by Nick Creamer,

UQ Holder!

GN 10

UQ Holder! GN 10
Having finally graduated from Dana's excruciating training, Tota and his friends are settling back into life at the UQ Holder base. But even if there's no immediate threat to the world to worry about, there's still plenty keeping these kids up at night - with Tota's romantic affections standing front and center. With mortal guests Shinobu and Mizore both staking their claim to Tota's heart, Kuromaru and Kirie don't have much time to sort out their feelings. It's time for a very different kind of race in UQ Holder!

Ken Akamatsu's works have been a balancing act between harem shenanigans and fantasy aspirations, ever since Love Hina's mild-mannered Keitaro was spirited away by a squad of zeppelins. Negima more or less split the difference between these goals, offering legitimately thrilling action setpieces even as its protagonist Negi stole the hearts of a good dozen or so high school students. And while UQ Holder has leaned even more towards the straight action side of Akamatsu's interests, the potential for an old-fashioned harem has always been lurking in the background. Here in its tenth volume, UQ Holder leans entirely into that harem style, for worse or for worse.

Akamatsu's sense of romantic comedy hasn't really changed much in the years since Love Hina. In fact, this volume's opening presents an overt tip of the hat to Akamatsu's breakthrough hit, as Tota's newest admirer Shinobu is introduced in a bath-house scramble that very intentionally echoes Love Hina's first chapter. From there, UQ Holder dives straight into the love rivalry shenanigans that have always filled up some of the downtime between his big dramatic narratives. Kuromaru isn't sure what he wants to be to Tota, Kirie can't acknowledge her own feelings, and meanwhile the aggressive Mizore and adoring Shinobu are already getting closer to Tota all the time. It's an immortal-eat-immortal world out there.

Hewing closely to basic comedy setups and obviously harmless “will they or won't they” non-tension, most of this volume ends up coming across as total filler. There are denials of feelings, and convenient stumbles that lead directly into unintentional kisses, and a whole bunch of slapstick in service of lukewarm romantic drama. In spite of Tota's recent character work, he's still far too much of a generic protagonist to carry the weight of these feelings. Ultimately, most of the romance and the comedy here feels tired and toothless, as stale as it is transparently inconsequential.

If there's anything worth salvaging in this volume's romcom doldrums, it's likely Kuromaru's material. Kuromaru's struggle with their gender identity almost certainly isn't intended as any kind of thoughtful exploration of real-world identities, but it's still satisfying to see just how much the manga respects the complexity of their struggle. Kuromaru's own initially gender essentialist view (“I can fight by his side as a boy or be protected by him as a girl”) is clearly not supported by the manga itself, and their dedicated material here is sprinkled with surprisingly sharp reflections on body anxiety, the ways puberty can betray our sense of self, and the importance of coming to love yourself. This isn't Wandering Son or anything, but Kuromaru's situation and feelings are still afforded clear respect by the narrative, even in the context of a fanservice-heavy harem story.

Speaking of fanservice, this is likely the most unabashedly skin-filled volume of UQ Holder yet. Ken Akamatsu's fanservice generally adheres to what now feels like a somewhat quaint style of titillation. Instead of the overtly, outrageously horny setups of something like Monster Musume, there's just a whole lot of panty flashes, suggestive angles, and sudden undressings in the middle of otherwise unrelated scenes. Akamatsu's art is precise and attractive, but the lack of romantic or even just erotic tension means that even just on the horniness scale, UQ Holder 10 isn't really that impressive. I frankly don't really want this manga to go the full harem route, but in the context of a volume that offers nothing else, it's worth pointing out that Akamatsu's style is still its own kind of chaste.

Overall, this is a disappointing volume of UQ Holder pretty much by design. The manga isn't really set up to offer thrilling harem shenanigans, and so most of this volume's material comes off as strained and emotionally flat. Hopefully these immortals will get back to whacking each other with sharp sticks soon.

Overall : C
Story : C-
Art : B+

+ Akamatsu's art is as consistent as ever, and Kuromaru's material here is handled with at least some sensitivity.
From start to finish, this is cliche and blandly executed harem nonsense.

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Story & Art: Ken Akamatsu

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