House of 1000 Manga The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service
by Shaenon K. Garrity,
Psychic. Dowsing. Hacking. Embalming. Channeling. Puppet. Each cover of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service advertises the unique skills possessed by each of the five-and-a-half members of its titular startup. Individually they're just weirdoes, but together they're…a group of weirdoes. Weirdoes who collect gruesome corpses and tote them around Japan, and sometimes overseas, and get them up and walking just long enough to exact vengeance from beyond the grave.
The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is a manga made just for me. My interests, when I'm not reading manga, include a) graphic horror, b) dry comedy, c) paranormal tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories, d) urban legends, and e) puppetry. Kurosagi features all these things, plus it's a manga. So it's got that going on.
Writer Eiji Otsuka is a man of diverse if macabre interests; his probably-written-by-a-non-native-English-speaker Wikipedia entry claims that in college he studied “anthropology, women's folklore, human sacrifice and post-war manga.” In addition to Kurosagi, he pens the Dexter-like horror/suspense manga MPD Psycho, about a police detective who secretly harbors a serial-killer alter ego. Kurosagi has the gore of MPD Psycho, expertly rendered in artist Housui Yamazaki's slick, lovingly detailed seinen-manga style, but instead of grimly dramatic it's darkly, archly funny. (It also has less of the sexualized violence against women that characterizes MPD Psycho…though it's there.) It's a horror manga that could accurately be described as “quirky.”
But I should get back to the characters, because it's mostly about the characters. Kuro, more or less the protagonist, is a student monk with a shaved head who has the power to communicate with the recently dead. Tough-guy Makoto is a dowser, but he can only dowse for corpses. Ao is the team leader and computer expert, as well as your requisite hot science lady in glasses. Cute little sweetloli maven Keiko is an embalmer—a rare profession in Japan, the manga points out, where the dead are usually cremated. And Yuji, a quiet fellow who seems to share his author's nerdy, out-there interests, has only one apparent paranormal power: the ability to channel Kere Ellis, a foul-mouthed space alien who speaks to Earthlings via a hand puppet Yuji wears at all times. There's no real evidence that Kere Ellis is an actual alien intelligence and not just Yuji speaking through a puppet, but he's pretty smart and informed, so the others accept his presence.
All of them (well, except for Kare Ellis) are students at a Buddhist university, which functions like most Christian universities in the West: there are students of divinity, like Kuro, but most are just there for a college education. Being broke, the kids hit on a business idea suited to their unique talents: they'll find corpses, interview them about any unfinished business, and deliver them to their preferred final resting place. This is, of course, a terrible business model. Even assuming the Corpse Delivery Service can find a steady supply of dead people with unresolved issues lying around—this being a manga, of course they do just that—the dead generally don't have any way of paying them. But they got themselves matching jackets and a delivery hearse, so they're sticking with the plan. Eventually they hook up with Sasayama, a seedy cop who hopes to use them to make a little side money from the bodies that show up at his department. (Sasayama is also a character in MPD Psycho, but here he's older and missing a leg, which suggests his iteration in MPD Psycho may have some rough times ahead.)
And so begins a potentially endless series of corpse-delivery jobs. As in a prime-time crime drama, the plots are frequently ripped from the headlines, but just as often—or even simultaneously—borrowed from ghost stories, folklore (women's folklore?), urban legends, science fiction, and Fortean obsessions like crop circles and Kaspar Hauser. The prototypical Kurosagi plot combines horror ancient and modern: a cloning project produces jinmenso (“human-faced wounds”), traditional Japanese professional mourners run up against suicidal bloggers, hostess clubs meet astral projection meet Osaka-style comedy duos, soap people (look it up) lead to a story involving the Rape of Nanking. (Kurosagi is, among the many other things it is, one of the few manga I've encountered that mentions Japan's war atrocities during WWII.)
The early volumes tend to place a stronger emphasis on the “horror” part of “horror comedy”; later, Otsuka seems to be trying to outdo himself in outlandish concepts and imagery. Is a cave full of heads in oversized vending-machine capsules weird enough for you? No? How about a robot driven by the brain of a dead otaku, rampaging through the old-school geek shopping paradise Nakano Broadway? How about mind-controlling Mickey Mouse hats? And wouldn't all these things be improved by zombies?
Seventeen volumes in, Kurosagi is still largely an episodic manga, with the team dealing with the corpse-of-the-week over the course of a few chapters before moving on to the next job. But a running story has developed as the manga probes its oddball cast of characters. We learn that the members of the delivery service (Kare Ellis possibly excepted) dealt with death early in life, and this may not be coincidence. And we keep getting hints about the ghostly figure that periodically appears behind Kuro, a figure only the reader can see but Kuro seems to sense. The team also acquires its natural arch-rival, a paranormally gifted corpse-removal and cleaning service. You know, like in the indie movie Sunshine Cleaners. Maybe you didn't see Sunshine Cleaners.
Kurosagi is published by Dark Horse, and that means a couple of extra bonuses: attractive production values and an editing job by the legendary Carl Gustav Horn. Horn, the Douglas Hofstadter of manga translation, gets looser with his rewrites than some fans would prefer, but when he's teamed with a manga-ka who shares his dark, erudite sense of humor—the kind of humor that gets obliterated in a literal translation—the result is magic. Only in a Carl Horn-edited manga would we get dialogue like:
“You think we'd be in the black, like the pooled, livid blood of our customers…but instead we're in the red…like the fresh flow from a future client.”
“Even as children, you were afraid of clowns…yet you never knew why! But here, tonight—feeble and crusty—in the dimming hours of your lives—I will at last show what it is that you fear! For it is a clown who shall determine…which of you will be the first to die!”
“What do we look like, Golgo 13? I mean, great manga, but where's the witty banter?”
And lots of manga include endnotes with translations of all the Japanese sound effects, but only a very special few include, in every volume, a three-page essay on the history of the katakana character set.
By now you can probably tell whether or not you'd enjoy The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. The elevator pitch “delivery service that talks to the dead, plus for some reason one of them is a space alien channeled through a hand puppet” ought to separate the sheep from the goats. Being an episodic manga, it has its ups and downs, its stories that don't quite work, but it's one of the ongoing series I most look forward to, in all its goofy, gruesome glory.
(And as long as I'm praising manga-industry folks, let me take this column to thank the great Deb Aoki, manga critic, editor, and general superfan, for loaning me many of the manga I cover in this column. I've got a lot of manga lying around, don't get me wrong, but Deb lives in a genuine House of 1,000 Manga and extends hospitality to all us weary pilgrims up the Otaku Zaka. Thank you, Deb!)
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