xxxHOLIC Rei, Vol. 1

By CLAMP. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Young Magazine. Released in North America by Kodansha Comics.

(This review is based on an advance copy provided by the publisher.)

There is a genre of fanfiction that is quite popular these days called ‘fix fic”. This is when you have a beloved series that then does something horrid to your favorite character or pairing, and moves in a direction you hate. You then write something to resolve this dilemma, either bringing the character back, breaking up the hated pairing, etc. You could also try simply ignoring that anything happened after a certain point. Tara fans who watched Buffy like doing this, saying their fanfic ignored everything from Seeing Red onwards. And now we have CLAMP, returning to their own work only a couple of years after wrapping it up with a contested ending. And we have what seems at first to be a bizarre case of the creators writing their own fix fic.

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If you enjoyed the early volumes of xxxHOLIC, boy, is this the volume for you. We see the return of the entire cast. Yuko is getting drunk, harrassing Watanuki, and acting mysterious. Watanuki is angry at absolutely everything, and tends to have supernatural events drawn to him. Doumeki continues to be the stoic not-boyfriend (the BL tease is through the roof here, something noted by Yuko). Himawari is there to, well, bounce plot ideas off of – for some reason Watanuki’s crush on her isn’t focused on quite so much, possibly as CLAMP know their audience. And there are some nice moments of existential horror, such as when we see what’s been following Watanuki around and asking him questions. I also loved the customers of the volume, which continues a theme of xxxHOLIC of supposedly mild, pretty women hiding amazingly petty depths.

And yet anyone who read the original series is left to ask “what the hell is going on here?”. Doumeki still has his egg, so this isn’t a total reboot. And there are little hints that this is not really a reset but something of a continuation after all. Is Watanuki trapped in some sort of fantasy where he goes about the early manga shenanigans? Is this the world we’d be seeing if the dreaded name “Li Syaoran” had never crossed anyone’s lips? I suspect this is the case, even though I don’t want it to be, because I really did not like xxxHOLIC’s ending at all, and would really like to avoid ending up back in that place. And so you’re left with the ambiguity, which of course is what CLAMP revels in with this series.

Nevertheless, even if I worry about the endgame, this is a terrific volume to pick up for those who dropped the series around the 30,000th Tsubasa crossover. The art is terrific, still one of the main selling points (just look at that cover!). There’s some examination of human nature that’s cringeworthy – in a good way. And there is Watanuki, still the best creation CLAMP has come up with in the past ten years, back to trying to come to terms with his life and not simply accepting that he has to live in Yuko’s shop for the next 100 years. That alone is worth the price of the book. Let’s see how long it keeps up before the illusion is ripped away.

Say “I Love You”, Vol. 1

By Kanae Hazuki. Released in Japan as “Sukitte Ii Na Yo” by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Dessert. Released in North America by Kodansha Comics.

(This review is based on an advance copy provided by the publisher.)

For every manga series out there that the reader immediately falls in love with the moment they read the first chapter, there are four others that take a while to get cooking. This can be dangerous, as readers are very casual these days and can drop a work fast if it doesn’t reach out and grab them. But even in works that aren’t lights out, there is a spark of something, be it a background, a secondary character, or what have you, that keeps you wanting to come back in hopes of getting more. That’s where I am with this manga, whose first volume I found flawed yet intriguing at the same time.

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The author, Kanae Hazuki, may be familiar to reader with long memories and a habit of buying everything – her one-shot volume Voices of Love was published by Aurora under the LuvLuv imprint, their unsuccessful attempt to jumpstart a market for romantic and slightly smutty josei manga here in North America. This title is her breakout hit, and runs in Kodansha’s shoujo/josei borderline magazine Dessert, so I suspect it won’t get as explicit as most of her other works, but you never know – the lead male is hinted to be sexually active, something you rarely see in the fluffier shoujo titles.

The premise is ‘popular boy meets bullied girl and finds her interesting’, not exactly the most original one in the book. But Hazuki, in an afterword, notes how she wanted to focus on the bullying aspects, and it’s done quite well – by the end of the volume Mei and Asami may be friends, but the majority of the class is still not above being vicious to her, and Mei is not about to get any help from others – indeed, at one point after getting beaten by a couple of girls in her class, Mei notes to Yamato, “I fell.” This manga appears to have a more serious tone than My Little Monster, the other Dessert title Kodansha recently picked up, and that all starts with Mei. She has low self-esteem and most of her emotions have been repressed for years, so when Yamato shows interest in her she’s even more confused than before.

As for Yamato, his popular guy conceals a dark past, and we see why he would be nice to someone like Mei, who the rest of the school seems to delight in abusing. (Teacher figures are entirely absent from this volume, of course.) In fact, a lot of his behavior in this volume makes more sense in retrospect after the final chapter where he talks about his middle school years, and I honestly spent most of the volume not really liking him much. It didn’t help that his friend Nakanishi is the loud obnoxious type and his own romantic relationship was resolved, in my opinion, far too quickly, possibly so that there can be a couple that each of the leads can go to for advice later on.

There was a lot of awkward here. The characters didn’t reach out and grab me except for Mei, the pacing read like the author intended it to be another one-shot and was startled at having to expand it into multiple volumes, and there are a few consent issues here as well. At the same time I liked the basic themes, I want to see Mei’s character development, and I want to read more about how the cast battles back against the culture of bullying they live in. This volume is a bit half-cooked, but tasty enough that I’ll stick around for more.

What Did You Eat Yesterday?, Vol. 1

By Fumi Yoshinaga. Released in Japan as “Kinou Nani Tabeta?” by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Morning. Released in North America by Vertical.

This series has been demanded by the manga cognoscenti almost since it began serialization, and particularly since Yoshinaga’s other titles made it big over here (well, semi-big – no one’s comparing sales between Antique Bakery and Vampire Knight). The story of a gay couple and their everyday lives and eating habits, it’s an intriguing title if only as, unlike other BL titles released over here, it’s very much slice of life rather than oriented towards BL fans like many other series with gay men released in North America. In a couple of ways it reminded me of the Odd Couple, if you replaced Oscar with another, slightly different Felix and made them both gay.

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Our three lead characters are Shiro, a dapper lawyer who looks younger than his age and loves bargains; Kenji, a hairstylist who seems to live around the emotional extremes; and the food that they eat each chapter. Yes, trust me, the food is a main character, as loving attention is devoted to purchasing, cooking and eating it. Indeed, at times it seems the only thing keeping the characters sane and happy is delicious meals, as they (as well as the minor side characters) have a bunch of personal problems and neuroses that are equally on display here.

I must admit, while I found Shiro to be endearingly dorky at times, particularly when he’s fretting about bargains, I’m not sure I’ve really warmed to him, as he’s rather hard to like. He’s still in the closet at work, and takes pains to remain so. He and Kenji fight a couple of times here, but nothing is particularly resolved, it more or less just goes ignored or gets papered over with delicious meals. Which I admit is very true to life and absolutely what some couples are like, but it doesn’t make for entertaining reading. Shiro works a little better when he’s dealing with others, such as the housewife he befriends who shares his love of food bargains.

As for Kenji, he seems nice enough, but there are undercurrents there as well. He’s far too passive and accepting in his relationship, though he does show signs of jealousy when he sees Shiro shopping at a bakery owned by his ex-girlfriend from college (an attempt to ‘play straight’ that didn’t last long). On the whole, though, he seems to be a bit more at peace with his life than Shiro is, though I’m sure he’d appreciate being more open about their relationship.

And the food? It looks delicious. Some chapters get recipes after them, but not all – Shiro thinks aloud as he cooks, letting us know the details of exactly what he’s doing. Cooking and eating seem to be the one thing that relieves him of his daily stress. I wouldn’t call this a ‘foodie manga’, though – the food is a spice, giving you another reason to read the story about two men and their everyday lives together. It’s definitely a title worth checking out, and features a lot of what people love about Yoshinaga. Just be aware that sometimes you’re going to want to shake the protagonists and say “What are you acting this way? Stop it!”