The Best Manga You’re Not Reading: Shoulder-a-Coffin, Kuro

Don’t be fooled by the kawaii covers: Shoulder-a-Coffin, Kuro is a melancholy little manga. The story focuses on an androgynous young woman on a pilgrimage. Kuro’s goal: to find the witch who inflicted a mysterious curse on her. Everywhere she goes, Kuro cuts a dramatic figure, wearing heavy black clothing, a Pilgrim hat, and a custom-sized coffin, which she straps to her back. Though she begins her journey with only a talking bat for a companion, she soon adds two members to her traveling “family”: Nijuku and Sanju, a pair of genetically engineered nekomimi whose creator was brutally murdered.

Kuro’s story is told primarily through four-panel, black-and-white strips, with full-color pages marking the beginning of each chapter. The format imposes a certain rhythm on the material that occasionally makes Shoulder-a-Coffin, Kuro a little too talky; I found myself wishing that Satoko Kiyuduki had allowed her spiky, expressive artwork to play a more prominent role in the storytelling. But the format also frees her from the constraints of a linear narrative, allowing the story to unfold in a less schematic, more relaxed fashion. The predominant mood is wistful bordering on elegiac; Kuro is always mindful that Nijuku and Sanju are too naive to understand what befell their creator, and worries what will happen to them at the end of their journey. Kuro, too, faces an uncertain future, as her body is slowly consumed by a deadly illness.

The jacket copy promises “all the whimsy of the most memorable fairy tales,” but I think that misses the point — if anything, Shoulder-a-Coffin, Kuro eschews whimsy in favor of dark complexity; anger and fear inform the behavior of many people Kuro meets in her travels, the threat of violence lurking just below the surface of their interactions. To be sure, the somber mood is lightened by plenty of broad comedy as various characters mistake Kuro for a vampire, a demon, a gravedigger, or — quelle horreur! — a boy. But even these comic moments are tinged with sadness: Kuro often finds herself cast out of towns, branded a witch, a weirdo, or worse, even though the residents are happy to profit from her skills.

Ultimately, it’s this mixture of melancholy and humor that makes Shoulder-a-Coffin, Kuro such a compelling read. The story never succumbs to mawkishness or easy sentiment, yet at the same time, it dares to tug a little at the heartstrings. Not everyone will find the series’ odd tone to their liking, especially those in search of a breezy riff on Western fairy tales. But for those looking something more thought-provoking — the kind of story that lingers in your mind after you’ve finished reading it — I highly recommend Kuro.

This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared at PopCultureShock on 4/29/08.


13 thoughts on “The Best Manga You’re Not Reading: Shoulder-a-Coffin, Kuro”

  1. David Welsh says:

    I’m so delighted that you wrote this, since I love this series very much and you described its merits so, so well. The two volumes have a place of pride on my chaotic bookshelves. I wish Kiyuduki had stuck with this series rather than moving on to more commercial fare (four to six girls share an interest of some sort!), but I’ll always be grateful for what’s available.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      Thanks, David! I’ve almost forgiven Kiyuduki for abandoning Kuro to work on GA: Ghastly Artschool. Almost.

    2. Jade Harris says:

      Ok, I grabbed some more accurate dates on the subject of Kuro and GA in my comment below. I think I got a date wrong for Hidamari Sketch the last time we talked about that, it actually came out in 2004 when I thought it was 2006.

      1. Katherine Dacey says:

        Well, nuts. So much for my theory that commerce trumped art. Maybe Kiyuduki didn’t know how to bring the series to a conclusion?

        1. Jade Harris says:

          We can’t really know for sure without talking to Kiyuduki. It’s definitely possible that money eventually put Kuro on hiatus to focus on games and GA, but in the current manga industry that’s usually the difference between being able to eat or not.

  2. Jade Harris says:

    I love Kuro. I never realized it was anything like a 4-panel comic until about halfway into the second volume.

    It’s too bad it cuts off, but I don’t think that was Kiyuduki’s fault. Kuro ran from Mar 27, 2006 to Jun 27, 2007 when it was put on hiatus and GA started in Sep, 2006 She was already doing GA for over half of Kuro’s run, so I’d say it’s a little unfair to say she outright abandoned Kuro for GA. It’s also worth mentioning that she’s been successful doing art for video games in the same misfit fantasy vein titles like Yggdra Union and Knights in Nightmare.

  3. Melinda Beasi says:

    I didn’t care for GA – Geijutsuka Art Design Class but this sounds really charming!

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      The art is similar, but that’s about it; tonally, they’re night and day.

  4. Darlus Knights says:

    I haven’t read this series, but I was going to start…
    Is is worth starting even though it may never be finished?
    I’m using my girlfriends email, so don’t judge the name.
    She often talks about mangas such as “Library Wars: love and war” , “vampire knight”, “kuro”, “glass mask”, “Darker Than Black”, “D.greyman”, and “fruit basket”.

    God don’t even get my started on some of the things she’s made me read.
    Lectures about my writing skills and how I don’t read enough, might just be the death of me…
    But she’s cute when she’s mad anyway…Probably why I can relate to the main guy in “library wars”

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      Shoulder-a-Coffin isn’t a particularly plot-driven series, so the lack of closure isn’t as frustrating as it might be with, say, a battle-oriented manga or a romance. If you can’t find it at the library, has copies of both volumes at a pretty steep discount (about 60%), which would be a pretty low-risk way to give it a shot. Here’s the link:

  5. lovelyduckie says:

    I bought, read, and reviewed this series recently. I was sad that the series ended, I was really pulled in by the end of volume 2 and wanted to know more. So after this series I tried the manga-ka’s other series about an art school (G.A.?) I started volume 1…it wasn’t bad but…it didn’t leave the last impression Kuro did.

  6. Joe says:

    I recently read through the two Yen Press volumes of Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro, and in searching for more commentary online I found this review, which I whole-heartedly agree with.

    I’m mostly writing to mention that it was reported in November of last year that the series would be continuing, and that Volume 3 recently appeared at #28 in Oricon’s Japanese top comic rankings for January. Here’s to hoping for a Western release!

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      Hi, Joe! Thanks for the information — that would be great if Yen Press published the third volume. I’d even settle for a digital-only volume, if that was the only way for us to get the next installment of the story.

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