xxxHolic: A Wish Comes at a Price

Matt Brown (Editor in Chief) — July 29th, 2009
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Many people want to believe that during uncertain times, some benevolent power guides their path through life, but the thought of fate controlling one's every move is too constricting. They want to feel in control during good times, but the thought that there's no help when things go wrong is lonesome. CLAMP's xxxHolic (pronounced "hole-ick") is built on the premise that all events are inevitable, and yet elicits caution in those who would wholly accept that premise.

Kimihiro Watanuki has an unlucky name. You see, "Watanuki" shares the same kanji as "April first" (Shigatsu tsuitachi), which also happens to be his birthday. Compounded with the misfortune of losing both his parents early in life, Watanuki is plagued by the ability to see spirits, and worse, they are attracted to him as flies to honey. To say this is an inconvenience for him is a gross understatement. Any outing from the safety of buildings puts him on edge, and causes him to act in ways that would make bystanders doubt his sanity.

It all changes when, during his daily herculean struggle to walk the street in peace, he stumbles upon the gate to a strange house, suddenly free of his spirit friends. He is quite literally drawn to the place, his feet unable to carry him away, and soon enters. The lady of the house, Yuuko Ichihara, informs Watanuki that his coming was inevitable, and that he'll be granted a wish in exchange for something of equal value. That something turns out to be a job: to slave away in Yuuko's house as her man maid, cleaning and cooking and shopping.

Yuuko eats it up, too. She loafs around and drinks like a fish, day and night (with her friend Mokona, the requisite cartoon mascot), and issues difficult meal orders while Watanuki scurries around trying to keep up. She holds up her end of the bargain, though, and gives him the appropriate tools to ward off the spirits while he's out and about. If that's all there were, the show wouldn't be too interesting.

Yuuko's "signature", as one character puts it, is the butterfly. A butterfly flapping its wings causes change across the globe. Much of what we learn from Yuuko throughout the series has to do with the so-called butterfly effect.

The series holds the notion of universal balance as one of extreme importance. Happiness is balanced by sadness in equal amount, good fortune by bad. Yuuko must collect payment for her deeds, because what she offers is a departure from the natural order of things. One episode features a murderer who asks Yuuko to destroy an enchanted photograph that plays back the crime. She unexpectedly grants the wish, which suggests that she never looks for justification in doing so, but the payment is tough: the murderer herself can never again be captured by a camera, or the truth will come out. To make disappear what she did, she too has to disappear. While it might seem strange in comparison that Kimihiro Watanuki's payment to Yuuko is a part-time job, she clearly has plans for him.

Watanuki has a love interest: a girl named Himawari Kunogi, who is oblivious to the fact that he likes her. His competition, as he sees it, is a guy named Shizuka Doumeki, who doesn't say much at all, but has a talent for irritating Watanuki. To add insult to injury, Yuuko tells Watanuki that Himawari is bad luck, and pairs him up all the time with Doumeki for assignments.

Watanuki's lightning-fast mood swings add both fun and consistency to the show. A typical episode features a criticism of Yuuko's drinking, and a rebuke for her outlandish meal requests. The very presence of Doumeki sets him off, especially when he's trying to have private conversation with Himawari. Doumeki quickly adapts with his own techniques, like covering his ears when Watanuki goes off. One has cause to wonder why Doumeki puts up with it.

Anyone who reads my reviews knows I place a premium on storytelling, and CLAMP's is expert. This title happens to be for adults, but regardless of intended audience, CLAMP is capable of writing stories and characters that matter. After Yuuko plants seeds in the viewer's mind that Himawari is capable of causing ill effects, the series presents a story of a woman who happens upon Yuuko's shop during a housecleaning, and asks if she might keep a trinket she finds: a cylindrical metal item that is sealed shut. Yuuko advises against it, but it's not until Himawari touches the item and it opens that we know the woman is in trouble. The way in which the details of each episode's story fall into place not only reinforces the Yuuko's assertion that all is inevitable, but is simply impressive.

The visual style is of course signature CLAMP: stick-thin characters whose height is almost absurd, matched with structures that seem exceedingly spacious. Being a seinen title, the palette is skewed toward neutral colors and subtle contrast. Mostly Japanese influences and lore are present, though there's a hint of outside influence in the Mary Poppins-like Ame-warashi (rain sprite), and one of Yuuko's outfits looks like it's lifted off the set of Bewitched.

At face value, Yuuko is mysterious. One wonders how a woman who appears as though she isn't quite in her middle ages is so wise. Also, she doesn't let on in the slightest whether she enjoys or despises her role in life; even this would appear as an artifact of the balance principle, as the enjoyment of one job might snatch the enjoyment from another.

Viewed through the lens of human factors, Yuuko is quite easy to understand — perhaps more so than any other character in the series. She appreciates and takes great joy in the finer things in life, pleasures both rare and common. Nowhere is this more apparent than her love for food and drink — she takes advantage of Watanuki's cooking ability to hers and Mokona's benefit. She always reciprocates when given something. Her thoughtfulness is a natural product of her occupation, but one could argue that it's also her nature.

But what of her relationship to Watanuki? It seems as though every time he asks her for help or guidance, she charges him for it by tacking on more time to his sentence. Though Yuuko's actions keep the spirits at bay, Watanuki continues to grapple with their presence and the burden it places on him. What he doesn't realize is that his fortunes are slowly changing, and he has Doumeki to thank for it. Doumeki lives in the temple once owned by his grandfather, an exorcist, and has an aura about him that repels spirits. Not that Watanuki could shed himself of Doumeki even if he wanted to. Himawari sees them as close friends, and invites Doumeki along whenever they go out.

In addition to setting up Watanuki with Doumeki, Yuuko exposes him to her world. She shows him the difference between a normal fortune teller, who tells him in vague terms what he wants to hear, and a real fortune teller, who tells him with pinpoint accuracy what he needs to hear. Through her explanations he gains an understanding about how the balance principle affects people's lives, as well as their own actions. She introduces him to mystical characters who take a liking to him, like the adorable Zashiki-warashi*, foxes who make delicious oden, and a little snake-like "pipe fox," who takes to him as a pet. Kimihiro Watanuki, who didn't quite fit in with the real world, is shown a world where he can fit in.

At times we all feel like Watanuki, but the feeling that the world is shrinking around us is illusion. In retrospect, what Yuuko provides for Watanuki is a precious gift that he couldn't possibly repay. She gives him a life.

*Zashiki-warashi in traditional terms is a spirit who takes the form of a child, and is said to bring good fortune to houses it inhabits. It's prone to mischief and fickleness — it needs attention in order to stick around. In this story, Zashiki-warashi takes the form of a shy, teenage girl who cries a lot, and who likes Watanuki.