Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro, Vol. 7

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

It is always lovely, especially in this age of experiencing media whose endings turn out to be trainwrecks, to see a series get it absolutely right. Everyone who has been reading the Kuro books should be absolutely satisfied by this ending, which wraps up everything we’d like to see and is probably the closest to a happy ending that this series was ever going to get. Indeed, this is lampshaded by a dream sequence showing us the Golden Ending of sorts, with Kuro cured and back to working for Sen, and you realize that no, you can’t just have that. It would ruin the story. And Kuro has been all about people’s stories, both in the reader collecting then as she and the kids make their journey, and also her own self-discovery, which also comes to a head here as she confronts Hifumi for the last time. But in the end, it’s Nijuku and Sanju who take the biggest steps, moving forward in a way that’s impossible for everyone else.

This is a volume that looks back as well as looking forward, especially in a chapter where Emily, a reporter trying to track down Kuro, comes across everyone else that Kuro’s come across on her journey, and what starts off with her terrifying ideas of the gender-ambiguous, vampiric Kuro and her beast-like children ends up being a series of interviews about how much Kuro, Nijuku and Sanju changed everyone they came into contact with. Including Emily, who never does get to meet Kuro but now desperately wants to, having seen just how much she’s affected everyone. That said, the first half of the book also presages the confrontation midway through, as Kuro’s creeping blackness, which we saw affecting Sanju last volume, is getting worse and worse. And then there’s Hifumi, who is having an identity crisis but also knows what she wants – those two kids.

The final half of the volume ends in a string of attempts at self-sacrifice, as Kuro and Hifumi confront each other, Hifumi in an effort to get to the two girls and Kuro in an effort to stop her, which pretty much involves trying to absorb her. This goes about as well as you’d expect, and between the two of them we get tragedy and realization… as well as a bit of closure, which is bittersweet but still has some sweetness in it. Kuro and Hifumi have always had that connection between them, and this merely reinforces it. In the end, though, neither one of them can be the ones to give Nijuku and Sanju a future – they have to make their own choice. Which they do, and it’s innocent and also sort of impossible and incredibly odd and ambiguous. Which is this entire manga in miniature, really.

This manga has been going for over ten years, with many stops and starts along the way, and another entire series by the same author (GA Art Design Class) in between. It’s a journey that will sound familiar to anyone who’s followed the title character, whose meandering was much the same. The author says there may be an eighth volume of short stories coming soon, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. Till then, though, enjoy what may be a perfect ending to this excellent series.

Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro, Vol. 6

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. Translated by Sheldon Drzka.

It has to be said, each new volume of this series has been more ominous than the last. It began alternating somewhat unnerving stories with occasional sweet fare, and there’s still a bit of bittersweetness in here, but as the reader slowly progresses through the book they are likely wondering how the author is going to end this without making the audience cry. Kuro, who has been spending her last few years trying to find the witch so that she can return to what she was, has now realized an important truth: regaining that will mean losing Kuro, effectively killing herself. And she isn’t ready to do that, even when offered the chance midway through. Meanwhile, Nikuju and Sanju are still soaking up the world, but they’re also increasingly worried about Kuro, who may be literally coming apart. Are they the key to everything? And why do I have a bad feeling about that?

We do get the occasional ‘traditional’ Kuro tale here as well, with Kuro running into someone trying to solve problem ‘x’ and helping them out, only to turn out that the helper was part of the problem all along. The story with the ghost and the photographer brought a smile to my face, though I will admit it was a wistful smile. There is also an extended interlude in an all-girls’ school, which Kuro has infiltrated (this came out the same week as Murcielago 4, which has the same plotline, and the justaposition makes me shudder to imagine the crossover) in order to investigate something that sounds similar to her witch but is instead tied to the same sorts of things you’d expect at a Japanese school for young ladies: status, bullying, and fear. It’s a high point of the volume, and for once doesn’t seem to end in half tragedy.

That said, I suspect most people are going to have stronger feelings about the story in the middle and at the end, dealing with Kuro’s past and future. Seeing Sen and Kuro in the illusive city in the middle of nowhere is intentionally dream-like, and I had assumed the author was, as usual, not quite letting us see the ‘old’ Kuro’s face, which helped set up the impact of the panel where we do. It’s very well-drawn. And then there’s the last two sequences, which are almost pure horror, as Kuro’s confrontations with Hifumi grow more and more ominous, and Sanju decides to help her, even if it may mean sacrificing her own innocence.

The author has said that the next volume should be the last, though I’m uncertain when it will be out – this one took a year and a half, so it may be about the same. It’s probably for the best – Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro is something to savor at special occasions, like a 40-year-old scotch, rather than a manga where you drink fast and move on to the next one. I don’t think Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro is going to end with full-blown depressing misery, but I do think it will be sad, and I expect tears may gather in the eyes.

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.


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.