Manga chapters 1-128: CLAMP Minimalism
Princess Sakura and archaeologist’s son Syaoran are childhood friends living in the desert kingdom of Clow. If it was up to them, their peaceful days together would last forever, but unfortunately fate has other ideas. The excavation of a mysterious set of ruins prompts an evil force to try to steal Sakura’s latent power for their own purposes- an attempt which fails, but which turns her memories into a series of feathers scattered across many worlds.
Desperate to retrieve the feathers, Syaoran and Sakura are sent to Yuuko, the so-called “Dimensional Witch” with the power to grant any wish for the right price. Together with fellow dimensional travellers Kurogane, a warrior desperate to return to his home world and Fye, a magician seeking to run away from his world, Sakura and Syaoran are given the ability to journey to different worlds and find the feathers- but at a not-insignificant cost. Each traveller must give up the one thing they hold most precious, and in Syaoran’s case, this means that no matter how many feathers are collected, Sakura will never regain the memory of sharing her past with him…
Thus begins Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, the Kingdom Hearts of manga, a potentially endless series that sees our heroes traverse across multiple worlds in search of an undefined (but presumably) large amount of feathers. The gimmick- each of these worlds is populated by characters seen previous CLAMP series, from the well known X/1999 to the thankfully obscure Miyuki-chan in Wonderland. Even Sakura and Syaoran are re-imaginings of their Card Captor Sakura selves- what better way to give long-time fans something to look out for whilst saving on character designs?
Content-wise, Tsubasa is an odd mix of the flawed and the addictive; the story is often painfully slow paced, the worlds vary in quality, the actions and motivations of the main villain are questionable, and the story is clearly designed to remain viable long after CLAMP have been turned into tireless, immortal cyborgs. Nonetheless, no matter how little happens, or how disappointing it may turn out to be, each chapter exerts a compulsive need to find out where the story is headed, and just what trials our heroes are going to face next.
Visually, the artwork strives for an intentionally minimalist appearance- not quite as rough as Angelic Layer, but nowhere near the level seen in the likes of X/1999. The early chapters in particular emphasise a simple, high contrast, black and white style, with little use of shading and screen tone. It is only as the series progresses that the quality begins to improve, encompassing more detailed worlds and larger-scale (if sometimes hard to follow) action scenes.
Characters: from heroic hero to villainous villain- Merciless spoilers begin here.
Syaoran: As the hero of the tale, Syaoran is dedicated to finding the feathers, protecting his beloved Sakura, and achieving all of this with a blind right eye. In short, quite a boring character- or is he? As we find out some way down the line, our hero is actually a clone of the real Syaoran created specifically to retrieve the feathers for Fei Wong, whilst the real Syaoran resides in a tank. Somehow, real Syaoran was able to give the clone a portion of his heart in the form of his left eye, but when said portion returned to him, he broke free, and the clone turned into an evil adversary who stole Fye’s eye (and thus his magic) and went off to another world.
Intriguing as this twist may seem, it does lead to several questions and inconsistencies. As we see through flashback, Syaoran-clone was released into the world at a young age, tutored by Seishirou, and later adopted by the man he would come to call father. How old was real Syaoran at this time? Was he his current age, and has since grown no older (physically) due to being in stasis? Was he just a little boy like the clone, and if so, how did he have the ability to give his eye away? Why was the clone created so many years before the feathers even left Sakura (unless his original task was to deliver Sakura herself)? And if Syaoran-clone was created by the villainous Fei Wong to collect the feathers for him, why did Fei Wong later act against him from time to time?
Sakura: Poor Sakura, no matter how good-naturedly she offers to pitch in and help too, the fact of the matter is that she’s pretty much useless. Her specialties include wandering off, fainting, falling asleep and getting drunk, and with only a fraction of her original memories she’s not exactly up to mental capacity. Her notable achievements thus far include helping Princess Emeraude in Jade, winning the Piffle Dragonfly race (with some assistance from Tomoyo, Mokona, and pretty much everyone else) and most recently, wandering off into the X-desert in Final Fantasy X-2 style costume to complete an unspecified task. Exactly what her latent powers are and how she came to have them remains a mystery.
Fye/Fai D. Flowright: The laid back and easygoing bishie magician, Fye refuses to use his magic after Yuuko takes the tattoo on his back as payment for granting his wish. The early manga chapters seem to indicate that this is because he cannot control his powers without the tattoo, but later events point to him merely refraining in order not to spoil the plot- when in a tight spot in Rekord country, he seems to have little problem using his magic to save the day.
In recent chapters, Fye has one of his eyes stolen by Syaoran-clone (enabling the clone to use a portion of his magic). In order to save his life, he is turned into a vampire who must feed off Kurogane’s blood, but conveniently enough he will return to normal if his eye is restored. He originally joined the hero party in order to run from his home world’s version of Ashura, but the reasons behind this remain unexplained for now.
Kurogane: A warrior from an alternate version of feudal Japan, Kurogane asks his version of Tomoyo to find him some opponents worthy of his strength, and in return gets sent to another world, complete with a curse that lowers his strength every time he unnecessarily kills someone (a plot point that has had zero relevance so far). Kurogane is basically along for the ride to add the necessary ‘gruff warrior who mentors the hero and gets teased by the lighter-hearted personalities’ content, and his duplicates can be found in anime and manga series everywhere.
Whilst perusing his memories in Rekord country, we learn about the death of Kurogane’s mother, as carried out by Fei Wong. Based on a later manga panel, we can see that Fei Wong simply leaned out of his chair and killed her for no apparent reason.
Mokona: The cute mascot of the series (unlike Rayearth’s Mokona, this one can talk), white Mokona is more than s/he appears to be- as well as being ability to sense feathers, jump between worlds, and transfer items and images to black Mokona, s/he has no fewer than 108 secret techniques. Although not quite as worthy a mascot as the black version, white Mokona is an essential member of the cast, and always brightens up any scene s/he appears in.
Fei Wong: Every story needs its villain, and for Tsubasa, Fei Wong is that villain, a man seemingly confined to his chair and thus forced to watch Syaoran’s adventures on a magic CCTV, all the while bemoaning his lack of remote. His apparent goal is to gain Sakura’s power and unlock the secret of the ruins in Clow Country, but his methodology is more than suspect- he cannot seem to decide whether to let the Syaoran clone he created collect the feathers for him whilst muttering “everything’s going to plan”, or send ineffectual minions like Kyle to make trouble for the heroes. Other inexplicable actions include killing Kurogane’s mother and his own aide Xing Hua, perhaps to increase his evil rating.
Perhaps even more bizarrely, one of the abilities that Fei Wong desires is that of moving between worlds, yet not only does his subordinate Kyle possess this skill, but until volume eight, Fei Wong is able to direct which worlds Syaoran and the others go to. Surely a man with such resources could obtain what he needs in a less convoluted fashion?
Xing Hua: Poor Xing Hua, although her name was barely mentioned and her motives remained a mystery, she faithfully stood by Fei Wong’s side until one day he decided to use her for sword throwing practice. I’d like to say she will be missed, but what exactly was her purpose in the first place?
Kyle: Kyle first appeared in Jade Country as the seemingly benevolent doctor who later proved to be the evil behind the arc, and there, it seemed, his story should end. Unfortunately, Kyle himself had other ideas, and chose to travel to Piffle to make trouble there as well. His ambitions in life- become a full time mid boss, and keep up with the latest fashions in white gloves.
Seishirou: Syaoran-clone’s mentor, Seishirou sacrificed the sight in his right eye for the ability to cross dimensions and hunt for two vampires (later revealed to be Subaru and Kamui). In the latest chapter, Fuma is revealed to be his little brother, but Seishirou himself has yet to return.
…and the rest: Prominent names aside, characters can recur more often in Tsubasa than in any other series, but they may not necessarily be exactly the same person. Popular choices include Tomoyo (CCS), Ryuoh (RG Veda), Yuzuriha (X/1999), and in the anime filler worlds, Arashi and Sorata (X/1999).
The Anime: When will this crazy bus ride ever end?
Throughout the first season of the Tsubasa anime, everything seemed fine. Episodes 1-25 closely followed the manga, and even scored a few added points for bringing new features like colour, music and Yuki Kajiura’s music to the franchise. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but for the most part it proved enjoyable enough, with Outo standing out as the highlight of the season.
Unfortunately, insignificant as it seemed at the time, episode 26 was to spell a dire warning for those seeking to continue onwards to the second season. With the Outo arc having wrapped up in episode 25, the anime chose not to touch any manga material for the closing instalment of season one; instead, it created an original world for a one-off story featuring a castle where any wish could be granted. It would hardly be unfair to say that this story was anticlimactic in the extreme, featuring clichéd shadow monsters to occupy Fai and Kurogane whilst the weaker leads surge forward into the unknown. Even more predictably, Sakura chooses to refrain from wishing for her memories back and thus prematurely ending the saga, instead selflessly reviving the generics of that world.
Season one ended last October, and by the time April brought season two to us, much had changed. On a personal note, I had finally got around to reading and getting up to date with the manga, putting me ahead of the anime for the first time. Some of the worlds had seemed a little lacking in the manga, but I was confident that the anime would make up for any deficiencies- or would it?
Skipping past Bunny World (seemingly destined never to reach our screens) and Shara/Shura, the second season of Tsubasa began with the aircraft racing of Piffle World, an arc that took up many manga chapters whilst simultaneously giving the impression that it would look better animated. Unfortunately, the anime had other ideas, chief among them being the decision to cover two volumes of manga content in a mere three episodes- probably not the best move for a studio with 26 episodes to fill. And as if to add insult to injury, Piffle actually seemed much worse in the anime, portraying Sakura as even more helpless, and adding some generic extra bad guys for good measure.
With so much of the manga cleared in one fell swoop, the anime had little choice but to turn to that most inconsistent of options- filler episodes. First up was a return to the world of episode 26, now with added tedium and a new Arashi and Sorata cameo as the revived people from the earlier visit seemed set to die after all. As if that wasn’t pointless enough, the next two original worlds were little better, bringing us such dubious delights as a fishing boat, deserted island, and a night-time town ruled by Chii.
With the first leg of filler complete, the main story could finally be attended to, and this time the connected worlds of Shura and Shara were chosen. Despite a few annoying changes and a higher percentage of dull generic characters, this four-episode arc might no have seemed so bad- if someone had bothered to animate it. Bee Train, ever the master of panning over stills, had seemingly moved to the next level in the search for that elusive prize- an anime with less actual animation than its original manga.
The end of another manga arc meant that the time for more filler was upon us, beginning promisingly enough with a mildly amusing SD-world controlled by Mokona. Unfortunately, whatever slight hope that episode instilled was soon to be smashed by what would come to be known as the ‘bus episodes’. The pure distillation of everything that is monotonous in this world, the bus two-parter featured such delights as a bus filled with generic characters, a dull truck with a feather attached to it, painfully slow insert songs and an ugly biker gang with the stunningly original moniker, “Road Gang.” It defies belief that anyone would want to make even one episode about such an awful setting, but to create two was a hideous, unforgivable mistake, one which will leave its mark on the series forever.
Nonetheless, there were still more weeks to fill, and so it was that the manga thread was resumed, this time with the tale of Rekord/LeCourt country. The first Rekord episode is as far as I’ve watched at this point, and even with manga material as its base, the series continues to go horribly wrong. It is hard to care about what is happening onscreen when the animators clearly do not- even Kurogane’s berserk rampage is transformed into a before and after still, with absolutely no action or indeed barely any non-looping motion whatsoever.
And yet, the story does not even end here. After Rekord, more filler awaits, including a revisit to one of the more forgettable worlds of season one. After that, the season will presumably conclude with a visit to X-Tokyo, but what then? A third season is meant to start airing in April 2007, but what is it actually going to be about? Season 2 in itself would have been better as 13 episodes, or as a 26 episode with an original ending arc instead of the filler- what is left for episodes 53-78 other than 26 instalments of Bus Chronicle?
The movie: Bird World
Whilst Bee Train handles the TV series, Production IG produced this half-hour ‘movie’ to go alongside their xxxHOLiC feature. Unfortunately, apart from having a well designed setting and some good background music (as ripped from the series), there isn’t much to recommend this feature, other than the chance to see the stereotypical anime movie plot compressed into the space of thirty minutes.
To briefly summarise, the movie sees our heroes travel to a world where everyone has a bird as their companion, meet up with a group rebelling against the evil king, and then use the power of Destiny to overthrow said king. To go into more detail would be pointless- the movie is too fast-paced for its own good, and makes little sense no matter how vaguely it is examined.
Extra: The Worlds of Tsubasa
Not including the excitement of the anime filler worlds.
Getting Started: Clow, Yuuko, et al
Before our heroes can go anywhere, we are allowed to see where they originally came from. Unsurprisingly, Sakura and Syaoran hail from Clow Kingdom, whilst Fye and Kurogane are from mystical Celes and an alternate Japan respectively. As dictated by the plot, they all end up in Yuuko’s shop in modern day Japan, where the adventure properly gets underway.
A fairly modern world with an important difference- everyone has a spirit being known as a kudan living inside them. In the midst of kudan wars between opposing gangs, the all-important search for the feathers begins.
A land held in thrall by a master magician- together with the obligatory spunky young girl, our heroes plan an assault on his castle.
Interlude- Lake Country
Lake Country contains no feathers, so it makes for only a brief stopover in which Sakura sleeps, and Syaoran dives under the lake to see some interesting sights.
In Jade, our heroes end up in a period town caught not only in the grip of winter, but by a curse that sees the town’s children disappear. When the townspeople’s suspicions turn to the newcomers, it is up to Syaoran and the others to investigate the disappearances, and their connection to a nearby abandoned castle.
If Outo seems like an RPG-esque world where bounty hunters earn their keeping by hunting oni, then that’s probably because it is, in effect, a virtual MMORPG played in a theme park in Edonis Country. Unfortunately, not only are Syaoran and the others initially unaware of this, but when Seishirou arrives, Outo begins bleeding through to the real world.
Bunny World- The Land of Idols
A jungle land inhabited by humanoid rabbits claiming to be terrorised by a mysterious beast, this world never made it into the anime. Unfortunately this means that vital information, such as the colour of the rabbits, remains unknown to this day. From this point onwards, Fei Wong can no longer control which world Syaoran and the others go to.
In the land of Shara, a conflict exists between men and women- the women have formed a group of travelling performers who worship Ashura, whilst the men remain at a shrine and worship Yasha. By going back in time to Shura and resolving the past conflict between the real Ashura and Yasha, Syaoran are the others are able to change the course of history and transform Shara into a happier place.
A technologically advanced world, Piffle represents the ultimate evolution of the Piffle Princess product line glimpsed in Angelic Layer, Chobits and xxxHOLiC. Our heroes take to the sky in custom-made Dragonfly craft in order to win a race where the prize is nothing less than Sakura’s feather.
Rekord is a pseudo-Victorian era land of both science and magic, where libraries abound, and the Central Library is the main attraction. It is in this world that Syaoran enters the Book of Memories and sees into Kurogane’s childhood.
Not the same world as that featured in X/1999, but one based along similar lines, with numerous familiar faces from both the Dragons of Heaven and the Dragons of Earth. This is a post-apocalypse Tokyo, a desert wasteland where acid rain falls on ruined buildings, and pure water is found far underground. It is also the world where Syaoran-clone battles the newly released Syaoran-real, with Fye losing his eye in the process.
The latest world to feature in the manga, Infinity World sees our heroes forced to enter a type of living chess game where Sakura acts as the dungeon master whilst the others fight on the board. The Sakura seen here seems to have matured beyond her previous personality- could it be something to do with her FFX-2-esque solo trip into X-Tokyo’s desert? An extended flashback will surely tell us more.
See also: Clow Legacy– Tsubasa, xxxHOLiC and Cardcaptor Sakura fansite.