Reviewby Lissa Pattillo, May 31st 2010
Kobato. GN 1-2
Partnered with a temperamental stuffed toy, Kobato is a worldly inexperienced young girl who traverses Tokyo doing good deeds and proving her (lacking) knowledge of the surroundings, all in the hopes of earning a magical jar she needs to get one step closer to her goal of having a wish granted. Where the wish will lead her may remain a mystery, but her determination to reach it is not and when she finally makes the grade, her true job of curing the ailing hearts of those she encounters begins. Having people open up to you in this modern world definitely isn't as easy as she had hoped however, but when a kindergarten in threat of closure tugs at her heart strings, she befriends a group of people in need of more help than even her good intentions can likely provide.
The first volume of Kobato heavily betrays a serialized existence, and one not entirely aware of what direction it was intended to go. While the initial chapter is a standard introduction to the lead duo, each subsequent chapter could've easily stood alone as a self-contained story starring the two. The situations vary across different cultural and seasonal events, from Valentine's Day and Christmas to Cherry Blossom viewings and the more daily mundane garbage disposal. In each event, Kobato is charged with a simple task and through them tries her best to display an understanding of the human world and best adapt to each new experience. Her success rate tends to ere on the side of failure but her intentions are good and there always manages to be a chuckle worth having during her trials and the general warm fuzzies garnered from their resolution. Her goal to earn the magical jar that she will need to fill with the injured hearts of those she's healed is a plot device not implemented until the second book.
This first installment reads like a pieced together prequel to the series' more than a solid opening, like a testing ground for CLAMP on where they actually want to go with it before committing. Continuing on with their own trend, CLAMP has littered the first volume with character cameos from their previous series. The sheer amount of them may seem a little overdone when read in one sitting but it can definitely be seen how more effective the charm would've been when released in smaller installments. For the most part these returning faces are short, one-time appearances but each one remains a fun addition to the story that CLAMP fans will undoubtedly appreciate. Can you spot them all? The series included range from the older Magic Knight Rayearth to the most recent, XXXholic, and several others in between.
At the length of a single collected volume, Kobato's first volume maintains an infectiously sweet charm up to the final pages, but can CLAMP maintain the same allure in subsequent releases without things falling victim to dull repetition? Readers thankfully don't have long to wait with the second volume being released simultaneously along with the first. Taking off where the first volume ended, Kobato now has a place to call home and even a job (of sorts). Now a helper at a local daycare, Kobato quickly learns that healing people's hearts is a more complicated matter than simply solving their short term issues. The events of the second volume are more linear and continuous than the first. They're also darker, tackling some subject matter that's a bit heavier than the trying-is-cute mentality of volume one. Sakaya's daycare is facing financial problems and closure is eminent. More pressing than this however is the loan shark looming over them and his overzealous lackies who appear to harass the kids (for shame!). Even the humour is a little more on the risqué side as Kobato's attempts at finding people to help has her accidentally labeled as something far less innocent.
As far as characters go Kobato herself is cute as a button – sweet, pretty and about as fluffy in the head as she is in her intent. Alright, maybe that's a bit far but she is one of the flakier characters CLAMP has added to their repertoire in recent years. That isn't to say it's a bad thing though – her innocence and kind-hearted nature makes her a really earnest and likeable individual. Sure she has her faults – clumsy, naïve, a little slow on the uptake (you know the type), but it's all so endearing that most readers will be perfectly content to watch her every mistake, wipe-out and misunderstanding. There still remains some things to be learned about her too, such as where she's from, where she wants to go and why she always wears a hat (apparently it's more relevant than we may think or care).
On the flipside, you have her cute, cuddly animal companion – the foul-mouthed, fire-breathing, no patience to speak of Ioryogi-san. Why he's a small blue dog toy isn't yet known but thanks to a scarred ferret with a bone to pick we learn that Ioryogi does have another form, one that we'll presumably see someday. Ioryogi-san acts as Kobato's guide and grader. He chastises her when she does bad and reminds the girl what she's supposed to be doing. In the first volume he puts her through several ‘common-sense’ tests to determine her ability to live in the human world, marking her passing or failing grades on her cheeks with a calligraphy pen. By volume two however his page-time has already begun to falter notable as the story's focus shifts more long-term. He remains present but even Ioryogi is becoming frustrated by how easily Kobato seems to forget about him when other events arise. Still, for his somewhat inconsistent appearances between these first two volumes, he's a hilarious character. His frank attitude and no-holds-barred approach to dealing with Kobato's air-headed-ness is a contrast that's not only entertaining but also believably effective in curbing her slow learning curve, plus feels more different than CLAMP's occasionally stock-like collection of characters.
While Kobato takes everything Ioryogi-san says to heart, she doesn't take it personally – which is good for the sake of readers not being stuck following a character with serious self-esteem issues. Not helping that particular case any though is Fujimoto – a stern-eyed young man who appears to take issue with almost everything Kobato does. He seems like a nice enough guy but the repeated need to enlighten Kobato about the harshness of reality makes him a bit of a bully. Still, we don't know everything about him yet, only that he balances several part time jobs to help fund the daycare and is an orphan taken in by Sakaya. He also seems to know plenty more about the loan shark situation as well and it oozes being personal.
The art style of Kobato feels refreshing after CLAMP's more recent fare. Though Reservoir Chroncile Tsubasa and XXXHolic were both great works of visual art, they came as a fairly stark change from what many CLAMP readers were used to after their initial booming popularity in North America with series such as Cardcaptor Sakura and Chobits. Kobato is a return to their look of yester-year, the line work light and sketchy in appearance and the wispy hair, telltale bright-smiles and light blushes amidst delicate details will all ring reminiscently familiar. Though not quite as polished looking perhaps as the solid ink work of their other recent series, the artwork of Kobato is beautiful and a large part of what makes the heart and humour of the series work so well. There's a lot of reliance on the chibis for comedy, Kobato's in particular, but their scattered use achieves being as funny and occasionally unexpected as one would hope.
These two first volumes of Kobato read in markedly different ways – the first a collection of shorts while the second is the plot's real start with some more sinister connotations – sinister by CLAMP's mid-career standards anyway. The two volumes combined make for a strong introduction to the series and compliment each other immensely in setting a foundation for the story that feels more complete than reading simply the first alone. Not only does Yen Press's decision to release both help them catch up closer to the Japanese release, it also does the story a great service by showcasing its potential longevity. In regards to the company's treatment of the series on a physical level, the books are as adorable as their contents, adorned in an outer pink trim with a full colour insert in each. The art inside is printed crisp and clear and the lettering has obvious care taken to shape, style and placement allowing for a clean and unobtrusive reading experience that flows without any outstanding issues.
It's fair to say Kobato isn't going to appeal to everyone – chock full of sugary sweetness, it isn't where you'd direct a reader for big action sequences and intellectual puzzles. But if fluff and fun is your genre of choice or dabble, Kobato is a delightfully charismatic read that's full of magic and mirth. It evokes the charm of CLAMP's shoujo series skill and has only just begun unraveling the mysteries of this likeable cast of characters.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A
+ Attractive artwork and an airy but amiable lead character makes for a entertaining read and feel-good humour; animal mascot offers fun contrast to the usual classic magical-girl-story role
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