Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
While playing his shamisen on the porch of Yuko's shop, Watanuki receives a visit from an otherworldly pipe merchant. The merchant tricks him into inviting an old enemy into the shop – the spider woman who consumed Watanuki's left eye. But she isn't here for the other one; the supernatural creature has come as a customer. Watanuki will try his best to grant her wish, but it will have consequences for his own peace of mind.
Have you read Tokyo Babylon? This is no random question – many of manga team Clamp's later works have distinct parallels with that early series, but none are as direct as xxxHOLiC, and this volume is no exception. While you do not have to have read it to understand this, it may give you a different view of the characters' motives and the long-reaching impact that Tokyo Babylon had on the group that created it.
As has been normal for the series since “Ro” was affixed to its title, there are very few characters in play here. The volume begins with Watanuki smoking Yuko's pipe and playing his shamisen on the porch, which attracts a lop rabbit with his cart. The rabbit is a rauya, a traditional pipe repairman, and he and Watanuki exchange cryptic comments about the pipe that Watanuki has inherited. It is clear that the rabbit is a regular visitor, a fact confirmed when Watanuki says that his “usual payment” won't quite be enough. The rabbit then tricks him into inviting in a woman who will not be immediately recognizable – the joro-gumo, or spider spirit, who ate Watanuki's eye.
Needless to say, Watanuki is not thrilled to see her. He prepares a special room of pipe fox makings to keep himself from further harm and agrees to listen to her request. She wants a specific item that he does not keep in the shop, but he agrees to fetch it anyway. The joro-gumo displays a sensuality that all of Yuko's exposed flesh could not communicate in earlier volumes, sliding along Watanuki's body, straddling his lap, and just generally oozing sexuality. It is surprising in a Clamp series, with a few notable exceptions, but more eyebrow raising is Watanuki's cool reaction. This is not the same young man we met so many volumes ago, who could barely stand to look at Himawari. The joro-gumo really emphasizes the changes that have come over the protagonist.
It is, in fact, those changes that conjure up the parallels with Tokyo Babylon. Like Subaru underwent a complete personality change after what befell his twin, Watanuki has also toned himself down and adopted some of the mannerisms of the one who, essentially, took his childhood from him. As Subaru in essence “became” Soiichiro, Watanuki has morphed into a form of Yuko. He is questioned about that later in the volume, more specifically in the last section of the joro-gumo chapter. Domeki's grandfather comes for a visit and questions why Watanuki dresses and behaves as he does. Watanuki's answer isn't especially surprising, but it is thought provoking. He is perfectly honest with his explanations, both to the elder Domeki and to the joro-gumo, who asks similar things. Once again, it shows us how far he has come, although whether he has traveled in the right direction is up for debate.
Domeki himself is once again a prominent player, leading to that special brand of is-it-or-isn't-it homoeroticism that Clamp is so fond of. More surprisingly Himawari also makes a brief appearance after a period of absence, and her part reveals some interesting changes. Kohane gets a small scene, and the always-adorable pipe fox is also hanging about. But this story is above all else about Watanuki, and even major cast members like Domeki take a backseat.
Visually this series is a matter of taste. The minimalist backgrounds and almost uniformly large panels will not work for everyone, but they have an indisputable flow to them that makes for smooth reading. The swirls of smoke and incense are less than they have been in previous books, but where they are used, they are beautiful, conjuring up images of Heian Era paintings and life “above the clouds.” Watanuki's clothing is simply elaborate, with exotic styles drawn as if they were the most comfortable garments in the world, and Domeki's college style more than his bulked up physique gives him a sense of being older. Of course, the basic problems that have plagued xxxHOLiC all along remain – hands and shoulders can be grossly outsized and a few women have proportions that call to mind some of the females of One Piece with waists that should snap in two over the weight of the bosoms they have to support.
While this volume does contain a good helping of the cryptic mystic-babble that has consistently earned this series lower grades, the parallels with Tokyo Babylon give readers something to look for and also force us to question what the ultimate outcome will be. The character “ro” that Clamp has added to the title can mean “cage,” the end notes tell us. Will Watanuki escape his prison? Will he voluntarily remain? Or will he be like the characters of Jean-Paul Sartre's play “No Exit” and break out...only to wish that he hadn't?
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B-
+ More clues dropped as to the nature of Watanuki's tenure as shopkeeper, return of Himawari, nice flow to the artwork.
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