The girls of CLAMP have been serving up a heady brew named ×××HOLiC (typically just pronounced “holic”) for some time now, and it’s one of those series that gets almost incredibly unfairly dismissed. First there’s the bizarre name — although you get around that fairly quickly — but then there’s the question of what exact pigeonhole to allot to this mix of frothy situational comedy and Gothic-mystical morality play. It’s fun and funny, to be sure, but there are times when its waters run much deeper than you might expect, and that throws people off. But it also reeks of the kind of pungent originality that I read manga to find in the first place, and it has some of the most luscious (if also at times heavily oversimplified) artwork throughout CLAMP’s canon.
The premise actually isn’t that complicated, but the CLAMP team have rung a great many changes on it over the course of the previous nine volumes, so you’re almost certainly going to need to back up to the beginning and read from there. Watanuki, a young man in high school, has an unwanted affinity for spirits — he can sense them and interact with them even if he doesn’t want to. Enter Yūko, the boozy, leggy, cigarette-holder-wielding owner of a curio shoppe (it makes sense to spell it that way in this series). Her forte is cutting deals of a supernatural bent: she can give you what you want, but always at a cost, and sometimes you won’t know the dimensions of the cost until it’s too late. Likewise, she can remove Watanuki’s “curse,” but only if he puts himself in her employ … and the depths he’ll have to traverse to work off the cost will in time take their toll on him. There are also intermittent crossovers with CLAMP’s other ongoing series, Tsubasa (and also previously in Legal Drug), but you can read either series without having to read the other (although according to the creators you get more of a perspective on what’s going on if you read both).
Volume 10 breaks down into roughly two adventures, both of which are tenuously connected and both of which are unfortunately not going to make as much sense to the uninitiated as they might unless you’ve already read all nine previous volumes. In the first, Watanuki undertakes an errand for his employer — fetching a dozen gallons of water from the well on the property of a household that looks like it’s been abandoned for some time. It’s bad enough that he can only accomplish this errand with the help of the humorless and reserved Dōmeki (with whom he shares a number of mystical bonds that are too complicated to discuss here), but that he has to actively reject the all-too-spirited help of Himawari, the girl he’s been chasing more or less fruitlessly for the whole of the series. As it turns out, the plotting that unfolds this time around is markedly light on action — the few things that happen trigger more insight and discussion than actual events — but the few events that do unfold are, well, shattering.
Under the gags and the double-takes and the facefaults, two fairly serious themes run through this series like an underground river: fate and personal responsibility. The two are also intertwined. Yūko has the power to accomplish a great deal, but those things never come without a cost, and sometimes the cost will be far more than anyone could ever pay in a lifetime — and if that’s the case, maybe it’s better to accept what you cannot change and work with what you can. The problem is that not everyone believes that — certainly not Watanuki himself, but he’s a quick study and he’s been in the perfect position (at Yūko’s side) to learn about how all those things can backfire. In the very first volume, Yūko talks to Watanuki about fate, and uses words that seem to cast the whole idea in a subjective light: “If you think something’s been decided for you, then it probably will be. If you don’t, then it probably isn’t.” That doesn’t make fate any the less real, though — in the sense that there are forces that shape our lives, and that not all of them will be within the scope of what we can control. What matters is how we respond to them.
This becomes underscored when Himawari finally reveals something crucial about herself to Watanuki towards the end of this book: whoever comes into contact with her will suffer misfortune. It’s just something that happens. What matters most is not that this exists, but how people respond to it — something Watanuki realizes only after he’s been victimized by it. Yes, he fell out a window and nearly broke every bone in his body because of her, but he was grateful for meeting her all the same … and she, in turn, bargains with Yūko to take away the burden of some of the damage Watanuki suffered. How people behave in spite of what the world offers them is just as important as what they do with the gifts they have — in fact, arguably more important.
That’s what this series seems to revolve around, and it’s fun to watch them use the plot trappings of black magic, dimensional intersections, and just plain weirdness to get there — even if you spend a lot more time sitting and waiting for something to happen than you see things actually taking place.
×××HOLiC seems to divide readers — people either love it or hate it, and often for the same reasons. It’s idiosyncratic in many ways: it has an art style that’s lush but sometimes obtuse; it mixes goofball humor with a lot of fairly serious, carefully considered concepts; and it either leaves you cold or sucks you right in. I’ll speak for myself: it sucked me in from the start and kept me there, and so to that end you’ll probably want to go back to the start to see if it does the same for you. Here’s hoping.