Monday, January 26, 2015


Of course, no CLAMP month these days can go by without featuring one of the many classics Dark Horse Comics picked up in the stead of Tokyopop, and today's review is no exception to that.

CHOBITS (Chobittsu), by CLAMP.  First published in 2001, and first published in North America in 2002.

Persocoms are the latest technological craze.  They are walking computers shaped like beautiful people (mostly women), and it seems that everyone in Tokyo has one...well, everyone but Hideki Motosuwa.  He's a poor cram school student from the countryside who barely makes ends meet as is, but he dreams of getting a Persocom for practical purposes ('practical purposes' meaning 'Internet porn').  Hideki's luck seemingly turns for the best when he finds a Persocom put out amongst the evening trash, but his lucky find is not all that she seems.  His new Persocom is seemingly unable to perform the slightest task on her own and is unable to say anything but "Chii."  Hideki now has to focus on teaching Chii about the world all while he works on finding out her origins, which may be tied to an urban legend about the Chobits, Persocoms that are capable of genuine emotion and thought.

So what happens when everyone's favorite all-woman manga team tries to tackle the male-oriented world of magical girlfriend manga?  Well, like so many of their previous works, they flip some of the old clichés on their head, insert a bit of humor, and build their story around a unconventional love story.  Mind you, all of this isn't obvious from the outset.  After all, Chobits stars a spastic, horny young guy who is down on his luck who happens to be surrounded by a gaggle of beautiful women, whose actions in turn only make him more awkward.  How is this any different from the others?

First and foremost, it flips the idea of the perfect magical girlfriend on its head.  Hideki thinks that by getting a Persocom he could solve all his troubles.  He could have the status symbol item of the moment, have a sentient sex doll to stand in for the perfect girlfriend, and he could at long last stop perceiving himself as a failure compared to his peers.  Of course, Chii is anything but the perfect girlfriend, there to service all of Hideki's needs.  If anything, Hideki has to service her needs because she is essentially like a child.  She has to be taught to do just about everything - to speak, to dress herself, and how to function in the wider world.  Like a child, she readily imitates anything that Hideki does.  This becomes what is easily the funniest running gag in the volume, as Chii is often imitating Hideki's every moment to perfection as he freaks out over whatever issue has come his way.  Still, Chii and Hideki's oddly parental relationship makes for an interesting bit of role reversal in a genre that tends to stay firmly entrenched in traditional gender roles, even if it makes Hideki's growing affection for her more than a little weird.  Sure, he's aware that it's weird because he's human and she's a computer, a fact which gets drilled into his head more than once, but it becomes rapidly apparent that their relationship occupies a weird place between parent/child and innocent romance.

That same sense of subversion can be found in the rest of the female cast.  At first it seems that Hideki has his choice of women in tradionally fetish roles - sexy landlord, sexy teacher, and sexy coworker.  In any other story, all of these women would pose some degree of romantic interest in our leading man.  Here, though, that applies only to one out of those three women.  Chibiya (the landlord) is more of a motherly figure to both Hideki and Chii.  Shizuma-sensei (the teacher) does end up drunk and half-clothed at Hideki's place due to circumstance, but even then neither of them makes any sort of move.  Only Yuna (the coworker) has any actual romantic interest in Hideki, and even there she's shown to be less than keen on the concept of Persocoms.  While none of these characters get a lot of screentime or deep development in the first volume, they are shown to have lives and thoughts outside of Hideki, a fact that makes them more interesting than their equivalents in similar manga.

Chobits has a lot going on for it story-wise.  It's got a great sense of humor, which can't be said for most magical girlfriend manga.  On the other hand, much more effort is put towards the jokes than "boy falls into boobs" or "boy gets nosebleed from girl being sexy."  A lot of it stems more from Chii's innocent misunderstandings of everyday life and having no conversational filter.  It also tends to follow a lot of the usual story beats for such romances (boy meets girl, brings her home, buys her clothes, etc.), but by flipping a lot of the typical character roles and dynamics on their head CLAMP has breathed some life into this dull genre.

While the character designs here couldn't be mistaken for anything but CLAMP characters, they bear a stronger resemblance to the simpler forms of Angelic Layer or Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles than their previous shoujo works.  Another notable difference here is that this is one of the few CLAMP works with male-oriented fanservice.  They've never been short on manservice, what with all the pretty bishies who sometimes touch and pose in homoerotic ways, but Chii ends up flashing more than her fair share of cleavage and suggestive poses.  This can even be found in the otherwise lovely and delicate splash art, where Chii is the sole focus.  Of course, in context this suggestiveness is more than a bit awkward, considering her child-like nature.

The page composition here is rather restrained, which is surprising considering how often Hideki likes to fill his panels full of gasps, tears, and flailing.  While CLAMP does take advantage of the background for some additional jokes, they don't draw a lot of backgrounds and add a lot of screentone.  That restraint can even be found in those previously mentioned pieces of color artwork.  The color palatte there tends to be restrained to a lot of delicate pastels and flowery, natural settings.  It's an interestingly shoujo-esque affectation for what is meant to be a seinen work, but I suspect that that same flail helps to explain why this series appeals just as much to CLAMP's traditionally female audience as it does to the guys who normally read magical girlfriend manga.

Chobits succeeds where so many magical girlfriend series fail because it's willing to subvert a lot of the usual tropes to create a narrative that embraces some of the weirdness within.  It also finds a way to combine seinen cheesecake with shoujo prettiness to create artwork that appeals to a wider audience.  Even those who are normally wary of such premises should give this series a chance.

This series was previous published by Tokyopop and is currently published by Dark Horse.  This series is complete in 5 volumes.  The single volumes from Tokyopop are out of print, but the 2 omnibus releases from Dark Horse are currently in print.

This volume and many more like it can be purchased through!  If you buy through this link, part of the purchase go towards supporting The Manga Test Drive!

Monday, January 12, 2015


Let's take a quick break to take a look at a tiny little CLAMP one-shot put out by Tokyopop back in the day when they would literally publish anything with CLAMP's name on it.

THE ONE I LOVE (Watashi na Sukinahito), by CLAMP.  First published in 1995, and first published in North America in 2004.

This anthology peeks into the lives of twelve young people united by a single concept: love.  Some are trying to gain it by winning the hearts of others and some may be trying to maintain it in their relationships, but all are connected by the various ways they experience love.

This is CLAMP at their briefest and utmost fluffiest.  Depending on your mood and tolerance for fluffy shoujo cuteness, it can be entertaining, but all that brevity and fluff comes at the expense of depth and drama.

These are very brief vignettes, with none of them numbering over 10 pages in length.  As such, you only get the briefest sketch as to who our lead characters are.  Many are so brief that their leads don't even get the benefit of a name.  The conflicts within are also appropriately brief and simple, with most being variations on "Oh God, does he like me? Oh goodness, he DOES love me!" or "Oh no, he doesn't love me anymore!  Oh, my mistake, he actually does still love me!"  The stories are structured in a way that resembles the progression of a relationship, starting with stories about first love and building up all the way to a story about a bride with a case of pre-ceremony cold feet.  True to form, CLAMP did include a same-sex couple amongst these stories, and to their credit their story is treated no differently than the hetero ones.

All that being said, the collection is ultimately hurt to some degree by being so short and sweet.  In many ways, this anthology is like the manga version of cotton candy.  All that fluffy sweetness can be fun in the short term, but the pleasure is fleeting and there's little to no substance behind it.  This collection feels like CLAMP just took a bunch of half-baked outlines for scenes and draped the barest minimum of storyline upon them.  They didn't bother with character or drama, they simply threw out what they had so they could fill up a few pages, make a few yen, and then move on with the rest of their day.  The One I Love may be a pleasant read, but without anything serious to anchor it down it simply passes out of one's mind the moment the reader puts down the book.

The artwork here is just as cutesy as the story.  It's very much in the same vein as manga like CLAMP School Detectives, with lots of delicate linework and loads of chibis.  Backgrounds are rather minimal, with just a hint of floating petals or light washes of color or pattern to frame the characters.  Despite the small size of the book, the panels are large and spacious, which supports the overall lightness and airiness of the artwork.  The art may not be all that much more substantial than the story, but it's beautifully drawn and matches the sugar-sweet tone to a T.

Despite being such a small, slender work, Tokyopop put some effort into making it look good.  The first few pages, along with the first chapter, are rendered in full color watercolors on heavy, textured paper.  There are notes from the members of CLAMP after each chapter, along with the chibi-heavy omakes that they made so frequently back in the day.

While The One I Love is a sweet little confection with lovely artwork, all but the most dedicated CLAMP fans will consider this more of a curiosity than anything else.  It's enjoyable to consume, but lacks the substance needed to stick in one's memory.

This volume was published by Tokyopop, and is currently out of print. 

This volume and many more like it can be purchased through!

Monday, January 5, 2015


Well, it's January once more, which means that it's time for another month full of CLAMP works.  To kick things off, let's take a look at one of CLAMP's biggest, most notorious, and most intimidating works.

TSUBASA RESERvoir CHRoNiCLES (Tsubasa: Rezaboa Kuronikuru), by CLAMP.  First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2004.

On the world of Clow, Syaoran spends his days working on archeological sites when he's not spending time with his oldest friend, Princess Sakura.  When she comes to visit him at the mysterious ruins he's excavating, she is seized by unknown forces that scatter her memories to the winds and leave her unconscious and on the brink of death.  Now Syaoran now must travel to another world to find a way to save Sakura before it's too late.

On the world of Nihon, the warrior Kurogane is the fiercest, most fearless swordfighter in all of the kingdom, but it's come at the cost of his humanity.  In an attempt to teach humility and the value of life, the Princess Tomoyo sends Kurogane away to another world, even as he wishes only to return to his own.

On the world of Celes, the mage Fai D. Flowright has sealed King Ashura in a crystal tomb under a deep pool of water for reasons only known to Fai himself.  Now he needs to escape to another world in the hopes of escaping his troubled past.

All four find themselves transported to Yuuko, the Space-Time Witch.  She can help all of their causes, but at a steep personal price for each member.  Now they must team up together along with Yuuko's creation Mokona to travel between other, distant worlds to recover Sakura's memories and find the solutions to their own troubles.

A lot of people feel intimidated by Tsubasa.  They know that it's this sprawling series with numerous cross-overs to CLAMP's other previous works.  As such, some think that the only way one can get Tsubasa is to read all their other manga first, and for many that's simply too much homework to do for a single shonen series.  Speaking as both an honest reviewer and as someone who has read most of CLAMP's works, I can say with some certainty Tsubasa can be in fact enjoyed on its own merits.  Yes, there is a lot of crossovers and cameos, but the characters and settings are altered enough that even those who have never touched a CLAMP book previous can follow and enjoy this series on their own.

That being said, there are a LOT of CLAMP cameos in just this single volume alone.  It features cameos or alternate versions of characters from:

  • Cardcaptor Sakura
  • xxxHolic
  • X/1999
  • Chobits
  • RG Veda
  • Miyuki-Chan In Wonderland
  • Magic Knight Rayearth
Their inclusion doesn't interrupt the flow of the story, though.  If you can recognize them, then it's a fun little bonus for a fan, but you don't have to know a thing about them to continue.  This is even true for the characters from Tsubasa's sister series xxxHolic.  Yes, Yuuko is the one who sets our main cast upon their way and serves as the primary source of exposition, but one doesn't need to know the events of that universe to understand what's going on here.

That's even true for our leading man and lady.  While they do share names and basic personality points with the Sakura and Syaoran of Cardcaptor Sakura, they are not the same characters.  In all fairness, it's harder to say that for Sakura than for Syaoran, but that's because she spends most of this volume in a coma and as such we don't learn much about her beyond the odd flashback.  Still, that lets them fit in smoothly with the original characters of Fai and Kurogane.  Those two have long been the most popular cast members, and it's easy to see why.  While their respective dilemmas are quite opposite of one another, both are simple and compelling in their own right.  The two also form what is essentially a manzai duo, with Fai being the one dishing out the sly jokes and teasing and Kurogane being the straightman whose frustration is always met with laughter.  Admittedly, this is used mostly for a bit of ship-teasing on CLAMP's part, which was (and still is by many) met with enthusiastic approval.  Still, I enjoyed that they were treated as characters in their own rights with their own issues and dynamic and not just the chaperones for the rather milquetoast leads.

I do have to say that as a shonen series, Tsubasa starts off on a strong note.  It doesn't waste any time introducing our main quartet, setting them upon their quest, and ending on a cliffhanger fight.  It doesn't rush through things, but neither does it have the glacial pacing of its animated counterpart.  The tone is light and breezy, and exposition dumps are kept to a minimum.  Tsubasa really is just a very pleasant sort of action-adventure story, and it does a good job at finding the balance between introducing the cast and premise and getting the plot proper moving.  It has a lot of callbacks for the fans, but they don't get in the way of telling the story or engage those new to CLAMP.

The artwork here is very much in the same vein as previous shonen and seinen works from CLAMP like Angelic Layer and Chobits.  The linework is dark and thick, but the long, lanky bodies and faces are far more simple and less stylized than those of their older works or the finer, more elegant style of xxxHolic.  In particular, I really like Kurogane's striking visual design, who spends most of the volume looking like a block of stark black accented only by his face and a few minor details. 

There's not a lot of action here, and most of what we see is the sort of swirly tendrils of magic that fill the page instead of a lot of hack-and-slash sort of fighting.  The page composition is rather free and easy, with plenty of big, roomy splash panels and characters often spilling out over the panel borders, and this is emphasized by the fact that backgrounds are rare and sparsely drawn.  There's just a general sort of lightness to the art which fits the tone of the story perfectly and helps visually distinguish Tsubasa from CLAMP works of both past and present.

In spite of its reputation, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles can be just as enjoyable to a CLAMP newcomer as it can be to the hardened fan.  It's a light and breezy adventure helmed by an engaging cast (well, half of one at least) and it's simple a well-assembled bit of shonen.

This series is published by Kodansha Comics, formerly Del-Ray.  This series is complete in Japan in 28 volumes, and all have been published in North America.  The single volume releases are out of print, but the series is currently available in 3-in-1 omnibuses, of which 3 are currently in print.

This volume and many more like it can be purchase through!

No, I don't get why the title is so randomly capitalized.  I doubt even CLAMP knows at this point.