Reviewby Nick Creamer,
With both the Mahora Martial Arts Tournament and the Neo Olympics on the way, Tota is preparing not just for the athletic fireworks, but for the grand showdown that will decide the fate of both his legendary grandfather and the world altogether. But before we can even get to that, Tota will have to settle some more immediate conflicts - like his feelings regarding Shinobu, Mizore, and Kirie! With all three of them hoping to claim his love (in spite of Kirie's claims to the contrary), the winner will be decided through the God Bull Speeder Bike Race. Apparently all is fair in love, war, and high-speed jet ski races!
Given the very abrupt ending to Ken Akamatsu's prior manga, Negima, I always wondered if he himself was satisfied with where that story left his characters. After building up dozens of engaging characters with resonant arcs and fun conflicts of their own, that manga's conclusion reduced many characters' denouements to single-panel summaries, or simply skipped them altogether. Perhaps if Akamatsu had given Negima a more fully formed conclusion, he wouldn't feel the need to revisit all those characters, and eventually let them inform the base conflicts of his follow-up manga. Then again, that would mean we wouldn't get to experience UQ Holder!'s signature weirdness, and even if UQ Holder! is messy, it's messy in a way that's both compelling and unlike most everything else out there.
After many volumes of lightly or more directly gesturing towards the Negima-prompted events of UQ Holder!'s past, there's no more holding back now - this volume is bookended by the appearance of beloved Negima stars, Negima characters fill out the ranks of both UQ Holder!'s heroes and villains, and even this volume's cover essentially sells it through the promise of returning Negima favorites. Yui and Nodoka both make dramatic appearances here, along with Jack Rankan, Negi himself, and even old Ku:nel Sanders. If you missed these characters, this reunion will likely feel both thrilling and a little bittersweet - after all, their role in this current narrative means we don't really get anything like the Yui-Nodoka friendship scenes that made Negima so charming. And if you haven't read Negima, well, at this point it's essentially required - half of UQ Holder!'s payoffs are now simply nods to Negima fans, grand entrances whose significance will be utterly lost on new readers.
That said, even if UQ Holder! is now well and truly Negima 2, it's making the most of that situation. For one thing, the choice to make Negi and his closest companions into this story's antagonists is actually pretty inspired. As a shonen protagonist, Negi and his friends spent the entirety of Negima slowly acquiring enough powers to essentially challenge gods, meaning we're now left with a villain and villainous entourage who we aren't just told are nigh-unbeatable, we know are nigh-unbeatable. Seeing Negi control the atmosphere of an entire stadium with the force of his glare is a payoff over a decade in the making, harnessing our existing understanding of these characters to lend impact to an entirely new narrative's dramatic turns. Seeing Jack Rankan touch down lightly in front of Tota creates a sense of despair that simply introducing some new and imposingly-designed villain couldn't possibly emulate. This isn't just some new warrior, this is Jack Rankan! Dozens of chapters of training arcs and brutal battles and thoroughly earned power-ups are all now benefitting UQ Holder! directly, lending this new story their collective resonance.
The actual scenes starring these old titans feel just as imposing as they should, with Ken Akamatsu's tremendously accomplished linework and gift for character-introducing panels granting them all the awe and solemnity they warrant. But outside of those scenes, this volume counterbalances all that heaviness and reverence for its predecessor with wild energy, ridiculous romcom shenanigans, and more than a little fanservice.
The bulk of this volume is actually dedicated to the God Bull Speeder Bike Race, a high-speed, no-holds-barred speeder race over the Tokyo bay. In practice, this event mostly just turns into an excuse for both wild racing theatrics and harem drama, as Shinobu, Mizore, and Kirie all race for Tota's love. And in order to facilitate that drama, Tota is conveniently split into three sub-Totas, all of whom are accompanying one of his potential partners, and all of whom essentially exemplify one core aspect of his personality.
The race certainly isn't one of UQ Holder!'s highlights, though it does have its charms. On the positive side, Akamatsu's artwork here is as rich and sturdy as ever, with the mechanical designs of the speeders and the absurd martial back-and-forth of the race both giving him ample opportunities to show off. Additionally, if you're a fan of Akamatsu's comedy, the bawdy nonsense here feels a lot more energetic than usual, and the fanservice has rarely been more plentiful.
On the negative side, Tota's relationships with Mizore and Shinobu just aren't substantive enough to really grant much weight to their investment in this race. Additionally, the fact that Tota is racing with all three of them means the fights aren't the most creative - Tota versus Tota just isn't an exciting matchup, even if you're riding on a jet ski being driven by a half-naked girl. Akamatsu's understanding of visual drama and drawing skill are so strong that it's hard for a new Akamatsu arc to be straight-up bad, but this certainly far from UQ Holder!'s best arc.
In the end, like many UQ Holder! arcs, this story is saved by the relationship between Tota and Kirie. Akamatsu himself seems to understand what a good character he struck on in Kirie - though this arc is framed as a harem bout, it's obvious from the start that Kirie is Tota's actual choice, while all of Tota's old suitors have essentially been downgraded to stable friends. All that is for good reason - Tota's upbeat thick-headedness and Kirie's snarky brittleness are a natural match, and each of them make the other more compelling by proximity. Though this volume may be dominated by the appearance of Akamatsu's old heroes, it's the bond between Kirie and Tota I find most thrilling. I'm happy to report that even as Akamatsu dangles characters I've loved for a decade before me, I'm still just as eager to see what his new stars do next.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : A-
+ Makes great dramatic use of the audience's preexisting understanding of Negima characters, and pulls off an energetic racing arc in the meantime.
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