Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles Books 1-20 and Character Guide

Review by Ed Sizemore

Syaoran is continuing the work of his adopted archeologist father, excavating the massive ruins buried under the sand in the kingdom of Clow. Finally, he has unearthed and restored the central chamber. Princess Sakura, his childhood friend, comes to have lunch with him. The moment Sakura steps onto the relief carved in the floor a magical chain reaction starts. When it’s all over, Sakura’s memories have been turned into feathers and scattered across the multi-dimensions of the cosmos. The High Priest, Yukito, tells Syaoran that Sakura’s memories must be recovered or she will die. Yukito sends both to the one person he believes has the power to help, the space-time witch, Yuko.

Syaoran and Sakura arrive at Yuko’s shop at the same time as two other visitors, Fai D Flowright and Kurogane. They are from different worlds, and just like Syaoran, they are seeking a means to travel among the cosmic dimensions. Yuko explains the price to obtain such an ability is too great for any one person to pay. If all four agree to travel together, they can afford the payment. To pay his portion, Syaoran must give up his past relationship with Sakura. When all her memories are recovered, Sakura will still have no memory of Syaoran prior to the time she arrived at Yuko’s shop. He accepts the trade.

The Appeal

Tsubasa Book 1 cover
Tsubasa Book 1
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Tsubasa is as multidimensional as the universe it’s set in. On the surface, the series is a fantasy/sci-fi adventure story. However, at its core is the burgeoning romance between Syaoran and Sakura. Surrounding that is the growing friendship between the five travelers. It’s the relationships between the five central characters that readers connect with, converting them to devoted fans. Since this is a character-centric manga, let’s look at the five main protagonists.

Syaoran was a street urchin with no memory of his past. He’s blind in one eye and doesn’t even remember if he was born with that disability or if it’s a result of some accident. Yuko describes him best when she says he has sincerity and determination in great measure. His care and affection for Sakura jumps off the page, and so does his awkwardness in expressing his feelings. Part of Syaoran’s reluctance is his acute awareness about his status as an outsider in the Kingdom of Clow. (He’s an orphan, and his adoptive father wasn’t originally from Clow either.) His seriousness and focus make for the perfect young hero.

Sakura is the princess of Clow. She has natural grace and charm. Although she doesn’t remember her former life, the bonds of affection she shared with Syaoran are so deep that she quickly falls in love with him again. However, she is just as awkward expressing her emotions. The romantic tension between the two can be so frustrating and so endearing. She has a purity to her character that brings out the best in her traveling companions. This purity also makes her feel guilty at the sacrifices the others make to retrieve her memories. She has an inner strength of tempered steel that slowly manifests itself over the course of the series.

Fai D Flowright is a wizard on the run. He’s attractive, charismatic, and carefree. He comes across as a jester. He’s fun, light-hearted, and quick with a joke. It’s impossible not to like him immediately. But he keeps his past and what is really going on inside him a secret. He’s an actor that doesn’t allow anyone backstage. His shocking back story isn’t revealed until volumes 19 and 20.

Kurogane at first is dour, gruff, and short-tempered. It seems that everything pisses him off. He’s been exiled by his queen because of his disregard for human life. He is under a curse; for each person he kills, he loses some of his strength. He is not allowed to return to his home until he has learned the true meaning of strength. Initially, he is the least likable character, but there is an ocean of depth to him. We learn his back story in volume 13, and from that point forward, he becomes the de facto leader and core of emotional stability for the group.

Mokona, ah Mokona, he is a pure delight. He is the one that transports everyone from one dimension to the next. It would be easy to write him off as comedic relief, but as with all things in this series, he is much more than he first appears. There is an innocence and childishness to his manner. It’s easy to forget how intelligent and insightful he truly is. I just love the little guy and his 108 secret techniques.

The Craft

Tsubasa Book 20 cover
Tsubasa Book 20
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CLAMP are master storytellers, and Tsubasa gives them the room to showcase all their literary talents. What impresses me most about this series is the maturity and intention of the pacing. CLAMP know that this will be a long-running series, so they let the story progress at its own natural momentum. There are times the manga moves at breakneck speed, but also slow, quiet times. The rhythm of the narration feels realistic, especially the way the moods and scenes shift and blend into each other. They know how we, in the real world, defuse tense situations with jokes or silly humor and use that knowledge in shifting from dramatic moments to comedic ones. CLAMP structure the story to keep the reader from being bored by any one literary genre. It’s relaxing to read a series where the authors don’t feel like each chapter has to have everything in it.

Having the characters traveling to different worlds allows CLAMP free range in the narrative genres and styles they can use, and CLAMP prove themselves adept in each genre/style they use. There are too many styles to discuss each separately, so let me just highlight two that particularly resonated with me. First, CLAMP create action scenes that are exciting. You hold your breath as you turn the pages waiting to see how each battle is resolved. They show wonderful originality in creating unique fighting styles for each world. You get sword fights, magical battles, martial arts, jet-powered hovercrafts, etc. These are some of the most gripping action sequences you’ll read in comics.

As with the action, CLAMP incorporates variety in the comedic elements. There are scenes with a slapstick sensibility, especially when the characters are drunk. There is character-based humor, usually focused on the youth and inexperience of Sakura and Syaoran. The chibi drawings of Sakura are adorable. Fai adds lots of puns and silly jokes to the mix. Mokona is so kawaii (cute). He’s bubbly and over-the-top in his reactions. He likes to be a foil for Kurogane’s seriousness. Mokona’s enthusiasm is infectious.

Let me provide two caveats to new readers. First, you need to read each book of this series, and you need to read them in order. Skipping books will mean missing out on details about each of the characters. It also means missing out on how the bonds between the characters grow and shift. This series rewards careful reading as the details add nuances that will become relevant in later volumes. Also, there are some great twists and surprises that you don’t want spoiled by jumping ahead.

Second, starting in volume 15, the series takes on a darker, more serious tone. The series becomes even more gripping and emotionally intense from that point forward. Avoid reading reviews of these volumes, if the review has a summary of the story. Each volume ends with a cliffhanger that makes the three-month wait tortuous. I’m already chomping at the bit for volume 21.

CLAMP are also master illustrators. There’s a reason that anime directors have hired them to do character and background designs. They have beautiful characters, buildings, and backgrounds with meticulous detail in everything. CLAMP really created a lot of hard work for themselves with this series. They didn’t have designs just for one planet, but for several. Each dimension that Syaoran and company visit has its own look, and no two worlds are even remotely similar. Even more impressive is that they are publishing this series on a weekly basis.

The art in this series has lots of energy and passion in it. The action scenes are visually exciting. The comedic scenes make perfect use of chibi and cartoon effects. The dramatic scenes capture the emotions each character is feeling. Tsubasa is a series where you can flip through the book and just by looking at drawings get a sense for the mood of the scenes. The splash pages are gorgeous. My only complaint is that Del Rey isn’t printing the color pages of this series, like they’re doing with xxxHOLiC. CLAMP’s pleasure in writing and drawing this series is evident on each page.

The Character Guide

 

Tsubasa Character Guide cover
Tsubasa Character Guide
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I’m not a fan of character guides. I can’t get past the feeling that the publisher is simply milking me for more money. Plus, most of the information is just a rehashing of what’s available in the manga itself. The Tsubasa character guide is no exception. There’s some material not found in the regular series, but I feel these extras should be bonus material included at the end of the regular books. The character guide covers the events up through the end of book 7.

One fun section of the character guide takes you through a flow chart that asks you questions. When you come to the end of the chart, you find out which of the five main characters you’re most like. (I ended up being Fai. I really wanted to be Mokona.) This then leads you to a second flow chart that tells you which world you would be happiest living in. (I ended up in Oto and like that result.)

The most informative section was an interview with CLAMP member Ageha Ohkawa and the Weekly Shonen Magazine editor Kiichiro Sugawara. What I found interesting was reading about how CLAMP is tailoring their traditional shojo style of art and storytelling to fit into a shonen magazine. They’re very conscious of the different expectations shonen readers have, both in art and storytelling. Ohkawa has a good sense of humor and makes the interview an enjoyable read.

Other sections of the book include lots of fan art, a summary of the story thus far, brief character biographies, a rating of the combat abilities of each character, a tour of each of the worlds they have visited to this point, the people they’ve met in each world, an advice column by Fai, original character designs, and 25 pages of rough page breakdowns from the first volume.

Conclusion

CLAMP intentionally designed this series to appeal to a wider audience than their typical fanbase, so it’s a perfect introduction to their unique style of art and storytelling. It’s also perfect for people new to manga, since the fantasy and sci-fi elements are similar to those in Western comics and novels. It’s rare to have quality epic story telling in comics. CLAMP has created a story with a galactic scale on par to the worlds of Moorcock, Asimov, and Tolkien. Readers will quickly connect and care for each of the protagonists. This series does have crossover elements with xxxHOLiC, but so far that’s very limited, and you don’t need to read xxxHOLiC to understand what is going on here. In short, Tsubasa is one of the must-read series in any comic format currently running. Did I mention that I love Mokona?

19 Comments

  1. [...] manga series of the past few years. Then move on to Ed Sizemore’s comprehensive review of vols. 1-20 of Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles and the Tsubasa Character Guide at Comics Worth Reading. Carlo Santos treats us to another Right Turn Only!! column at ANN, and at [...]

  2. Oh, what a wonderful surprise to see this! I’m so happy you decided to read this series! I have so much I want to say, and no time at all for saying it, so I will try to return later. But really, this is incredibly well-done and delightful!

  3. Ed Sizemore

    Melinda, I know that you’re a big fan of the series and I’m glad you like the review. I can’t wait to see what you have to add. There is so much good stuff to discuss with this series.

  4. [...] detailed, thoughtful, and all-around awesome write-up of the first twenty volumes of Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles at Comics Worth Reading. I love this series, and he writes beautifully about it. Go read! Tags: [...]

  5. Are you a big Clamp fan? I’m just wondering because you didn’t mention what to me is a rather large facet of the manga. Recasting other Clamp characters to appear in each world is both fun and confusing for me. Fun because I love seeing them in new roles, confusing because I keep trying to slot them into their original character(istics).

    Good review, though. I have 19 and 20 sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, and now I’m tempted to wait until volume 21 is out. :)

  6. Been watching and enjoying the anime series through Netflix (in theory, the final volume comes out today!). My wife has picked up the first three volumes of the manga and devoured them, and definitely plans to pick up more. I haven’t made the time to read them yet, but they’re on my list.

  7. Ed Sizemore

    Cathy, I’m not a fan of CLAMP yet, but I’m becoming one. I’ve enjoyed all the series I’ve read by them so far (Xxxholic, Tsubasa, Chobits, Wish, & Cardcaptor Sakura). Since the review was running long, I decided to focus more on elements that would appeal to readers new to both CLAMP and this series.

    I did like how they had their old characters make cameos. What’s most impressive about this element of the story is that it isn’t necessary to know CLAMP’s other works to understand Tsubasa. If you’re a CLAMP you get the bonus of seeing an old familiar face in a new role. It’s a gimmick that pleases the old fans, but doesn’t create a barrier preventing new readers from enjoying Tsubasa. Marvel and DC could learn a lesson from CLAMP on this.

    You have more will power than I do. Once I got to around book 15, I couldn’r reach for the next book fast enough.

    Kelson, I haven’t seen any of the anime yet. It looks greats and it’s on my Netflix que. I’ll be interested to see how closely it follows the book and how they end each season, given the series hasn’t ended yet.

  8. From what I hear, the anime stays fairly close for the first season and maybe half of the second, then goes off in a different enough direction that CLAMP basically pulled the plug on the adaptation after the end of season two.

    Of course, since I haven’t read any of the original yet, I can’t really vouch for that.

  9. Okay, back to at least start the TRC geekiness. Am running on Advil, so my observations may still be lame. :)

    I am so right there with your comments on Mokona. Interestingly, Mokona in TRC actually made me like Mokona in xxxHolic even more. The white Mokona is much more openly affectionate and demonstrative than the black one, but I felt like I gained insight on each of them from the other, and even if the two series crossed over only by having both Mokonas, I’d be grateful I’d read both, just for that extra glimpse.

    That said, my favorite character in TRC is Fai. I love that character *so* much. He’s got that particular kind of complexity that really draws me in. I like imperfect people better than perfectly virtuous ones, and I also like natural caretakers–both of these are Fai. I’ve learned to love Kurogane almost as much over time, and I couldn’t do without either one, but Fai is the heart of the story for me. I’m not saying he *is* the heart of the story (I think that’s probably Sakura)–just that he is for me. :) He is, in fact, the only TRC character I’ve ever given icon treatment. :D (Though I did once iconize the other Mokona. Hee.

    Random note: CLAMP’s use of alcohol both in TRC and xxxHolic really is surprisingly charming, isn’t it? I don’t usually enjoy characters when they are drunk, but they really use it well.

    I’m sure I have more to say. Hopefully this is a useful start!

  10. Ed Sizemore

    Melinda,

    I was initally drawn to Fai too. He’s the life of the party. When he and Sakura get drunk it’s so cute and charming it’s almost sacchrine. But in the last three volumes my affections have gone from admiration and infatuation to concern and sympathy. I care deeply for him and want everything to turn ok in the end.

    Kurogane didn’t do much for me at the beginning. But in the last three volumes I’ve come to really respect him. He has this quiet depth of emotional commitment that astounds and impresses me tremendously.

    It’s amazing to see how the group changed in the last few volumes. The group and the manga were much more light hearted when Fai was the de facto leader. Kurogane makes the group and manga more sober and profound. His leadership brings in connectedness between the characters at the deepest levels.

    That’s what makes this such a great manga, it touches on all these aspects of human existence.

    The amount of alcohol that Modoki and Yuko can consume is truly astounding. I’ve always loved Modoki and man can he knock ‘em back.

  11. This might sound odd, but I actually liked Fai even more once I knew of the pain in his past. It made me want to protect him, and feel frustrated that as an observer only I could not. I get very caught up in fiction and pulled into those worlds, and sometimes it’s frustrating that I can’t affect them… like I’m standing by and watching someone else’s nightmare, helpless to aid them.

    I am certain that Fai’s affection for Kurogane helped me along in learning to like him. And yes, I feel the same way about his depth of commitment. It may be that he cares for the others more than anyone.

  12. hey, i am new to this series so i was wondering how many volumes in it. i read cardcaptor sakura, loved it, and decided to try this one.
    also, who would be your fave character an your fave volume???
    ps, is fai and kurogane a “thing” or something????

  13. just if you were wondering, i heard the fai/kurogane thing from a friend, and i just wanted to make sure!!!

    hope you reply,

  14. Ed Sizemore

    animefan94, I beleive the expression you’re looking for is, “Are Fai and Kurogane an item?” No, they are not. But I bet you can find a lot of yaoi doujinshi with them as a couple.

    I’ll say Mokona is my favorite, but in reality I’m equally fond of all the characters. I like all the books the same, I couldn’t pick one volume over another.

    The series is currently still on going. Volume 25 came out in Japan at the end of 2008 and I suspect that volume 26 is due out soon.

    Cardcaptor Sakura was a great series too. I hope your enjoying Tsubasa as much. Thanks for the comments.

  15. that’s good that fai and kurogane are not “an item”, cause because i like all the characters equally, but i don’t like the kurogane/fai thing, so you just gave me some real good news, thanks! XD

    i was wondering, what is yaoi doujinshi???

    thanks again for the reply,
    animefan

  16. Ed Sizemore

    animefan94, wikipedia can better explain that than I. So I’ll advise you to see their entry on yaoi.

  17. Hey! i really enjoyed your review. i am a big fan of tsubasa and will read your other reviews on books that i like.

  18. [...] Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles [...]

  19. [...] don’t read Tsubasa, one of CLAMP’s current continuing series, but a flip through this lovely magazine-sized art [...]

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