Monday, June 1, 2009

Manga review - Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles, xxxHolic

CLAMP has so many titles out that it's nearly impossible to review them all, especially since I haven't seen at least half of them yet. And of those that I have seen, most have ended their story lines a long time ago (many are also just for young children). You're always free to go back and pick them up yourself any time you like, and if you like CLAMP, it's kind of hard to go wrong just by grabbing one of the older titles at random. But, I'd rather focus right now on the two that are just about to wrap up. Well, I say that, but I'd thought that T:RC was going to have ended already, and things are still being drawn out, so who knows when the real end will occur? Anyway...

(Image from wikipedia, used for review purposes only.)

Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles, by CLAMP, Grade: A-
CLAMP is great at creating fluff. Incredibly well-drawn, dynamic, airy and atmospheric, but still fluff. While the characters may get into various problems, be defeated and even disappear, the resolution to their problems still comes about a little too easily, and deep, difficult problems like bullying, abuse and joblessness aren't explored all that far. Not that this is a complaint because readers aren't attracted to CLAMP's works for their depth and timeliness in addressing social issues. So, when I approach a new CLAMP title, I do so expecting it to be exciting mind candy.

"Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles" starts as the story of 4 adventurers that are setting out to retrieve Sakura's memories. The group consists of Sakura, her friend Syaoran, and two people that accompany them ostensibly as bodyguards: the reserved ronin Kurogane, and the flamboyant magician Fay D. Flourite. They start out at the house of the "time witch", Yuuko Ichihara, who gives them Makona, one of a pair of psychically-connected magic creatures as her link to them. The premise is that Sakura is a princess that lost her memory, which take the forms of white feathers scattered across space, time and dimensions. The group must travel to different worlds and use Makona to track down and recover each feather one at a time. Along the way, CLAMP uses this opportunity to have every single one of their previous characters make cameo appearances. Eventually, the novelty of this approach wears off, because the group only visits a small handful of worlds before entering the end game - returning to Sakura's world where the evil magician Fei Wong Reed first trapped Sakura and Syaoran within a set of time loops and released Sakura's memories to start all of these adventures as part of his plan to bring a loved one back to life.

As I mentioned above, CLAMP is skilled at light, airy character designs, and creating dark, atmospheric backgrounds. The worlds that the group visit are all imaginative, detailed and big. The primary conceit here is to imply that all of the other titles that they have created are linked into one huge omniverse, allowing them to recycle variations of their other characters in supporting roles at any given time. The basic "quest across the universe" premise could have allowed them to milk this franchise for decades if they liked by having the group jump to yet another world for yet another feather, giving the authors infinite possibilities to work from. Instead, they chose to start wrapping up after only 6 or so worlds. There are occasional battles. Characters do get hurt. Even the most stand-offish character gets pulled in to the rest of the group and opens up somewhat. Bonds are formed and rarely break afterwards. But, the series avoids maudlin soap opera drama and does move forward at more than just a glacial pace. We do get lots of background information on everyone's past and that contributes to understanding where the story is going.

T:RC is wrapping up. The characters have completed the final showdown with Fei Wong Reed, his wish left dangling at the end. Even still there's the question of "how much longer will T:RC run?", but that's kind of beside the point. I'm not reading this title for the story or the fights, I'm reading it for the artwork.

Summary: "Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles" starts out as a quest adventure manga, then ultimately becomes a fight to the finish as the heroes confront Fei Wong Reed in a climatic battle. Will Sakura ever remember who Syaoran is? Who is Fei Wong Reed trying to bring back? Will Syaoran disappear forever, too? What happens when the flow of time is restored and all of the damage done to the past catches up to the future? Stay tuned for the next exciting chapter! Very strongly recommended

(Image from wikipedia, used for review purposes only.)

xxxHolic, by CLAMP, Grade: A-
Where Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles is an adventure manga with an unfolding storyline and clear beginning and end points, xxxHolic is a straight gag horror manga, with most short stories only lasting one chapter each. Watanuki Kimihiro sees ghosts. They are attracted to him, and follow him everywhere, forcing him to become a loner. Eventually, he is compelled to enter the house of the "time witch" Yuuko Ichihara. Yuuko grants wishes, but at a comparable cost. In Watanuki's case, she pairs the boy up with the boy shinto priest Doumeki Shizuka, who captures or dispells the spirits, in exchange for Watanuki's becoming her domestic servant. Over time, Watanuki visits the spirit world, making friends with some of them, loses one eye (replaced by being allowed to use one of Doumeki's) and nearly dies from a fall (his scars are taken on by his best friend and would-be girl friend, Kunogi Himawari). The "horror" element is strictly atmospheric - the ghosts are eerie rather than gory or scary, and usually the spirits are linked to customers that come to visit Yuuko about some mundane domestic problem that has supernatural roots (a woman's photograph shows her dead friend's face; turns out the woman pushed her friend off a cliff and the photograph is being used to expose her crime). Finally, the story turns to Watanuki himself, as he realizes that he has no memories just prior to coming to Yuuko, and that maybe he's not a normal human after all. xxxHolic is also nearing its end, and Watanuki is forced to confront the reality of his existence.

xxxHolic and T:RC are two halves of a cross-over story. In T:RC, we see the group of four setting out from Yuuko's house to go on their quest. In xxxHolic, we get to see what Yuuko does during her spare time, and the kinds of problems her customers bring to her. The Makona creatures link the two stories together, and Watanuki only glimpses part of what Syaoran and Sakura are going through. But, at the same time, we are told about "hitsuzen" - that there is no such thing as a coincidence, that everything that happens is because of interconnections and "fate". As such, the apparently accidental meetings of people in T:RC occur because of a reason, and that there's a need to find out what that reason is. And, that Watanuki is also closely involved in what happens to Syaoran and vice versa. In essence, xxxHolic is a story of Watanuki's journey of self-discovery, and what decisions he must make when he learns that his journey had vague beginnings and may have a nasty little ending in store for him.

Summary: "xxxHolic" is an incredibly well-drawn gag ghost story manga that crosses over into the universe of Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles. Watanuki is constantly being ordered to make delicious food for Doumeki to eat, and to fetch rare sake that Yuuko consumes in mass quantities. But, there's also a darker side, as Watanuki faces down spirits that almost kill him, cost him an eye, and ultimately lead him to question his own existence. Very highly recommended in conjunction with T:RC.

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