From the stack: The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service vol. 11

I always feel a little badly about my follow-up with reviews, as I tend to focus on early volumes of manga series with mostly cursory remarks on later installments unless my opinion changes materially or I feel the book is underappreciated. While my opinion of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (Dark Horse) hasn’t changed, I did want to highlight the fact that the eleventh volume, written by Eiji Otsuka and illustrated by Housui Yamazaki, is pretty extraordinary, even by the standards of this uniformly excellent series.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the series, first of all, you really should be. The premise is simple at its core and extremely portable in terms of the kinds of stories Otsuka and Yamazaki tell. It’s about a group of unemployable students at a Buddhist university who combine their unique talents to form a side business dedicated to helping misplaced corpses with their unfinished business. Their various skills include hacking (with computers as opposed to cleavers), embalming and autopsy, channeling a foulmouthed alien entity, detecting dead bodies, and actually speaking to the deceased to find out how they ended up where they ended up.

It’s witty and gruesome, and Otsuka uses the episodic nature of the series to explore not only the ways humans respond to death, but contemporary culture as a whole. The satire is generally just the right kind of sly, which I think results in part from Yamazaki’s open, friendly cartooning. Yamazaki can certainly pull off grisly visuals, but he seems fond of the ways people look different from one another in age, size and shape. Even the terrible people who wander in and out of the narrative have that certain vulnerability you get from the fact that they look distinct, that you could imagine seeing them in your world.

The stories tend to run a few chapters each, but my favorite arcs tend to be longer. The second volume tells a single story, and it’s a glorious mystery with supernatural elements. The eleventh volume includes what I think is the second-longest story arc in the series, and it never flags. Otsuka packs it with both solid plot and smart embellishments.

It’s about mysterious happenings at an elite private school that center around a spooky little girl with an unsavory past named Chihaya. She has a connection to Sasayama, the retired detective/civil servant who often drags our heroes into worthwhile (but unprofitable) scenarios. Chihaya is an amazing character – steely, secretive, and purposeful, but entirely credible as a kid. I would love it if she got a spin-off or at least returned for another big, meaty arc.

Otsuka and Yamazaki have a great time with the social discord of the school setting and the ways little girls can be awful to each other, particularly at the elite levels. They also poke smart fun at the state of journalism and public perceptions of crime and youth. And they give their core cast some great moments. Corpse-finding Numata gets some surprising time in the spotlight, with his slacker-dope persona revealing some unexpected but totally logical nuances. Hacker Sasaki doesn’t get as much panel time, but she has a few terrific bits that remind readers of why she’s the brains of the operation.

The second arc in the book isn’t as good, but that’s mostly a matter of comparison. In an average volume, its look at the seedy underbelly of a beloved institution would be entirely welcome, and it’s not unwelcome here. It just can’t compete with Chihaya’s tightly written, sharply observed plight. If you want to give it a more charitable reading, start at page 171, then pick up at the beginning.

I mentioned this series as a worthy contender for an Eisner nomination, and I’ll happily restate that, particularly based on the strength of this volume. It’s a great comic, and I’d love it if more people gave it a chance.