A special “Delivery?” But of corpse!

kurosagi 1Today’s profile: The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (12 volumes available, vols. 1 and 2 reviewed)
Author: Eiji Otsuka (writer) and Housui Yamazaki (art) 
Publisher: Dark Horse
Age rating
: N/A, but suggested for mature audiences 18+

It feels as if The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service — the subject of this month’s Manga Movable Feast, hosted by Philip over at Eeeper’s Choice Podcast — has had one foot in the grave for a veeeeerry long time.

You can’t really blame fans for being a bit nervous about Kurosagi‘s English-translated future. Here in the U.S., the only thing regular about Dark Horse’s publishing schedule has been its irregularity. If the publishing date records kept by Right Stuf and Amazon are any indication, fans so far have had to endure a seven-month wait (between volumes 1 and 2), a nine-month wait (between volumes 9 and 10) and, perhaps the one that really made their hearts stop beating and made them wonder whether the series had any kind of future or would just be quietly canceled, a wait of a year and seven months (volumes 11 and 12). Assuming things stay on track, it’ll be another eight months between volumes 12 and 13, currently due out in November.

As for finding a complete run in print? Good luck finding volume 5, which seems to have disappeared from the ranks of affordable volumes at every online retailer. (Fortunately, Dark Horse has added Kurosagi to the ranks of its digital comic offerings, so you’ll just have to endure staring at a screen for a long time in exchange for getting every volume for just $5.99 each.)

It would seem that Kurosagi is one of those series infected with a common manga malaise: the Great Series That Hardly Anyone Knows Exists And/Or Follows. When Borders was in its death spiral last year, I noticed that volumes from the series were among the last to go. (I should know; I was usually the one who’d pick them up.) It’s easy to see why it’s gone unnoticed: Just look at that cover image above. Stylish? Certainly. Does it say much about the story contained within? Who knows, considering the “Psychic,” main character Kuro Karatsu, is the only one facing forward. (Turns out it’s a running gag; the other covers in the series, featuring a similar layout with three members of the delivery service on the front and the other three on the back, all have Karatsu facing forward and the others doing something, well, different.) Shielded from “manga cows,” that breed of fan who clogs the manga aisle and turns any bookstore into their own lending library, much to the chagrin of people who actually want to buy stuff? Oh yes, definitely; the volumes are shrink-wrapped because of all the violence and nudity.

So it takes a fair amount of effort to ferret out the story … and what a story it is. What we have here is a “super team” of Buddhist students for hire, summoned to help souls trapped in corpses attain the eternal peace they desire, whether by clients or the dead themselves. (Seeing as how they’re college students, they’re also eternally scrounging around for enough money to keep the lights on.) We meet Karatsu, a guy who has the ability to hear the voices of the dead, just as he’s meeting the other main players: Makoto Numata, a dowser who can find corpses using his special pendulum; Keiko Makino, a rather young-looking gal who’s a licensed embalmer; Yuji Yata, a guy who has the ability to channel other beings but mostly channels a foulmouthed alien who manifests himself in the form of a hand puppet; and Ao Sasaki, the brains, businesswoman and buxom beauty behind the creation of the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service.

kurosagi 2Fair warning: Anyone grossed out by gore and/or in-your-face nudity would best steer away from this series. Six pages into the first chapter of the first volume, there’s a close-up of a hanging corpse, flies buzzing around its head. Many breasts get bared, many body parts go flying and much blood goes flowing from that point forward.

But it’s rarely gratuitous; in fact, it serves to enhance the sheer shock value of the tales contained within. Consider, for example, the story of that first corpse, who committed suicide after he was kept apart from his girlfriend, a budding pop idol, and now wishes to reunite with her. Let’s just say that the young lady committed suicide herself and throw in the phrase “patriarchal necrophilia,” and leave it to your imagination to fill in the gaps. (Just note, though, that you probably could never come up with the twists and turns that Eiji Otsuka devises on your own.) There’s also an elderly corpse who wishes to return to a place called Dendera, a stylist who cuts far more than hair, and an actuary who has the uncanny ability to predict the chances of someone dying. The team handles all of these situations with a splash of humor and a few meditations on what gives life (and death) its meaning.

But while the first volume with its various stories is certainly good in its own right, the story really hits its stride with volume 2, a seven-chapter arc that starts with a criminal’s hanging and ends up with — take a deep breath here — a girl who can raise the dead, a doctor gone rogue, a man with a mysterious marking on his fingernail, conspiracies piled upon conspiracies, Yata quitting the delivery service to take on a side job, a company that gives bereaved victims the opportunity to take revenge upon the dead, a merger proposal between the delivery service and this company, the tragedy of Sasaki’s past and a bloodthirsty zombie cat.

That’s right, a bloodthirsty zombie cat.

Trust me: When you can type the words “bloodthirsty zombie cat” as part of the description of a particular volume, and that’s not even the most messed-up thing to show up in that volume … you know you have to check it out. And then you’ll be hooked on the series. It’s to die for. Really.

CLAMP’s “Gate 7”: The grand experiment that wasn’t

Dateline: the last weekend of July 2007. The Simpsons Movie had just opened in theaters, Barry Bonds hit the 754th home run of his asterisk-appended career, and hotel rooms were sold out throughout downtown San Diego.

Yes, it was Comic-Con International time, and the eyes of fans of all things pop-culture related were pointed in the direction of southern California. Anime and manga fans certainly had much to be excited about — Viz announced it was adding Bleach to Shonen Jump, Funimation picked up Vexille from the production team that did Appleseed (well, it certainly seemed like a good idea at the time, although in retrospect, perhaps not so much), and several publishers snagged good series that were criminally under-read by U.S. audiences and subsequently stopped before their full runs were complete: Seven Seas’ Hayate X Blade, Del Rey’s Me and the Devil Blues, pretty much everything announced by Broccoli Books and CMX.

And then there was the announcement relevant to our interests, seeing as how this is CLAMP month for the Manga Movable Feast, hosted by Melinda Beasi over at Manga Bookshelf. Five years ago, on July 28, Dark Horse announced that it was teaming up with the four-member artist collective to usher in “a new era of manga.” From the original press release:

CLAMP’s original manga with Dark Horse will be launched simultaneously in the United States, Japan, and Korea. The story will come out in a small digest consisting of about eighty pages each, which will then be collected into trade paperbacks with bonus material. CLAMP and Dark Horse are coining the bilingual term Mangettes to describe this innovative new format for manga distribution. This digest format, or Mangette, signifies CLAMP’s personal wish to reach their large international readership by now speaking to them directly as artists through Dark Horse, and on a basis of equality with their Japanese fans.

CLAMP and Dark Horse chose the term Mangettes to describe this revolutionary format, whose Japanese pronunciation, mangetsu, means “the full moon.” The two kanji in mangetsu also have the individual meanings of “fulfilled” and “monthly,” reflecting what will be a monthly appearance of each CLAMP Mangette.

According to CLAMP, “Mangettes are a completely brand new experience for us, too, and we’re really happy to be working on this. And we’re really looking forward to the day when we can bring you this new story from CLAMP, and the day when we can meet our fans face-to-face to hear what you think about Mangettes!”

Anime News Network followed up with the news that these mangettes would be released in 2009, CLAMP would have full creative control over the contents, and they would be 5 inches by 7 inches in size.

It was a can’t-miss proposition. For years, CLAMP had attracted a flock of U.S. readers with series like Cardcaptor Sakura, Magic Knight Rayearth, Chobits, xxxHolic and Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles. Tag-team partner in fandom Wilma J. did her part in sharing the CLAMP love by writing about Clover, Wish, Shirahime-syo and a double feature of Suki: A Like Story and The One I Love. And now we were getting a new story from them, day-and-date with two other regions, monthly? Sign us up.

mangettesgate7Turns out fans would be eager to meet CLAMP — and, by extension, Dark Horse — face-to-face to echo one common thought about the mangettes: “Where are they, and what are they going to be about?After the grand reveal, the project promptly burrowed into a deep, dark corner of Dark Horse headquarters in Milwaukie, Ore., and was rarely heard from again. In April 2008, Dark Horse confirmed to Anime News Network that the mangette had no official name. In December 2008, that name quietly leaked onto Amazon’s Canadian site, where it was promptly snagged and shared by Lissa Pattillo at Kuriosity: Gate 7. The first cover image, seen at right, surfaced on Amazon’s Japanese site in March 2009.

And that was it for Gate 7, the revolutionary mangette. 2009 turned into 2010, CLAMP put the project on the back burner as they worked on xxxHolic for longer than they expected. Then Dark Horse prioritized new omnibus releases of Clover, Cardcaptor Sakura and Magic Knight Rayearth. By the time Dark Horse reintroduced Gate 7 to U.S. audiences in April 2011 prior to the release of the first volume in October, the series had been running in Japan for several months, the 80-page format had been scrapped in favor of traditional chapters, and it was … well … like pretty much every other manga that’s been released before and since.

That similarity to other manga ended up extending to Gate 7‘s story. It’s your typical fantasy fare, where an average, nondescript person somehow gets pulled into an alternate dimension where forces for good are battling a mysterious power beyond all human understanding. (No, really, trust me — you’ll read the first volume like I did, and then you’ll try going through it more slowly, and you still won’t understand what the forces for good are fighting against aside from “hulking snarling beasts dripping with evil.”) These average Joes or Janes usually have no idea what’s going on, but naturally (a) they gets pulled into the fray for the long haul and (b) they has some latent power that has everyone oohing and ahhing over them, even though no one can fully comprehend what that power is.

In the case of Gate 7, that seemingly unremarkable person is Chikahito, a high school student who gets yanked into the aforementioned other dimension while visiting his beloved Kyoto. Our forces for good are Hana, a mostly quiet girl with a penchant for noodle dishes, animal caps, making her hands go “wriggle wriggle wriggle,” and styling her hair somewhat like Misaki Suzuhara’s in Angelic Layer (compare it: here’s Hana, and here’s Misaki); Tachibana, the more stoic, analytical member of the group, with dark hair to match; and Sakura, the more easygoing, calming presence, with light, spiky hair to reflect that personality. Tachibana and Sakura are drawn as bishonen, or pretty boys, which will undoubtedly send the more hard-core (read: crazy) fans scrambling over themselves as they write various boys’ love fan fiction tales featuring the two, umm, interacting with each other and other similar bishonen across the CLAMP-iverse.

In the process of skewering these tropes, though, one can’t help but think: This is a CLAMP series we’re talking about here! The group’s had fans worldwide following their work since 1989! Surely there’s some redeeming quality, some point where things start clicking and the story kicks into a higher gear! There always is!

To which I reply: Sometimes there is no higher gear. Just look at what some critics said about CLAMP’s Kobato at San Diego Comic-Con’s “Best and Worst Manga 2012” panel. (It wasn’t pretty.)

Gate 7 v1 manga coverAs for Gate 7, it looks like that redeeming quality is going to have to wait for a future volume. Because aside from the group’s trademark gorgeous artwork, teeming with lines and strokes that are at turns intricate and delicate and bold and energetic, it takes a considerable amount of effort to figure out exactly what’s going on. There are eight pages of translation notes in the back of the book. You will be referring to them frequently to refresh your memory on what the ura-shichiken is (it’s a term referring to “Seven Secret Houses” or “Seven Back Houses”) or how Chikahito is not from an inou family (a term described as being comprised of the kanji for “unusual” and “mind”) or to investigate one of the multiple historical details about Kyoto that CLAMP has injected into the Gate 7 mythos.

Whether readers stick with Gate 7 beyond the first volume really depends on how willing they are to put in this extra effort to understand what’s going on, and how patient they are to see things through.

But here’s one more point to consider: The ground covered in this first volume — 168 pages worth — would have covered roughly two mangettes worth of material that would have been released over a two-month span. Volume 1 of the Gate 7 manga was released in October; volume 2, in February. It may be like comparing apples and oranges at this point, but it seems highly likely that readers would have given up on Gate 7, with its current story, faster with its condensed release schedule than they would with several months in between to process what they read.

Perhaps, in the case of Gate 7, it was for the best that the mangette revolution remained just a patchwork of dreams rather than a concrete reality.