Reviewby Nick Creamer, Feb 6th 2016
Having nearly arrived at the capital, Tota can see his destination just across the water… but before he takes to the sky, he's going to have to impress the ranks of UQ Holder, his master Yukihime's gang of immortals. And of course, to even get into UQ Holder, Tota and Kuromaru will have to pass a test even immortals might quake at - ridding the capital's sewers of all manner of immortal-hungry monsters, from seal-beasts that'll painfully digest you for thirty years to sea serpents that'll poop you out in a conservative three. Even if he doesn't want to be a warrior, Tota's going to have to learn a few combat basics if he wants to live to see the sky again.
In many ways, UQ Holder feels like the series Ken Akamatsu has been wanting to write for most of his career. His first major hit, Love Hina, started off as a traditional harem series, with serial failure Keitaro Urashima finding himself the manager of a lady's dorm and comedy predictably ensuing. But by the end of that series, Keitaro was pulling stunts like rescuing his girlfriend from a fleet of zeppelins in a mystical foreign kingdom, and generally indulging in the kinds of ambitious adventures more typical of inventive shounen action than slapstick romcom. Akamatsu's next work continued this trend; though Negima! started off as its own kind of comedy-heavy harem, it quickly pivoted into globetrotting shounen storytelling. With a boy genius wizard as its protagonist and a diverse class of talented girls making up his adventuring crew, Negima! was able to pull off some of the most satisfying, ambitious arcs I've seen in any shounen series.
In contrast, UQ Holder makes no pretense of being a harem comedy - having apparently proven his shounen mettle to his editors by now, this story is an action-adventure from the start, complete with classic upbeat, thick-skulled protagonist Tota Konoe and his more cool-headed companion Kuromaru. Given he no longer has to pretend he still wants to write harems, you'd think that this would be the moment when Ken Akamatsu really cracks his knuckles and digs into an ambitious story with no compromises, something to match the unexpected heights of his previous works.
Unfortunately, UQ Holder is not there yet. Its first volume was largely just classic shounen setup, and this one more or less follows suit - Tota is introduced to UQ Holder and then assigned a series of tasks, with each one resulting in him learning a new fighting trick from a new teacher. The narrative certainly moves between beats at a solid pace; Akamatsu is solid in storytelling fundamentals, and though this volume doesn't really build any anticipation for some future reward, it is able to provide fine cliffhangers and consistent hooks all throughout. But there's just not yet a spark here differentiating the series from any other action-adventure plot.
Part of the problem comes down to the manga's cast. In contrast to the pitiable Keitaro and clever, non-traditional Negi, Tota is just a pretty boring lead. His goal so far is simply to get to the top of a tower, because he wants to - there's not really any human motivation for the audience to cling to. And coupled with that, he's not only an immortal, he's also just really good at everything. Tota has yet to truly struggle or define himself as a protagonist in any way, and the supporting cast aren't able to carry the series for him. Kuromaru's main defining feature is his gender ambiguity, and their new companion Karin's personality is mostly just “doesn't like Tota.” This cast could certainly develop into characters worth caring about, but given the fairly mundane nature of the story so far, they're not able to shoulder the investment weight.
Part of the issue also comes down to Ken Akamatsu's art. Akamatsu's style is undoubtedly polished - his characters look very consistent, and his heavy use of CG backgrounds can result in some impressive visual backdrops. But the downside of that polish is that it often lacks personality, meaning that some of the backgrounds that are intended to be impressive really just come off as, well, CG effects. And aside from the big CG setpieces, many of the pages here just lack backgrounds altogether, leaving the almost too-uniform character art to do the work. Akamatsu's art is parsable but rarely beautiful, and his command of fight choreography is based more around accurately capturing physical motions than crafting panel layouts that might lead to a sense of impact or awe. It's the kind of art that a stereotypical art teacher character would tsk at and say “yes, this is all formally correct, but where are you in this.”
So far, UQ Holder feels like a practiced professional phoning in a genre effort. Given this is the first time Akamatsu's gotten to handle a shounen from page one, I'd expect his soul to be burning in this one; but it's actually the least passionate of his works that I've read. I'll keep reading, because I know he's a talented storyteller who can do better than this, but it's unfortunately not yet a series that I could really recommend.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B
+ Polished art demonstrates Akamatsu's usual consistency, and the storytelling demonstrates reasonable genre fundamentals.
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