Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro, Vol. 5

By Satoko Kiyuduki. Released in Japan as “Hitsugi Katsugi no Kuro – Kaichu Tabi no Wa” by Houbunsha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Manga Time Kirara. Released in North America by Yen Press.

It can at times be rather hard to believe that this mostly dark and surreal fantasy series can come from the same author as GA Art Design Class, a 4-koma series about the adventures of five girls in art college. But there are moments when the two series seem to connect more than you’d expect. Kiyuduki frequently believes in “show, don’t tell” in regards to not only her plot but also her characterization, leaving the reader to guess much of what’s going on; we sometimes see this with The Professor in GA. Likewise, Kisaragi’s surreal and sometimes unnerving dream sequences could easily fit into Kuro – indeed, Kisaragi and Kuro look similar enough that you could headcanon this as one long nightmare she’s having. Because it does feel more and more like a nightmare – Kuro’s not getting as many fluffy stories as it did back in Volume 1.

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Part of the reason for that might be that this volume gives us a lot more background on the witch that has supposedly cursed Kuro – we see what may be a sort of origin story for her, and a story where we see her own journeys, which appropriately mirror Kuro’s. But I think it’s simply that almost all the stories in this volume deal with death and being unable or unwilling to move on. Three very different young women meet unfortunate ends but want to leave something behind. A balloon race seems to literally end up in heaven. Kuro, Nijuku and Sanju end up in a valley where perspective and illusions seem like an optional extra, and Kuo once again cannot let go of what she regards as the things that make her what she is – her hat and coffin. Even the happiest story in this volume involves a cursed painter whose subjects all seem to die right after they’re painted. Luckily, Kuro can’t seem to die, so that’s one problem solved.

The second half of the book gets even more chilling, at times almost seeming to descend into pure horror. Two sisters are offered a grim bargain by the Witch, and Kuro has to deal with the consequences, once again taking on someone else’s suffering into her own body. b The last story introduces us to what seems like another in Kuro’s long line of spunky female merchant girls she seems to run into, only to find that reality is murderously different. And this also gives us the reason for Kuro’s journey. Yes, she’s trying to seek death, but in order to do that, she has to take in life as well, because without life death is meaningless. It’s something that the witch doesn’t quite understand, and even Kuro isn’t really confident in her feelings till the end of this book. But it’s true, and also a reminder of the depth and quality of the stories in this volume. Anyone who likes dark, thoughtful fantasy should be reading this, no exceptions.

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