CLAMP's latest series -- Kobato coming out in May by Yen Press -- might be mistaken for primarily younger readers, but by the end of the first volume there are some interesting hints at dark clouds on the horizon for the plucky heroine.
The plot of Kobato presents as overly simplistic at first -- a young girl named Kobato (you could probably see that one coming) seeks the power to cure people of their wounded hearts. However, before she can even get to the point where she can do that she must first prove herself to have common sense...to a stern little blue dog named Ioryogi, who appears only as a stuffed animal to others. Kobato spends most of volume one trying to demonstrate her capabilities to Ioryogi but usually ends up making a mess of things.
The manga seems almost excessively adorable, with its cute, young heroine and the grumpily fierce yet strangely sweet companion / teacher who takes the form of a little dog. Chapters go by where not much seems to happen --Kobato encounters a situation, she attempts to demonstrate her "abilities" and in the process reveals she has little to no understanding of how the world actually works. The manga seems entirely appropriate for younger readers up until a surprise encounter towards the end of the volume had me questioning the underlying tone of the work. Kobato's simplistic desire to cure people of their suffering is contrasted with her lack of knowledge about the very people she wants to help. Kobato's trusting nature leaves her wide open to be taken advantage of and without Ioryogi or an unexpected guardian appearing -- who like Ioryogi is more cranky than kind -- to look out for her, Kobato herself would have experienced a great deal of suffering.
I currently think Kobato is deceptively cute (although my take on the story may change with subsequent volumes). While there isn't a great deal of depth to the story, I'm almost certain that Kobato's innocent demeanor isn't meant to be taken at face value. By the end of volume one, I was questioning the validity of Kobato's "wish," which is never actually revealed. Iorygoi claims that Kobato must fill up an entire magic bottle of suffering that she has removed from people's hearts before her wish can be granted but then he also claims that once she has done so her wish might be different than what she expects. It seems Kobato still has a lot to learn but her choice to interact with more people -- Kobato establishes herself as part time help at a local kindergarten school -- will probably have a transformative effect upon her and her final "wish."
Artistically, this is CLAMP at their most girly -- I certainly see pink even within the black and white pages. In contrast to the warmth and prettiness of Kobato, Ioryogi's looks like a dog you'd have to think twice about ever petting -- even if you thought he was just a stuffed animal -- and his absurdly vicious teeth and expression offer a kind of over-the-top balance to all her cuteness. It isn't clear yet what Ioryogi or Kobato are, since it seems unlikely she's just a regular human being, but there's something not quite of this world in the artistic excesses in how each is represented.
In the end, I think Yen Press giving this title a rating of "teen" was a smart move -- this work would certainly appeal to older pre-teens, but there's enough ambiguity in the story that makes me think slightly older readers will get a little more out of the reading experience.
Review copy provided by the publisher.