Reviewby Nick Creamer, Feb 23rd 2016
Tota Konoe's first mission with UQ Holder may have run into a snag or three. Tasked with defending the local slums from predatory land sharks, Tota, Kuromaru, and Karin seem ready for anything - until a group of immortal hunters show up on the scene, ready to take on the young Numbers. Immortality is a pretty neat trick, but there are ways to defeat even those who can't die, and Tota's inexperience may start catching up with him now that he's actually in the field. Can Tota and his friends take on opponents specifically trained to handle their powers, and will there be a city left standing even if they do? It's fists and explosions from start to finish in UQ Holder's bombastic third volume.
UQ Holder is a fundamentally strange shounen manga. Generally, stories about upbeat young boys who dream of taking on the world don't focus on undying vampires with forbidden magic; they start small, giving their protagonists a lot of lead-up time to earn sympathy and gain power and slowly build into the heroes they want to be. Bleach's Ichigo starts as a small-time soul reaper barely strong enough to handle his daily tasks; Naruto's titular character first encounters serious trouble when a mission to defend a bridge ends up running foul of a slightly stronger enemy than expected. Conflicts like that aren't world-quaking, but that's the point - the heroes there aren't heroes yet, they're just kids with big dreams, winning through passion and the careful application of one cool new technique at a time. Climbing power-mountains feels a lot more satisfying when you actually start at the bottom.
UQ Holder does none of that. The base premise of the series is that all of its main characters are immortals; UQ Holder is an organization of immortals, and Tota himself possesses one of the most powerful forms of immortality around. In the second volume, the story attempted to circumvent the inherently boring nature of an immortal protagonist by challenging him with time-based quests. Get out of a sewer in a specific amount of time, and avoid being eaten by a monster, because even immortals don't enjoy getting digested for decades. In this volume, the boredom of immortality is challenged through a new trick - Tota and his allies end up targeted by a group who actually specialize in fighting immortals, and know how to at least put them out of commission.
The battles between Tota, Kuromaru, Karin, and this immortal-hunting regimen fill up the entire third volume, as Tota and his friends struggle separately and together to defend the church and children of the slums. A number of the fights here are legitimately exciting, and the manga weaves exposition into battle in a way that actually makes it a natural and satisfying complement to the fighting. As Karin fights her first opponent, we learn the context of her own creative style of immortality; when she defeats that enemy by unveiling a new power, it feels less like a random, unearned powerup than the expected reveal of something we've been waiting to learn. And the various tricks the immortal-hunters use to fight their prey, from the vampire-sealing techniques employed against Tota to the spacial distortion used to fight Karin, feel like smart, creative applications of the base premise.
That said, if it seems like I'm praising the ingenuity of the bad guys more than the heroes, that's because they honestly come off as much more interesting characters. As one of the new villains (a classic swordsman who uses that always fun “unsheathe to attack every time” style of combat) says to Tota near the end of this volume, “you really should stop acting like a champion of justice. You are not human. You are an immortal monster.” And it's true - in spite of all the villains' clever attempts to defeat him, Tota is just way too strong to be a volume three shounen hero.
When he's taught a new movement technique, he masters it in a single fight and then uses it to defeat the person who taught it to him. When his powers are sealed through an unexpected vampire-sapping attack, he breaks out through sheer willpower. When it seems like he's about to be defeated, he reveals he's the third person in all of history to unlock a certain dark magic, and manages to seal it within a single chapter in order to control it - a feat that the protagonist of Ken Akamatsu's last manga only managed after thirty-some volumes of story and a full volume of power-sealing training. When the last battle comes down to an unexpected arm wrestling tournament, Tota harnesses the power of the earth in order to win.
Tota is way too strong, and it makes these fights a whole lot less satisfying than they should be. Akamatsu's art is solid here - there are a bunch of compelling full-page battle spreads, the effects look dynamic and occasionally even pretty, and punches land with a nice sense of impact. The anatomy is as strong as ever, and though the backgrounds still have a bit too much of that CG sheen, the pages here are so dominated by action choreography that it doesn't matter. The chapters are paced relatively well, and new variables are introduced at a steady clip. There are a lot of formal elements to praise in these chapters - but when Tota can just overwhelm any new challenge posed by a secret immortal-fighting organization on his first mission, it feels like an open question whether we should actually be rooting for this guy. There's little emotional investment, because it feels both like Tota is never likely to lose and also never earning his wins.
Hopefully UQ Holder will find tougher foes for its heroes in the coming chapters. But at the moment, it feels like we're actually following the seemingly unstoppable villains, not the scrappy, endearing heroes. Perhaps that's the point - UQ Holder is a clandestine paramilitary group, and we don't really have a good reason to suspect their motives are totally pure. But at the moment, where I feel like I should be thinking “how will these heroes ever get strong enough to compete in this magical world,” I'm instead thinking “I really hope this world eventually catches up to these hideously overpowered heroes.” Shounen manga aren't so exciting when your hero is the reigning champ.
Overall : B-
Story : C
Art : B+
+ Consistent fights against unique enemies keep energy high throughout the volume; the art is polished and impactful.
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