Manga-ka: Yoshinori Natsume
Publisher: Viz Media
Rating: Older Teen (16+)
Release Date: November 2010
Synopsis: “Mikito Sakurai is tired of being a punching bag for all the delinquents on campus, but what can he do? By nature he’s a gentle and easygoing high school student. That all changes the night he swallows a mysterious orb and meets Zakuro, a strange kid who promises to grant his most heartfelt desire. “When you wake up,” says the pint-sized apparition, “you’ll be stronger and better than a human.” Ad that’s exactly what happens – Mikito wakes up with super strength. But there’s a catch: he may look the same on the outside, but deep inside lurks a monster that craves ultraviolence and the taste of human flesh. “I used to hate the sight of blood,” says Mikito to himself, “but now it looks so beautiful to me…”
In Yoshinori Natsume’s previous series Togari, he explored the story of a former killer who rediscovers what it’s like to be a normal teen when the forces of Hell return him to life to combat demons. Kurozakuro shares some similarities in being a fairly dark shonen manga work, yet it changes the status quo by having Mikito be a normal human suddenly thrust into the life of a demon, with a constant hunger for violence.
Going a bit darker, Mikito eventually starts hungering for something more, shocked by his sudden desire to kill and devour his classmates. Natsume handles all this in a compelling fashion just as he did with Togari, creating a sympathetic main character who is simultaneously rather psychopathic on the surface. He then boiled this down into a fairly standard shonen manga format, while allowing more subversive aspects to work their way to the surface, perhaps even more so than Togari, as Mikito slowly evolves away from his humanity.
The demon child he meets in his dreams, Zakuro, is deceptively sweet. His promise of a wish is a fairy tale moment, primarily betrayed by his fangs and skull cap. In reality, the weak Mikito’s dream to be stronger was a contract that seals a seed within Mikito, robbing him of his humanity. Later on, Mikito keeps returning to these dreams, adding a meta-fictional element to the work, reminding me of CLAMP’s use of storybooks within the story in some of their works such as Suki. This furthers the fairy tale elements, Zakuro’s childlike nature masking his sinister presence.
Friendly little Zakuro plays Mikito along, confronting him with new moralities that place him separately from humans, and above them on the food chain. Food becomes a major symbol as Mikito’s mother initially chides him for under-eating, and yet after his change. Mikito hungers all the time, culminating in him seeing others as potential victims. He’s first shocked out of it and maintaining control, but disturbingly devouring a package of raw meat later on to satiate his needs. To demons, humans are merely food, Zakuro suggests, the same as any animal. Mikito’s constant internal struggle to maintain his humanity is further confounded as he encounters other newly formed ogres without these qualms. These changes are magnified in his newly repaired vision, able to see without glasses, giving him a literally different way of looking at the world, a physical manifestation the his inner change into something not quite human.
Mikito’s central storyline makes for a fascinating read, but Natsume manages to accomplish interesting things with the supporting cast. His childhood friend Saki fills the role of “supportive female friend/potential love interest” one finds inserted in many a shonen manga, yet subtly breaks the mould with her frustrations over Mikito’s weakness. She is embarrassed by his lack of fighting back to bullies, even overlooking his attempts to hold them back from fighting her, taking a beating she had almost gotten. Saki is aware of this self-centeredness, recalling how kind he was as a child, and her confrontations with Mikito’s new personality make for disturbing moments as she clings onto these memories and overlooks new events. The fact that he originally accepted Zakuro’s wish out of a desire to impress Saki, who subsequently regretted the way she’d been treating him, adds a subtle element of tragedy that makes one wonder what will happen when the duo’s separate secrets are revealed.
Subsequently, Mikito’s demonic and personal dilemmas are further confounded by the addition of the plot’s antagonists, or in one perspective heroes, Ogre Hunters. Natsume hints at a broader organization, but opts to introduce just a few individuals, as Mikito slowly realizes that aside from dealing with his new found hunger, he also must avoid the hunters, who only know one way to save those possessed by an ogre seed- slaying them. It adds another element of danger which Natsume manages to weave into the core plot by having Mikito opt for an interesting way of dealing with a hunter who gets a little too close to his everyday life.
Natsume’s art is very strong, with clean, flowing panel work without the normal manga clutter, perhaps part of being influenced by American superhero comics, with strong fight scenes. This aspect of his art is echoed in the story line’s dark interpretation of what might happen if a teen suddenly did acquire superpowers. His colour work also makes for a different change of pace in manga, as he uses a thicker, painted style that makes for excellent covers and great opening pages, which could of benefited from being printed in colour, though nevertheless fascinating in greyscale. His style changes slightly during the dream sequences, drenched in shadows as Mikito faces a silhouette of a spooky tree which was smartly incorporated into the cover design. The tree symbolizes the growth of the Ogre within Mikito, flowers blossoming as blood stains his hands. Zakuro cherishes these flowers, his childlike glee and love for them further separating Mikito from his humanity as Zakuro pleads for him to identify with his ogre-self in allowing them to grow. Wrapped around the spine of the book, it makes for an excellent visual, helping to establish the mood of the contents within.
VIZ’s presentation is their usual solid fare, translating and replacing all sound effects in a natural fashion that makes for a natural pace while reading. The translation is plainly worded, forgoing honourifics that might of interrupted a very tense atmosphere for casual readers. Translation notes and subtitled sound effects do not make for a fun read when the first thing on your mind is worry for the protagonist’s growing blood lust.
This is a fun, fascinating twist on standard Shonen Sunday fare, still safely enough in the manga box for most readers while reaching out into subject matter you’d normally find in seinen manga, handled in a less sensationalistic fashion given the audience of the Sunday line. The mixture of fast paced action and dark fantasy aspects makes Kurozakuro a highly recommended read for any manga reader.