Every movie that Mika Ninagawa has made – from Sakuran (2007), Helter Skelter (2012) to Diner (2019) and Ningen Shikkaku (2019) – delivered a satisfying visual experience. She has the aesthetical sense to create visuals that invite as well as impress. Yet, the narrative sometimes fail to keep up with her visual dazzle. Can Ninagawa’s fifth feature film deliver a feast at both levels?
One day, after being burdened by a cloud of evil spirits for far too long, Kimihiro Watanuki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) decides to commit suicide. Yet, before he can take the suicidal leap, a strange red butterfly appears, fluttering around him and inviting him to follow it. The butterfly leads him to a wish fulfillment shop, a place where any kind of wish can be fulfilled for a reasonable fee, for an equal compensation. Rather than forcing him to wish, the owner, the dimensional witch Yuko (Ko Shibasaki), invites him to stay at her place and become her servant.
Yet, before he can walk away, he witnesses a young woman called Misaki (Shuri) receive a ring to fulfill her wish to live peacefully with everyone – her payment is promising to never take it off. Not much later, Watanuki witness the young woman take the painful ring of and succumbing to the evilness that burst forth from it. Yet, suddenly, Watanuki finds himself seduced by a blond haired woman (Riho Yoshioka) who desires to consume his precious eyes.
XXXHolic is a narrative that, first and foremost, explores the riddle of fate. Can one bend the fate of oneself and others or is one doomed to unknowingly follow the meandering path of one’s own destiny (Narra-note 1)? Is subjective change possible or do we blindly enjoy our never-changing self-destructive stupidity? At another level, XXXholic explores the unresolvable tension between the nature of our desire and the jouissance our desire aims at. Is the subject able to escape the jouissance that lingers within him, the force that can consume him as well as destroy the other?
In the case of Misaki, her wish to live peacefully with everyone is but a reformulation of her deeper desire to be loved by others. The ring she receives from Yuko does not simply seal the evilness that she indulges in, but also functions, unbeknownst to her, as a promise not to rely on lies within her interactions to persuade the other to be envious of her desirability, her worthiness of the other’s love. It is this mendacious fictionalizing of her ego to engender the other’s envy that allows the ring to pain her and remind her that she is not keeping the promise she made (Narra-note 2, Narra-note 3).
The spirits that Watanuki can see, as is soon revealed, are called Ayakashi spirits. They adore the weaknesses of the human soul, the vileness that runs within the subject’s veins. These spirits do not merely feed on such evilness, they are born from the tangle of vile impulses and exploitative desires that the subject tries to keep locked within his unconsciousness.
Jorogumo, the blond haired woman, that seductively approaches Watanuki is obsessed with his eyes. She wants to consume his special eyes and is eager to grant him any wish to get what she wants. The narrative does not explore the deeper reasons for her desire and by doing so Ninagawa is able to emphasize the obsessive nature of her desire, the pulsation of evil jouissance that thrusts her forward.
Domeki-kun (Hokuto Matsumura) is, as is eventually revealed, the descendent of a long line of exorcists – his weapon is a ritual bow that by targeting and hitting the bad can banish it for a whole year. When Domeki-kun starts preparing for the temple’s festival, Watanuki is roughly confronted with an uncomfortable truth. As Domeki-kun is not around that often – the protection of his presence gone, Himawari-chan (Tina Tamashiro) cannot contain her ‘ancestral karmic’ corruption anymore. Her evilness does not only start seeping out of her body, but also imprisons her in a state of melancholic depression. The black clouds of jouissance enjoy her state of destructive dejection. To not let her karmic jouissance poison and destroy anyone else, she keeps Watanuki at a distance. Yet, upon realizing Himawari’s horrific fate, Watanuki decides that he cannot remain passive. He will try to change the fate of the girl he holds dear.
With her composition of XXXholic, Mika Ninagawa once again proves her aesthetic sensibilities. These sensibilities are not merely on display in the pleasant ‘floating’ dynamism and the fluid integration of visual decorations, but also in how she utilizes the dimension of geometry and the compositional power of sharp colour-contrasts – within shots as well as between shots, to enhance the scopic experience for the spectator.
A decorative play with vivid colours could, in truth, have led to a composition mutilated by its moments of visual excess, derailed by its bombastic bursts of colour that detract rather than attract, yet in the hand of Ninagawa these visual flourishes retain their elegance and their ability to visually invite the spectator into the narrative. Moreover, the colourful and stylish flourishes ensure that the dream-like compositional rhythm has its visual counterpart.
The ‘floating’ nature of the composition is enhanced by the floating nature of the speech within the narrative. The combination of these two elements create a dream-like atmosphere that succeeds in slipping out of the hands of the spectator, that escapes the firm grasp of the audience. Ninagawa’s stylistic choice is quite daring, as it can cause the spectator to overlook the substance that subtly lingers within the narrative.
The performances Ko Shibasaki and Riho Yoshioka stand out in XXXholic. Through the cadence of their speech and the measured way of their body-movements, both actresses breathe a mysteriousness into her character that is both elegant and seductive. Yet, this seductiveness is not merely a decorative element, but, in Yuko Ichibara’s case, a sign that what she enjoys is not the granting of wishes, but receiving what she considers equal pay and, in the case of Jorogumo, the sign that she lusts after his eyes.
The sudden moments of cute innocence and the more manga-like interactions, on the other hand, do not fit the fleeting dream-like fantasy world that well. While Tina Tamashiro is a decent actress, the cuteness she puts on display in the first half of the narrative is quite off-putting. The more manga-like interactions, for that matter, disturb the fleeting flow of the narrative rather than enhancing it.
Given the dreamy-like atmosphere, it is not surprising that Ninagawa relies heavily on musical accompaniment to give her narrative an emotional rhythm. Moreover, the most impressive moments within the narrative are those moments that receive their power both from Ninagawa’s visual flair and Keiichirō Shibuya’s beautiful music.
XXXholic is an exquisite visual experience that is sadly held back by its unfitting manga-like moments. Ninagawa, once again, proves her aesthetic sensibilities and shows off her skill to compose an engaging visual feast for the spectator’s eye to consume. Yet, the demand to remain to a certain extent true to the tone of the manga hurts the screenplay and damages some of the performances. In the end, we are given a visual and emotionally powerful film that is riddled with false narrative tones and fleeting surges of sourness.
Narra-note 1: XXXHolic does not attempt to solve the ungraspable nature of fate. As the ultimate destiny of fate remains hidden, any supposed change to our fate might be determined by fate itself. In other words, even if we feel that we make a subjective choice, this choice is already determined by the Other – to be understood as society and one’s unconscious.
Narra-note 2: It is by making the other envious that she attains her pleasure and can feel desirable. Yet, to indulge in such pleasure, she exploits the signifier to create the signified that the other can desire.
Narra-note 3: As the ring starts hurting her as she accumulates lies, she eventually takes it off. Yet, rather than being relieved of the pain, the explosion of lies comes to attack her like verbal hallucinations.