June 04, 2008
by: Serdar Yegulalp
A series with potential starts to achieve it, as Kurohime goes looking for her lost love.
Manga Description: On their quest to resurrect Zero, Himeko and gang get dragged into a war between humans and mermaids. People have been catching mermaids and eating them, falsely believing their flesh would make them immortal. Unwilling to tolerate this meaningless massacre, Kaima, the chief of the merpeople, declares war! Can Himeko intervene and bring peace to the seas again?
Content: (This section may contain spoilers.)
I gotta be honest: At first, with Kurohime, my frustration overshadowed nearly everything else. From what I’d seen of volumes one and two, the series sported great potential but hadn’t quite achieved liftoff. Now, however, by volume 6, the story’s picked up plenty of speed and momentum, a fun mix of ultramodern shonen-manga attitude and ancient Japanese mythology. The latter grabs me a bit more than the former, but the fun of it is that both of those things are jammed together cheek-by-jowl on the same page (and often in the same frame). Most important, I was more interested in what was actually going on than what could be going on.
The opening couple of pages quite wisely run the voodoo down for everyone who didn’t feel like showing up earlier. Kurohime, the magical gunslinging witch, rebelled against the gods and was punished for her transgressions by having the vast majority of her powers sealed away. In her “powered-down”, “chibi” form, she’s Himeko, a bratty little girl who can barely summon enough energy to blow out a candle. Only true love can unlock the full gamut of her strength, and much to her own surprise she finds it in the form of Zero, a young man with a bit of gunslinging skill of his own. Zero’s death broke her heart, and now despite her diminutive form and minimal strength, she’s determined to find Zero’s spirit and bring him back to life.
Kurohime/Himeko’s not alone in her quest, although with allies like these … well, you can guess the rest of that sentence. The first is Onimaru—yes, the boorish gang leader from previous volumes, now transformed into a wan little doughy something-or-other with about as much power in his punch as your average wad of Silly Putty. The other is Asura, who normally looks like a young girl but whose true form is a demon—although she wisely holds off on using it unless it’s absolutely required. She’s far more useful to Himeko than Onimaru, but the nature of the quest ahead of them demands that Himeko does all the heavy lifting. Part of the fun involves Himeko trying to accomplish as much as she can with her limited power set: instead of using sheer brute force, she has to get creative. (When she falls off a cliff, she tries to fire off a grappling line but gets something far too short for the job—although she’s able to chain five or six of them together!)
Right from the beginning of this installment there’s plenty of evidence that the Kurohime of late isn’t the Kurohime of old. Yes, she still has a smart mouth on her and a twitchy temper (especially when it comes to Onimaru ogling her), but a good heart—as when she intervenes to save a bunch of baby turtles from being beaten to death by unruly teenagers. For this valor, she’s given an all-expenses-paid trip to the Dragon Palace at the bottom of the ocean, the Ryugūjō. From there, they might be able to get passage to Yamato, the island where Himeko might be able to find some deity-level help in her crusade—but there’s trouble in the form of the war-waging merfolk. They have a standing vendetta against human beings, who ruthlessly hunt merpeople for their flesh, believing one taste of it will make them immortal. (Most readers who know a thing or two about Japanese culture will recognize a lot of the cross-references—like how the game of tag is “Catch the Ogre” in Japan, something we learn about firsthand when Himeko gets tagged and turns into an ogre herself.)
The adjective that came to mind with the previous Kurohime books was “picaresque”—here an adventure, there an adventure, with only Kurohime / Himeko, Zero, and maybe Onimaru as the regulars. Volume 6 follows sort of the same pattern, but this time there’s a bit more urgency to the story: Himeko has a goal, and is prepared to do just about anything to get her man back. Anything, up to and including forgetting that Zero ever existed—which, paradoxically enough, may be just what she needs to unseal her power. That conundrum’s our capper (and cliffhanger) for the whole volume, and dare I say it makes me thirsty for more.
Art: It’s in the art, interestingly enough, that I saw the first examples of how Kurohime was partly divided against itself back in the first book. 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. In volume 2, the style of the “Wanted” posters and a couple of the chapter openers glean some of their stylistic kinks from classical Japanese sumi-e painting. Hints like that make me wish the rest of the book was equally ambitious. And in this volume, things are kept equally simple and bold except when drama dictates otherwise (e.g., Himeko’s demonic transformation).
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. Notes in the margins also explain certain cultural references unobtrusively, and the book needs something like that given how many oblique connections there are to Japan’s mythology and history scattered throughout. The only bonuses this time around are the typical author’s introductory note and a two-page character summary.
The Bottom Line: My original iffyness about Kurohime is gone, now that the series has hit its stride and shown a bit more of what it can be. I like the mixture of shonen-action tropes (albeit with a female lead!) and mutant mythology, even if the series sometimes leans more towards the former than the latter for most of what it puts on the page. The first volume or so still isn’t essential reading, but the rest of the series has taken strong steps towards that.