Each year, Japan produces dozens of live-action drama series. While some are original, many are instead adaptations of popular manga -- and even, occasionally, games. Such is the case with the first CLAMP live-action adaptation: xxxHolic.
Good — Beautiful Costumes and Visuals
If there is one thing CLAMP is known for, it's beautiful visuals in its manga. And while the drama can't hope to live up to the stylised source material, it gives a valiant effort and is easily the most beautiful Japanese drama I have ever seen.
This is due, in large part, to the costumes, especially those of Yuko, the Witch of Dimensions. Everything she wears could have been simply pulled out of the manga. The other characters look great as well -- whether that be Watanuki's fictional school uniform or Ame-Warashi's Lolita style of dress. Simply put, the costume designer is the real star of this drama.
Good — A Japanese Horror Vibe
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the xxxHolic drama is how well it walks the line between horror and mystery. Ghosts, spirits, and other evil aspects of the supernatural world are drawn to Watanuki, but only he can see them. At first, they don't seem all that disturbing -- hands coming out of trees or evil mist seeping out of a person's finger isn't really very scary. But as the episodes go on, the series begins to evoke images from popular Japanese horror like the Ring and the Grudge -- with a white clad ghost, face covered by her hair, crawling into a room and an insane school girl carving the words “help me” into her flesh.
The soundtrack in this series is often no more than ambient noise, which just adds to the horror feeling. Even normal seeming conversations in supposedly safe locations take on an air of menace when the music sounds like something out of Fatal Frame.
But while the drama does definitely have some horror moments, it still remains true to its mystery genre roots -- so while you feel the characters are in danger, you never feel that they are helpless in the face of supernatural threats.
Mixed — Thematic Adaptation
Adapting a 19-volume manga into eight 29-minute episodes is hardly an easy task. But as a standalone entity -- one completely removed from the source material -- xxxHolic is a solid drama with an intriguing mystery, well-developed characters, and a beautiful art style.
That said, as an adaptation, the TV show is often radically different from the source material -- especially as it nears the ending. Instead of trying to cram the whole story into these eight episodes, the creators opted (wisely, in my opinion) to take several stand-alone stories, expand them into full episodes, and use the mystery surrounding love-interest Himawari as the overall plot. The climax then hits notes from several different stories strewn across the manga's chapters and combines them into the finale. This will no doubt interest some viewers and alienate others.
Mixed — The Casting
Trying to match well-known anime characters with real world actors is never an easy proposition. The male side of the cast, Watanuki and Domeki, actually look to be high school age (instead of in their late-twenties like many male leads in Japanese dramas these days). But the real star of the show is Anne Watanabe who does a great job in the role of Yuko. She manages to play the strange and enigmatic witch with consummate ease.
Really, the only weak link in the casting is Miyazaki Karen as Himawari. While the youngest in the cast (19), she looks more like she's in her mid-twenties -- especially when her hair is in pigtails. Thus pulling off the role of the cute and innocent-seeming Himawari doesn't quite work. Moreover, her smile -- a key plot element -- always looks forced and not in the least bit happy. In fact, it often looks plain creepy.
While xxxHolic is not the best live-action adaptation of a manga/anime I have ever seen, it is easily the most beautiful. The costumes, sets, and often good-looking CG really make it a joy to just watch. And as a stand-alone story, it is quite entertaining -- though purists may not enjoy the massive abridgment of the plot. However, if you are a fan of xxxHolic or are a fan of Japanese horror -- or of things that are just plain weird, for that matter -- xxxHolic is definitely worth your time.
xxxHolic aired on WOWOW in Japan. There are currently no plans for an international release.