Reviewby Carlo Santos, Sep 26th 2008
For as long as he can remember, Kimihiro Watanuki has been able to see spirits—but at least he was awake for that most of that. Lately, however, Watanuki keeps slipping off into dreamland ... at first it was just talking to the deceased grandfather of his comrade Dômeki, but now he's being visited by dimension-hopping Princess Sakura, discussing serious matters with her, and even having surreal experiences of hanging out with his schoolmates. With the dream world and the real world blurring together, how can Watanuki make any sense of it? Sorceress and shopkeeper Yûko probably has an explanation ... but how much does Watanuki want to hear the answers?
After the stunning conclusion to the Himawari arc in xxxHOLiC Vol. 10—and on a similar note, the Truth About Syaoran in Tsubasa Vol. 16—one would think that CLAMP couldn't possibly surprise readers any more than they already have. Yet they manage to pull it off yet again in Vol. 12 of this series, this time with a trick of a more subtle nature. This is not one of those explosive revelations like the ones mentioned above, but one that creeps up on you from behind, building up bit by bit until that one crucial piece clicks and then everything makes sense. It's a storytelling approach that takes a little extra effort on the part of the reader—but with xxxHOLiC's outstanding art and ever-fascinating characters, it's definitely worth coming along for the ride.
Unfortunately, some of that ride involves hanging out with Sakura, the somnolent heroine of crossover series Tsubasa. Watanuki's dreamland conversations with her are something of a double-edged sword; for fans of both series, it deepens the mythology of the Tsubasa-xxxHOLiC universe with surprising revelations about the lead characters, but for those who only follow xxxHOLiC, this can seem like an exercise in pseudo-philosophical tedium. After all, how does chatting vaguely about characters from a totally different story contribute to what's going on right here and right now?
That's where Yûko steps in, putting these Tsubasa discussions in context like a brilliant university professor. Her latest discourses show the grand sorceress at her wisest yet, dishing out eloquent lines on hitsuzen versus coincidence, dreams versus reality, and how a single decision can completely change the future. Okay, so it's still heavy on the philosophy, but at least she's a principal character in this series (and not the one shelved under "T"), and when she talks, people listen.
And it isn't just Watanuki who should be listening—readers should pay close attention to the flow of the story too, as the heavy dialogue in the first few chapters is just a warmup for the mind trick CLAMP is about to play on you. Apart from one offshoot chapter, the rest of the "action" in this volume involves Watanuki drifting between waking and dreaming—in a way that's just as mysterious to the reader as it is to him. The greatest thing about this narrative device is that it perfectly captures what dreaming is like: at first it seems real, but as quirks and inconsistencies build up, it becomes this bizarre experience that can only be countered by jolting yourself awake. And once Watanuki jolts himself awake, it all becomes clear ...
Of course, this clever blurring between dreams and reality is all the more heightened because of the unique and surreal artwork. The character designs are as lanky as ever, but anyone who's been reading this for 12 volumes is probably used to it by now; the real eye-candy is to be found in the stylish costumes (what will Yûko wear today?) and picturesque backgrounds. Strong contrasts also help to bring out the series' artistic qualities: not just black against white, but also in the way elaborate designs are placed against simple layouts. A stark all-black dreamscape sets the stage for Sakura's arrival amidst a flurry of flower petals, and one of the most gorgeous images in the book—Yûko dissolving into a plume of butterflies—takes place across a minimalist double-page spread. All right, so maybe it goes a bit crazy with the sakura petal imagery in this volume (gee, wonder which character could be responsible for that), but xxxHOLiC continues to set itself apart by looking quite different from anything else.
With the vague Watanuki/Sakura conversations and frequent doses of philosophy, this volume is something of a translator's challenge—and the implicit references to events in Tsubasa make it even tougher. Thankfully, the dialogue only gets seriously confusing a handful of times, and some of those doses of philosophy are actually very well written (mostly Yûko's lines, and maybe a bit of borrowing from Zhuangzi). The stylish sound effects are left in their original Japanese format, with small English translations placed next to them for convenience, and a glossary in the back helps out with cultural details and a bit of story background for the Tsubasa-impaired.
xxxHOLiC has often been about the interaction between humans and the spirit world, but this time the series outdoes itself by breaking into the world of dreams. Not content to just say "sometimes Watanuki is awake and sometimes Watanuki is asleep," this volume employs some clever storytelling to keep folks guessing. However, this sense of mystery is dampened a bit by the Tsubasa elements in the earlier chapters, which get pretty long-winded and are really only worth it to fans who follow both series. But no matter where the story heads next, some things remain constant: the unique artwork, the reflective mood, and Yûko's ruminations on life and what lies beyond ... all of which add up to one of the shining examples of the supernatural genre.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A
+ Wonderful mind-bending surprises as the story shifts between dreams and reality, all rendered in a unique, elegant style.
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