The other day I did my best to describe Kurohime to someone who’d never read it, and my description came out something like this: “It’s a romp through Japanese mythology and fantasy, with shonen action scenes and hot girls, and tons of magic, and oh yeah, there’s a love story in there, too.” Small wonder their reaction amounted to a bit of a blank stare. As fun as Kurohime has shaped up to be (especially after the shaky first couple of volumes), it doesn’t pigeonhole easily.
Volume nine gives us the “de-powered” witch gunslinger Kurohime and her gang of comrades now facing the snow goddess Yuki-Onna — she who holds one of the four Spirit Kings whose powers can help Kurohime liberate her lost love Zero from his spiritual bonds in the afterlife. (How’s that for a thumbnail plot recap?) They end up acquiring a most unusual ally — Yuki-Onna’s Yeti-like flunky, Yuki-Otoko. He’s stuck with his missus all these aeons, even if Onna’s idea of love runs parallel to Kurohime’s original notions of same: why settle for the love of only just one man when you can have ‘em all? (Especially when you can flash-freeze them and store them for later?) Thing is, Kurohime knows better by now. The real and true love of one is always better than the love of many in the abstract — something she learned from Zero, which is all the more reason she’s fighting to liberate him. (Wait: Kurohime, learning? Becoming a better person? Perish the thought!)
Too bad when he turns up — on the arm of his captor, the demoness Yashahime — he’s nothing but a zombifed husk of what he used to be. With that, Kurohime finds herself in an even greater pinch than usual, since the only way she can unlock the full extent of her powers is by sacrificing, one by one, her memories of Zero. With the last of those memories gone, her whole reason for loving Zero will evaporate as well. Wait — it gets worse. If Yashahime isn’t just yanking Kurohime’s chain, Zero had a heart of darkness all along — one that has just until now been carefully obscured. And so a brutal magical battle pits Kurohime against both Yashahime and the shadow version of her former lover, with witch-bullets, improvised magic, spellcasting and … true love.
As I said, for many people it’ll come off as a strange mix, even if they’ve been following along since the beginning. I always wondered if the “action” and “emotion” sides of the story weren’t contradicting each other: after all, how often do the people who come in seeking one also want the other? Then again, look at all the A-list shonen titles: Death Note, Naruto, Bleach, Claymore. All of them have some kind of emotional conflicts to go with their physical ones — just not as focused on Love with a capital L as this one is. And with the end of this volume, there’s a hint that we’re about to be thrown into another major phase of the story — one at least as major as the sealing away of Kurohime’s powers. You can’t say they don’t keep moving forward.
Art: It’s in the art, interestingly enough, that I saw the first examples of how Kurohime was partly divided against itself back in the first book. Most of the art’s in a simplified (if skillfully-rendered) shonen-manga style, but when Kurohime manifests in her full adult form, she’s rendered with the detail (and salaciousness) of a more seinen / mature title. In other words, the rest of the book could look like that, but they just chose not to draw it that way — it’s a case of form following function, I guess. But even the stripped-down art style is more than decently done; Katakura (sorry, I’m not retyping that whole name each time) has a great command of clean lines and especially the use of tone shading. Back in volume 2, the style of the “Wanted” posters and a couple of the chapter openers gleaned some of their stylistic kinks from classical Japanese sumi-e painting. Hints like that make me wish the rest of the book was equally ambitious. And in this volume, things are kept equally simple and bold except when drama dictates otherwise (e.g., Himeko’s and Zero’s transformations).
Translation: Most of Viz’s mainstream titles are translated to be read straight through, with minimal annotation. Kurohime actually breaks from that tradition a bit: it’s right-to-left, with dialogue and effects retouched, but many on-the-page effects involve kanji in stylistic ways — like the magical sigils that appear around Kurohime’s gun barrels when she fires her witch bullets — and those have been left untouched or annotated as unobtrusively as possible. Notes in the margins also explain certain cultural references unobtrusively, and the book needs something like that given how many oblique connections there are to Japan’s mythology and history scattered throughout. The only bonuses are the typical author’s introductory note and a two-page character summary.
The Bottom Line: I did have mixed feelings about this series at first, but it’s pulled itself together into a neat little package. I admit it doesn’t have anywhere near the punch of Claymore (another Shonen Jump Advanced title), but it’s a nifty mix of concepts and influences. And darn it all, I like how it’s shaping up. And Kurohime is cute. Can’t forget to mention that at least once here.