Looking at the shrink-wrapped cover to the first volume of Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamazaki's The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (Dark Horse Manga), you wouldn't immediately get the sense that the book is a grisly horror series.
Text-heavy, printed on flat brown paper, its primary image a cleanly stylized body parts diagram which looks like something Chris Ware might've designed (though, per Dark Horse's web page, the artist is one Bunpei Yorifuji), it doesn't quite prepare the reader for the first sight we get in the book's opening pages: a fly-bedecked corpse hanging by its neck in the middle of a forest.
Outside the forest, seated at what turns out to the be the entrance to Fuji Hakone Izu National Park, is a forlorn-looking student named Kuro Karatsu. Regular guy Kuro explains in voiceover narration that he's a senior at an "average Buddhist university." Because he has no connections (he doesn't come, we're told, from a "priestly family"), Kuro's employment future looks bleak, so he's followed up a flyer asking for volunteers to chant sutras over the bodies of suicides that've been found in the forest. (In the visitor's area is a "Suicide Prevention Message Box," which quickly establishes the fact that offing oneself is a regular occurrence around these parts.) Said flyer was the inspiration of a bespectacled young woman named Ao Sasaki, who has been taking photos of the dead bodies she finds and posting them on the Internet.
Ao has already recruited a group of other "different" students – would-be tough guy Numaki, who has the ability to find dead bodies with a dowsing rod; perky Makino, schooled in the Western techniques of embalming; plus mop-headed Yata, a "channeler" who speaks the "voices of the aliens" through a nasty-mouthed lizard hand puppet – in the ill-defined hopes of using their collective attachment to the dead as the gateway to a money-making business. In a way, she's a less whole-heartedly acquisitive variation on Reiko, the mercenary heroine of Reiko, the Zombie Shop, only sans the provocative schoolgirl outfits. With Kuro, it turns out Ao has stumbled onto an even more useful talent: a psychic, the young bald Buddhist can hear and speak for the dead. Perhaps, though it's not at all certain, he can even temporarily revive them.
That body in the woods proves to be half of a lovers' suicide pact, and through Kuro, the dead young man asks to be buried with his girlfriend. That proves a little complicated, since the girl's buried body has been replaced with a deer carcass so that the old pervert can have her corpse all to himself: like the first episode of Reiko, the opening of Kurosagi turns out to be tied into parental sexual abuse, though Housui Yamazaki's images of the obsessed dad lustfully holding onto his naked daughter's frame are much more disturbing than anything we got in Reiko.
In general, the tone of Kurosagi is much less campy than Rei Makamoto's action horror series, which suits writer Eiji Otsuka's frequently somber material. Our heroes' mission is to be at the beck and call of the unsettled dead: whether it's to bring the client's killer to justice or simply find them a suitable spot to rest in peace. After being passed on a winning lottery ticket by their first "client," Ao christens the business the Kurosagi (the word means "black crane") Corpse Delivery Service, though the job isn't always necessarily a profitable one. In the second episode our quintet (six, counting the nasty puppet) helps an elderly suicide find a "Dendera Field," a temple housing the dead, which turns out to be more difficult than we Western readers would immediately guess. There are marked differences between the way the deceased are handled in the U.S. and Japan (for one, they don't have the same obsession with body preservation that we do), and the poverty-stricken elderly, in particular, appear to truly be out of luck.
Volume one shifts from vengeance-driven ghost story to mournful consideration of death to full-tilt corpse-strewn horror story, and artist Yamazaki is beautifully suited for the material. It's almost sterilely smooth; he has a strong knack for rendering expressive faces and he doesn't shy away from in-yer-face grisly imagery. In places, the artist recalls Naoki Urasawa of Monster (not a bad place to be), especially in the way he evokes a sense of brightly lit dread. More than the weakly illustrated adaptations of The Ring which Dark Horse released a couple of years back, KCDS does a bang-up job serving up a visual manga counterpart to the contemporary urban Japanese horror flick.
Definitely recommended – at least until Otsuka brings in the aliens to "explain" puppet boy Yata.