Some guys have all the luck, but high-schooler Kimihiro Watanuki is not one of those guys. Instead of being a chick magnet, as someone his age rightfully deserves to be, he’s a weirdness magnet. Supernatural beasties and bumps-in-the-night of all stripes are drawn to him like moths to a fluorescent lighting fixture, and so for him even a simple walk to school ends up being a marathon run crossed with a wrestling match. “Monster bait” is not what he had in mind when he filled out his career choice questionnaire; he just wants to get rid of this affliction and go date girls like any other fellow his age.
One day he’s dealing with a worse-than-normal bit of spiritual molestation when he blunders across a house in the middle of the city that seems to ward off whatever’s currently pestering him. It’s a shop of sorts, a place where people can come to have their deepest desires fulfilled — but always with a price, and inevitably with certain conditions attached. The shopkeeper, Yūko, is an armful: leggy, boozy, and flirty, with a propensity for outré fashions, a long good smoke and expensive spur-of-the-moment snacking. She gives Watanuki the once-over and right away has his number. He wants something, she tells him, or otherwise he wouldn’t be here.xfuni=107
Well, of course he wants something; who doesn’t? But in his case, it’s the wish to be rid of this stupid supernatural affliction, and Yūko is about the only person around who can grant that wish. Not without a price, of course, and aside from claiming Watanuki’s pocket watch (one of the few things that links him back to his now-deceased parents), she hires him as part-time help around the shop. Most of that “work” consists of slaving in the kitchen on improbably short notice to satisfy Yūko’s voracious appetites for liquor ‘n delicacies, and putting up with Yūko’s weird assistants — the twin girls Maru and Moro, and the rabbit-like Mokona. But like Mr. Miyagi and the Karate Kid, there’s more up Yūko’s extremely voluminous sleeves than it might first seem.
That’s the setup for the anime adaptation of CLAMP’s ×××HOLiC (pronounced as just “holic”) a favorite of mine as a manga and now a favorite of mine as an anime, too. It’s got a flavor to it that don’t see often but which I cherish whenever it does come up — a mystical, vaguely decadent atmosphere, also leavened with a good deal of audience-friendly situational humor. If you’re already familiar with the CLAMP “continuum” — the characters and situations shared between many of their stories — you’ll spot a great many connections between ×××HOLiC and their other works. The biggest crossover in×××HOLiC’s case is with Tsubasa; each story is enhanced by reading / experiencing the other, but you’re not obliged to pick up both. You’re also not obliged to be an existing CLAMP fan to get a good deal out of ×××HOLiC in the first place — it’s a winner for plenty of other of reasons.
For starters, the characters at the center of the story — especially Watanuki himself — are appealing on their own merits, completely outside of whatever demands the plot makes on them. Watanuki himself, for instance: who can’t identify with someone who just wants to get on with his life? From that, he’s developed a few strategies for keeping the weirder parts of his life out of the public eye. He’s managed to do it for the sake of Himawari (“Sunflower”), the girl of his dreams, but he can’t keep Yūko — or his supernatural attachments — a secret from her forever. He’d rather it stay a secret, so he can continue to swoon whenever Himawari so much as smiles in his direction and they can maybe go on to date like, you know, normal people. But there’s a rival, sort of, in fellow classmate Dōmeki — tall, taciturn, perennially serious, and a whiz with the bow and arrow. Watanuki has trouble seeing Dōmeki as anything but a rival, even if the other guy isn’t having any of that.
Gradually, through Domeiki and his other friends, Watanuki understand what Yūko’s work consists of — and, even more importantly, why it is what it is. He encounters, at random, another girl who complains of being followed by spirits, even if no such thing is actually happening. Not long after that, he watches aghast as a malevolent spirit attaches itself to her — and is even more aghast when Yūko tells him, “This is what she wanted.” Why? he asks. Why would anyone want something like that? Then again, he’s only speaking from his own perspective; it’s hard for him to see that there might indeed by other people in the world who do want something like that. Everyone wants something different for their own reasons, whatever the cost. (There’s a subtle hint that the girl wants something like that so she can be the center of attention amongst her friends; nothing like having an affliction you can tote up on demand to generate easy sympathy.)
Other incidents add further perspective. A woman comes to Yūko’s shop, complaining about a stiff pinky; when Yūko grills her about her life, a suffocating black smoke (that only Watanuki can see) pours fourth from the finger. “What is it that you do with your little finger?” Yūko asks, and anyone who’s watched more than a little anime knows the answer to that one: you make promises. Her problem is that she’s a compulsive liar, and since lying is its own kind of breach of a promise, she’s only digging herself ever deeper with each fabrication. The choice to tell a lie is entirely hers, as Yūko points out, but there’s no ducking away from the long-term consequences…and the end of the episode packs a wallop (albeit one watered down slightly from the manga story it was taken from).
Yūko also makes broad hints that Dōmeki and Watanuki are more suited to each other than it might first appear. This becomes most clear when Watanuki agrees (with great enthusiasm) to help Himawari get to the bottom of what appears to be a haunting in the local high school. Cue the laughs as Watanuki is forced to wear a radio headset to stay in touch with Yūko during the investigation — one that just happens to look like Chii’s ears from Chobits. Funny, sure, but the episode turns markedly serious when Watanuki learns the true nature of the haunting. As in Mushi-shi, the world is a large place rife with ambiguities, and most living (or “unliving”?) things are simply out for their own survival in one form or another.
The last episode on the disc answers a potentially thorny question: Where does Yūko herself go when she needs a little guidance? The answer is a fortune-teller, as you can well imagine, and when she’s unable to find the woman she usually goes to she settles for someone else who turns out to be a blatant fraud. When they find the real thing (she’s moved across town), Watanuki is struck not only by the quality of the information he gets from her, but her intentions. She’s not in this for the money or even the power, but for knowing the right thing can be done. That puts Yūko herself in a new light for him: leggy and boozy and compulsively-snacking as she may be, she also knows the limits of her abilities. Watanuki has a lot to learn from her — that is, if he doesn’t strangle her first.
Funny how the pedigree for a particular show can prejudice a potential audience. I know at least one person who’s refused to touch ×××HOLiC for the longest time for no other reason than the weird name. Don’t let a little prejudice put you off from enjoying a series this creative and smart.