#1 The show is so darn loud
It’s an odd complaint and something I got used to over time, but the first thing that struck me when starting xxxHolic was how obnoxiously loud the show is. You got the main character Watanuki who shouts most of his dialogue, but mix that in with the two high-pitched girls from the shop he works at, Mokona’s obnoxious voice, and whatever other noise or dialogue might play through it, and I definitely felt tempted to mute the show in some scenes.
Comedy is subjective, there’s no doubt about that. Somebody who is not me may derive joy from an expressive character like Watanuki or enjoy the hustle and bustle of the store whenever the two girls get involved, yet I find that it poorly fits my expectation of the series. Most of the storylines are actually intriguing and I enjoyed the characters when they were having regular conversations at a normal volume; it has an air of mystery to it, with stories that explore characters and deal with themes of spirituality.
It’s qualities like that which draw me to the show, but then the first episode has this scene where Yuko tries to explain something while Watanuki shouts and flails about, the two little girls sing and dance through it all, Mokona does his own thing. Headache inducing is what it is.
#2 Watanuki is impossible to tolerate
The story follows Watanuki, a high schooler who is haunted by all sorts of spirits until he discovers a shop that grants wishes. Run by the ominous Yuko, he makes a contract to be freed from the ghosts in return for an unpaid, part-time job at the store.
As I mentioned already, Watanuki is an expressive person, which in anime comes down to shouting at everything and everybody. There’s a dynamic between him and Yuko that I really enjoy; they have a mutual respect for one another, yet Watanuki can’t help but mistrust her and question her methods and morality. It’s just that his character is so unrelentingly annoying and childish that this chemistry between the two characters gets overshadowed by it.
Case in point, he has a crush on a girl in his school and tries to win her over by persistently lying to her and demeaning his friends. This puts him into a one-sided rivalry with a perfectly reasonable dude called Domeki, not because he also has a crush on the girl, but because he can’t stand the thought of her knowing any other male character. Domeki ends up helping him at various times throughout the story, yet Watanuki keeps whining about him and honestly comes off as a bully. His pettiest moment comes when a character suggests he should thank Domeki for helping him complete a life-threatening mission and he instead turns around and sticks his tongue out at the guy.
Fuck you Watanuki.
#3 Noodle characters
CLAMP is a team that is renowned for making manga with unique styles of art to them and xxxHolic is no exception. The characters are unusually tall and slender, with especially Yuko enjoying a beautiful design that can look cute, jovial, elegant, seductive, or even threatening, depending on what a scene needs.
Their anime adaptations have a mixed history, however. Chobits and Cardcaptor Sakura were generally well-loved and both handled by Studio Madhouse, likewise the fantastic Magic Knight Rayearth was done by TMS. This show, however, was made by Production I.G. under the direction of Tsutomu Mizushima (Another, Squid Girl, Shirobako) and with character design from Kise Kazuchika (Blood-C, Made in Abyss, Halo Legends). While this is a great studio and staff, the end result is… kind of terrible.
The slender and stylish CLAMP characters are turned into stiff stick figures that contort in strange ways and animate like noodle monsters. At the best of times, it looks slightly off and uncanny, but during action scenes, the show crashes and the animation just becomes laughable. The pictures in this review aren’t even cherry-picked to make it look bad, it’s just what the show looks like all the time.
#4 The drab world
While the characters are bizarrely proportioned, the world they inhabit is actually quite dull and could stand to be a little more strange. The backgrounds are simply too drab and generic. The show’s stories take place in school, apartment buildings, city streets, and shopping malls, sometimes a distinctly Japanese setting like a festival or temple, but all of them are familiar places presented with the greyest of greys and brownest of browns. They are so standard and boring that the actual characters tend to look out of place in them, such as the in the picture below.
Matching well with the boring backgrounds are the hordes of colorless background characters. Sure, many anime use something like this to fill scenes, but xxxHolic uses them so blatantly and in such great numbers they draw too much attention. What bothers me the most is that these “characters” do animate and have defined features to them, so at that point you might as well color them in anyway. It frustrates me endlessly and I had to rewatch a few scenes because I was too distracted by this the first time around.
And yes, even the background guys are all noodle characters.
#5 Yuko’s rules make no sense
No, I don’t mean that in the petty sense that a wish-granting shop is unrealistic. Of course I understand that this is fantasy so everything potentially flies. It’s just that the more I watched the show, the less I understood it.
The deal is that Yuko grants you a wish and you must pay her back with something of equal value. Watanuki goes to her so he doesn’t see spirits anymore and in return he becomes her servant, makes sense. Except he still sees spirits all the time and Yuko even employs him to resolve spirit-related problems because of that. I figured maybe she only delivers after the payment is done, but every other character pays after receiving the wish, or sometimes not at all.
And while I can see why Watanuki goes along with all of Yuko’s jobs, that girl he has a crush on and his rival Domeki also tag along all the time to help out. An early episode has Yuko outright enlist Domeki’s help for a job, even though he owes her nothing. When she pulls the same stunt in a later episode, she demands payment from him for providing support in the mission she assigned them to. It feels like they wanted Watanuki to have sidekicks and just didn’t bother to write a reason for their involvement.