuki is paired up with his classmate, Doumeki Shizuka, to investigate some paranormal occurrences related to students using the Japanese equivalent of a Ouija board at their school. All throughout the episode the two argue and bicker back and forth, with Watanuki berating Doumeki whenever possible because he views him as an annoying rival of sorts. As the two tromp around the hallways at night, they discover several students on the roof in the throes of a spiritual séance gone awry. This is where the characterization of the relationship between the two schoolboys becomes important. The bickering and name-calling sets up the audience to see their interactions as somewhat disposable in the context of the mysterious atmosphere that developed during the scene.

That is, until a single line by Doumeki upends all of the context that was given to us. A single line transforms mystery into danger and malevolence. A single line causes us to question Watanuki’s perspective, rendering his viewpoint unreliable through no fault of his own.

“What have you been doing, Watanuki?”

Doumeki Shizuka

source: Pixiv

That isn’t the first time that comedy is used to distract and deflect away from the sobriety of the text. In the first episode, Watanuki is sent on an errand for his new patron, all the while arguing and bickering with the series mascot, Mokona. Their interactions were also played up for comedy, as was the majority of the episode where Watanuki had to fend off spirits that were attracted to him.

As Watanuki walks down the street continuing his duties, he overhears the conversation of a group of high school girls. One of them starts describing the difficult life she’s led, being aware of and constantly dogged by spirits. She complains of pain, pressure, fatigue, headaches, and wins the concern and adoration of her following. Watanuki follows them, and after a brief outburst by the main girl he moves in to reassure her.

“It will be okay. There’s nothing bad possessing you.”

This is where Watanuki first betrays a startling naïveté, believing truly that his words would bring her succor. Instead, he invites her derision and condescension as she plaintively spoke of the ignorant bliss of the spiritually unaware. The irony of the moment runs deep, as Watanuki stands nonplussed at the notion of someone feigning possession by an evil spirit for the entertainment of her friends, as opposed to he himself who actually was.

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This teenaged girl invited that which she played at. Pretending at ills, faking hysteria, only to be taken in a moment by an actual spirit. As the music fades, the girl becomes pallid, feebler, quieter, slower, walking away unaware of the new burden that drains her life. Watanuki looks on helplessly, wondering why she wished this upon herself while not knowing of the ramifications. The girl walks away, never to be seen again, ruining the rest her life in a moment of pretension.

The comedy of the first half of this episode is now a distant memory. The slapstick of seeing Watanuki flail about on the street trying to shake off unseen entities to our amusement has been superseded by the melancholy of witnessing a young girl die slowly before our eyes. The expectations set up by the ease of our laughter are subverted by the realities of the world that these characters inhabit. The relative mirth of the opening scenes contrasts with the solemnity of its resolution, sharpening the edge of any laughter to be had henceforth. And through the thickest irony of this pretentious girl lecturing Watanuki on his presumptuousness, we are simultaneously chastised as an audience for the assumptions and preconceptions we make, and the expectations we bring.

The first of many times in the series that we’ll be taken to task for this.


Filed under Editorials, xxxHolic

13 responses to “xxxHolic and Duping the Audience

  1. Oh, this encounter with the girl wasn’t in the manga. Very interesting. Also, very nice fanart selection. Like youkai, the series tries deceiving us. CLAMP know how to craft stories (except when they get things too complicated *cough* TRC *cough*)

    • Yeah, I don’t really know much about the manga, but I asked around about this girl when I first saw this episode and they told me that she never shows up again. That revelation was the saddest part for me, because there’s no indication that she has any redemption in her future. Great stuff.

      As for Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, I actually mentioned it in the first draft of this essay as part of the reason why xxxHolic is so difficult, since it gets bogged down in a lot of continuity snarls. But ultimately it made the intro paragraph more convoluted and abrupt than it needed to be. I still plan on getting around to reading both of the manga however, because the story in xxxHolic had that much of an impact on me.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. I’ve read most of the manga and watched a few episodes of the anime. xxxHolic is great stuff, and Watanuki develops into a really fascinating character as the series goes along.
    One of my favorite themes of the series is the concept of one’s actions affecting the lives of others. It seemed in xxxHolic that even the most mundane and “harmless” of actions could lead to big consequences for people who had seemingly nothing to do with them. While reading/watchin this series, you can more or less argue that every individual has a number of “addictions,” and it’s up to each one of us to learn to recognize them, and decide if we’re going to do anything about it. The concept of everything in the world being interconnected is especially made apparent when the series begins delving into the theme of dreams.
    The silly banter between the main characters of the series helps liven things up, yet never feels too out of place, even when the story is dealing with rather serious or even bleak issues. It seems like something that would be difficult to pull off, but fortunately xxxHolic has a good handle on its characters.

    • Watanuki’s growth really is central to the whole story. There were a few revelations that his character has that I personally resonated with, that I’m going to write about eventually. The next of these posts may go up some time next week.

      I didn’t catch on to any addiction themes, but it may not have been as emphasized in the anime as it was in the manga which I’ve yet to read. I did notice it occurring on occasion with the customers of Yuuko’s shop, but moreso out of hindsight now that I think about it. I’m definitely under the impression that things were adapted and changed around for the tv broadcast to further broaden its appeal and smooth over continuity issues with Tsubasa, which if I’m not mistaken is licensed to another studio (and is kind of a trainwreck of an anime if I heard correctly).

      As for one’s actions affecting the lives of others, yes totally. There were a few times when I spoke aside to Emily as we watched where some of the ideas that drove the narrative basically smacked me in the face in the same way that Penguindrum did. Stories playing around with the concept of fate, Determinism, and reactions to them such as those more Existential in nature really get to me. When xxxHolic started exploring dreams at the end of its first season and even more in the second season and the OVAs, the conversations held within them were where the more philosophically inclined portion of my mind was tickled.

      It’s those common themes that really got my blood flowing with respect to Penguindrum and xxxHolic, though by no means were those the only reasons either. Like you say, the interplay between the characters was handled with aplomb, and looking back, there was not a single wasted moment for any of them. Every single action foreshadowed the motivations behind all of their interactions, so that when the reveals hit toward the end it all made sense.

      It’s a great series, I’m going to steal Emily’s xxxHolic the next time I visit.

  3. astronerdboy

    The anime failed because in detaching itself from Tsubasa, certain events get changed in the anime so as to lose credibility. I loathed how Zashiki-Warashi’s introduction was changed from Valentine’s Day to some obscure Japanese holiday, thus making it devoid of the romantic aspects of the manga.

    Not that the manga didn’t have its own problems. The very fact that it was so heavily saddled with Tsubasa caused xxxHOLiC to fail, not to mention the fact that CLAMP just gave up on it. *_*

    • CLAMP hasn’t given up on xxxholic. They’ve marked it on hiatus. Plus we see Watanuki in the latest Drug & Drop, former Gohou Drug, chapters. Since we’ve watched the end of Sakurazukamori in X/1999, it’s very possible that TRC and xxxholic main characters find a conclusion elsewhere (sorry for the ‘intervention’)

      • Ayame, where do you see xxxHolic having been put on hiatus? I haven’t read the manga yet (I will very shortly) and I checked wikipedia, but all I see is that it’s concluded. If it is on hiatus, then maybe the entry wasn’t updated?

        • yes, the entry wasn’t updated. it’s on that it’s stated that the work will be continued. The ending was half-hearted anyway. They’d better continue it and solve some unanswered questions we’re left with.

    • to astronerdboy
      Thank you for taking the time to comment on my essay here, but I will have to disagree with your premise.

      I reacted pretty strongly to xxxHolic, despite the initial difficulty of the opening episode. The dissonance of my expectations contrasting with the reality of the narrative were what fueled this first post, and drove me to eagerly lap up the rest of what this story had to offer.

      My fundamental disagreement comes with the idea that any changes to the canon to simplify continuity robs events of their credibility. An adaptation, like any other work, has to stand on its own first and foremost. Everything else related to it can give it context, but nowhere should it be a requirement or a prerequisite to enjoyment or understanding. And man, there were so many moments that spoke to me personally.

      I see how xxxHolic’s manga connections to Tsubasa can get cumbersome and problematic, as I’ve been told that Tsubasa is a bit of a “clusterfuck”. Still, xxxHolic’s anime adaptation was so successful for me that I feel that it behooves me to seek out more material to take in what more of the narrative there is.

      That’s a pretty successful adaptation in my book.

  4. I am so glad you enjoyed xxxHOLiC Vuc – it is an all time favourite of mine precisely due to some of the reasons you’ve highlighted in this post. I really loved how the series successfully balances comedy with much darker themes about human nature.

    While Yuuko is easily my favourite character from the series, Watanuki is undisputedly the main character – it’s his personal journey that makes the series so interesting to me. Watanuki starts out as a rather thorny character who tries to keep everyone at arms length in order to protect them from the apparitions that plague his daily life. His gradual awakening to the fact that his self-sacrificing behaviour was actually hurting those around him was a joy to watch unfold. Doumeki’s unwavering loyalty to Watanuki arguably had more of an effect on Watanuki’s changing worldview than Yuuko did (although it was her incessant meddling that brought the two together in the first place).

    In terms of the anime adaptation, as a fan of the original manga, I though Production IG did an excellent job. Since Bee Train hold the license for Tsubasa Chronicle, references to xxxHOLiC’s sibling series had to be cut, but I don’t think the anime suffered as a result – the adaptation was well handled for the most part. However xxxHOLiC and Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle are almost inseparable in the later stages of the story, in order to get all of Watanuki’s story, you kind of need to read both manga……and yes TRC gets extremely convoluted at it’s climax.

    The xxxHOLiC manga has ended, but it doesn’t finish Watanuki’s story and I’d imagine he will appear in some of CLAMP’s future works – xxxHOLiC is a great stand alone story thanks to it’s episodic nature, but it is also a brilliant bridge to the other CLAMP worlds which is one of the reasons I love the series so much.

    Apologies if this makes absolutely no sense – I’m still quite heavily medicated! XD

    • Thank you for stopping by and leaving this great comment, Cara! I really appreciate it. Sorry for taking a few days to get back to you,

      xxxHOLiC did a number on me as I watched it with Emily, and there were a couple of key moments that highlighted Watanuki’s growth that really jumped out at me. I don’t want to go too far into it since I’m trying to psych myself up to write two more posts on this subject, but they include the ideas of selfishness as virtue and accepting happiness despite circumstance. Both of which are related to Watanuki’s realization that his self-sacrificing is indeed counter to the wishes of those around him. And the way that lesson is conveyed to him, with his right eye… man, I was legit crying during that moment at the end of the Spider Arc. I felt it was the single sweetest moment in a series that trends towards the cynical, and for that, was a moment that will stay with me for long after. What a great scene, gosh…

      Oh, as an aside, there’s this young man on G+ who occasionally shares our posts on there (bless his soul) who mentioned an interview with the director that reinforced my thesis here that the comedy is meant to work in tandem with the horror and tragedy in the work. I had no prior knowledge of the interview or his comments, but in seeing that I marveled at his ability to convey what he set out to do with no problem. Talented guy.

  5. David, how dare you. xxxHOLiC is my favorite manga series of all time, and I happen to come across a post of you not only watching the series, but giving great insight into it as well! Rude.

    I do personally have problems with the anime because it’s a failsafe show set up by CLAMP after the disaster of the adaptation of TRC (which is why no allusions- which are incredibly important later on in the series- to TRC are mentioned in the actual show). But nevertheless, it’s still quite a good adaptation for all it’s worth. I think the the remarkable thing about xxxHOLiC is that it’s a show, or series that’s entirely set up to focus on Watanuki Kimihiro, the main protagonist, but also sends a meaning to the audience, making the show personal but stylized. Each ‘filler’ episode in its own way reflects a certain problem we may have seen in real life in one way or another (though certainly exaggerated, as seen with the girl who can’t stop lying) and proposes a solution to the problem. In the end however, it’s more about what’s gained from the situation rather than the solution proposed. It’s where we mesh, and also contrast, themes and narratives against one another. Doumeki serves as a foil to Watanuki Kimihiro; the comedy serves as a foil to the dark undercurrent of philosophy but also truth that runs through the series. And at the heart of it all, we have a morally complex individual named Yuuko who does not really help nor go against human beings; she just grants wishes.

    I feel like xxxHOliC is much more about choices and how their creation, along with their responsibilities make us who we are, but my main fascination lies with Watanuki Kimihiro who to this day remains as one of my favorite male protagonists. xxxHOliC revolves solely around his growth as a human being. (heavy spoilers for the manga follow, so if you don’t want to get there yet and want to wait till Rou, just kind of skip this mass blurt and pretend this part is the end of it!)

    The wonderful thing about xxxHOLiC is that while it functions as as a side manga to Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles aka That Hot CLAMP Mess, it also serves as a character study- a study of Watanuki. There are very few series that pinpoint on a certain character and focus on him or her throughout the entire journey; usually most people consider this to be a weakness because other characters don’t get space to develop, but the magical thing about xxxHOLiC is that Watanuki’s development as a character revolves around the people he interacts with. Which means that while Watanuki develops, so do other characters in the verse. And Watanuki is specifically constructed as a teenager that to some extent, we can associate with in one way or another. He’s presented as the typical, overemotional klutz who is genuinely a good kid at heart. He cooks great food, he fights with his best friends, has a crush on a girl, and overall works his best to fufill people’s wishes of him. He starts off as a very typical anime character who exaggerates his emotions and actions. But what’s fantastic is that Watanuki, while starting out as a flat character, develops a rich cushion of duality to him; this arrives when Watanuki stumbles into a situation he is not comfortable or aware of and that puts him in a sticky place. xxxHOLiC is a heavy study about human nature and Watanuki is the prime example of well, all of us; how he reacts is what we would generally react to. And sometimes it’s not pretty. Watanuki does run away. He runs away from himself because he’s afraid of knowing what he is and often times it’s extremely difficult to look at Watanuki and what he does because he is a good kid; he’s just had very unfortunate things happen to him. He questions his own morality and his own confidence a lot, and his narrative as such is very nonlinear in nature. He doesn’t follow a set plot where he follows this staircase example of reaching plot A, becoming a human being, reaching plot B/character A, becoming a better human being, etc. Often times Watanuki will learn an important lesson from Yuuko, but will actually never put it to use until much much later. Despite this however, the constant internal conflict of Watanuki and him questioning the world around him, his own awareness, his own self present him as a very, very complex character. The most important thing is the fact that Watanuki, while he does whine and complain, has every right to. His entire existence is a fake copy of someone else’s. He was never meant to exist. And despite that, he understands that he whines. That he in some way is a coward and is running away from the truth about himself.

    Yet Watanuki serves as not just as a medium of the storytelling of the deconstruction of what we determine as “good” or “evil” or how choices have consequences we may not be aware of; he actually rises above the themes of the story and becomes a full living character. His actions display that courage is not as white and black as we think it is; that hitsuzen does exist- the fact that choices have unprecedented consequences and create a sort of butterfly effect. Watanuki makes several blundering mistakes himself- most notably, in the Spider Lady arc, and when he meets the Lady who brings illness to those she meets. (I mean honestly he continues to meet her despite being aware that in doing so he could kill himself because he doesn’t want to make her feel lonely- and not’s let forget that despite Yuuko’s constant warnings he continues to befriend Himari). Even after becoming the Shopowner, Watanuki understands that there is only so much he can do to help humans; he can only grant their wishes, no matter how selfish and horrid those wishes can be. But Rou takes it further and not only shows how much Watanuki has grown, but continues to push his idealism in the same way. Watanuki still chooses at the end of the day to see the best in people, despite their flaws, or their selfish wishes. He cannot laugh at his customers or look down upon them because he is a customer himself, bound to a flawed wish of his own. And yet he holds to that wish with pride, sorrow and happiness; he never breaks it. He stays in the shop despite being able to walk free. And that inherent goodness is what makes him so flawed and gets him into so much trouble, but at the end of the day, it’s his saving grace and is what makes him so amazing, because he only takes that trait and strengthens it, despite everything he sees.

    And yet, Watanuki doesn’t man up to some big hero of the story. He doesn’t become an all powerful god; he retains his flaws to the very end. He doesn’t save the world, he can’t even save the person most important to him. But that doesn’t stop him from trying. Watanuki’s development is perhaps the best development I have seen in any sort of story because it emphasizes the flaws in his human nature but also appreciates those flaws without changing Watanuki inherently. In other words, the series respects Watanuki’s complexity. I think a problem with CLAMP fans is how they fail to see how complex Watanuki really is. He is down to earth in his humbleness and has a very pure heart, but that doesn’t mean he’s a perfect human being. His constant conflict of lack of self worth and self-loathing are presented as healthy and not healthy, and the fact that he struggles with his own inherent nature as a human being every day through the course of several actions (sacrificing his eye for Doumeki’s, the entire Spider Lady arc, teaching the lady how to cook) are examples of that. The loneliness and conflicts inside of him are presented as a sort of holistic part of him, just as they are a part in all of us, in human nature itself.

    Furthermore, the plot revolves around Watanuki’s complexity and as such it adds an underbelly of development and secondary narrative to him (as seen with his interactions with the TRCverse). To be honest, xxxHOliC’s narrative revolving around the concept of ‘sharing existences’ is one of my most favorites and the most fascinating to me because it really presents the idea of what it means to be human. Watanuki was never meant to exist. He is a copy of Syaoran who winded back time in order to save Sakura; as a result his bonds with his family, his presence in this universe are all a signal of the distortion of time and space. He is fake in material, and despite that, it’s his very resolve, his very emotions, his very flaws that make him exist. “Don’t disappear,” Syaoran calls out to him, and it’s only through the bonds Watanuki forms with Yuuko, the supernatural and his friends that he is able to break through his mindset and finally wish that he wants to be here. But not for himself- for others. Because he realizes the concept of self-worth; he may not value himself completely still, but he understands that his actions do have consequences. As Yuuko tells him, he doesn’t belong to himself. He belongs to others and vice versa. As much as Watanuki develops and struggles through the daily life and triumphs in the smallest of ways (as well as stumbles) by himself, it is equally through the acts of his friends- as demonstrated when both Himari and Doumeki pay prices to keep Watanuki alive- that Watanuki is to fully become a human being. And I think that’s the message Watanuki’s development sends; a deterministic view of the world, that only we can judge ourselves for who we are and what we’ve done, and it’s only when we truly understand ourselves- our faults, as well as our strengths, that we can come in full circle and become our own beings, and control our own choices, and act upon those responsibilities. Watanuki becomes his own destiny and despite the laws of the universe telling him to fucking disappear, he says no, and begins to consciously make his own choices- those choices ultimately saving Syaoran and Sakura (see: butterfly effect/hitsuzen).

    Despite all the complexities of Watanuki Kimihiro however, what’s beautiful is the fact that at the end of the day, he’s a boy you or I can see in any street- with his friends, at the shop, in school- a simple, loving boy with a genuine heart. Genuine emotions. He is you, he is me, he is all of us in many ways, and xxxHOLiC stresses- and celebrates that sort of kid who despite having unfortunate things happen to him, finds and struggles to hold onto happiness for every moment in his life. And that to me, is a greater struggle than anything else. It is easy to give up and lose hope after losing things dear to you. It is a greater struggle to keep your promises, to respect the people you loathe, to wait another 1000 years for a hope, a wish. Watanuki Kimihiro represents the best in all of us- even the flaws, and that’s why he is so flawless.

    This entire post is a mess I’m sorry. But yeah. I love Watanuki a lot. And I think the adaptation is overall fantastic even after cutting ties to TRC (which does hinder it I won’t lie about that) because it still retains its overall themes and excellent narratives that drive the heart of the show.

  6. sildi07

    It’s the first time for me to read an insight about an anime like this (in English ;’>) Well, I prefer manga so I don’t watch anime that much, especially Clamp’s since the artwork and plots are a little bit different. So, it’s quite interesting to see your view from some episodes of xxxHolic. I’m a fan of Clamp and I love Clamp’s works, especially their ideas and “theories” that they put in each story. Clamp’s style is quite varied and colorful in my opinion for, I suppose, mostly because they are a group of mangaka. I’ve read pretty much of their work and can point out that some of their works are amusing and cute like Legend of Chun Hyang, Wish, Suki, Miyuki-chan in Wonderland, or Magic Knight Rayearth. However, some are really hard sometimes to capture because of their mysteries, abstraction, and underlying connections/meaning such as the tie between TRC and xxxHolic, Legal Drug, or the recent series Gate 7.
    Anyway, back to the point, Clamp starts xxxHolic with a series of different stories featured different characters, each of whom obtains a unique characteristic, and these characters hardly appear again. Well, as you can say, a feint; it’s okay to put it like that. For me, I consider them as the openings, the catalyst to slowly pull out the real problems of each characters and slowly help these protagonists grow. However, through each small story, I think Clamp want to depict some particular characteristics of us, human nature, and our society. And I’ve learnt a lot from those. So I’m glad that you find something out of these stories.
    About the difference in anime and manga, I have to admit that the anime doesn’t succeed in transfer the ideas from the manga. Still, I think the director and his crews have tried the best since Clamp’s works are difficult (both their art and plots). It’s fine if you like the anime better but I still want to recommend you read the manga of xxxHolic (together with TRC if possible) for to me, they are wonderful stories. I’d like to say that these types of manga are truly Clamp’s masterpiece; if you can feel them, understand them then you will definitely love them, as I do. However if you don’t like complicated, twisting, and “headache” type of manga/anime, then it’s okay to drop xxxholic here and turn to some other fun works of Clamp (I would recommend Kobato and Chobits).

    p.s: sorry for the errors in grammar (._.”) it’s the first time I write such long comment in English ^_________^

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