Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: xxxHOLIC

Well, as CLAMP Month comes to an end and my birthday grows ever nearer, it's time to take a look at not only my favorite CLAMP work, but one of my favorite manga ever.  Consider this a birthday present from myself to my readers as we conclude:

xxxHOLIC (Horikku), by CLAMP.  First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2004.

Kimihiro Watanuki is a lonely young man with a big problem.  You see, not only can he see spirits, but they are voraciously drawn to him, tormenting and threatening him on a daily basis.  Their torments lead Watanuki to stumble (quite literally) upon a mysterious little shop that drives them away.  The shop belongs to Yuuko, a self-proclaimed witch who grants wishes to those who need them.  She recognizes Watanuki's gift, and she makes him a deal: she will find a way to keep the spirits at bay, but in turn he must work for her.  Watanuki agrees, but he soon finds himself over his head.  Not only is he now stuck as Yuuko's in-house cook, servant, and go-fer, but he discovers that Yuuko can indeed grant wishes, sometimes at a terrible price.

Being my favorite CLAMP series, it's hard for me to explain this series without either launching into fangirl squeeing or massive spoilers, but I shall try to do my best.

So, what makes xxxHolic so appealing?  I think part of it comes from our two leads and the way they play off one another.  Watanuki is a surprisingly comic lead, as he is often angrily (and vocally) overreacting to...well, just about everything that's strange.  It's never stated outright, but it's clear that Watanuki wants to be normal.  He's also stubbornly independent, wanting to be dependent upon no one save for his lovely classmate Himawari.  Of course, being responsible, he'll do what he's told, he'll just grumble the whole way through, especially as Yuuko teases him and presses all of his buttons.  Still, we do occasionally see him in calmer moods, where he gets to demonstrate some compassion and understanding of others, and it's these moments take keep Watanuki from being purely comic relief. 

So what about Yuuko?  The long and short of it is that she's a genuinely fun character, even if you can understand at times why Watanuki finds her frustrating.  Off the job she's a playful tease and a lush, taking delight in commanding Watanuki and setting off his all-too-short temper to get a reaction.  Yet when she's on the job, she's at once cryptic, sage, and deadly serious in her efforts to help her customers.  We also occasionally get glimpses of something more affectionate in her, be it the way she coddles her familiars Maru and Moru or her own admiration of Watanuki's potential.  These shifts in tone never feel too jarring, like one is something affected for the benefit of others; it simply feels like part of a single, complex, and endlessly interesting character.

The title "xxxHolic" is meant to represent addiction, with the "xxx" standing in as a blank space.  This theme of addiction is prevalent in the customers we meet in this volume: one who is habitual liar, and another who cannot tear herself away from the Internet.  Yuuko's solutions to their problems are unconventional, to say the least, and not always in the client's favor.  But then, as Yuuko notes, she can only do so much unless the client wants to change - she cannot simply magic their problems away.  The story does feel rather episodic in a 'monster of the week' sort of way, at least until the end when the story collides with its sister series, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles.  At this point it's impossible to say how the interweaving of the two series will play out.  CLAMP is notorious for bring characters from their multiverse into their works, but it's usually only in the form of cameos, little nods or in-jokes for long-time fans.  How well this more direct form of crossover will work out will partially depend on the plot of both series, and partially on one's own opinion of both xxxHolic and Tsubasa.

Ultimately, xxxHolic's appeal lies in how well crafted its lead are and how well they play off one another, which for me was more fun and interesting than the more obvious supernatural elements.

xxxHolic features what may be some of my favorite artwork by CLAMP, as it marries the more ornate, Gothic style of their past with the simpler, more streamlined qualities of their modern works.  The character designs are very much in line with CLAMP's modern style - in other words, a lot of long limbed crazy noodle people.  They also have a lot of fun playing dress up with these weird, gangly people, and nowhere is that more evident than with Yuuko.  Yuuko is visually striking with her long dark hair and wide variety of robes and dresses, each more lovely and fantastical than the last.  Mind you, on the covers and chapter splash pages, every cast member gets a chance to lounge about in gorgeous, heavily patterned robes and things.

What is most striking about xxxHolic's art is not in the details, but its overall visual style.  There's a sleekness and elegance about the characters which makes them work in spite of their gangliness.  It also can be found in the panel composition, as CLAMP makes a lot of use of stark black washes for backgrounds, where the only highlights come from the characters faces and the ever present curliques of smoke, magic, and spirits.  The panels are tightly focused on the characters, but CLAMP uses a lot of different angles and a lot of panel sizes to keep things interesting.  The page composition is rather straightforward, but spacious, giving the art plenty of breathing space.  Backgrounds are variable, ranging from well-drawn and mundane to dense hatching to blank white.

The art of xxxHolic is sleek, dark, elegant, and beautiful, and it's a perfect match for the story within.

Those who are lucky enough to have a copy from the first print run may have color pages in the front, duplicates of the first few pages and the chapter splash page.  True to form for a Del Ray/Kodansha release, there is an honorifics guide in the front and copious translation notes in the back. 

Did you expect anything less?  xxxHolic is first and foremost a visual treat, but it's also fun to read thanks to the dynamic between its two leads and the fact that unlike its sister series, it's not so entrenched in CLAMP cannon.  It's one of my favorite manga ever and I heartily recommend it.

This series is published in the USA by Kodansha, formerly Del Ray.  The series is currently being rebooted in Japan, but all 19 volumes have been released and are currently in print. 

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

Friday, January 25, 2013


CLAMP has plenty of long running series, but they also have a lot of one-shot manga, some that were cut off before their time due to a magazine ending, and others simply meant as self-contained works.  Today we look at one of their more self-contained works as not only a One Volume Wonder, but as part of:

MIYUKI-CHAN IN WONDERLAND (Fushigi no Kuni no Miyuki-chan), by CLAMP.  First published in 1993, and first published in North America in 2003.

Miyuki is an ordinary girl who can't seem to stop getting swept up into strange new worlds, be it an all-girl version of Wonderland, a mah-jong manga, a JRPG, or even the world of X.  Every time she enters one of these alternate worlds, she is all but assaulted by beautiful, scantily clad women who flirt with the clueless Miyuki and try to take her clothes off.  What on earth can a normal girl do to survive with her sanity, virtue, and wardrobe intact?

Rarely have I ever read a work by CLAMP that felt so half-baked.  Most of these chapters could be summed up in a single phrase, and they're so brief that there's barely any action (in every sense of that word).

Miyuki is a cipher - all we know about her by volume's end is some of her taste in media and that she tends to be late for just about everything.  She's also completely passive in her own story, always sucked into a world against her will, passed about, and abused.  She might as well have been replaced with a mannequin for all the action she takes.

I'll admit that I was initially sold on this series due to usually being summarized as a 'yuri sex comedy.'  After all, there's plenty of male-oriented ecchi titles out there, but rarely any that are yuri-oriented and rarer still to be connected to such a well-known mangaka group.  Sadly, the stories are all too brief and all too tame to live up to that phrase.  Miyuki just keeps getting passed from one scantily-clad woman to another, all who are dressed according to the theme of the chapter.  The sauciest the story gets is when Miyuki gets stripped or has her clothes torn off, something which happens with startling frequency.  It's a strange thing to find myself complaining that a story doesn't have ENOUGH fanservice, but a sex comedy without much sexiness feels weak and even a bit empty.

The worst chapter is the one that I initially had the most hope for: Miyuki in X Land.  There, Miyuki is sucked into the X universe while watching the movie adaptation in the theater (and frankly, she should be thankful for that, considering the X movie is a beautiful, shallow, confusing mess).  I briefly hoped that CLAMP would take this chance to have some fun or at least make some fourth-wall breaking jokes about their own super-serious, dramatic, and violent series, but my hopes were soon dashed.  Instead, the various female cast members believe her to be the Kamui and beg her to join their side, only for her to pop back out of the screen. 

It's clear that while CLAMP at least had an idea or gimmick for each chapter, they had NO IDEA how to end them, which is why the vast majority of the chapters end with Miyuki just snapping out of the alternate world, followed by "THE END...OR IS IT?"  It's insanely lazy, but then why put effort into an ending when so little effort was applied to the beginning and middle of the story?  Miyuki-Chan doesn't work as yuri, as a comedy, as a fanservice piece, or as a manga.  It's just a half-finished bunch of story sketches with a bunch of sexy set dressings.

 The character design is very much in line with CLAMP's classic style, so everyone is very willowy, pointy, and broad-shouldered with dark, lush eyes.  CLAMP was clearly using this manga to clear out a backlog of unusued female character designs, and each one is distinct and pretty.  If I haven't made it plain by now, there is a lot of cheesecake in this volume, with plenty of cleavage, bondage, and suggested nudity.

The panels are surprisingly cluttered for CLAMP, as they are filled to the brim with swirling hair, magic, and speed lines but the panels are too small to give those effects the space they need.  The page composition is also rather packed, which again is unusual for CLAMP, so the art just has no space whatsoever.  In the end, the artstyle might appeal to those who enjoy CLAMP's classic style, but they damn near drown in the overly busy pages and the whole work comes off as cluttered.

Like most of CLAMP's older works, there's a cute omake comic where CLAMP in chibi form discuss working on this and the Miyuki-Chan OVA.  There are also quite a few color splash pages in the front, as well as color pages of character designs and story art for the OVA in the back.

This odd, pointless little work is not all that sexy and definitely not funny.  Maybe we can all hope this manga was just a strange dream...OR WAS IT?!

No, wait, it was real, and it sucked.

This volume was published in the USA by Tokyopop, and is now out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Review: KOBATO

We've been lingering a while on CLAMP's past, but let's take things closer to the present with their most recent finished series, in this new installment of:

KOBATO, by CLAMP.  First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2010.

Kobato is a girl who has a wish, and to get that wish she has to earn a magical bottle with the help of Ioryogi, a brash, hard-drinking, fire-breathing blue dog plushie.  She has to earn the bottle by proving herself capable of navigating the everyday events and some of the holidays of Japanese life.  Once she earns her bottle, she manages to find a job with a down-on-its-luck kindergarden in need of helpers.  Will Kobato be able to fill her bottle with the healed hearts of those in need?

Kobato is a cute and lighthearted story, but it takes waaaaay too long to get to the point.

3/4s of the volume is spent on watching Kobato earn her magic bottle, and CLAMP mostly uses this to riff on a lot of seasonal Japanese cliches.  The biggest problem with that it's incredibly repetitive: Kobato is sent out to demonstrate her common sense about [insert event/holiday here], she screws up a lot, but manages to make things work out in the end, earning some points from Ioryogi.  Worse still, this repetition gets tedious FAST.  Oh sure, there are a few hints about Ioryogi's true nature, and there are plenty of cameos from characters from other CLAMP works (specifically from Chobits, Suki, xxxHolic, Magic Knight Rayearth, and Angelic Layer), but these alone are not enough to save the reader from tedium by the sixth or seventh time they've had to read essentially the same freaking chapter.

Once Kobato gets her bottle and gets her new job, the plot finally gets going...only it doesn't because so much time was spent on earning the bottle that the actual plot won't get going until the next volume.  We only get enough space to get Kobato to the kindergarden and to introduce the two caretakers there (the kindly teacher Sayaka and the grumpy part-timer Fujimoto).  This wouldn't have been so much of an issue in its original serialization, but in book form it's a bit frustrating to finally get somewhere, only to find out that the plot doesn't really start until the next volume.

Kobato is very typical for a CLAMP heroine, in that she is sweet, naive, and a little bit ditzy.  She's also hopelessly klutzy, something which is mined constantly for jokes.  Basically, she's so moe that it almost hurts, and it's played complete straight, which may frustrate those of you who are not moe fans to begin with.  There are hints, but little is explained of Kobato's background, so questions like "Why does she need to make a wish?" or "How did she end up with Ioryogi?" or even "Why can't she ever remove her hat?" will simply have to wait for an eventual answer.

Ioryogi at times seems like a crasser version of Cardcaptor Sakura's Kero-chan, being a small plush-toy like being with a big mouth and even bigger appetites, but Ioryogi is much more abusive and blunt than that; he spends a lot of time yelling, smacking, or breathing fire at Kobato when she screws up.  He's not completely without heart, though, and through his gruffness he is trying his best to guide her, keep an eye on her, and keep her focused.  His backstory is also a mystery, as all we learn about him is that his current plush form and name are not his true ones, and that he has some sort of rivalry with an eyepatch-wearing hare named Ginsei. 

Storywise, I feel like CLAMP spent too much time with the set-up and not enough with the actual story, riffing on cultural cliches instead of exploring the main plot or characters, and thus this first volume may drive readers away before the story truly gets going.

I guess it's appropriate that some of the characters are reminscient of Cardcaptor Sakura, as the artstyle is also very similiar to that series.  Both are full of soft, sweet cuteness and are drawn with very fine linework.  There are elements from CLAMP's more modern style, as Kobato does spend a fair bit of time in Angelic Layer-style superdeformed mode, and the character designs for the adults are very much in line with the long-limbed, rectangular designs for works like Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles and xxxHolic.  The panels are rather simply drawn, with few backgrounds and a lot of close-ups.  The pages, on the other hand, tend to be much looser in composition with a fair bit of image layering and a nice variety of panel shapes and sizes.  Kobato isn't CLAMP most visually striking works, but it is delicate, pretty, and easy to follow.

There's a color splash page in the front, and translation notes in the back.

CLAMP's artwork is as lovely and light, but it takes too long for the story to get to a point beyond a lot of tired riffs on holidays and moe klutziness.

This series is published in the USA by Yen Press.  All 6 volumes were published, and all are currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Review: RG VEDA

My month long tribute continues, this time by taking things all the way back to CLAMP's first published original story, as yet another part of:

RG VEDA (Seiden: Rigu Veda), by CLAMP.  First published in 1989, and first published in North America in 2005.

In a mythological land, the wicked king Taishakuten has overthrown the king and now rules the realm with an iron fist, even going so far to slaughter the Ashura tribe for daring to oppose him.  One day, he sends his finest general, Lord Yana, to force his wayward stargazer to prophecize for him, but Yana learns that her prophecy is about Taishakuten's downfall.  She tells of a child who will bring together six warriors who will in turn bring down the king.  Shortly thereafter, Yana discovers a strange baby trapped within a tree in a dense, ancient woodland, who grows quickly into a child who calls himself Ashura.  Taishakuten wants Ashura dead, but Yana chooses to take mercy on the child and goes on the run.  Now the two wander the land seeking allies all while trying to keep themselves alive.

This may be CLAMP's first professionally published story, but you wouldn't know this was a debut just from reading it.  While the story follows a lot of the conventions of fantasy stories, it's solidly written, polished to a gleam, and confident.

For all its vaguely Hindu trappings (right down to the name, which is a reference to the Rigveda, an ancient collection of Hindu hymns), this story has a lot of its roots in traditional fantasy and mythological storytelling and thus features a lot of familiar archetypes.  You've got a wicked king, a brave warrior, a supernatural child who is part of a prophecy, and so on and so forth, all of it played serious and straight.  Now because these tropes are so familiar, one might think that the story would be highly predictable - stop at Place A, pick up a. few allies, repeat until party is complete, battle a few minor bosses, then head to the final stage for the big boss battle.  CLAMP subverts this to a degree by staging Yana's quest more like one long chase, where he and Ashura must always keep one step ahead of Taishakuten's forces and fight off those they cannot outrun.  This becomes complicated by the very presence of Ashura himself. 

When Yana first found him, he saw a vision of a full-grown Ashura stating that a great evil had been released onto the world, and that he will grow up to kill Yana.  Sure, Ashura seems like a sweet and innocent child, but he also possesses great supernatural power which frightens those who would conceal them, and there's the fact that almost every person they befriend tends to end up dead.  Thus, Yana often finds himself questioning the vision he saw - did he make the right choice when he chose to save the child, and just what is the true nature of Ashura?  There isn't an answer yet, as of the first volume, and Yana's conflict between his own unease and his fondness for Ashura pervades the volume.

This series is unusual when viewed as part of the greater CLAMP cannon, as there aren't any of their signature gut-punch twists or genre-twisting; this story is (so far) played straight.  Still, they did manage to craft a solid fantasy story from those familiar tropes which is full of tautly paced action.

While CLAMP had yet to perfect their own storytelling style, they had clearly perfected their own visual style.  The character designs here are very much in line with CLAMP's classic style, with willowly bodies, linebacker-wide shoulders, large, shining cat-like eyes, and the use of chibis for the admittedly brief and uncommon silly moments.  The pages are full of long, flowing hair, as well as swirling tendrils of flame and magic that seem to brim with life of their own.  The page composition is rather free and easy, breaking out the larger panels and even some 2-page spreads for the action scenes and big dramatic moments and layering smaller panels over these.  It sounds like a mess in words, but on the page it works; while the artwork can be dense, it is never too busy to be followed or too cluttered to be attractive, although the big hair and heavy, pointy jawlines do reek of the 1980s.

RG Veda's art is a tiny bit dated by today's standards, but it's full of vibrancy and features CLAMP's classic style.

Like most of CLAMP's earlier works, there's a silly little omake in the back where CLAMP themselves (in chibi form) talk about themselves and update their fans on their then-current newsletter.  There's also a strange bonus chapter that goes nowhere and is frankly too random to be truly funny.

Both fans of CLAMP and fans of fantasy will find a lot to love about RG Veda, be it the solid storytelling or the lovely art.

This series was published by Tokyopop.  All 10 volumes were published, and all are currently out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Monday, January 7, 2013


I'm back!  It's a brand new year, a brand new month, and a brand new theme!  January is the month of my birthday (the 29th, to be precise), and as such I decided to focus on something that I love and on works that I really, really want to review, an idea I've had since the creation of this blog.

Thus, this month will be all about everyone's favorite doujinshi circle turned team of legendary manga creators, CLAMP.

The first selection for CLAMP monthh will focus on one of the many CLAMP series Dark Horse has licenced rescued and released in omnibus form.  CLAMP has always made an effort to try and subvert the genres and accompanying cliches of the manga they work on, and today's selection is one of the simplest yet enjoyable subversions.

ANGELIC LAYER (Enjerikku Reiya), by CLAMP.  First published in 1999, and first published in North America in 2002.

PLOT:  Misaki Suzuhara is moving to Tokyo to live with her aunt, as her mother went away for a job when Misaki was a small child.  She barely has time to step off the train before she's exposed to the craze that is Angelic Layer, a gaming tournament where people compete by using customized dolls controlled by their thoughts to fight.  Misaki soon runs into a strange man in a lab coat who calls himself "Icchan," who ends up convincing her to stock up on just about everything a girl could need to equip her own Angel.  Misaki quickly takes to the game, and she ends up joining the Angelic Layer tournament, where her ability to remember and imitate the moves of others helps her to advance.  Will Misaki become an Angelic Layer champion?  And why is Icchan so invested in getting Misaki into Angelic Layer?

STORY:  The story structure here should be one very familiar to shonen fans: a plucky young lead wants to be the best [insert subject] ever, so they fight their way to the top, all while making friends and learning lessons and so on.  So, what makes Angelic Layer different from the rest?  Well, this is a shonen fighting tournament series with shoujo sensibilities.

As I said before, you almost expect some sort of twist or subversion with a CLAMP work, and Angelic Layer features what may be the simplest twist on a genre they've written: take a shonen fighting tournament, and make the vast majority of the competitors (and their battle dolls) female.  It seems like a simple change, but by doing so they shift the  focus of the story - more on that later.

Of course, like many CLAMP works, there's a reference to one or more of their other works.  In this case, Misaki names and models  her doll off of Magic Knight Rayearth's Hikaru.  Also like many CLAMP works, it stars a girl who is not terribly bright, but good at domestic chores, and remains cheerful and friendly through most situations.  Because of her gentle nature, she's very different from the usual tournament lead: she has no particular interest in winning Angelic Layer.  She's simply in it to learn and have fun, and she's more focused on the well-being of her doll than she is with her ranking.  This is where the aforementioned shoujo sensibilities enter the picture - the focus here isn't on winning and losing, but on emotion and friendship.  Indeed, Misaki soon assembles a group of pleasant, if not terribly complex schoolmates, including a violent, tomboyish girl and a rather bland Love Interest Guy.  There are a couple of character that do stand out, though.

The first of these is Hakuto, the little sister of Love Interest Guy who is an Angelic Layer prodigy.  She is a fierce competitor - indeed, she defeats Misaki early on, and only circumstance keeps Misaki in the tournament - but she also admires Misaki and becomes not only a fan, but a friend.  The second of these character is easily my favorite, as they bring the lion's share of the humor in this series.  Of course, I'm talking about Icchan, with his penchant for wiggly surprise entrances and bizarre punishments for his assistant.  We soon learn that he is the creator of Angelic Layer, and that he encourages her at Angelic Layer for still-unknown reasons which seem to have something to do with her mother.  Thus, he not only provides comic relief, but he also brings with him another emotional plot thread for Misaki to follow.  Sure, he's something of a blatant plot device, always prodding Misaki forward, but at least he's an amusing plot device.

Angelic Layer is built upon a familiar skeleton, but it fleshes out its story with a few little twists and a lot of charm and humor and thus helps it to stand out from its genremates.

ART:  Being a shonen work by CLAMP, the artstyle here is much less stylized and detailed than their previous or (then) contemporary shoujo works.  The style here is similiar to that seen in Chobits and Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles, with simplified character designs and broader, darker linework.  Angelic Layer is at time even more simplified that those works, as the characters are transformed in wackier moments into flapping and flailing paper doll-like sihouettes.  Even in this simplified form, the  characters are distinct, attractive, and expressive.

CLAMP does put a bit more effort into the fight scenes, even if it seems that the dolls damn near drown in speed lines at times.  In spite of that, the poses are strong and there's a very strong sense of fluidity in the panels.  There's a lot of visual variety in the panel size, which naturally tends to expand during the battles.  Surprisingly, the backgrounds are surpringly absent - CLAMP tends to either leave them blank or break out the speed lines.  It's a touch lazy for CLAMP, but it's a minor fault.

Angelic Layer's art is as simple as its heroine, but also like her it's not without its charms, namely that it's also light, fluid, and attractive.

PRESENTATION:  This is one of the rare situations where I have read both the original single release and the omnibus rerelease.  I don't recall any extras present in the Tokyopop singles, but the Dark Horse omnibuses do feature color art at the beginning and end of the book.

Angelic Layer is a simple but endearing entry into the CLAMP cannon, one that would be easy for a CLAMP novice to get into  and a pleasant diversion for established CLAMP fans.

This series was formerly published by Tokyopop, and was rescued by Dark Horse.  All 5 volumes were released by Tokyopop, and all 5 are out of print.  The first of two omnibuses have been released by Dark Horse, and is currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!