Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Having reunited with Kuromaru and teamed up with new friend Laszlo, Tota feels like he's finally ready to participate in the Mahora Martial Arts Tournament. But a chance meeting with Yukihime and Fate introduces him to the full-blooded vampire Dana, the imposing “Witch of the Rift.” Even Yukihime seems intimidated by this new woman, and soon Tota and his friends find themselves suffering through a grueling training regimen at her own strange palace. Will Tota be able to survive the training, and even if he does, can hard work truly overcome the strange, contradictory nature of his powers?
The first couple chapters of UQ Holder!'s eighth volume are a fairly cruel bait-and-switch. We open with Tota and his friends on the precipice of a grand martial arts tournament, winning fights and earning bruises and slowly getting stronger. Then, just when it seems we might be segueing into more meaningful one-on-one fights, the manga introduces its new teacher: Dana Ananga Jagannatha, the Witch of the Rift. And so a long, long training arc begins.
Training arcs are a staple of shounen manga, though they're almost never the most exciting sequences. They're one of the most overtly videogame-style elements of the genre, and can sometimes come across as if you're literally watching the heroes grind levels to take down a new boss. That's fairly true of this one, at times - Dana's regiment for Tota and his friends involves plenty of the textbook “take down this challenge in a week” and “do this strange physical activity which I'll keep making harder” and “you thought that was tough? Now the real challenge begins” classics, making for a significantly less exciting volume than you might hope. But it's true that one of my major complaints about UQ Holder! has been that Tota hasn't had to work for his power, and in addition to somewhat addressing that issue, this volume still has moments of charm here and there.
Likely the most compelling idea introduced in this volume is Dana's championing of “beauty or terror.” All of the major characters of this story are immortals, and improving the speed with which they recover from being destroyed is actually one of the central elements of Dana's training. That by itself is somewhat interesting, and the manga mines a decent amount of comedy out of Tota continuously being murdered. But beyond simply being another power to master, Dana outright acknowledges that one of the most important gifts an immortal possesses is the appearance of power, at least in comparison to mortals. And so she stresses that when you're engaging with mortals, you can't come off as fallible even when you're in great danger - not only must you recover quickly from destruction, you must recover in style, acting as if you were never hurt in the first place.
Dana's obsession with physical beauty could simply have been a shallow character tic, but framing it as a philosophy she's adopted to defend herself is far more compelling. She stresses that while beauty is the option she's chosen, terror is equally valid - the important thing is just that you appear distant from mortals, on another plane of power even (and especially) when you're at your most vulnerable. The manga doesn't go too deeply into the concept here, but I'm hoping future volumes might further explore how showmanship is a key weapon in the immortal's arsenal. UQ Holder! set a difficult initial limitation on itself by centering its action narrative on a group of immortals, and I continue to be intrigued by the various ways Akamatsu makes that dramatic hurdle into an actual strength.
Unfortunately, clever ideas like that are only a small part of what is ultimately a very routine set of chapters. The one conflict counterbalancing Tota's generic training routines is the reappearance of Yukihime, or “Kitty,” her much younger self. The wild temporal tempests of Dana's home mean that Tota keeps running across a past version of his teacher, and the two of them bond over their mutual suffering under Dana's rule. While I like the idea of giving Yukihime more texture, I felt basically all of this material was too undercooked to work - Yukihime's tragic past is condensed into a mere page or two of monologue, and their relationship mostly just consists of Yukihime offering training advice to Tota in the form of magical worldbuilding. I was never sold on what either of them provided for the other, and that entire narrative ends in anticlimax, with a cliche tragic beat that feels entirely unearned.
Still, Akamatsu's practiced professionalism keeps things from being too dull. Though there aren't any true standout fights in this volume, the design of Dana's home is very compelling, and I particularly liked the various beasts that Tota and his friends are forced to fight. It also seems that Akamatsu is working to broaden his repertoire of silly faces; Tota gets some great deadpan reaction shots in these chapters, and Dana in general is far more expressive than most of his previous characters. This is a disappointing volume, but not a truly bad one - it's a pretty routine training arc, and those will always be the brussel sprouts of the shounen manga dinner table.
Overall : B-
Story : C
Art : B+
+ Offers some interesting new twists on the nature of immortals; art is consistent throughout.
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