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.
Sometimes, when I’m reading a series with as much ambiguity as this one, I find it difficult to discern which parts I should be picking apart as clues to what’s going on, and which parts I should just let wash over me as part of the overall mood. That’s slowly starting to go away – we get more information on Kuro, Sen and the witch here than in any previous volume – but there’s still large chunks of the story where I feel like I’m trying to connect the dots without a pencil. Luckily, the style and mood of the series are still superior, so it’s an excellent read even if I am sometimes baffled at what’s really going on.
The volume opens right away with a lot more info than previous ones, as we see a young, grumpy man meet a cute young girl who he reluctantly takes in as his apprentice. The girl is clearly meant to be a young, innocent(ish) Kuro, but the man eludes us at first, until the horrific cursing itself, which we finally see in a bit more detail, and which rebounds horribly on not just Kuro but her master as well. After this flashback, the story (seemingly) picks up where it left off in Volume 3, with Kuro still in a coma and Nijuku and Sanju patiently waiting for her while trying to deal with the fact that her face is starting to fade in their young memories the longer they wait.
Kuro has never been a bright and upbeat series (it’s a contrast with the overtly happy and content GA Art Design Class), but this volume really seem to go above and beyond by dwelling on Kuro’s search for the one who cursed her, which also ties into what is clearly Kuro’s deathwish. We see several stories with Kuro traveling by herself, meeting people who are going on a long train journey, and she plans to go with them but doesn’t seem optimistic. Sure enough, as the train is about to leave she realizes she suddenly left her hat and coffin – which she never lets leave her sight – outside on the platform. You don’t have to read Night of the Galactic Railroad to know what this is a metaphor for.
Once awake and recovered, Kuro’s journey continues, but even then it seems to be a bit more fatalistic. She meets a young girl waiting for her parents who have never come home, and helps convince her to move on with her life. We see a long forgotten kingdom that destroyed itself in search of a perfection that doesn’t actually exist. And Sanju gets a nasty lesson regarding the fragility of things that are not her when she rips the arm off another girl’s cat by “playing too hard”, and they have to deal with the consequences. Kuro makes it very clear in this book that the two young girls she travels with are her “baggage” keeping her tied to this world, far more so than finding the witch who cursed her, and one worries what will happen when they finally have to part.
Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro comes out so infrequently that it can be a hard series to connect with at times, but when you do it rewards the connection handsomely, being thoughtful, intelligent, moody, and somewhat depressing. Kuro’s heavy coffin is a metaphor, but it’s also real, and seeing her without it feels deeply wrong. I do wonder if the next volume might be the last – we seem like we’re near the end of our journey. There will likely be a long wait till we find out, though.