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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Manga Review: XXXHOLiC GN 19

XXXHOLiC volume 19
Author: CLAMP
Del Rey Books
192 pages

Major spoiler warning: Do not read the following review – even the book summary! – if you are not up-to-date with the series so far. Read at your own peril!

Final volume: Kimihiro Watanuki has passed through many trials by fire. Once an indentured servant, he has matured and become the poised and skilled keeper of the shop that grants wishes. But Watanuki’s final wish is for himself: to meet the witch Yûko one more time. With Yûko long vanished from our world, is it even possible? That question and others are answered now in the concluding volume of the bestselling manga XXXHOLiC!

This is the XXXHOLiC finale, tying up the story of Watanuki and Yûko once and for all, but it does not feel like any finale I've ever known. It doesn't even feel climactic in nature. If the back cover had not told me it was the final volume, I might still be awaiting a twentieth volume. For some series, an inconclusive and vague ending suits them just fine; not so in a series like XXXHOLiC which has built itself up on mysteries and riddles that require some sort of answer to make the reader feel satisfied with its end. Well, XXXHOLiC does none of these things and this is what lets the whole manga down in the end: CLAMP's refusal to draw up an actual, definitive ending to one of their more infamous series.

First things first: as usual, the back cover blurb for this volume is incredibly misleading (this seems to be a thing with Del Rey Manga, unfortunately). The main focus of this volume is not Yûko or Watanuki's "final wish"; as usual, it is forwarded by several 'filler' type stories of various store customers, both new and returning, and seeing Watanuki treat them as the care taker of the shop. None of these various prelude chapters feel like the series was coming to an end; if anything, it felt like CLAMP was struggling to hold off the inevitable.

Having said that, we are treated to a number of entertaining cases as various people come to Watanuki for assistance. And hey, at least Watanuki has become a much better shop keeper than when the "Ro" story arc first started, right? I can assure you that in this volume, Watanuki does not get the crap beaten out of him or nearly lose a dozen pints of blood from a wish deal gone horribly wrong. In fact, he seems calmly and securely in control, like a younger male Yûko – which is probably the parallel CLAMP has meant for us to draw as readers, that Watanuki is turning into the very witch whose position he has taken over for life.

The main problem, however, is that CLAMP does not really do anything with these parallels, or many of the questions still lingering long after the final page. What is Watanuki’s true role in the end? Where has Yûko gone, truly? What is the egg that Domeki still carries in his hand, unhatched? It all feels ended without reason, like CLAMP could not be bothered to give us a decent set of answers – or perhaps they decided to just end the series already, move on to another story.

XXXHOLiC started out as a strong, gothic horror drama with loads of promise and steeped in Japanese mythology and folklore and ended struggling to find its place at the finish line, having already overstayed its welcome somewhat after Watanuki became keeper of the shop. It is still a series that can be solidly entertaining in each volume, but its finale leaves the reader seriously wanting for more concrete closure and at least some answers to the greater mysteries of the series overall.

The one highlight of this series were its characters – and this has been a great strength of XXXHOLiC since its start, having such a vibrant and fleshed-out cast that can carry the series through its strongest and weakest points. I will certainly miss their interactions and conversations, and of course all the drinking. I don’t even want to think about how much alcohol has been consumed in the wish shop over the course of so many years, yikes.

Overall, it’s been a bittersweet goodbye I have ended up giving to Watanuki and friends, but not one that has weakened my memories of what has been a wonderful series. It’s just a shame that it all falls down come the ending.