by CLAMP; adapted by William Flanagan (Books 1 and 2 by Anthony Gerard)
published by Del Rey Manga; $10.95 US
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.
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.
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
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.
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?