Reviewby Casey Brienza, Jun 4th 2008
Shoulder a Coffin, Kuro
Who is that androgynous. black-clad personage with a coffin on its back and a bat by its side? Though at times mistaken for a boy, the protagonist of the piece is in fact a young woman whose name, at least sometimes, is Kuro. Seemingly cursed by a stain of blackness, she wanders the world in search of a witch. Which, incidentally, she does not seem able to find. What she does find, however, are two catgirl sisters for companions and a number of other interesting personal encounters along the way. Benevolent herbalists, kindly shopkeepers, elderly serial exaggerators, and happy-go-lucky itinerant performers might not assist her in her quest, but perhaps they lighten, for a time, the load Kuro so nobly bears.
Those who know me know that moé is always a hard sell in the best of situations (moreso than lolicon or shotacon, believe it or not, which at least have kinky explicit bits to keep things interesting)…and when it's combined with that oddly incidental, rambling narrative a la Yotsuba&!—to better centerpiece the unbearable cuteness of all the characters, of course—it fast becomes a site of undistinguished, nigh unbearable boredom. Sorry, but a story that's primarily about how cute someone, or several “someones,” can be when tossed into random, arbitrary sets of environments, one-off supporting characters, and scenarios barely ranks as a story at all to my mind.
Alas, Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro's narrative is vacant in exactly the anticipated moé way. To make matters worse, it also uses a 4-koma format—a bizarre, clunky stylistic choice which certainly doesn't help the mangaka develop a coherent storyline. And since the manga actually consists of narratives broken up by chapter, not by individual strips, I just don't see the point. Most of the strips don't even have comedic punch lines, which is just as well because nothing here is especially funny even when half-hearted stabs at humor are on rare occasions attempted. All in all, the format is confusing and cumbersome, and with a couple of exceptions, Satoko Kiyuduki never truly experiments with it to see how far she can push at its boundaries.
As you may have guessed by now, Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro is the work of a rookie. A promising one with excellent draftsmanship who has gotten cute catgirls down to a science (and if she continues to produce content for the manga industry, I wouldn't be surprised by leagues of rapid improvement in subsequent series), but a rookie nonetheless. There are several wasted opportunities here; the worst by far is not giving the snarky, hard-drinking bat Sen a better design. Okay, so the bat was there to provide a much needed bit of cynical levity. Yet why bother with a large cast of cute humanoid characters when the non-humanoid sidekick isn't cute too?
More complaints: the larger mystery behind Kuro's apparent plight and ultimate objective in her search for a (the?) witch does not get spun out in the most effective, suspenseful fashion. The chapters are not temporally linear, though this only gradually becomes apparent, and certain explanatory events early in the volume actually occur after those that appear later. Other chapters are totally ambiguous in their temporal placement. Yet rearranging the plot in this way does not seem to add anything to the reading experience besides vague annoyance. And when combined with hard to translate gender confusion that had me mentally trying (and failing—this was, my hats off to Yen Press, a well-adapted translation) to return the English prose to its original Japanese to figure out what had and had not been interpolated, I can't say I was having much fun.
This manga is definitely going to be one of those “Love It or Hate It” titles for most people, and whether you love it or hate it is going to depend upon how much appeal all things cute has for you. Is eye-candy enough? Be sure to ask yourself that question before shelling out your hard-earned $10.99 for Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro. I know I would much rather carry around an ever-present memento mori of a coffin on my own back for the rest of my life than spend a single second more of my discretionary leisure time reading manga like this one.
I would like to close out this review by noting, apart from its myriad textual flaws, that this is probably the best English-translated manga I have ever smelled. That's right, smelled. (Ask any book lover; she'll tell you how much this matters.) Thick, creamy white pages inked predominantly with swaths of flat black, especially around the margins of the panels, give this Yen Press release a distinctively tangy fragrance, and a liberal infusion of color pages adds a subtle note to an already intoxicating bouquet. If the volume had included a Japanese-style dustjacket instead of a chip-prone wrapper, it would have been veritable paratextual perfection.
Overall : C-
Story : D
Art : A-
+ An exceptionally beautiful production with attractive artwork and plenty of color pages.
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