I have a confession to make. Interested as I am in new players in the manga market, I haven’t delved too deeply into the catalogue of Yen Press. I admire Keiko Tobe’s educational soap opera, With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child, and I’m thrilled that they’ve absorbed ICE Kunion’s manhwa titles (particularly Goong and Forest of Gray City), but the rest of their titles seem kind of generic. And I can barely keep up with the generic manga I already enjoy. (If I’m missing something spectacular, please let me know.)
The one solicitation that was able to crack my indifference was Satoko Kiyuduki’s Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro. Between the charmingly odd title and the fact that it’s in the four-panel strip form, I had to take a look. I’m glad I did. I’m partial to low-key weirdness, and this title offers that quality with aplomb.
Taciturn Kuro is wandering the countryside toting a coffin and investigating rumors of a witch. She’s accompanied by a talking bat named Sen and, later, a pair of rambunctious, cat-like twins named Nijuku and Sanju. Between the coffin on her back, her secretiveness, and the almost-unrelieved black of her wardrobe, she’s not an especially winning presence, and she’s got too much on her mind to concern herself with charming strangers. She manages, though, in an unassuming way.
That’s because Kiyuduki has populated Kuro’s world with people who are kind and curious rather than superstitious and stingy. They share information, and turn to Kuro with their problems, triggering gently uplifting adventures. Kuro’s got substantial burdens of her own, but she helps when she can. There’s a streak of benevolent self-interest to her adventures as well, and it’s fun to watch her multi-task.
If Kuro was merely glum and resolute, she’d be kind of dull. It’s nice that Kiyuduki gives her a sarcastic side and allows her to indulge in the occasional fit of temper. As for Sen, if you’ve seen one talking-bat sidekick, you’ve seen them all, but I tend to find talking-bat sidekicks welcome more often than not. Nijuku and Sanju are charming kids. They’re funny, inquisitive, and occasionally bratty, and Kiyuduki doesn’t overplay their moments of kid logic. Their growing dependence on Kuro and Kuro’s almost reluctant fondness for them is moving and subdued.
Kiyuduki’s illustrations are gorgeously cute, rich in detail with just enough darkness to suit the book’s tone. Character designs are imaginative, and Kiyuduki is particularly adept at facial expressions, from small, nuanced shifts to the full-on tantrums and wide-eyed wonder of the twins. Even without the generous sprinkling of color pages, the landscapes Kiyuduki creates are homey and welcoming.
Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro is one of those books that feels just right… the right blend of humor and sadness, clarity and myster, charm and creepiness. I really recommend it.