September 04, 2007
by: Serdar Yegulalp
Answers the question: what exactly do you get when you blend shonen manga tropes with something a little, uh, spicier?
Manga Description: Kurohime, a witch with the power to control magical guns, once made the mistake of challenging the gods... and for her foolishness, she was cursed! The curse changed Kurohime into a little girl named Himeko, and now she can only regain her true form and her powers when she is in love.
After 10 years of living with this curse, Kurohime (in child form) meets a skilled gunfighter named Zero. It turns out that when Zero was a boy, Kurohime saved his life, and he's been in love with her ever since. Together, the two set out to find a way to permanently break the curse, but the wrath of the gods is not evaded so easily...
Content: (This section may contain spoilers.)
The diabolically sexy anti-heroine of Kurohime leers out at us from the cover of volume one, skintight outfit stretched over acres of curves. Then you open the book and find out she spends most of her time looking absolutely nothing like that, and if you shelled out $7.99 to goggle at some skin there’s a chance you’ll feel … cheated. There’s a good reason this book isn’t sold in shrinkwrap.
So what do you get for your $7.99? Well, Kurohime takes a premise that would normally be turned into something “dark” and “edgy” and stands it on its head for laughs. This is never a bad idea in the abstract—after all, there’s enough “dark” and “edgy” material out there to keep the manufacturers of black eyeliner in business for decades, so why not turn that stuff upside down and see what falls out? Incidentally, the whole thing has been penned and written by someone with the single best name I’ve seen in manga since Oh! great (Ogureito): Masanori • Ookamigumi • Katakura. (Yes, the dots are on the original copyright page, too.)
The story takes place in and around a pastiche of a variety of settings—mainly the Wild West, but with a little feudal Japan and some medieval Europe thrown in mostly for local color. We have Zero, the young hero, saved from certain death at the gun of a highwayman by none other than the legendary Kurohime, the Gun Enchantress—she who uses “witch ammunition” to deal out death and destruction to all who stand in her way, which is, like, pretty much everyone who’s not actually her. The kid goes ga-ga for this death-angel of mercy, and as luck would have it he meets up with her again ten years later … after she’s been rumored to have been dead for quite some time!
She’s not dead, as you can imagine. Seems she bragged a bit too much about her powers, and incurred the wrath of Heaven: the gods have cursed her to look like a ten-year-old girl, and she has been hiding out in that guise ever since. The only time she looks like the real Kurohime (and has any of her powers, to boot) is when she feels love—which, as you can probably guess, is about as rare a sentiment for Kurohime as finding rocking horse poop in a nursery. Leave it to Zero to let his affection for her draw those feelings out of her in return, and allow her to transform and deal out fourteen shades of unholy butt-whoopin’ to anyone who gets in their way. Too bad she can’t stay that way, since after only a few minutes of being in that body, the adult Kurohime’s heartlessness kicks back in, and poof! she’s a Size 2 all over again.
Kurohime makes no secret about what she really wants: to throw off the chains of her curse, take revenge on Heaven for inflicting this on her, and (this part is optional but fun) bend the will of every red-blooded man alive to serve her. She’ll start with Zero and work her way up from there—after all, the kid’s got kind of naïve charm that she savors in a man, and is pretty handy with guns himself. As in, he wields four guns, all at the same time, but has a notion that he’s meant to use them as weapons of justice and not vengeance or cruelty. This leads to one of the best exchanges in the book, shouted out as they’re running from a mutual enemy:
Kurohime: “Shoot ‘em down!”
Zero: “I can’t! I don’t kill people! These guns aren’t for killing—they’re for helping people!”
K: “Then help me by killing them!”
Z: “That’s not how it works!”
Said enemy, by the way, is Onimaru, victim of one of Kurohime’s own curses once upon a time, and carrying a mean torch for her. The last thing he expects is to find a chibi-sized version of her, and the other last thing he expects is to find some kid stumping for her defense. And as we learn, the full extent of Zero’s power also doesn’t emerge until he’s shooting some of Kurohime’s bewitched bullets. That only happens when she’s in “full-size” mode, so in order for them to do more than run for their lives they have to find ways to inspire each other emotionally.
What’s oddest about Kurohime is the tone of the whole thing— in some respects it’s too risqué for younger readers, but weirdly juvenile in others. It’s probably another example of cultural attitudes in Japan vs. English-speaking territories: what’s unacceptably racy to us is simply no big deal to them. I’m curious to see if the tone becomes a little less self-consciously cute over the following volumes, or if it’ll remain akin to an oil-and-water mix. It’s a fun read, but it’s still very odd to see elements that really belong in a manga with a more mature plotline.
Art: It’s in the art, interestingly enough, that I saw the first examples of how Kurohime was partly divided against itself. Most of the art’s in a simplified (if skillfully-rendered) shonen-manga style, but when Kurohime manifests in her full adult form, she’s rendered with the detail (and salaciousness) of a more seinen / mature title. In other words, the rest of the book could look like that, but they just chose not to draw it that way—it’s a case of form following function, I guess. But even the stripped-down art style is more than decently done; Katakura (sorry, I’m not retyping that whole name each time) has a great command of clean lines and especially the use of tone shading.
Translation: Most of Viz’s mainstream titles are translated to be read straight through, with minimal annotation. Kurohime actually breaks from that tradition a bit: it’s right-to-left, with dialogue and effects retouched, but many on-the-page effects involve kanji in stylistic ways—like the magical sigils that appear around Kurohime’s gun barrels when she fires her witch bullets—and those have been left untouched or annotated as unobtrusively as possible. But there’s nothing in the way of bonuses or additional notes save the usual one-page word from the artist.
The Bottom Line: Kurohime’s one of those titles that I had a bit of a hard time pinning down—it’s an odd mix of juvenile and more mature comic tropes, with the younger-audience stuff winning the upper hand. But that also makes it all the more weirdly interesting, and it at least doesn’t make the mistake of veering into such lurid territory that it has no conceivable audience at all. Let’s see where this goes.