Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 4th 2010
The currents of fate have forced the space-time witch Yûko Ichihara to leave this world ... leaving only her long-suffering assistant Kimihiro Watanuki to watch over her shop of supernatural wonders. As a result, Watanuki has sworn to wait until Yûko returns, even if that means minding the shop for eternity. Of course, this means taking on occasional customers and solving their spiritual problems. Watanuki's first client is a woman with a shamisen that refuses to play. Fortunately, Watanuki has just the right tool to fix the musical instrument's malady, but he doesn't quite have the experience and confidence that Yûko used to have—especially when it comes to determining the fair price for services rendered. Luckily, he has plenty of allies on his side, both human and non-human, to guide him as he embarks upon his new path in life.
Imagine a Naruto without Naruto. Imagine a Death Note without Light. Imagine an Evangelion without Shinji. That is the challenge that xxxHOLiC faces in its sixteenth volume, which undergoes such a dramatic change by losing a main character that the series is re-titled to xxxHOLiC: Rô after Watanuki takes over. But the biggest surprise, after the initial shock of Yûko's deparature, is that there are really no big changes in the overall style and quality of storytelling. The series may no longer have its star performer, but what remains is still very, very good.
Watanuki's encounter with the shamisen player, which spans the volume's middle chapters, is all that's really needed to prove that a Yûko-less xxxHOLiC can still reign supreme in the supernatural genre. The smoky aura of mystery is still there, with magical objects, unexplained happenings, and mystical utterances spoken by the new shopkeeper. While not as dramatic and doom-filled as some of Watanuki's past encounters, the story structure still follows that standard rise-and-fall that made the series' early chapters shine: a supernatural problem is presented, a crafty solution is found, and everyone learns a deep lesson about human nature and the ways of hitsuzen. This time, it's about the relationships and memories that develop between musical instruments and their owners—a seemingly logic-defying fact when one considers that these are inanimate objects, but not so illogical for any instrumentalist who knows that they play best on that piano keyboard, or on that guitar with that pick.
Built around this stand-alone story, however, is a much grander arc: the events that led Yûko to leave the shop in the first place. The opening pages, which focus on the aftermath of her departure, are filled with a deep sense of longing—of course, any series that loses a main character would end up like that—but the manner in which she left, plus the great sacrifice of Watanuki's decision, cause this feeling to last well past the opening chapter. Suffice to say the entire volume is an exercise in getting back on one's feet after a heartbreaking loss, and it is all the more inspirational for that. However, this also leads to a number of scenes where Watanuki is just sitting around with Dômeki, Mokona and friends, either eating and partying or having deep discussions about Watanuki's purpose in life. Such scenes don't do a whole lot to move the story forward, and while there's a bit of the classic back-and-forth between Watanuki and Dômeki, the sarcastic ribbing from Yûko will clearly be missed.
Of course, one thing that remains wholly unchanged from previous volumes is the outstanding artwork, which continues to use intricate lines and stunning black-and-white contrasts to eye-catching effect. Despite the loss of Yûko as a mannequin for CLAMP's kimono designs, it appears that Watanuki has gotten himself a wardrobe upgrade, as he saunters about in all manner of flowery robes. The smoke-and-butterflies motif also continue to pervade the background (and sometimes even the foreground) art, as if Yûko never really left—from an aesthetic perspective, her personality still remains. The panel layouts are strictly rectangular across the pages, but the way they stretch and squeeze allows the artwork to move fluidly within each scene. Every now and then also comes a dramatic, heart-stopping illustration that one just has to stop and admire—the moment when Watanuki decides to take over, the part where he enters his client's dream, and the discussion over the shamisen's eventual fate. The stories are already moving enough in their content, but it's the imagery that adds the finishing touch.
Not nearly as impressive as the artwork is the writing, which falls a bit on the dry side with a lot of pseudo-philosophical gobbledygook. Some of the dialogue is heartfelt, especially when Watanuki reflects on his chosen path in life, but it also has a way of spiraling into irritatingly vague material. ("All I've taught you is the way to find out what you want to know...") Repetition is also a problem, with Watanuki apparently wanting to remind us every twenty pages that he plans on waiting for Yûko forever. Of course, some of the translation doesn't come easy when the language is intentionally ambiguous, implying certain things without giving them away. Meanwhile, a glossary in the back touches upon useful cultural points in this volume—like the multiple meanings of Rô and the history of the shamisen—and the sound effects, so integral to the artwork, retain their original form with English translations placed nearby.
The events of Volumes 15 and early Volume 16 are the single most dramatic point of xxxHOLiC, the make-or-break moment for one of CLAMP's most distinctive titles. Losing a major character can be a big blow—potentially resulting in reactions like "It was never the same after that" and "I liked it back when so-and-so was still around"—but this series is so much more than just the Yûko Ichihara show, and Watanuki is able to pick up the duties of seeing spirits and solving supernatural problems just fine. This volume does have its hiccups, with a few too many sit-around-and-chat moments, but the exquisite visuals and aura of mystery are still there. And for many, that's why they will remain fans of the series for years to come.
Overall : B+
Story : B-
Art : A
+ Keeps up the superb artwork and thoughtful storytelling even as the plot takes a major turn, with a main character leaving and another stepping into that role.
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