July 28, 2009
by: Serdar Yegulalp
Prison breaks, fortune-telling, and unknown siblings: the course of true love never did run smooth.
Manga Description: When she went back in time to save her lover, Kurohime made a shocking discovery: Zero had a younger brother, Rei! But before she can discover the nature of their relationship, Kurohime and the boys are trapped in a colossal prison, where gangs of howling convicts fight to kill them, and hordes of undead live within the walls. Can they escape this terrible place? Meanwhile, an old ally... or someone they thought was an ally... reveals his shocking true form!
Content: (This section may contain spoilers.)
The hardest part of this job is figuring out when a series thatlooks like a dud is just a late bloomer. I didn’t get winner’s vibesfrom the first couple of volumes of Kurohime; the whole thingseemed like a one-note joke. But then by some happy set of accidents Iread later volumes, where there was not only a story and a theme but(gasp!) character development and (shock!) heart ‘n soul.Lo and behold, the dud blossomed into a delight—something I confirmedfor myself when I cashed in some soda bottles and filled the gaps in mycollection.
Now here we are at lucky volume thirteen, after ourheroine has been booted back through time and send sailinghead-over-D-cups through plot convolutions that would’ve reduced mostany other series to laughable irrelevance. What keeps this particularbook’s boat afloat is how everything that happens plugs directly backinto its major themes, Love and Forgiveness. Mushy to be sure, but hey,I like this kind of mushy—the sort where big things are atstake, and everyone involved has to make hard choices, and you still go "Awww!" It’s the sort of popcorn entertainment that I don’t mind getting stuck between my teeth.
As of #13, Kurohime’s been sent back in time to pre-emptively protect her future lover-to-be, Zero, from a fate worse than death. Tinkering with time is never a smart idea—those paradoxes’ll kill ya—and so Kurohime has to tread very lightly lest she give away the game and disrupt her own existence. But in the process she’s made a few discoveries, like the fact that Zero had a younger brother, Ray, around which his own fate revolves quite ominously. The cost of this wisdom is steep: she and the boys are betrayed, captured and packed off to a giant prison loaded with wall-to-wall evil of both the living and not-quite-dead varieties.
With no witch-guns, no help from the outside, and no way to get out short of dying horribly, Kurohime and her few friends have to improvise skin-of-the-teeth (and maybe flesh-of-the-gums) survival tactics. What they’re not counting on is a most unexpected source of help from beyond the grave—no, not the ghost of Elvis, but someone a little closer to home. Like so many of the plot-climaxing twists in this series, it’s unexpectedly touching and serves to advance Kurohime that much further as a character. Not that this hasn’t already happened, mind you. She’s still got that haughty, I’m-the-queen touch to her personality (which is always fun to watch, let’s face it), but it’s tempered by her new understanding of what love really is.
The last fourth of the book dives into a different plotline: Kurohime and Company head for a village where a fortune-telling girl named Himiko might be able to provide some clues about their respective fates. Problem is, there’s signs the girl’s a fraud—or at the very least is being milked ruthlessly by her mother, who values value money over truth (and the love of her own daughter to boot). Sadly, the conclusion for this episode isn’t as credible—it invokes one of those moments where a person’s motivations turns on a dime for the convenience of the plot.
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. Back in volume 2, the style of the “Wanted” posters and a couple of the chapter openers gleaned some of their stylistic kinks from classical Japanese sumi-e painting. But with the wide-gauge action scenes, the style ratchets up anywhere from one to three notches and becomes something worth blowing up and framing. It’s that good.
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 are the typical author’s introductory note, a two-page thank-you at the end (this was where the series shifted to yet another publisher back in Japan), and a two-page character summary.
The Bottom Line: What started as a fanservice-oriented fantasy has taken steps into new territory and made good on that promise. I’m probably always going to be of the opinion that Kurohime could have been played straight from the git-go, but the contrast between its earlier and later volumes mirrors the changes in its main character, too. And I’d bet that was by design.