Reviewby Gabriella Ekens,
The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service [Omnibus]
Kuro Kuratsu is terminally unemployable. As an average student at a Buddhist University, he has no marketable skills to speak of—besides his ability to commune with the dead. For as long as Kuratsu can remember, he's heard voices emanating from dead bodies. When this comes to light, a number of his fellow employment-challenged schoolmates – hacker Ao Sasaki, dowser Makoto Numata, embalmer Keiko Makino, and spirit channeler Yuji Yata – rope him into their macabre new business venture: a company that fulfills the last wishes of discarded corpses found around Tokyo. With Kuratsu's help, the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service solves the mysteries of the recently deceased for fun and dubious profit. It's hard to make a steady living when your clients are no longer in the mortal realm, but at least they're making bank on the karmic stock market.
It takes something special for a procedural to stand out from the pack nowadays. When half of what comes out is some variation on “[blank] solves crimes,” you have to have something good to sell your variation on the formula. Published in English since 2006, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service has had a long life by these standards, and I can see why. Wonderfully illustrated, consistently entertaining, and rooted in a distinctly Japanese conception of death, this manga has both the hook and the quality to back it up. Dark Horse has been publishing this series for nearly a decade now (they're currently on 14 tankoban out of 20), but they've just recently begun re-releasing it in omnibus format. Had this only been the first volume, when the story was at its most episodic and cliché, I wouldn't have ended up liking Kurosagi Corpse Delivery service as much as I did. Fortunately, this book contains the first three volumes, totaling about 600 pages of content. The next two volumes hit a mine of fascinating material, like a company that lets you exact revenge on an executed murderer by dismembering their reanimated corpse, or a mutually consensual competitive murder-suicide club. The stories move forward at a brisk enough pace that even a singular dud won't ruin a volume. At the same time, every page still has something to mull over, be it a funny exchange, a thrilling reveal, or a lovingly rendered drawing of a nude corpse.
Kurosagi's staffers, while strangers to Kuratsu in the beginning, soon develop a comfortable repertoire. As the center of the group, Kuratsu often takes the role of the straight man. Maikano has a cute design but fades into the background for these first three volumes. Instead, Numata, Yato, and Sasaki quickly become the most prominent members. Out of these three, Numata and Yata serve as comic relief, while Numata is a punk whose skills at dowsing – a supernatural method of locating underground sources of water – invariably point to deceased human flesh. Yata is a “spirit channeler” who claims to be possessed by a space alien, Kere Ellis. Kere speaks through a puppet on Yata's left hand and isn't helpful at all – mostly he berates the group and gets timid Yata into trouble. It's ambiguous whether Kere is actually just Yata's split personality, but that might be a little too outlandish for this manga about serial killers, spirits, and reanimated corpses. (Multiple personalities are also hardly an unfamiliar concept to author Eiji Otsuka, who also wrote MPD-Psycho.) Sasaki serves as the eye candy and also happens to be personally involved in several cases. In this first omnibus, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is hardly a character drama, but it does succeed at establishing a likable crew.
The human figures have an awkward, anthropological quality to them, like the diagrams used in autopsy reports. While I might criticize this quality in another series, it enhances rather than distracts from Kurosagi's intended tone. It also reminds me a bit of Osamu Tezuka's art for Black Jack, albeit much less cartoony. Like that clinical gorefest, Kurosagi is largely stark lineart ruptured by graphic drawings of human viscera, which look great. It's distinct and moody, but also not for everyone – especially the faint of heart. It might work best if you're a fan of clean graphic design. Dark Horse did an exceptional job recreating the series' distinct artistic covers, down to using an unusual paper stock. If you're interested in printed books as holistic works of art, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service comes highly recommended. As another bonus, every volume comes with detailed endnotes by the translator (Toshifumi Yoshida) and editor (Carl Gustov Horn). They exhaustively explain all of the sound effects (apparently “pita” represents “the sound of fingertips touching a corpse”) as well as aspects of Japanese culture that a Western reader may not understand. (There are also lots of irrelevant – if amusing – observations from Carl Horn. If you want to know his thoughts on grammar education, turn to the endnote 36. 1-4. Judging by the prevalence of insurance anecdotes, I wonder if he was in the process of buying a policy.)
On some level, I wouldn't call Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service a horror manga. Unlike the works of someone like Junji Ito, its primary aim isn't to terrify the reader. In fact, it spends more time trying to be funny than genuinely scary. This manga regularly depicts human bodies in various states of decay and mutilation, but the emphasis is rarely on the pain they may have experienced. Rather, the point is more about how unnerving it is to perceive the deceased human body as an object, a collection of parts. The author, Eiji Otsuka, says something similar in an afterword included with the second volume: “I thought it was odd how the walking dead had become such a normal sight in movies and video games – how much the idea of a zombie had been taken for granted. I wanted to get back to the way any real person would feel, should death's work appear to be unfinished.” According to this, the intended mood is an uneasy fascination with death and its surrounding practices. Each plotline dramatizes some social phenomenon related to death. These range from the folkloric (an early chapter is about ubasute, the supposedly ancient custom of leaving the elderly to die of exposure during times of famine) to urban legends (jingles that compel people to commit suicide.)
Beyond thrill seekers, the manga's target audience seems to be weirdos like Kuratso and friends – people who refuse to ignore and instead gaze into the omnipresence of death in society – although that may be underestimating this manga's appeal. It's popular enough to have been serialized in both shonen and seinen magazines since 2002. Maybe people want to look at death every once in a while, albeit in the controlled format of 30 pages a month. While dramatized, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is a sobering reminder of the ways in which modern society is still organized around death. But, you know, in a fun way!
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Distinct, eerie, and entertaining procedural, interesting window into Japanese funereal practices, great looking cover and recreation of the original graphic design, copious informative translation notes
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