A-Z Drama Challenge: xxxholic.

… I’ve talked at length about my rocky relationship with CLAMP before. I too am very surprised that 1) xxxholic. got a live action drama adaptation back in 2013 and 2) of all the possible versions of xxxholic. I could have finished – it’s this one. Life is full of surprises that way.

It’s also a title that while it’s enjoyable… I didn’t really want to watch. I searched for literal hours to try and find a different title with X at the beginning and I found absolutely nothing. I considered just scrapping ‘x’ entirely but, I didn’t have an ‘x’ title for movies I already felt bad about that too. The topping on the cake was 2020’s bombshell news about two of the actors involved in xxxholic. and my enthusiasm was drained. Even now two years later, I’m still not going to talk about one of them in particular. That’ll be for a different post.

Anyway, enough of a preamble. Let’s talk about the plot of this series for those unfamiliar.

Watanuki Kimihiro (Sometani Shota) has had the ability to see spirits since he was young. On the way home from high school one day, he is drawn to a strange shop – one that can grant wishes allegedly. He meets the owner, Ichihara Yuko (Watanabe Anne) who makes him the offer on granting his deepest desire. Watanuki declines, until he sees her work in real time and agrees. The price paid to grant such a wish must be of the same value, so Watanuki begins working on a part time basis. This leading him to even more encounters with wish seekers and supernatural oddities.

I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting to get out of watching this given my circumstances. At one point in time I was overly familiar with the opening events of the series, to the point I could have probably recited the first chapters to you. Now that it’s been 10-ish years since I’ve read the manga or attempted to watch the anime: I’m re-evaluating if I actually understood the series as much as I thought.

I was immediately off-put by the first episode. There was so much going on in the audio, before even getting to the opening credits. The ambient noise of the location, characters moving, the hum of the instrumental in the background, the dialogue being spoken – I had a bit of sensory overload and that’s not normal for me.

But it sunk it quite quickly that this series had a plan, and a fairly unique one at that. That this adaptation was not going to be a rinse and repeat of first couple of chapters but make it live action. They were actually doing the thing I like which adapting the source material, and making it work for live action television. And did so in a way that was not only interesting, not only obvious, but in a way that truly worked –

They adapted xxxHolic. into a horror story.

The first way they did this was the aforementioned attention to sound design and instrumentals. The sensory overload that kicks the show off is intentional and off putting. It’s meant to make the viewer subtly uncomfortable and you’re not suppose to figure out (at least not immediately) why. This highlights the difference between a regular show protagonist, and Watanuki the kid who can see spirits. He’s constantly in a state of being off-put, but no one else can tell why.

It’s honestly brilliant. This is not a one-trick and forgotten aspect of the show. Each episode has those moments built in. Episode three had a great usage that felt incredibly natural. Some were a bit more over the top via episode four. It still shows so much consideration to Watanuki’s character. If he can’t fully ‘trust’ his eyes, the next best sense to protect himself is his ears.

Furthering this is lighting and then how it changes depending on the scene. xxxholic. for the most part is set during the daylight, with nighttime or low lighting times being used thoughtfully. Watanuki doesn’t get to doubt himself due to poor lighting that what he’s seeing is real – therefore we the audience shouldn’t be given that either. Instead context is key, as how Watanuki sees situations, verses a normal human are two different things. I particularly liked how this was shown in episode two. The customer was shown running into darkness hoping for escape but instead having his pathway lit instead. It subverted the notion that doing dark things leads down a dark path and it was really cool to watch.

The other elements I appreciated was the mixing and matching of practical and special effects of the series. Manga and even anime can get away with doing a lot more unnatural things given the medium, whereas live action usually has to do work arounds or dreaded CGI. With this series, they went the extra mile to use real people in costumes when and where they could. Even if now in 2022, looking really hard at some of them, the spirits look a little more goofy then spooky. It still holds up way better then if they had fully only CGI. The CGI effects were intentionally, and rather sparingly creating a higher impact by being used less. How those moments were also framed mattered a lot, and contributed more to Watanuki’s character develop and relationships too.

Before diving into the actors, I do want to bring this up as well, which was costuming. This series is now nine years old, and new movie live action was released this past April 2022, the costuming isn’t as impressive as it once was. More 50/50 in terms of overall execution. Yuko’s costumes are stunning – she looks and feels as elegant as her 2D counterparts are. The spirits costumes, particularly the Awewarashi’s lolita inspired looks, Maro and Moro, and the reimagining of a modern Jorogumo, are solid. They felt more respectable and established given the importance of their characters. The lesser spirits not so much. And I felt that for how often we see Watanuki, Himawari and Domeki in their school uniforms that those should have looked better overall. I kept waiting for the fabric tape holding the white lining of the boys’ uniforms to peel off mid-scene or something.

Speaking of the boys, Sometani Shota as Watanuki was a solid choice. I remember in the manga that Watanuki had some pretty over the top reactions, especially to Himawari, often. So I actually liked that Shota’s Watanuki was more toned down. In his performance, it was clear that Watanuki was particularly fond of Himawari and reacted positively towards her but it was much more subtle and nuanced like an actual human being.

The more extreme reactions were saved for the more horrific scenes, where Watanuki’s spiritual power took a toll on him. It’s also another great moment where the shift to xxxholic. being framed as a horror story, verses purely supernatural was at it’s best. My favorite example of this, of all things, was how different Watanuki’s eyes looked in early episodes, verses the latter ones. I have no idea how Sometani Shota did it, but boy was it convincing. His expressions were absolutely on point.

For the girls, there is none other then Watanabe Anne as Yuko to showcase. I’m going to be honest, while Watanabe Anne is a household name for various reasons, I never recognize her by her face ever. I only ever realize it’s her after looking up the credits. That unique trait of her’s, at least in my case, absolutely worked in her favor here. I thought she was amazing as Yuko. There was so much care in her delivery, that first episode where we saw Yuko’s mannerisms in only her hands was stunning. It set the tone for Yuko’s character in a very clear way, that continued after the face reveal. I sincerely enjoyed how much she played off Watanuki, Maro and Moro so well, and how different she was with other characters.

That being said, there are a few gripes I must admit to in this version of the story. For one, some of the scenes at night really did not read well, especially in the second half of the drama. Not sure what was up for that, and luckily for the most part these were not key scenes, but it was a disappointment.

Secondly, while xxxholic. did start out strong leaning into the horror elements I mentioned before, this was not sustained the entire time. Around episode six, there is a shift from the horror of wish granting, and motivations to a more… action/supernatural vibe. The elements of sound, lighting, and the effects are still there of course, but they’re no longer as well utilized. The shift is really subtle so I didn’t really notice until I finished watching. The whiplash of how the first episode starts and then the series ended isn’t lost on me. I would have loved a quieter ending if it meant keeping horror as the framing.

Despite it all, I have somehow finished a version of xxxholic. after all these years. So that’s something. I do recommend this as being a strong showing as a live action adaptation done well. In terms of a general recommendation, I think there are better dramas out there where this one is just okay. It has it’s charm and moments, but isn’t nearly memorable enough for me to truly recommend.



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