Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 12th 2011
Mikito Sakurai is a high school weakling who just wants to be stronger. When an impish creature named Zakuro appears in Mikito's subconscious and offers him an "ogre seed," the boy not only gains the strength he's looking for—but also the monstrous appetite of an ogre. Fearful of his new powers, Mikito leaves his hometown, joining up with an ogre hunter named Kugai and hoping he can learn to control his bloodlust. Unfortunately, that bloodlust is unleashed when Mikito has to fight a powerful creature that feasts on ogres. Zakuro comes to help at the last minute, but now Kugai and Gogyo—another fellow ogre-hunter—have witnessed his destructive potential. Together, they team up with a band of fighters called the White Claw and seek out some answers about Mikito's unusual ability to wield ogre powers while remaining human. But do the higher authorities have something planned as well?
In a previous installment of Kurozakuro, Yoshinori Natsume wrote that he envisioned the storyline as one that would keep readers guessing from one chapter to the next. So far, the series has stayed true to that vision, unfolding in unexpected ways (Mikito's never going to see his high school pals again, is he?) and treating us to an ever-expanding universe. But this has also resulted in a hit-or-miss adventure, and Volume 4 is no different in that respect. While some chapters build up the plot and thicken the intrigue about the burgeoning ogre war, others are simply action-packed firecrackers that generate a lot of noise and burn out too soon. And so the quality of Kurozakuro fluctuates along with these changing moods.
The noisy firecracker approach is how this volume begins, finishing up the second half of a fight between Mikito and the "ogre-eater" Suguri. Its main value to the storyline is in showing what horrors Mikito is capable of when the little imp inside his head takes over and crosses into the real world. But that chilling revelation is overshadowed by the sheer bombast of the fight—the intense bruality might be fun for getting one's pulse racing, but it's also a distraction from watching the story develop.
Fortunately, once Mikito and friends settle down to plan their next move, the plot returns to Natsume's original intention of keeping everyone on their toes. The arrival of the White Claw faction adds a new twist to the ogre-hunter network, showing that not only are there hunters (Kugai) and hunters of hunters (Gogyo), but that they don't always listen to what headquarters tells them (the White Claw). Even more unexpectedly, their decision to take Mikito to a proving ground is not just some punch-rocks-as-hard-as-possible training session, but a unique puzzle designed to test the protagonist's mental faculties (answers to be revealed in Volume 5).
The only letdown about the new arrivals is that they're very much stock characters—the fighter, the ninja, the pair of goth-loli girls—and by the time they run into some opposition, Natsume seems to be straining to come up with powers and weapons for everyone. While it's fun to discover the skills of the White Claw's combatants, as well as the sinister abilities of the rival Black Thorn faction, there's also this feeling of "Come on, let's just get through this fight so we can reveal the dark secret that relates to Mikito." Thus, the volume ends the way it began, with loud battle scenes that are impressive in their bloodiness but mere ornaments to the storyline.
While waiting for those battle scenes to die down, though, one can still admire the intensity of the art—if there's ever a shortage of black ink in the manga industry, just blame Yoshinori Natsume, because he's the one employing all those shadows and black fills. The Shonen Sunday imprint might be best known for the soft lines and tones of Rumiko Takahashi and Mitsuru Adachi, but here we see the opposite: sharp spikes and jags, thick-lined penstrokes, and intense contrasts of black and white. This robust artistic style comes with a price, though: the character designs lack subtlety and sometimes even look anatomically stiff. The panel layouts are stiff in a different way, with almost every scene framed by straight 90-degree angles. This might work for a seinen slice-of-life, but when the fight scenes come up, trying to box them in like that doesn't work—better to just let the flow of battle guide how each panel is shaped on the page.
As expected for an action series, the hardest translation job is actually that of retouching the sound effects—every pounding of fists and clash of metal must be accompanied by the right text in the right place. Generally, the replacement of Japanese characters with English sounds works all right, with lettering that's bold enough to fit the Kurozakuro aesthetic, although there are occasional hiccups where the same fonts seem to appear over and over. Meanwhile, the dialogue goes down pretty smoothly—there's one colloquialism that sounds a tad goofy ("Goster" as the informal for "Gogyo"?), but otherwise the script is a clear, straightforward adaptation.
With the story unfolding in this manner, perhaps the best response to "Is Kurozakuro getting good yet?" is another question: "Which part of Kurozakuro?" Some will look at the middle chapters of Volume 4 and say that the deepening intrigue about ogre-hunters, ogre-eaters, and just plain ogres (namely, Mikito) not only opens up new story paths but adds new layers to what's already there. Others may see the fight scenes that begin and end this volume and say that, while they may be visually and emotionally intense, they're also more showy than they need to be. And some may simply be cheering on the new characters (even if they are typical made-to-order action-adventure types). With so many points to focus on, the story is now fulfilling Yoshinori Natsume's wish: he's got everyone guessing what will come next. But it'd be nice if quality didn't have to be part of that guessing game too.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B-
+ Middle chapters reveal new layers of story about the ogre conflict, while bold visual styling adds to the overall energy.
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