Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Things are going from bad to worse in Academy City. Santa's desire for revenge against those who hurt him in life seems to have sparked a primal rage in Sayoko, and now all the world might feel the wrath of her necromantic power. As the members of UQ Holder struggle to fight back against a foe bearing nearly a century's worth of hateful grudges, Santa will have to come to terms with his own past, and give up on his desire for revenge if he wants to save his new friends. It's five immortals against a savage, world-spanning zombie horde in the latest volume of UQ Holder.
The Academy City arc comes to an end in this volume, as Santa squares off against his long-time friend Sayoko in a battle with the fate of the world at stake. UQ Holder certainly doesn't hold back in illustrating the desperate terms of this battle; with Kirie's power to rewind truly unacceptable carnage on the table, Akamatsu is free to let the world collapse into a full-on zombie apocalypse, complete with graphic maulings and millions of casualties. And yet, in spite of its bombastic stakes, this is simultaneously UQ Holder's most intimate and character-focused conflict yet. This is Santa's story, and the manga works hard to do his feelings justice.
Things fall apart quickly in the early chapters, as the Holders struggle to rescue survivors in the wake of a classic zombie outbreak. Throats are ripped and friends turn on friends as Tota's group ferry a few living students up to the rooftop, where their team confronts the vengeful spirit Sayoko for the first time. The illustrations of Sayoko's powers are one of UQ Holder's most compelling visual feats so far; her weapons are a combination of ghoulish spirits, black miasma, and bizarre organic overflow, making her come off as just as dangerous and unhinged of a villain as she's supposed to be. And the ostensible immortality of UQ Holder's heroes actually make this first battle even more brutal than it could otherwise be - when immortals fail, they fail hard, with Tota being torn in half, Ikku shredded, and the others actually corrupted to Sayoko's cause.
That leaves Santa to go it alone against Sayoko for the majority of this volume, an unusual choice that definitely pays off. In contrast to Tota's confidence or Kirie's snark, Santa feels far closer to a traditional Akamatsu protagonist - bitter and insecure, he's a hero defined not by heroic desires, but by awful circumstance. His unhappy backstory trickles down throughout this volume, with his present-day hesitance to save people being directly contrasted against the ways his trust and optimism were formerly abused. Santa coming to terms with his current responsibilities aren't the result of one easy shift, but come gradually and naturally across the course of his efforts to save Academy City.
“I don't think you're worth protecting, but I'm going to stop Sayoko” he initially says to one of the academy's bullies, thinking more of his debt to Tota than any higher morality. And that bully isn't truly redeemed in such a way that it opens Santa's eyes to the inherent goodness of people. Instead, as he admits to Santa, he knows he's a jerk - but “it's not like we're gonna be trash all day every day for the rest of our lives.” UQ Holder doesn't cheapen its first legitimate character arc with platitudes about the goodness of everyone - Sayoko was both Santa's friend and a dangerous monster, Santa's tormentors were both hateful bullies and people who have the right to become better, and Santa himself isn't guaranteed anything more than the friendship of a few good people. Even at the end of his journey, Santa still begs Sayoko to take him away from this world; but by abandoning his desire for revenge, he's able to look forward when Tota offers his hand.
While this volume's story is thoughtful and intimate, its art presents these conflicts in the grandest possible terms, as Tota faces off against zombies and flesh-blobs and black-winged angels in his quest to bring Sayoko down. The reliance on CG for effects like Sayoko's traditional magic attacks still feels a little out of place, but there are still some breathtaking setpieces among these chapters.
The volume unfortunately takes a misguided harem turn in its last couple chapters, as the thoughtful drama of the earlier material is counterbalanced by “wacky bath shenanigans” at Kuromaru's expense. Fetishizing and making a joke of Kuromaru's insecurities about his gender identity is about the least appealing thing this manga could possibly do, but this material fortunately only lasts for one full chapter, and at least resolves with Kuromaru reaffirming his friendship with Tota on his own terms. But aside from that misstep, this is another strong volume of UQ Holder, one that finally gives its bombastic action setpieces some real emotional power. UQ Holder is finally becoming a steady ride.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : A-
+ Santa's thoughtfully portrayed personal arc make this the most emotionally effective volume yet.
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