Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle

December 1, 2010 dreamkaleidoscope
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TITLE: Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: CLAMP
PUBLISHER: Del Rey
RATING: Teen (13+)
CATEGORY: Shonen
NUMBER OF VOLUMES: 28
SCORE: 6 (Fine)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: CLAMP (mangaka of xxxHolic, Card Captor Sakura, RG Veda, Magic Knight Rayearth, etc.), Tsubasa Chronicle anime, xxxHolic anime, Card Captor Sakura anime, action, adventure, supernatural, romance, comedy, drama

I remember when I first heard about Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, right around the time CLAMP first started working on it. I thought it sounded like some kind of terrible alternate universe Card Captor Sakura fanfiction and dismissed it as something I would never want to read, despite being a CLAMP fan. After all, if I wanted to read about Sakura becoming a princess, all I had to do was check out the CCS section at Fanfiction.net, where practically every second story featured a “Princess Sakura” — an exaggeration, of course, but not by much.

Fast-forward a few years, when I spotted an omnibus edition of the first three volumes at Barnes & Noble. (I believe the omnibus was a B&N exclusive; I never saw it anywhere else.) As I have admitted several times on this blog, I’m an absolute sucker for omnibus editions, so despite my previous reservations, I decided to give Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle a chance.

The main characters of Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle are slightly older versions of Sakura and Syaoran, the leads from CLAMP’s popular series, Card Captor Sakura. Here, Sakura is the beloved princess of a desert kingdom called Clow ruled by her older brother King Toya, while Syaoran is the adopted son of Fujitaka (incidently, Sakura’s father in CCS), an archeologist who is studying one of Clow’s ancient ruins. One day, Sakura ends up activating the ruins, causing an army of unknown enemies to storm the country and a pair of wings to sprout from Sakura’s back. The wings soon break apart, however, scattering into countless feathers that fly away. Sakura falls unconscious, and the high priest Yukito — another CCS character — sends her and Syaoran to see the Time-Space Witch named Yuuko in order to save Sakura’s life.

At Yuuko’s shop, Syaoran is introduced to two other people who arrive at roughly the same time he does from other worlds. Kurogane is a battle-loving ninja from Japan — though not our Japan — who was sent against his will by Princess Tomoyo (yet another CCS character) to see the Time-Space Witch, and Fai is a magician from the country of Celes, on the run from Ashura (a character from another CLAMP work called RG Veda) for reasons unexplained. They all have different, but similar, wishes. For Syaoran, he needs to travel to many different worlds in order to collect Sakura’s feathers, which also contain all her memories, in order to save her life. Fai doesn’t care where he goes, as long as it’s far away from Ashura, and Kurogane just wants to return back home to his Japan and Princess Tomoyo.

They all need a way to travel to different worlds, but according to Yuuko, the price is too high for only one person to pay. The three decide to pay the price together, each giving up the thing that matters to them most, and in exchange, Yuuko gives them a strange, pork-bun shaped creature called Mokona Madoki, familiar to those who have read Magic Knight Rayearth, who has the ability to teleport them to other worlds. Together, the group start on a journey to find Sakura’s lost memory feathers, but sadly, the one memory she will never recover is that of Syaoran as part of Syaoran’s payment to Yuuko.

The first half of Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle is a fun action/adventure story, as the group travels to different worlds (where they often meet alternate versions of other CLAMP characters) and gets to know each other better. Syaoran and Sakura, being expys from CCS, have much the same personalities as the originals, but Kurogane and Fai are new characters, unique to TRC. My personal favorite is the “daddy” of the group, Kurogane, whose gruff and hot-tempered exterior hides the fact that he actually comes to care quite a lot about the people he is traveling with. In contrast, light-hearted “mommy” Fai is seldom seen without a smile on his face, and he loves annoying Kurogane by giving him silly, cutesy nicknames. (He’s the one who starts the “daddy” joke.) The image is just a facade, though, as Fai has gone through more than his fair share of sadness and pain, as the reader learns later in the series. (Fai is the woobiest woobie to have ever woobied. Seriously.) There’s also the white Mokona (a black Mokona is briefly shown who plays a bigger role in xxxHolic), who, unlike its counterpart in MKR, can talk and say more than “Puu!” all the time. Mokona is adorable in TRC and is just as vibrant and developed a character as the other four members on the journey. Rounding out the group of main protagonists is the sexy and fashionable Time-Space Witch Yuuko, who occasionally helps out the travelers on their journey — provided the price is right, of course.

However, at around the halfway point of the story, when the group lands in a world commonly referred to as Acid Tokyo by fans, the series takes a sharp turn into Mind Screw territory that lasts until the final volume. (The ending of the anime classic Evangelion is mere child’s play compared to the second half of TRC. Trust me.) Many fans mark the Acid Tokyo arc as the point when the story really gets going, and it’s true that Acid Tokyo signifies the beginning of the main meat of the plot, so to speak, but for me, I much prefer the first half of the series. The second half turns what until then was a fairly simple plot into something that, quite frankly, doesn’t make much sense. (In fact, the goal of Fei-Wang Reed, the antagonist, is the breakdown of reason, because his ultimate wish can’t come true in a universe of reason.) You will get a headache trying to understand all the various twists and turns the story throws at you, and even then, you probably still won’t be able to comprehend it, especially if you’re not following the companion series xxxHolic as well. (Though Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle and xxxHolic are (theoretically) supposed to be able to stand on their own as separate series, you really do need to be familiar with both canons in order to get the full story starting around this arc.) I figure that after about my fifth reread of the entire series (as well as xxxHolic), I might be able to understand about half of what is going on. … That’s a big “maybe”.

The storytelling at that point also becomes more than a bit sloppy, with a strong reliance on deus ex machina to make the plot — whatever that plot might be — work. (Actually, instead of being called the Time-Space Witch, Deus Ex Machina really seems a more fitting title for Yuuko.) While the travellers did, on occasion, ask Yuuko to help them out in the first half of the series, it becomes pratically an everyday occurence in the second half. Something impossible or shocking will happen, then a couple of chapters later, it’ll be revealed that a character/group of characters had actually made a deal with Yuuko beforehand to make that certain thing happen (since quite a few characters have the ability to see the future). Once or twice might have been fine, but when it happens at least once or twice a volume, it starts getting ridiculous. (Again, that’s an exaggeration…but not by much.) It seems almost like the characters can’t make a move without Yuuko’s assistance, weakening the story in my eyes. All the flashbacks also make it really difficult to figure out the chronology of the story — already an almost impossible task when time travel (and certain other spoiler-y plot points) is involved.         

Putting aside the plot, being CLAMP, of course the artwork is fantastic, but some may be intitially put off by the long and lanky look of the characters’ limbs. It took me a while to get used to the style myself, but now I rather like it. Of special note in my opinion are the various clothes the characters wear. Yuuko’s gorgeous wardrobe is far more extensive in xxxHolic, where she is seen more often, but the outfits we see her wearing in TRC are just stunning, cementing her spot as the most fashion-forward character in the CLAMP universe ever (which is saying something when she’s competing against the CCS Sakura’s multiple battle costumes, Clover Ora’s beautiful gothic-inspired dresses, and CLAMP’s ultimate dress-up models from Chobits, Chii and her identical “sister”.) The other characters get in the fun as well, often adopting fabulous new clothes when arriving in a new world. (And I’m not even touching on the amazing outfits the characters wear on the “just for fun” title pages.) Seriously, TRC almost works as well as fashion magazine as it does an adventure story, giving a bit of shoujo flavor in a largely very shounen-type story.

This is rather a hard title to recommend. The first half is great and a lot of fun to read. I would probably give it at least a score of seven, maybe even eight, if I were reviewing it separately. But how much you enjoy the second half will depend on how much you enjoy (or can tolerate) crack-filled stories. Some fans think the series gets better starting with the Acid Tokyo arc; others, like me, feel like CLAMP begins losing their way at that point and miss the humor and heart present in the first half. Add that to the fact that the series is really long — at present, TRC is the longest manga series I own, and I probably wouldn’t have started reading it had I known it was going to be nearly thirty volumes long — and that reading xxxHolic — another relatively long, still on-going series — is almost required to understand the plot, it’s a tough sell. (It also doesn’t hurt to be familiar with the rest of CLAMP’s body of work, Card Captor Sakura in particular, although the translation notes provided in each volume do a good job of pointing out most of the cameos.)

Still, I did enjoy the series overall and think that most CLAMP fans will, too. It’s the ultimate crossover, featuring many of CLAMP’s most beloved characters in a variety of interesting worlds, and Kurogane, Fai, and Yuuko are welcome additions to the CLAMP family. If you don’t mind giving your brain a mental work-out, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle might just be the series for you.

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