Call it CLAMP: The Remix. Tsubasa: RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE is one part original adventure and one part spirited romp through the gallery of CLAMP’s characters that have accumulated over the past two decades. You don’t need to be a CLAMPophile to follow along, but a) it makes some of the plot transitions a little less jarring and arbitrary, and b) you can play spot-the-cameo and put one over your less clued-in friends.
The most crucial characters in Tsubasa are lifted straight from Cardcaptor Sakura: Sakura herself and Syaoran, albeit older than they were in that series and placed in a completely different setting. She is a princess, he the son of a prominent archaeologist, and they live in a desertlike land entirely different from the original Cardcaptor world (and, for that matter, from our world as well). One day they’re inside one of Syaoran’s father’s excavations when there’s a curious supernatural accident: Sakura’s memories are stripped from her, transformed into a flurry of feathers, and scattered across any number of different worlds. The two of them must now leap from world to world to reclaim what she has lost.
Tell me, did your Plot Detector just go “ping”? Mine did. This is one of the more reliable and hardy manga/anime story templates out there. Bad news is, I suspect it’ll be all too familiar to those of you who suffered through the head-slamming repetitiveness of Inu-yasha at its worst, so I don’t blame you if you’re already cringing and backing off. Good news is, Tsubasa, at least in its first season, doesn’t fall into the same sort of tail-chasing: by the time the curtain goes down on the last episode, it feels like the heroes have actually achieved something instead of Going Back And Starting Their Training Again.
Much has been made of how Tsubasa and ×××HOLiC are a brother-and-sister series pair. Meaning that if you see one you’re somewhat obliged to see the other, since the two cross over with each other in one major and several minor ways. I’ve seen both — I confess I’m more of a ×××HOLiC fan than a Tsubasa fan, but that’s strictly taste at work — and again while it helps to see ×××HOLiC, it is not a deal-breaker if you haven’t. Most of the crucial crossover details are only in the first couple of episodes of Tsubasa, anyway. Hit a wiki or have your friends clue you in on what you’re missing, and then let the rest of the show wash over you.
To that end, Syaoran and Sakura’s first detour is to Yūko’s house in the ×××HOLiC world. Yūko’s mere presence in any story means anything that comes, comes at a cost. This is doubly true of restoring Sakura’s memory: as Syaoran is warned, the price of having Sakura’s memory returned will be the very relationship between them. But as with all of Yūko’s deals, it’s two-sided. Yes, they will lose something, but there’s nothing that says the same things cannot be regained in another form.
Syaoran and Sakura are promptly joined by three other trans-dimensional travelers. There’s Fay (sometimes Fai), the sorcerer, always going with the flow and sporting a dreamy smile on his lips. His attitude isn’t just laid-back, it’s downright recumbent. As a foil to him (or vice versa) there’s Kurogane — “Black Steel” — a feisty and tightly-wound swordsman, dispatched on this journey as a way to instill him with a little sorely-needed humility. And finally, they acquire Mokona — the white one of the pair of white-and-black rabbit/dumpling-like creatures who perform various oracular functions for Yūko. Mokona serves as their feather detector, occasional communications link back to Yūko, and a source of endless childlike cheer. Just the sort of thing to make the veins on Kurogane’s forehead pop out — which they do, often several times an episode.
The show then becomes a series of mini-arcs, each spread out over about 2-3 episodes, sometimes even less than that. In each arc the heroes are transported to another world (courtesy of the “Mokona Express”), seek out one of Sakura’s feathers, and restore that much more of her memory. Some worlds, like the first one they leap to away from Yūko’s, are parallels of our own. Some resemble medieval Europe; one is close to Taishō-era Tokyo. (The TV show Sliders comes to mind.) In all of them they find both allies and adversaries. From time to time they encounter people who are echoes of acquaintance from worlds they previously visited: a street gang in one world shows up as a team of chipper deliverymen in another. The last major arc in the season involves not one but two worlds, one inside the other. Sort of. To say more would ruin a major plot twist — nothing you can’t figure out if you’re attentive, but you deserve to have first crack at figuring it out.
All that world-hopping and feather-hunting merely serves as backdrop from the real themes of the story: loyalty, sacrifice, perseverance in the face of all odds. As Sakura’s memory returns, Syaoran finds himself doing that much more work to connect with her in ways that are rooted in the immediate present rather than the past. Said past is shown in flashbacks and fill-ins, and it’s as romantic as you would expect, but also bittersweet: this might as well all have happened in another lifetime. In fact, it did — and from what we see at the end of the season, the best measure of success for Syaoran and his friends will be how well they embrace what’s ahead instead of trying to turn back to something long left behind.
I’m going to end up making another comparison to ×××HOLiC, if only because I find myself slightly preferring that series over this one. Not because Tsubasa fails in any major way: it’s perfectly competent in its storytelling and good fun to watch. But it’s also that much more lockstep and, well … straightlaced. It doesn’t exude the same perverse fascination with human fallibility that seemed to be lurking around every corner in ×××HOLiC, which was what drew me to that show. With ×××HOLiC I was happy to have my feelings about what was going on constantly proven wrong; Tsubasa, I watched with the feeling that all too often my expectations were being proven right.
The English dub’s a good, solid effort by a cast that’s proven themselves on many other FUNimation titles. Solid enough, in fact, that I started with English on and left it there for most of the show, only switching back intermittently for the sake of comparison. I especially liked Chris Sabat as an appropriately gritty Kurogane, and Vic Mignogna doing an appropriately ethereal turn as Fay. (Colleen Clinkenbeard reprises her role from ×××HOLiC as Yūko, naturally.) And Monica Rial, growing more versatile with time rather than less (as is the case with some voice actors), gives us an endearing Sakura. (I’m still getting over her 100%-against-type casting in Burst Angel, I think.)
So far, anime on Blu-ray has been a bit of a mixed bag — proof that it’s the materials, not the medium itself, that make the title. I had doubts about the quality of Burst Angel (both the picture quality and the series itself) but Tsubasa is a sight better in many respects. None of it looks suspiciously upsampled or enhanced, although it still doesn’t quite have the awe-inspiring level of detail one would get from an Akira or Wings of Honneamise. Part of that is, I suspect, the simple fact that titles produced for TV are designed to look good on a smaller screen and have that much less detail in any given frame. That said, with TVs getting bigger (and higher in resolution), this rule is bound to be incrementally relaxed, and it’s already possible to see this taking hold in a show like Tsubasa.
The rest of the presentation, for a season set, is good without being great. I liked the bonus material that gives us not only a character gallery but a description of each crossover character — where they came from, what they’re doing here — and overviews of each world the heroes pass through. The “Cast Auditions” segment is something I’ve seen on other FUNimation titles, a quick rundown of all the major voice actors reading key lines from their roles. Note that the slipcase says “Actor Commentary”, but no such feature appears on the discs. A shame; I would have liked to see commentary episodes along the lines of what we got with Darker than Black or even Burst Angel.
It’s tough to talk about Tsubasa without making at least some back-comparison to CLAMP’s other works, and not just because so many of them are cross-referenced within this one. Put aside the in-jokes and the character cameos, though, and what you have is a series that stands on its own a fair amount better than you might have anticipated. I’m still iffy on whether or not you’d want to make this your initial dip into the CLAMP story pool, though, but not enough to warn first-timers away from it entirely. So when’s the next season due?