story by Eiji Otsuka; art by Housui Yamazaki; adapted by Carl Gustav Horn
published by Dark Horse; $10.95 US
When I first heard of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, it was well-recommended, but I wasn’t sure it was for me, given that it was classified as horror and the premise involved lovingly depicted dead bodies. I’m glad I went ahead and tried it, because I very much enjoyed it. It reminded me of Pushing Daisies, if that show was more laconic and Japanese.
Five students at a Buddhist university aim to bring justice to dead bodies with unfinished business using their unique abilities. Kuro (who most resembles a monk, with his bald head) can hear the voices of the dead when he touches their corpses. We later learn that he’s got a kind of scarred guardian spirit assisting him. Numata dowses for bodies the way others claim to use sticks to find water.
Makino is a whiz at embalming, which doesn’t make much sense in a country where most people are cremated. With her short stature, cute clothes, and pigtails, she also resembles a perky kid, which makes her glee at working on bodies even creepier. Yata is accompanied by an alien that has taken the form of a vaguely lizard-looking hand puppet. (He calls himself a “space sock” at one point.) Ao organizes the group with her planning and computer skills.
Another thing they all have in common is that they’re actively looking for some way to make money, not just use their training to run temples. They help souls that are still trapped in their bodies because of a desire for vengeance, most often, but sometimes for other reasons (resolution for a loved one of some kind, perhaps). Unfortunately, there isn’t always a way to get paid for fulfilling these last wishes; having corpses for customers can be a problem. In another culture, these tales might have been ghost stories, but the focus here is on the physical instead of the spiritual, thus the “delivery service” name, as they move the bodies to where they want to be. Sometimes, they even inspire the bodies to move themselves one last time.
In their first case, a man who hanged himself wanted to be with his dead girlfriend, an up-and-coming singer controlled by her father. The revelation of what was keeping them apart, and the way their story is resolved, is frankly disgusting, although emotionally plausible. It’s a good test case, both for the team of characters, and the reader. If you get through that, the rest of the book will be fine.
The second body allows Numata to show off what a sunglass-wearing badass he is, as he totes a cabinet full of old woman around on his back and punches through a windshield with his skull ring. The grandmother who passed is looking for an appropriate resting place, one with dignity. There’s also a jigsaw corpse, assembled from different bodies by a serial killing dissectionist, and in the weirdest story in the book — which is saying a lot — an insurance actuary uses his knowledge of the odds to put people in situations that increase their chance of death. It’s “murder by probability”, with plausible deniability on his part and eventually, poetic justice.
The thin-line art captures the bodies’ decay, reminding you that these are corpses, but without being grotesque for its own sake. The bodies are often more shadowed, more three-dimensional, than the living characters. The artist uses a wide palette of expressions, although at times the faces are a bit off. Still, I’d rather see the stretch to provide variety instead of sticking to a more limited, more perfect gallery. Also note that the material can be explicit, since bodies don’t always wear clothes (especially the female ones, at least in this series) and what people think to do with them can be repulsive. You can see some sample pages in Shaenon K. Garrity’s recommendation review.
The series certainly qualifies as horror, but I appreciated the mysteries and the sense of humor that enlivens the more gruesome events. And bless Dark Horse for including page numbers on almost every page, which comes in handy with the copious endnotes. Most of them reference the untranslated sound effects, including an essay on how kanji work, but some are fascinating cultural notes, or even odd little references to editor Carl Gustav Horn’s life or why Pac-Man is named that or mention of the lack of handguns in Japan. They’re the best translation notes in manga.
Volume two is a departure from the usual four chapters, four stories structure — it’s a single-volume story involving another unique business, a firm that promises to provide revenge to those who lost family members to murder, even after the killers have been executed. I’m impressed by how complex a tale develops from simple, expected elements: the team talking to a corpse as usual, Yata looking for a job that wants a Buddhist monk in training, a young girl with another death-related ability, Ao’s mysterious and tragic history, and an explanation for her fascination with bodies in the first place.
The longer story allows for more exploration of the personalities of the characters as they interact with each other and reveal their thoughts about what they do. It’s a real page-turner, with double crosses and more and more revelations as the story progresses. Plus, it helps bring into sharper relief the purpose of the Delivery Service.
This volume also has an afterword by the author where he explains part of his purpose in writing this series:
I thought it was odd how the walking dead had become such a normal sight in movies and video games — how much the idea of a zombie had been taken for granted. I wanted to get back to the fear any real person would feel, should death’s work appear to be unfinished.
Volume three opens with a protest against the U.S. war in Iraq, which leads the team to a black-market organ transplant operation whose “patients” are all suddenly dying. Kuro discovers that not only can corpses talk to him, but dead body parts as well, if they want to bad enough. (Just when you think this series can’t get any creepier, the author comes up with something like that!) The story winds up involving abuse of immigrants, soldiers’ bodies, and the scope of devastation caused by military action.
The next chapter features random attacks near a particular graffiti tag, that of an oni (demon). One of the victims needs the team’s assistance, but due to the violence of his beating, his body has amnesia. Even so, he ends up leading them to discover a kind of scavenger hunt of death. The final chapter has two mysterious happenings: an anonymous man who’s killed himself jumping in front of a train, and an ear found in a magazine at a used bookshop. How they connect is both coincidental and haunting.
In book four, the team, in need of money as usual, help a town create some crop circles. The burg is faking alien visitation to get more tourists, with a museum and UFO-themed snacks, and among their exhibits is a purported alien body. When the team encounter this particularly unusual corpse, they find that it only wants to go home. The country talk of their contact may seem stereotypical to some, making fun of rural attitudes, but I found it interesting that that type of character is apparently cross-cultural. And he was funny.
The next story returns to the more horrific approach typical of the series. An urban legend about a kidnapped, tortured student kept prisoner has unusual connections to a museum exhibition of plasticized bodies and, surprisingly, historical abuses. Kuro’s increasingly powerful abilities come through in a way that combines deus ex machina and his improving faith in himself. Sometimes it’s surprising how little the team does, other than showing up and making people nervous, but letting the dead take their own justice seems to be a theme of the series.
(It’s at this point that I note that we’ve now seen both the female team members naked, and there’s only been one instance of male nudity in the series, in a case with a serial killer early on. The male teammates stay fully clothed.)
The third story follows a dead baby left in a train locker, in which the team meets an unusual private investigator with a ghost for a client. There are hints of a bigger, continuing story involving Kuro’s companion ghost. The last story sends the team into nature to collect bugs, where they meet a visiting American exchange student crazy about insects (and who doesn’t wear much in the nature of shirts; she’s a stereotypical manga portrayal of the busty blonde foreigner) and of course find a body. Every time I think the series has gotten as creepy as it can, it manages to hit new heights, this time by featuring parasites.
The mood changes abruptly at the beginning of book five, as the team is entertaining at an old folks’ home. Yata’s puppet is a natural, telling jokes (and it’s so cute that when Yata puts on a tie, so does the puppet), but Makino’s bunny costume appears to have wandered in from another manga, and Numata as a clown shows why so many people find them scary. One of the inhabitants’ passing leads them to a ghost village with a legend of everyone being murdered.
Then there’s a mummy story, featuring the return of the company from the second book, who are now offering mummification as the latest status symbol. There’s always been something creepy about those monsters, with the viewer not knowing exactly what’s under the bandages, and it’s used to terrific effect here, with the additional comedy of students scraping for money resenting professors who are better off. Plus, some interesting information on how they were made.
In an attempt to find another way to earn funds, the group then announces themselves as professional mourners, hired to cry at funerals for people who don’t have anyone left to care for them. There are some weird callouts to otaku and bloggers, combined with an indictment of some ways to make money. That also plays a role in the last story, with a treasure hunt going on for a dead businessman’s missing fortune. The conclusion has some of the blackest, funniest humor in the series so far.
At the time of this writing, there are an additional four books:
With Book 10 due out this week. Publisher Dark Horse has posted previews of each book:
Also worth mentioning is the unique and appropriate design of the series, with “plain brown wrappers” livened with a neon-like highlight color, a dissected body diagram that has something to do with one of the interior stories, and images of some body part of the cast. First head shots, understandably, but then feet or necks, hands or eyes. It’s distinctive and eye-catching.