A key concept in comic publishing in Japan is the notion of the “rice manga”, the equivalent of Hollywood’s concept of a “tentpole release”. When you pick up your weekly, telephone-book-sized copy of Shonen Jump at the newsstand, there’s typically one or two titles in there that get read by just about everyone, simply because they’re either universally popular or breezy fun or both.
Based on the fact that I tore into volume ten of Kurohime within seconds of pulling it out of the envelope, I think it’s safe to say that Kurohime’s become one of my rice manga. The first couple of volumes didn’t impress me that much, but — surprise, surprise! — it’s won me over. No, it’s not as deep or emotionally resonant as Urasawa’s Monster or 20th Century Boys, or as overwhelming as Berserk, or … you get the idea. But it is fun, unapologetically so, and I’ve grown fond of the way it swirls together a freeform mix of traditional Japanese cultural tropes and shonen-action conceits. This is why I’m writing about Kurohime #10 before Urasawa’s Pluto #2, although I suspect the only people I would offend by doing so would be me and one other guy I know who will forgive me anyway.
So much of what happens in volume 10 only further underscores just how much Kurohime herself has changed since the series kicked off. In the first few books, she was self-important and vainglorious to the point where we cared more about her sidekick Zero. Then a funny thing happened: she grew up. Irony, however, turned out to be an even bigger bitch than Kurohime herself; now that she’s actually worthy of Zero’s affection and wants to reciprocate it, Zero has been turned into a heartless shadow of himself.
Kurohime’s quest has led her to the city of Ōedo, where the father of one of her traveling companions, Kazama the samurai, holds court. Unfortunately, it’s also where several of Kurohime’s old enemies — the self-proclaimed “Kurohime Punishment Squad” — have converged to pay her back a whopping cartload of karma. As much as Kurohime’s friends would like to protect her from the consequences of her past actions, all debts must be paid in full. Many of those folks ought to be familiar to anyone who’s followed the series thus far — e.g., Saika, the staggeringly handsome (bordering on feminine) young man from volume 2 … whom we learn is now missing the one bit of his anatomy that would in fact distinguish him from a woman at all.
Most of the book is one giant, far-ranging action scene, with Kurohime trying to dodge witch-bullets being fired by a sniper in hiding, and her new friends tangling with her old enemies all over the map. Eventually, as it has been in previous volumes, the most crucial and weighty choices lie with Kurohime herself. She can use the power of Kairyu, the giant Time-Eater, to go back into the past and revisit Zero as he once was — but at the very real cost of destroying herself forever if she changes anything. It doesn’t take her long to say yes: a life without love isn’t much of a life at all, so any possibility of recapturing that is better than none. And with this decision, the second major arc of the comic ends — with the next installment not due until May, but based on the blurb in the back it promises to be a doozy.
The remaining third of the book is the first part of one-shot gaiden or side story, a peek into Kurohime’s past. When she was first turned into the all-but-powerless “Himeko” as punishment for her revolt against the gods, she ended up in “Rengoku”, a kind of purgatory for those who have had something stolen away from them by Heaven. In her case, it’s her ability to know and reciprocate love, so what we see here is essentially a redux of the bratty, me-first-and-gimme-gimme Himeko from the early part of the series. If she wants to get out of Rengoku, she’ll need to learn to value someone other than her own sweet little self (lots of luck with that!). I should add that there is a plot element in this side story that has to be seen to be believed, a gag involving a giant cow-woman and the punch line “Hooray for boobies!” that I both laughed at and hated myself for having laughed at. You hadda be there.
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. But with the wide-gauge action scenes, the style ratchets up anywhere from one to three notches and becomes something worth blowing up and framing. It’s that good.
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: Funny how I’ve gone from being marginal about this series to an avid reader, if only because I could never have seen it coming. The best things about Kurohime — its heart and its heroine’s evolution — are winning out, even if the whole thing is still leavened with the kind of goofy situational humor you can get most anywhere else.