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There and back again: from Tsubasa to XXXholic June 10, 2012

Posted by ayasawada in Manga, Personal.
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XXXholicA couple of months ago, the last volume of CLAMP‘s long-running  XXXholic was finally published in English. It brought to an end (of sorts) Watanuki’s journey from boy to man, from student to shopkeeper, and given that the series also happens to have perfectly spanned my working life to date, I can’t help but feel a bit of empathy.

I started following XXXholic and its sister series Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle back in the Spring of 2004. I happened to get my first proper job at a place round the corner from one of my favourite comic book stores (the brilliant Gosh! comics, then in Bloomsbury, now moved to bigger premises).  Every lunchtime was spent spending my paycheck on numerous series, and having recently got into CLAMP’s works (like many, largely through a love of Cardcaptor Sakura and Chobits) I was excited to see these two crossover series, the debut titles from new publisher Del Rey, and so soon (relatively) after their debuts in Japan.

Eight years later, much has changed. Del Rey has now closed, my career has had its ups and downs, and so have these two manga. 

I have to be honest, when I finished the final Tsubasa volume last year, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. It promised to be an epic journey, and in some ways it was. I certainly enjoyed the development of the four protagonists and their backstory. But the series never quite balanced the ‘world of the week’ shonen aspect with the novelty CLAMPverse cameos and need for a strong plot spine running through it (this was a weakness that came out early on in the anime adaptation, which somehow felt pretty pedestrian).

About halfway through the series the Tsubasa universe seemed suddenly a lot smaller than it first promised and when we the main story finally started kicking in it was often pretty confusing (even after re-reading!). I’ve also heard it said that CLAMPs beautiful art sometimes doesn’t do themselves any favours either – swirling action set pieces look stunning, but does make it difficult to ascertain what’s happening!

Though my reading of Tsubasa slowly became more out of habit than interest, the opposite could be said of XXXholic. The Tsubasa crossover bits aside, it seemed a slight, sort-of slice-of-life tale with a supernatural twist. This I (wrongly) perceived as the lesser of the two manga (even though XXXholic started first). It was the one I didn’t know how to pronounce properly (it’s ‘holic’ btw), a seinen manga to Tsubasa’s shonen, lacking the familiar characters and epic storyline of its sister.

Yet the fact that it was an original tale, with original characters, certainly freed it from the weight of expectation. I quickly grew to love the characters and the juxtaposition of their goofy everyday antics and their mysterious backstories (not to mention the fact that we know, through the crossover parts, just how powerful the witch Yuko is and that Watanuki is a key part of a bigger, greater picture). But more than that, I loved how CLAMP poured in every morsel of Japanese folklore and culture, whipped up with a dash of the modern. I’ve always been fascinated – but lacked knowledge – of Japan’s idiosyncratic beliefs and customs, but here they were presented in manga form, absorbed through the cipher of a boy and a mysterious shop.

Where Tsubasa was often fast-paced action, XXXholic was slow and considered drama. In its early stages, it was a mix of humour and morals, yet its ‘customer of the week’ never felt as routine as Tsubasa’s ‘world of the week’ episodes. Where Tsubasa grew more into lavish double page panels and busy swooping set pieces, XXXholic often felt still and, I felt, had a pacing that gave the time to appreciate the beauty of CLAMP’s artwork.

XXXholic was published periodically in Japan, a legacy that also meant English-translated volumes came in a trickle compared to Tsubasa’s stream. As my life shifted, I visited the comic stores less (eventually shifting to Amazon) and would often only realise there was a new volume when it stared at me from the shelves on a once-in-a-blue-moon visit. The story matched this, dipping in and out of Watanuki, Domeki, Himawari and Yuko’s lives.

<Spoilers in this bit!>

It was strange watching the characters grow up (while undergoing several life changes myself). It was beautiful watching the warring words of Watanuki and Domeki melt to reveal the respectful friendship we always knew was there. To see how Watanuki gradually calmed (particularly following the revelations and Tsubasa-related events that led to the series evolution into Ro). When Ro did take place, it might have seemed sudden – particularly once you realised we’d skipped ahead a few years.  Yet it instead felt perfectly natural that Himawari got married (and to neither of our male leads), Kohane grew up to be a beautiful young woman, Domeki studied folklore at college and Watanuki matured into calm wisdom.

The final story of the final volume still has my heart lurching a bit. It came as a great shock (albeit again also feeling kind of natural) to realize that decades had passed and it’s now not Domeki, but Domeki’s great grandson that’s assisting Watanuki (and that all of our favourite mortal characters – Kohane, Himawari, Domeki – are now dead). And after 19 volumes of XXXholic, Watanuki finally achieves some peace – although realizing, like the reader, that that peace had probably been reached when Yuko passed and Ro started.

There are still some unanswered questions – primarily what exactly Domeki’s egg is for (maybe I missed something?). And of course, we’d love to hear what really happened to each character. But here’s where CLAMP choose right – it’s better to leave such things unsaid, so they live out in our imaginations, in our dreams.

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Comments»

1. Ewan - October 7, 2013

I can’t tell you where I heard it (don’t remember), but I think Domeki’s egg’s purpose was to erase Watanuki’s memories of Yuko when he was ready to let go. I’ll try to research and confirm this, so don’t take my word for it as of right now.

ayasawada - October 7, 2013

Really? That’s very interesting!

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