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Manga / Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro

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A manga series by mangaka and character designer Satoko Kiyuduki (of Dept. Heaven fame). Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro, titled Katsugi Hitsugi no Kuro in Japanese, tells the story of a boyish young woman named Kuro who travels the land in search of... something, accompanied by a flock of bats and eventually a pair of unusual young girls named Nijuku and Sanju. She always dresses in black and carries a coffin (that, suspiciously, seems just her size) on her back—and is often mistaken for a boy. Or a vampire. Or a mortician, or a coffin salesman... the list goes on and on.

The story is told mostly in 4koma, and has an episodic feel to it—though there are occasional stories about the side characters that Kuro meets and then leaves along her way. Although the readers know next to nothing about the characters when they are first introduced, eventually the reason why Kuro is traveling and what she's looking for become clear, and Nijuku and Sanju's special abilities and purpose are explored.

This series is often noted for its similarities to Kino's Journey, though Kuro has less navel-gazing overall and tends to have a whimsical, charming feel even when serious events come up—though Kuro can get very dark every now and then.

The manga began serialization in Manga Time Kirara in 2004; it later went on hiatus from 2009 to 2012, and concluded in June 2018. It was localized for North America by Yen Press, with the story concluding in the seventh volume released in May 2019, followed by a "side story" volume of previously unpublished stories, titled Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro Side Story: Nostalgic Travelogue released in April 2020.

Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro utilizes these tropes:

  • Afterlife Express: Implied in Kuro's sick dream. She meets a wounded soldier who plans on returning to his hometown, but when his childhood friend came to see him off, she remarked that she won't be seeing him ever again. When Kuro's time to board comes, she slowly begins forgetting her life and leaves her coat and coffin at the station before she decides not to get on. In reality, she was suffering from a nasty case of her curse's fits. Similar to her dream she was not wearing her heavier travelling items and pondered why she "couldn't get on" again.
  • The Alcoholic: Sen—Kuro has to chaperone him in bars, as he usually drinks himself into unconsciousness.
  • Alien Sky: By the end of the series, the landscape of the world is slightly changed. Nijuku and Sanju transform into two Weird Moons with black splotches on their surfaces, settling just below the real moon. While they provide nighttime relief for the people below, they are totally inconsistent and go wherever they please, even leaving the sky altogether once a month.
  • Alpha Bitch: Tertia, from the all-girls' school, is this. She masks her behavior by appearing as an elegant and helpful schoolmate and the leader of the Shady Nook Buds' Tea Library (a secret club that has information on their school's mysterious Lady in Black); but as the end of the chapter reveals, she is the Lady in Black and deliberately picks on girls she deems imperfect and unfit for her vision of the school, allowing her subordinates to do the same. Hifumi's darkness seems to agree, as it doesn't corrupt Tertia even after being with her since childhood because Hifumi is only interested in corrupting humans with some goodness in them, while Tertia has none.
  • Anachronic Order: The chapters jump all over the place, but one can get a general idea of what comes after what from the presence or lack of certain features (chapters that lack Nijuku and Sanju obviously take place before Kuro met them, for example). Things get muddled between chapters containing the same set of features, such as the last chapter in volume 3 taking place before the first chapter in volume 1.
  • And Call Him "George": Sanju grips too hard when she becomes enthusiastic. This is not good when you're holding a small animal.
  • Angst Coma: Combined with Convenient Coma, Kuro falls into one when she realizes that the traveler who was trying to find his wife and child was her father, and he was killed saving people in a war zone. Her black then tries to cover her body and puts her out for a year.
  • Audio Adaptation: Has one drama CD, wherein Kuro is voiced by Minami Takayama, Sen by Tsukui Kyousei, Nijuku by Ai Tokunaga, and Sanju by Ai Nonaka.
  • Bifauxnen:
    • Kuro is mistaken for a boy at times.
    • Dorothy from the third volume is rather boyish looking, though Kuro is able to tell she's a girl.
  • Black-and-White Morality: Oddly enough, from Kuro herself: when asked by the good witch what it was that distinguished her from the Black Witch that Kuro searches for, Kuro could only reply that "She (the good witch) is a good person, (the Black Witch) is a bad person."
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Lampshaded; Sen often teases Kuro for not fully explaining what she's doing.
  • Casting a Shadow: An interesting variant in that Nijuku's and Sanju's shadows have a sort of sentience and can freely detach themselves from the kids.
  • Chain of Deals: While at a train station, Kuro is asked for advice by a series of travelers who then leave something by her. She gets an orange from an old man worried about how to enjoy his travels, which is given to a set of twins leaving for two different destinations. They give her a doll, which is given to a discharged soldier heading home. From him comes a charm he carried, given to his childhood friend, who in turn gives Kuro a bouquet meant for the soldier.
  • Chekhov's Gun: One chapter, Sen receives a pair of pearl earrings from a former dancer, who says that she received them from a senior dancer nicknamed "The Red Rose". Sen dropping those earrings in the final confrontation with Hifumi allows the latter's second self to awaken her old memories and shake off Plague's conditioning.
  • Color-Coded Characters: Nijuku gets her ears and tail turned black early on and wears a blue dress, Sanju's ears and tail are still white and she wears a red dress.
  • Connected All Along: Hifumi, her components, the twins, and Kuro have been connected for a very long time. Professor used to be a childhood friend of Ann, the first of the Hifumis, and Kuro is the daughter of the Mother who makes up Hifumi's third self.
  • Crapsack World: Don't let the Puni Plush art style deceive you. The world Kuro lives in is a dark place, with malicious people and vile powers aplenty. The supernatural plague... *shivers*
  • Dead All Along: Volume 6 has a chapter following a ghost, but the ghost we focus on isn't the ghost that this reveal is given to (as she outright states that she knows she's dead but doesn't know who she was in life in the first few pages). The real ghost is the cameraman who's been talking to her all chapter, since he's a lingering spirit attached to his beloved camera. Only Nijuku and Sanju can interact with him, as they do with all other ghosts.
  • Death of a Child: The series doesn't shy away from getting kids hurt. Mo's flashback in Volume 2 is all about her slow physical decay and death, while her two village acquaintances (around her age or younger) are both shown dragged off to the hospital like the rest of the dead.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": Subverted. Kuro almost never tells anyone her real name—turns out that this is because it's very girly and cutesy, and she doesn't think it fits her. It's Sunya.
  • Disqualification-Induced Victory: Count Rittock was having a race with a fellow eccentric rich man to travel around the world in eighty days. The latter man, however, fell ill during his journey and resigned from the race, leaving the Count as the winner by default. Rittock was outraged; he'd rather he won the race fair and square, and decided to wait until his opponent has made a full recovery before challenging him again.
  • Exposition Fairy: Averted with Sen, who doesn't explain things to Kuro but to everyone she runs into.
  • Evil Is Easy: Discussed. Kuro comments that while she doesn't like the lengths people go through to be or appear like good people, she admires the fact that they put in the effort as opposed to giving into their darker desires.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: In Volume 4, there's an incident where Sanju rips off a doll's arm because she gets overexcited. The doll's owner reassures her that the doll is old, and anyway, it's easy to fix. She is not so understanding when Sanju does the same thing to a kitten's leg.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Look carefully at the cracked growth chamber in the Professor's basement. See the 3? That'll be important later.
    • The fact that Kuro's coffin gets larger and larger as she grows up despite the fact that it should be the size of a little girl foreshadows the fact that Mo didn't exactly die. In the mirror chapter, the only mirror versions that should be showing up are those of the people in the house, which includes Sen, Kuro, Nijuku and Sanju. We see their doppelgangers, but we follow one extra adventuring with Sanju, who talks to her as if she knows her. She kind of does, since Mo's right there with them all.
    • The photographer's ghost reveal gets a few nods before it happens, since Kuro and Sen never actually interact with him while Nijuku, Sanju, and the ghost woman do.
  • Four Is Death: It seems absorbing more than three people with Plague's powers will result in disaster. Hifumi has already absorbed three people and planned to make Kuro her fourth, while Kuro herself contains her original form, Moe, and Milly while she planned to absorb Hifumi. Either way, by Kuro's comments she fully expects to die with her.
  • Goggles Do Nothing: Averted with Kei, who always has them over his eyes and uses a motorcycle to get around.
  • Grand Theft Me: Hifumi's ultimate goal is to find a vessel that won't corrupt too quickly or rot. By the end of Volume 6, it seems to have settled on Nijuku and Sanju for those roles, and go after them in the final volume.
  • Identity Amnesia: Exploited. Hifumi, being made up of three people, walks around with a foggy mind and acts based on her three personalities. Her body is only able to stabilize when none of the three personalities remember who they once were, and Plague keeps it that way for a majority of the story. Volume 7 is where it all crashes down, as Kuro and companions reveal each identity to Hifumi, destabilizing her and allowing the three women to finally rest in peace.
  • Innocent Inaccurate: Sanju and Nijuku can describe fairly horrific things without realizing that what they've seen or said is, indeed, horrific.
  • "Just So" Story: "How Ian Brought Snow to the Village" turns out to be a tall tale explaining the existence of the singular path of white flowers going into their town. The story recounts it as Ian bringing back "Winter" from the winter country, but spilling out of his bag until he collapses.
  • Living Legend: By the present day, Kuro has become something of a folktale. One artist, after meeting her, crafted an infamous set of paintings with her as the focus, while people from the places she travels to have their own version of the "mysterious traveler" carrying a coffin. She even gets a fairy tale written about her.
  • Locked into Strangeness: Kuro once was a fair-haired child who looked more human before encountering Hifumi. After receiving some of the witch's "power", her hair permanently turned black.
  • Lower-Deck Episode: One Volume 7 chapter covers the reporter Emma, who travels all across the continent for information on the "Person in Black" carrying a coffin. She checks in with many of the previous chapters' characters, who each give a positive or negative experience with the mysterious figure. In the end, the trail went cold, but Emma gained a new respect for the traveler.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • "Sen" means "one thousand", which is the number of bats that make up his collective body. It's also the first syllable of sensei, and Sen was originally Kuro's teacher before he was cursed.
    • Kuro is "Kuro" because she is dressed in all black. Her curse also envelops her body in black.
  • Missed Him by That Much: On one trip, Kuro runs into a man who's been searching for his wife and child after war forcibly separated them. He eventually parted ways with her, but before he dies, he tells the woman he saved the names of his beloved family members—and they happen to be the real names of Kuro and her mother.
  • Mirror World: In Volume 3, the gang stumbles upon an abandoned mansion with mirrors and paintings everywhere. As it turns out, the mirrors are portals into a mirror universe, seemingly filled with Evil Doppelgangers. Sanju (and eventually Nijuku) wind up in there when their doppelgangers trick them.
  • No Name Given:
    • The dog-faced traveler, Fukashigi, is never referred to by name until volume 3.
    • The Witch that Kuro is after isn't named until Volume 4. It's Hifumi.
  • No Sympathy: Possibly as a result of their social isolation, Sen and Kuro's priorities can appear a little skewed; they only really express concern for their immediate group. When Sanju maims/kills a kitten, their concern isn't really for the kitten or its traumatised young owners, but how they're going to get Sanju to stop destroying/killing things by accident (and therefore making trouble for them) without upsetting her too much.
  • Origins Episode: Volume 3 covers the birth and growth of the twins, both from Nijuku's perspective and from her professor's perspective.
  • Plot Parallel:
    • Kuro's journey to find the witch that cursed her is deliberately compared to a village folktale about a father, Ian, who went on a journey to bring snow to his ailing son.
    • In volume 6, one of the between story tales concerns a witch searching for the perfect cauldron that will withstand her spells and potions. The normal ones (an earthen cauldron and a stronger iron cauldron) break too easily, and the one that would best fit her concerns is an ethereal silver/white one that may not even exist. It's a metaphor for Plague looking for a suitable vessel that won't rot away, and it finds that vessel in Nijuku and Sanju (who by all means are chimeras that would never exist normally).
  • The Power of Creation: The man who would become humanity's first king was blessed with the ability to create anything. While there was already a preexisting super continent, this man carved out everything on it and formed the world as we now know it, creating plants, animals, buildings, and abstract concepts. He relinquished the ability when he tried to banish Plague from his kingdom.
  • Precursors: When the continents were connected, there existed an ancient race that formed the First Kingdom of mankind. Because their King used up all of his power to banish Plague from his land, the continents split up and the one remaining piece of that civilization stands outside the realm of time and space. This piece of land continues to wander around the world, still inhabited by a small portion of the first civilization.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: While they are both energetic and curious young girls, the red-clothed Sanju is slightly more impulsive than the blue-clothed Nijuku.
  • Running Gag: Kuro being mistaken for a boy.
    Kuro: Just so you know, I'm a girl.
  • Seasonal Baggage: After Kuro collapses, Nijuku and Sanju's narration focuses on the changing of the seasons for what amounts to a year of recuperation.
  • Secret Test of Character: One of the Travelogue stories has Kuro explore the miserable princess Ato's tomb, with the purpose of leaving a flower by the grave of the princess as a favor to an old colleague. As Kuro later learns, reaching Ato's inner chamber is tough enough, and it's made clear that only those who knew Ato best would be able to actually reach her coffin. The only two who have successfully done so are the colleague, who in reality was Ato's knight and lover, and Kuro who picked up on the colleague's habits and realized his relationship with Ato.
  • Snipe Hunt: Volume 4 has a brother-sister pair that are on the search for faeries. The twist is that the girl is completely certain her brother would never find one, and furthermore the brother doesn't even care for faeries. A unique case of a snipe hunt done for positive reasons, since the sister wanted her brother to not worry about her illness while the brother only looks for faeries to cheer his sister up.
  • Shout-Out:
    • In the selfish princess' arc, Kei tells her a drama-filled adventure story; the illustrations show the princess fleeing mysterious pursuers with a massive sword, just like main character in the beginning of Yggdra Union.
    • In a story involving a murder, the culprit is named Yasu, referencing the memetically known twist from The Portopia Serial Murder Case.
    • The bonus drawings often have a lot of shout-outs:
      • Volume 1 makes the cast look like the The Moomins.
      • In Volume 4, Nijuku and Sanju ask if the witch they're watching (Hifumi as the witch in Snow White) is either the witch that says "Mahalic" or the witch that says "Pirika". The first refers to the title character of Sally the Witch and the second refers to the protagonist of Ojamajo Doremi.
      • Volume 5's has the gang going to a prehistoric era. In the English translation, Nijuku and Sanju shout out "Yabba-dabba-doo!"
      • Volume 6 has the cast drawn as Doctor Slump characters, with Kuro looking like Arale, the twins looking like the Gatchans, and Sen looking like Obotchaman.
      • The final volume is a mashup of classic Studio Ghibli movies. Sen resembles the dustmites from Spirited Away, the twins resemble the forest spirits from Princess Mononoke, and Kuro is dressed as Ashitaka. Sen also mentions the Balse curse from Castle in the Sky.
  • Shout-Out Theme Naming: The band that protects the World Tree is named after and based off of characters from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Their leader is Dorothy, her wolf companion is Toto, the tree they protect is called the Emerald City, the entity inside is referred to as Oz, and while Dorothy's other three companions are not named, their builds obviously make them out to be the Tin Woodsman, Scarecrow, and Lion.
  • The Stoic: Kuro, because fits of strong emotion cause the corrosion of her body by the black stain to speed up.
  • Super-Deformed: Kiyudzuki's art is already extremely cutesy (and she rarely ever draws any other way—see Yggdra Union for the rule and the concept art for Knights in the Nightmare as an exception), but she manages to take this to Serial Escalation levels of adorable.
  • Stock Shoujo Bullying Tactics: Kuro gets a taste of this when she infiltrates a school. Her desk is flooded, her books are thrown into a river, and she gets nasty rumors spread about her and talked about behind her back. The calling card for the Lady in Black is also revealed to be a bullying tactic, since Tertia uses it to weed out "imperfections" in her beautiful life.
  • Talking Animal: Sen is a colony of bats, the "lead" one is able to talk.
  • That Man Is Dead: While we do get to know the original Sunya, "Kuro's" former life, she feels that part of the reason why she carries the coffin with her is because she considers "Sunya" dead.
  • Theme Twin Naming: Nijuku and Sanju are cutesy pronunciations of the Japanese words for twenty-nine and thirty.
  • The Three Faces of Eve: Hifumi is made up of three girls at three different stages in life—Ann, a studious girl who recently moved out from her country village (the Child); "Red Rose", a proud and beautiful dancer with a hidden soft side (the Seductress); and a young sickly mother (the Wife).
  • Tragic Keepsake: The coffin, in a really creepy way. Kuro's glasses also sort of count.
  • Trail of Bread Crumbs:
    • A child uses the food trail type to keep from getting lost in a forest. Kuro and Sen, themselves lost and trying to find their way to the girl's village, are decidedly dejected because they are certain that animals have already eaten the crumbs.
    • The twins decide to leave a trail of fluorite as they explore an abandoned mine shaft, wisely remembering that the light will last for a while but forgetting that it will dull and break before they're done exploring.
  • Trauma-Induced Amnesia: If Kuro has a particularly bad fit of her curse speeding up, she begins to forget details. She forgot most of her past, and nearly forgot about everything she did with Nijuku and Sanju.
  • Turning Back Human:
    • Once a year on the night of the purple-red moon, Sen's curse is lifted and he once again regains his human form. It only lasts until sunrise of the next morning. By the end of the final volume, Sen has overcome his curse and can transform from human to bat as he pleases.
    • In the final volume, Nijuku and Sanju become small moons in the night sky. When time has passed and they are seen as full moons, they return to their original forms and visit Kuro and Sen.
  • The Unreveal: At the end of volume three, the middle-aged man's identity is apparently posthumously revealed because he knew Kuro and her mother's names, but the information is relayed to Kuro offscreen, so we still don't know her given name.
  • Unusual Ears: Nijuku and Sanju have cat ears. When Kuro first meets them, at least...
  • Voluntary Shapeshifter: Nijuku and Sanju are cat girls by default, but the Professor made them able to take other forms such as mice, winged humanoids, and fish. They eventually turn into two moons, to look over Kuro as she continues to walk the earth after surviving her curse.
  • Walking the Earth: The plot of the manga mainly focuses on Kuro and Sen as they walk the path that was apparently taken by the witch who cursed them in order to get their original forms back.
  • Wham Episode: The finale of Volume 3, which has Kuro go into a coma for nearly a year after her curse accelerates to dangerous levels.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Usually employed deliberately - Kuro's status as a perpetual traveler means that she encounters many people on her journey, but as she's only passing through their life, she seldom finds out the outcome of their story.
    • This can crop up in its more usual form, however, such as in the incident where Sanju maims a kitten by accident. Nijuku says she tore the kitten's leg off, making it unlikely the poor thing would survive. Sen says she "broke" its leg, making it seem more likely it survived. The illustration seems to imply that it died, but Kuro passes someone singing a song about a man with a prosthetic limb, which, given the nature of the series, would appear to hint that the kitten was treatable. We don't learn exactly what happened, and Nijuku's Innocent Inaccurate story doesn't help...but it certainly doesn't look good.
  • Whole Episode Flashback:
    • Volume 2's flashback chapter covers Kuro befriending Mo after her curse ravaged town.
    • Volume 3's big flashback covers the birth and growth of Nijuku and Sanju, up until they met Kuro.
    • Volume 4 begins with Sen and Kuro before they were cursed, presented as a dream of the past that Kuro cannot fully remember.
    • Volume 5 is the origin of Hifumi, told in the style of a dark folk tale.
    • Volume 6 covers the life and works of the person who would eventually become the Professor, and the real orgin of Hifumi.
  • You Are Number 6: Nijuku and Sanju mean "Twenty-Nine" and "Thirty"; they are the Professor's twenty-ninth and thirtieth experimental creations. Hifumi is a fusion of the first, second and third experiments.