CLAMP (mangaka studio); William Flanagan (adaptation and translation); Dana Hayward (letters)
2014–2015 (first published 2003–2009)
Note: this essay contains some light spoilers; review copies were provided by Kodansha.
Watanuki Kimihiro sees spirits. Even worse, they want to eat him, and so they chase him. All the time. Big, scary, coiling masses of darkness, shadows, eyes, and pointy teeth find him on his way to or from school. He scrambles away, running and hiding from these things that only he can see, hear, and feel. Then one day, he stumbles into the yard of a shop, and the spirits stop at the gate. The shop’s fortune-telling, opium-smoking, sake-guzzling, always elegantly attired proprietor Ichihara Yûko grants Kimihiro his wish: to be rid of his unwelcome pursuers—but only after he’s paid for the wish by, of course, working at the shop.
I’m going to state here and now that xxxHolic is my favorite CLAMP title. It just is. What follows is written from a place of not only appreciation, but adoration. I love the art style, which is beautiful. I love the characters, even though they’re not fully rounded. I especially love the pipe fox spirit and the young kitsune, both of which (I think) vie for the place of Cutest CLAMP Creation. There. I’m glad I said it.
CLAMP’s luscious art style and elongated figures that first hit the mass market in 1989 with RG Veda has here matured to arresting effect. High contrast, carefully chosen detail, and beautifully executed linework all contribute to a unique visual experience that is entirely CLAMP’s but is nevertheless reminiscent of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, art nouveau from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the work of contemporary Japanese illustrator Yoshitaka Amano.
The style in which xxxHolic is executed differs even from its companion series Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles. The contrast is routinely darker, the panels weighted yet full of transient motion, granting xxxHolic a—dare I say—more lush, dreamlike quality, even though it’s set in contemporary Japan rather than in a fantasy world as is Tsubasa.
But then, that makes complete sense. xxxHolic is all about life in between—between dreams, between realities, between people, between living and dying. It’s about connections, compulsion, fate, balance, debts, and addictions. In short, it’s liminal: neither here nor there, caught between poles, on the edge of transition into something altogether different.
Liminal \ˈli-mə-nəl\ adj. (1884) 1: of or relating to a sensory threshold 2: barely perceptible 3: of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition : IN-BETWEEN, TRANSITIONAL 
Liminality is not uncommon in manga. Here’s what well-known manga academic Frederik Schodt has to say about dreams and the unconscious in manga (I say this is also a liminal state):
“Thus, of the more than 2 billion manga produced each year, the vast majority have a dreamlike quality. They speak to people’s hopes, and fears. They are where stressed-out modern urbanites daily work out their neuroses and frustrations. Viewed in their totality, the phenomenal number of stories produced is like the constant chatter of the collective unconscious—an articulation of the dream world. Reading manga is like peering into the unvarnished, unretouched reality of the Japanese mind.” 
There’s a lot to say about the liminal, and I’m not going to say it all here. Suffice it to say that I think the liminal represents a very powerful state in today’s world. As boundaries—between nations, between cultures, between races, between genders—begin to break down, and as we exist more and more in this electronic space between spaces known as the Internet, discussions about how to navigate this space become increasingly important. They’ve been happening for awhile now (think “Ghost in the Shell,” think Snow Crash, think Wayward) and they’re going to continue to happen. xxxHolic is one piece of this ongoing conversation.
In fact, xxxHolic is one of the lynchpins of CLAMP’s furi furi, timey-wimey universe. While it stands on its own very well, it’s also the flip side of Tsubasa’s plot, and it advances elements begun in Cardcaptor Sakura. Connections to what’s going on in Tsubasa (on other worlds! You’re right, I’m going to point out the liminality here) become regular touchstones throughout volumes 1 through 5. Although I haven’t read the later volumes, I expect the two to tie together even more. Yes—I could find the answer to this on the Internet, but I’m avoiding spoilers; you can hit up the search engines if you like!
So, back to our protagonist Kimihiro. As he settles in working for Yûko, she discovers that he’s an excellent cook. Fortunately, Yûko and her fuzzy black rabbit-like companion Mokona like to eat. Although Kimihiro performs various other tasks at the shop—cleaning, errands, helping with some customers, conversing with ghosts—his primary function appears to be to prepare lunch and dinner. Sometimes, Yûko even asks him to spend the night at the shop so that he can prepare breakfast in the morning. Eventually, Kimihiro seems to just live at the shop. (In case you were worried, the shop doubles as Yûko’s residence; no one is sleeping under counters or display cases.)
Kimihiro also makes food for his friends; it’s his main way of caretaking and of showing affection. He makes lunch for Kunogi Himawari, the girl he has a crush on, as often as possible; he grudgingly but regularly feeds his best frenemy Dômeki Shizuka; and he carefully crafts treats and meals for young seer Tsuyuri Kohane to show that he supports her.
Food is truly at the heart of xxxHolic. For instance, the passage of time is indicated not only by changing trees and weather, but by what seasonal specialties Kimihiro is cooking. Kimihiro’s first major encounter with positive spirits is a visit to a kitsune (fox spirit) oden cart, and the connections he establishes here have a cascading effect throughout the series. And when Kimihiro first helps one of Yûko’s clients completely on his own, he teaches her to cook. If that’s not enough evidence for you, consider that at least a third, if not half, of the translator’s notes after each volume discuss food. As Dani Cavallaro points out about the anime version (which is not significantly different from the manga), “xxxHolic’s cornucopian profusion of culinary references … abets at each turn the anime’s cultural significance.” 
In many cuisines, the visual presentation of the food is just as important as its taste. In Japan, that’s taken to what some might consider an extreme, but the degree to which Japan’s cute cuisine has been exported shows that said extreme is highly coveted. From jewelry to food preparation videos, snack boxes to television shows, you’ll find that Japanese food has made appearances around the world. In 2012, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries estimated that there were 30,000 Japanese restaurants worldwide, 14,000 of which were in North America. 
In fact, some dishes that are now known as stock Japanese dishes (sukiyaki, for one, or ramen, for another) were actually imported to Japan, naturalized, and have been exported again.  So much of Japan’s food culture revolves around the experience of the food that, combined with its state of flux across and between international borders, it’s easy to see that this, too, is a thing of liminality.
What is the significance of food in general, across cultural boundaries? Obviously, it sustains life. It’s part and parcel to one’s culture and can be an indicator of social status. How about self-identity? Oh, yes. In Food and Culture, the authors argue that not only do we judge others based upon what food they eat, but we also choose our own foods based on how we think about ourselves.  One doesn’t have to follow this train of thought far to run into the connections between eating and mental health, from depression to anxiety to eating disorders. Food—what we eat, how we eat it, why we eat it, who we eat it with—is central to who we are as human beings.In xxxHolic, Kimihiro Watanuki is an enigma, even more so than his mysterious employer. He’s an onion; beneath his skin, there are layers and layers of dreams, hopes, wishes, fears, memories … and then, nothing. Just what is there at his core? Kimihiro doesn’t know. As is revealed in volume 4, he doesn’t even remember the names of his parents. He can’t recall the taste of the food he makes. In fact, has he ever eaten the food he prepares so diligently for others?
You know—I don’t remember if Kimihiro eats any food prior to the point at which this question is asked. I do recall scenes, many scenes, of him serving food. Did he eat food, though? I don’t … think … so? Now, I haven’t gone back to look through all 1,500 or so earlier pages to find out, but I did page through volumes 1 through 4 again casually. There is a scene where Kimihiro eats a glowing orb that turns out to be part of Shizuka Dômeki’s eye (it makes sense in context, honest!)—but that’s the only time I can actually find where he puts something in his mouth. He’s often depicted serving food, and sometimes he’s holding empty chopsticks, but I couldn’t find a scene that actually references his consuming anything other than spirit nectar and kitsune oden. The artists clearly indicate when other characters are eating, but not so Kimihiro.
As the story progresses, Kimihiro’s existence becomes tenuous. The lines between dream and reality begin to blur, and he loses touch with whether he’s asleep or awake. In retrospect, we begin to question all of his memories—or lack thereof. Just what kind of person, or being, is Kimihiro? He makes food, but he doesn’t eat it. Simply: he’s lost his self-identity and, along with it, his sense of taste. Or perhaps it’s the other way ‘round.One point that is very clearly made in volume 5 is the distinction between memories of the mind and memories of the body. Mokona tells Kimihiro that even if the mind forgets something, the body will remember. As he reflects upon that, Kimihiro helps his first solo customer—the lady who asks for cooking lessons. To his puzzlement, he discovers that she knows the technical aspects of cooking, but she hates the taste of her own food, and even when Dômeki tastes her food, he finds it empty. Kimihiro’s food, on the other hand, always tastes amazing, even if he himself has never tried it.
What’s the distinction between Kimihiro and his customer? As he comes to discover, it’s self-awareness. The customer won’t examine her inner self, but midway through volume 5, Kimihiro begins to gain some confidence. In fact, significantly, he begins to fight for his own existence. Whereas in earlier volumes he was likely to sacrifice himself for others, he now knows that he needs to save himself as well as others. He can see that his friends care about him, and he likewise begins to care about himself.
One of the most noteworthy signs of this is that Kimihiro eats. Yes, he actually eats something! Himawari goes out of her comfort zone and makes treats for her friends—and Kimihiro tastes them, and it’s illustrated and everything. Complete memories or not, our protagonist is beginning to find his place in the world. Or, well, perhaps that’d be between worlds, because he … ahh, but that’d be a major spoiler. Believe me when I tell you that it’s worth the read to find out, though!
So, what are you eating for dinner? Actually, what did you eat for dinner last night?Sources:
 p. 722. Merriam-Webster Inc. Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. Merriam-Webster, 2004.
 p. 31. Schodt, Frederik L. Dreamland Japan: Writings on modern manga. Stone Bridge Press, Inc., 2014.
 p. 139. Cavallaro, Dani. Magic as metaphor in anime: a critical study. McFarland, 2009.
 p. 4. Web Japan. “Japanese Food Culture,” Japan Fact Sheet. http://web-japan.org/factsheet/en/pdf/e36_food.pdf, retrieved May, 2015.
 p. 3 Web Japan. “Japanese Food Culture,” Japan Fact Sheet. http://web-japan.org/factsheet/en/pdf/e36_food.pdf, retrieved May, 2015.
 p. 3. Kittler, Pamela Goyan, Kathryn Sucher, and Marcia Nelms. Food and culture. Cengage Learning, 2011.