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.
SHOULDER-A-COFFIN, KURO, VOLS. 1-2 • BY SATOKO KIYUDUKI • YEN PRESS • RATING: TEEN (13+)