March 23, 2010

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Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Volume 5

Written by Eiji Otsuka
Illustrated by Housui Yamazaki
Dark Horse

Urban legends, ancient secrets from another continent, and popular blogs are just a few of the secrets explored by the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service team this time around in their fifth collection of adventures. With the help of scheming social worker Sasayama, the end up traveling all over to finish the case--and maybe make a few dollars. Faced with some of the strangest cases they've seen yet, the team marches on despite the fact that some of the corpses they're working with may be very old, indeed.

As the cover indicates, the biggest thing to happen in this set of adventures is that, thanks to the mysterious Mr. Nire from a prior volume, they may have come face to face with a real-life mummy. Given all of the Egyptian obsession over the dead, it makes sense to add this dimension to the world of the Delivery Service. Because Otsuka likes to keep things off-balance, it's not straightforward, either. Neither the case that brings them in contact with the mummies nor the alleged mummy themselves are what they first appear to be, a common theme in this manga. I love the way that Otsuka dangles all the possibilities, only to take them away--or does he?

It's part of the fun in this series. In the case of the opening story, we dismiss the idea of an urban legend only at our peril. A get rich quick scheme that leads to the Delivery Service becoming professional mourners ends up leading down to a complex set of murders than only the team can stop. The closing story winds its way around the idea of cryogenics and a person who uses his unique physiology to his advantage, building to a rather amusing joke at the very end of the chapter.

Otsuka works very hard to make sure that each adventure the team undertakes is more than it seems and that's what drives the premise. Even Karatsu has a veil of mystery added to him that his friends lack. I love the way we keep getting little hints here and there, without a big reveal. There's plenty of time for that, especially since this is an ongoing series in Japan.

So much of this book turns on the interplay of the characters. I love the way Otsuka is currently structuring things, with Sasayama playing a large role in their adventures and being as money-hungry as they are. His age difference from them adds a layer of depth as well. Bringing in other characters, such as the alleged mummy or the crying woman to assist on cases also works really well. These additions, plus the more frequent screen time for all of the cast, makes this far more of an ensemble book. Karatsu and Numata still feature prominently, but everyone gets a hand.

Another strong improvement is that none of the female characters were used as bait. I know it's common all over comic books, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. In fact, the girls come to the rescue in a very funny scene that's drawn perfectly by Yamazaki. I hope the trend of equal footing continues.

As this series progresses, Otsuka seems to be more comfortable slipping in his personal views on controversial issues. Another hidden secret of Japan's war years makes it into this volume, as does commentary on the plight of single mothers, and even a bit on the ways in which rich people try to cheat death. If this dominated the story, I'd get annoyed--I hate comics that preach at me, even if I agree with the message. But Otsuka manages to do it in a quiet way that gets the point across without burdening the story. That's just fine with me. It actually adds a bit of flavor to the mix, as I don't read a lot of manga that does this.

Though his art is always a highlight, this particular volume owes a lot to the pen of Yamazaki. His depiction of a living mummy is perfect, right down to the subtle hint of sharpened teeth. The other members of the undead that show up in that chapter are both creepy and realistic, Yamazaki's stock in trade. He handles the oozing corpses of the opening chapter equally well and manages to make the concept of talking heads both horrible and plausible. With plenty of little hand gestures and looks to the reader, his characters show both surprise and a resigned acceptance of the inevitable strange nature of their cases. He really is a great manga artist and perfect for this series. I can't imagine it working nearly so well in less skilled hands.

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, like the bodies they work with, seems to get better as it ages. I definitely recommend this to anyone looking for an adult-level manga that has a supernatural bent. You won't be disappointed.