Kobato Hanato has a job to do: if she can fill a magic bottle with the pain and suffering of people whose lives she’s improved, she’ll have her dearest wish come true. There’s just one problem: Kobato is completely mystified by urban life, and has no idea how to identify folks in need of her help. Lucky for her, Ioryogi, a blue dog with a foul mouth and fierce temper, has been appointed her sensei and guardian angel, tasked with helping Kobato develop the the street smarts necessary for completing her mission.
It’s perfectly possible to read Kobato as a story about a sweet, clueless girl who teams up with a gruff but lovable animal to collect wounded hearts. That book is beautifully drawn, but isn’t terribly interesting; most of the stories follow the same template so, well, doggedly, that even the most committed fan of cute would find Kobato too repetitive to be much fun. A more productive way to understand Kobato is as a moe parody, a gleeful skewering of an entire genre in which the cute, underage heroine’s primary role is to endear herself to readers with her mixture of enthusiasm, naivete, and sensitivity.
Exhibit A in the case for moe parody: CLAMP has provided Kobato with a name and a mission, but no history that would explain her bizarre behavior. (Is she an amnesiac? An alien? A simpleton?) Nor does CLAMP reveal Kobato’s deeper motivation for collecting wounded souls. “There’s a place I want to go!” she cheerfully tells Ioryogi without elaborating on the why and where. Exhibit B: Kobato’s behavior seldom endears her to anyone. When Ioryogi instructs her to “do the things that are appropriate for Christmas,” for example, Kobato casually asks a stranger to spend the night with her in a hotel, to the consternation of his girlfriend, while an old man interprets her request to “heal his heart” as a solicitation for sex. Exhibit C: Ioryogi has a sadistic streak that far outstrips the basic demands of the plot. Though his comments are shockingly abrasive at first, it doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that Ioryogi’s assessment of Kobato is spot-on; in effect, he gives the audience permission to dislike Kobato, despite her sweet face and Holly Hobbie outfit.
CLAMP has performed this sleight of hand before with Chobits, another series that can be read as a straightforward genre exercise or a parody. In the case of Chobits, CLAMP starts from the basic nebbishy-guy-meets-magical-girl premise, adding some perverse ruffles and flourishes that call attention to the genre’s more unsavory aspects. (Chi, the magical girl/robot/love interest, behaves like a horny frat guy’s idea of the perfect girlfriend, eschewing underwear, hanging on her owner’s every word, and buying him porn magazines as a gift.) The complexity of the story and the size of the cast eventually overwhelm the satire, however, making it hard for the reader to know how, exactly, she’s supposed to react to Chi and Hideki’s relationship. In Kobato, on the other hand, CLAMP strips things down to the bare essentials, putting the focus squarely on the darkly comic hijinks.
Lest I make Kobato sound unbearably mean-spirited, the manga equivalent of kicking a puppy, let me assure you that it’s actually good fun. Ioryogi, the unquestionable star of the series, is a hoot; CLAMP wrings considerable laughs from the cognitive dissonance between his cute, doll-like appearance and his destructive rages, martial arts moves, and unsavory habits. (Like Mokona Modoki, Ioryogi is always jonesing after beer or sake.) Long-time CLAMP fans will enjoy the cameos sprinkled throughout the book, as characters from Chobits, Suki, and xxxHolic cross paths with Kobato in subtle, unexpected ways — think Where’s Waldo for the Card Captor Sakura crowd. (Bonus points if you can identify the characters without consulting the translation notes.) As one might expect, the artwork is clean and elegant, filled with beautiful costumes, lovely title pages, and crisply executed action sequences in the manner of Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles.
A quick glance at the Wikipedia entry suggests that future volumes of Kobato may cant more towards romance than satire. So long as Ioryogi is along for the ride, however, I’m confident that Kobato will remain edgy enough for readers, like me, who have a limited tolerance for insipid heroines. Recommended.
Review copy provided by Yen Press. Volumes one and two of Kobato will be released simultaneously on May 18, 2010.
Danielle Leigh saysApril 26, 2010 at 6:22 pm
just posted my own review and I’m so glad I wasn’t alone in reading the “sleight of hand” in the construction of Kobato (I was wondering if I was just *looking* for something, considering the relative blandness of most of the volume).
Great review and nice comparison to Chobits (which I haven’t read but helps me place this title in relation to CLAMP’s body of work).
Erica saysApril 26, 2010 at 6:36 pm
I was wondering if I was hallucinating. In Japan Kobato was *everywhere* and no one was mentioning it at all here, so I just assumed that it wasn’t over here. Then I came back and saw it in the store – and still, nothing.
I’m glad to know that I didn’t hallucinate this series.
And that CLAMP is still “I got your genre right here,” at the world. Good for them. :-)
Katherine Dacey saysApril 26, 2010 at 7:01 pm
@Danielle: I loved this sentence from your review, as it nicely summarizes the look and feel of the artwork in Kobato: “Artistically, this is CLAMP at their most girly — I certainly see pink even within the black and white pages.” Kobato’s outfits were so frilly they were impossible to take seriously — she looked like Nellie Olson from Little House on the Prairie!
I’m also glad to know that I’m not alone in detecting a subversive element in the story. Sometimes I worry that I’m over-intellectualizing stuff for my own amusement!
@Erica: Kobato ran in the ill-fated Newtype; I actually bought the magazine in which the first chapter appeared, read it, and was totally confused. It definitely works better in longer segments.