Mika Ninagawa has been doing exceedingly well lately. After a somewhat rocky start (quantity-wise that is) the pace of her directorial output has picked up considerably. As someone with a craving for maximalist cinema that's not a bad thing. When I heard she was going to be adapting the xxxHolic manga I got quite excited. Not that I'm a big fan of the source material (or prior adaptations for that matter), it's just that the idea of Ninagawa doing outright fantasy was more than enough to get me a little giddy. And boy did she not disappoint.
Ninagawa is now an established name in the Japanese movie industry, which is a little surprising considering she earned her reputation as a fashion/pop photographer. It's not easy to cross over into a different artistic medium once you are known and respected for one particular thing, let alone leave a definite mark making that transition. Ninagawa's eye for beauty guided her well, and even though quite a few struggle with the structure and plot of her films, pretty much everyone agrees that there's a visual refinement (not subtlety mind, her work is an onslaught on the senses) that is hard to find elsewhere.
xxxHolic is a franchise with a dedicated following, but rest assured that Ninagawa's adaptation isn't a mere fan service effort. People expecting a basic blockbuster take on the franchise will be disappointed. Not that it is a particularly difficult or confusing film, but going by user reviews, many people felt quite lost while watching, so be warned. Personally, I really liked the way Ninagawa brought the fantasy universe to life. The premise is interesting, but not everything is explained in full, which results in an air of mystery that is maintained throughout the entire film. Meanwhile, the usual anime obtuseness feels logical, without going too far off the rails.
Watanuki is a young boy who can see ayakashi (yokai who take hold of people and cause them harm). He isn't too happy with his gift and would prefer to be an average high school kid. One day he notices a peculiar butterfly, different from the yokai that usually haunt him. He follows the butterfly and ends up at a little store at the end of a small alleyway. There he meets Yuko, the owner of the store. She is a witch willing to grant his most precious wish, as long as Watanuki pays the appropriate price. What he doesn't know is that he'll soon find himself in the middle of a power struggle between Yuko and one of her adversaries.
Ninagawa is known for the lush, rich, detailed, and colorful cinematography that elevates her films, and the fantasy setting allows her to go full out here. She truly is unmatched in this regard, not even Tetsuya Nakashima's films get close to the visual splendor on display. A more than fair comparison as she made use of Nakashima's trusted cinematographer for xxxHolic. Of course, you need to be able to appreciate her maximalist presentation, as subtlety or balance aren't words that are part of Ninagawa's vocabulary. If you do, it's difficult not to be in awe of what Ninagawa paints on her canvas. Only the editing doesn't match the intensity of the visuals, but that's just extreme nitpicking.
The soundtrack was pretty interesting too. I was a bit surprised to find that Ninagawa went with a less poppy, more electronic-based score, the result is pretty cool though. Not that it's a truly outspoken selection of tracks, but it is noticeably different from music used in other Japanese blockbusters and it lends xxxHolic that extra bit of flair and identity, without alienating a big part of its potential audience in the process. There is still progression possible, especially when comparing it to the visual audacity of Ninagawa's films, but this was a proper step in the right direction.
The cast is pretty solid, but most of the actors are of the "pretty pop stars" kind. They know what is expected of them here and they are able to deliver, but not a single one could elevate his or her character beyond the expected. I didn't see it as a terribly big issue, xxxHolic is typical style over content cinema and the characters aren't all that interesting to begin with (the usual manga/anime tropes are in full effect), but if you were hoping for a more traditional blockbuster adaptation you may be left wanting. Personally, I found the cast to be more than sufficient.
The plot and dialogues can be a little vague, as is the case with most high-concept fantastical anime. It's not very difficult to keep track of what is going on though, behind all the conceptual parts hides a very simple story about good vs evil, with a high school student caught in the middle of it all. People who want to get the most out of the story would probably be better off reading the manga, but they'd be missing Ninagawa's extremely colorful and vibrant rendition of the xxxHolic universe, which, at least in my opinion, is a far more interesting place to explore.
This is Mika Ninagawa's fifth film, and so far I've loved every single one of them. Regardless of the genre she works in, she stays true to her personal aesthetic, which always comes to dominate the experience. Her work is true maximalist heaven, especially when it comes to visual prowess. She was smart to adapt xxxHolic, a franchise allowing her to go full out with sets and costumes. The astounding visuals are a given, the soundtrack is a welcome surprise, the rest is just pure bonus. If Ninagawa keeps this up, she's well on her way to becoming one of my absolute favorite directors.