Manga Friday: Shoulder-a-Coffin!
This week, Manga Friday applies its lazer-like eye to one and only one book – luckily, this one is weird and confusing enough for any five regular volumes…
Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro, Vol. 1
By Satoko Kiyuduki
Yen Press, May 2008, $10.99
Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro is one of the few manga series I’ve seen with extensive color: about a half-dozen times in the first half of this book, a story begins with at least two pages in full color. That slows down as the book goes on, so I suspect this is done in Japan to launch “big” new series with a splash.
(I should also note that this probably hasn’t quite hit stores yet — the publication date is officially "May," which means it’s probably on trucks whizzing across North America right now. And "May" covers quite a bit of time, too.)
And, for those of us who have managed to train our eyes to read manga “backwards,” and have gotten moderately adept at that, Kuro throws us another curveball: it’s in 4-koma (four panel) style, so each page reads straight down the right-hand column and then straight down the left-hand column…unless one of the top tiers has a panel stretching across the page, in which case I have to read all the panels several different ways before I’m sure how it’s meant to go. Your mileage may vary, but do expect at least a few pages for your eyeballs to reboot on the new operating system.
And then, once I’d figured out how to physically read Kuro, I still had to work out what was going on. And that wasn’t easy, either. Kuro is the girl on the cover – she’s dressed up like a boy, and talks like a boy — so says the explanation; this may be clearer in Japanese — and thus people tend to assume she’s male. She’s also carrying a coffin, and refuses to explain exactly why. (It’s more likely to be for her than for whatever she’s looking for, though — that much is clear.)
She’s traveling through various small villages in a typical manga landscape, never staying in one place for very long. And her main companion is a talking bat, Sen, who occasionally calls a swarm of other (more ordinary?) bats to defend or help Kuro.
On the first page, she’s also traveling with two cat-eared and -tailed kids, Sanju and Nikuju, and a bit later on there are flashback stories to explain how Kuro met those two. (They were experiments of some kind, made by a man they know only as "the Professor," who met a bad end from another experiment. They’ll probably turn about to be something special later in the series, but, for now, they’re cute kids with odd camouflage powers and the aforementioned ears and tails.)
Kuro stops in to see every witch or supernatural practitioner on her way; she seems to be trying to find someone who can help her – perhaps to fix her condition? (Whatever that actually is.) Neither Kuro nor the narration — which is pretty sparse — explains who she is, what she’s doing, or what the purpose of anything in. The fact that she’s a "traveler" seems to be significant; perhaps the original Japanese word has a more specific meaning, like "pilgrim" or "seeker."
This leads me to mention that the dialogue and narration are somewhat stilted and uncolloquial; this might be an artifact of the translation, or it might be on purpose. (Or it might be an accurate translation of a weakness of creator Kiyuduki; it’s hard to say.) And the whole project is quite vague; even by the end of this book, we really have no clue who these people are, what they’re doing, what kind of world they live in, or why we should care. Kuro also deliberately keeps people at a distance, so we don’t get much of a sense of what kind of person she is.
It’s my understanding that the 4-koma style is mostly used for funny stories, but Kuro‘s purpose is not primarily humorous. (It’s not utterly serious, either, but it’s more of the usual manga mix of high drama and low comedy.)
OK, let me just come right out and say it: I didn’t really get Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro. It was pleasant enough to read, once I worked out which panels followed which, but the purpose of the story eluded me. Since you are not me, if you read this you may have more luck. The art’s very nice, though — detailed and energetic.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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