As you've likely noticed by now, a lot of my favorite mangaka tend to be women. I imagine there is a certain bias to being fond of shoujo and josei - neither are fields that attract a lot of male writers and artists. Now seinen, on the other hand, has a nice mix of both and there are some male mangaka in that genre that I do consider favorites - for example, the creator of today's reviewed work. Technically he's not so much a mangaka as he is a writer, but he's still one of the finest horror and mystery writers you'll find in all of manga. Indeed, today's series was one I had considered for last month, choosing MPD Pyscho only because of its relative scarcity. That's right - today I'm looking at yet another work by Eiji Otsuka.
THE KUROSAGI CORPSE DELIVERY SERVICE (Kurosagi Shitai Takuhaiben), by Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamazaki. First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2006.
PLOT: Our story concerns five young students from a Buddhist university: Kuro Karetsu, who can channel the voices of the dead; Ao Sasaki, a business-minded senior with a lot legal (and illegal) computer skills; Makota Namaka, whose pendant dowses for dead bodies instead of water; Keiko Makino, a US-trained mortuary science student who specializes in embalming; and Yuji Yata, a seemingly normal kid with a very abnormal puppet on his hand who goes by Kere Ellis and claims it is an alien. United by their death-related skills and a need for income, they end up forming something in between a school club and a proper business, where they investigate unclaimed bodies and unusual deaths to solve the mysteries behind them (and hopefully make a profit along the way). Even from the beginning they have their work cut out for them, be it a pair of star-crossed lovers trying to reunite in death, an old woman looking for a traditional resting place, or an unusually crooked insurance actuary.
STORY: As I reread this, I was surprised just how quickly this morbid little Scooby gang came together. Within the first 25 pages, our main cast meets, their skills briefly explained and demonstrated, and set out on their first case. What's truly remarkable is that those first 25 pages never feel rushed, just efficient. After all, it's just the setup to the true draw of the series: the mysteries.
There are four different stories within this volume, and each is distinct, interesting, and just the perfect length - neither too drawn out nor too quick. Unfortunately, that's about as much as I can say about the stories without getting into spoiler territory, but much of what I said before about the stories in MPD-Psycho are true here - there are plenty of interesting (and often gruesome) twists and turns. Otsuka also gets a chance to not only explore modern murder mysteries, but ephemera of older Japanese culture, like the second story about the old woman. The main cast is also distinct and interesting, and the only bad thing I can say about them is that we don't learn much about them beyond their introductionary exposition. I guess there are plenty of future volumes to learn more about them, and we do get the odd bit of backstory throughout the chapters, but the writing is so good that you can't help but want to learn more about them.
ART: Yamazaki's artstyle is incredibly realistic, although I do question how Numata and Makino bear suspicious resemblances to School Rumble's Harima and Paradise Kiss's Miwako. Still, all the characters look so good, with plenty of detail, not to mention a wonderful sense of dimension, expression, and motion. The same goes for the frequent backgrounds, which become doubly impressive once they leave the city for the forests and fields of the countryside. Even if they are just traced from source materials, they are still remarkable, with the level of detail and shading put into them. Heaven help Yamazaki if he actually draws that by hand - I mean, there is detail down to the leaves and individual blades of grass in the foregrounds!
I should note that this same level of realism also applies to the gore and nudity, which is mercifully nonsexual in nature, but very frequent. Like MPD-Psycho, this is not a series for the squeamish or easily offended. Those are not bothered by such things will find their curiosity rewarded with this series, through its exquisitely detailed artwork that helps to ground the stories in reality without crossing the line into tastelessness.
PRESENTATION: I really love the covers that Dark Horse designs for this series. First of all, the covers are not made of the usual thick, glossy cover stock, but instead out of a rougher material, closer to the texture of recycled cardboard. The cover art is equally striking, with an abstract dismembered mannequin above the title and a line-up of the cast below, wrapping around the spine onto the back cover. There are pages and pages of sfx translation notes, as well as general translation notes done by no less than Carl Gustav Horn, chief editor of Dark Horse's manga line and a veritiable one man Wikipedia on Japanese culture, pop and otherwise.
This manga, like so much of Otsuka's work, is criminally underrated in North America. I think this manga could easily stand alongside the best of modern written crime fiction thanks to its deft mix of quality writing, dignity, genuine horror, and even traces of comedy, all enhanced by the well-detailed art.
This series is published in the USA by Dark Horse Comics, and is ongoing in Japan. 12 out of 13 volumes have been published so far, and all are currently in print.
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Also, thanks to my dear boyfriend James for the newly redesigned and mobile-device friendly rating graphics - aren't they pretty? Hopefully this won't be the last redesign you'll see on the Manga Test Drive. - Brainchild