Recently I picked up the first volume of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service by Eiji Outsuka and Housui Yamazaki, based on Shaenon Garrity‘s recommendation. Shaenon Garrity knows manga, and she has excellent taste, so I figured a series she likes as much as she obviously likes Kurosagi had to be a safe bet. And it was. If you want to know all the reasons why you should read The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, check out Shaenon’s recommendation linked above (warning: it’s a horror manga, and Shaenon includes some pretty gruesome scans, so the weak of stomach should probably stay away).
I will only add that the bit about the guy who channels the spirit of a space alien through a glove puppet is completely true, and exactly as cool as it sounds; and that even though it’s in a completely different genre, it’s rather like Cowboy Bebop in that it’s about a group of oddball misfits struggling to make a living in a dangerous and bizarre way. I loved Cowboy Bebop, so anything that reminds me of it gets the thumbs-up from me.
(Sooty and Sweep’s Japanese cousin in Eiji Outsuka and Housui Yamazaki’s Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, published by Dark Horse)
But that’s not what I’m posting about. Instead, I want to take a moment to praise Dark Horse’s handling of the series. Beginning with the covers, which are elegant and understated (a far cry from the eye-gouging brightness and busyness many manga publishers opt for), the English-language edition of he Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is a pleasure to hold, to look at and to read. The translation is superb – it flows beautifully, translating colloquial Japanese into equally colloquial English without sacrificing the sense of, for want of a better word, “Japaneseness” of the story. The manga is rooted in Japanese religious and folk traditions surrounding death, so that any attempt to Americanise it would leave it hollow, its spine removed. Translator Toshifumi Yoshida and editor Carl Gustav Horn are conscious of this, and have compiled extensive notes to explain the various aspects of the story that are culture-dependent – such as the concept of an itako. Originally an itako was a blind girl initiated into the role of a medium through a very harsh training process, but nowadays the word often just means someone who can speak with the dead – a useful skill, given what the Corpse Delivery Service have to get up to…
(meet the team of the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service)
Even better than that: Horn provides an explanation of the way sound effects work in manga which is fascinating even if you’re not reading the actual story. Being part of the artwork rather than safely coralled inside speech bubbles, manga sound effects are extremely tricky for translators to deal with. There are a number of possible approaches. You can eliminate the Japanese sound effects and replace them with Roman-alphabet equivalents – but that requires the adaptor to alter the original art, which is time-consuming as well as a bit presumptive. Or you can keep all of the original sound effects and add explanatory notes in English on the page – but if the English notes are small enough not to interfere with the art, they’ll probably be so small that they’re almost unreadable. Or you can leave most of the effects untouched and only add notes (or translate outright) when the “meaning” of the sound effect is absolutely vital to the story.
Horn and Yoshida have taken a fourth approach: all of the original Japanese sound effects are left in so as not to disturb the original art, but they’ve added notes at the back that both transliterate the sound effects and explain what they’re meant to represent, such as “NCCHI ZUN CHAKA NCHHI ZUZUCHAKA – sound of music being overheard on someone’s headphones” or “GATAN GOTON GATA GOTOTON – sound of train on the tracks”. It’s an intelligent approach that respects the intelligence of the reader, and is often unexpectedly funny. Did you know that Pac-Man got his name from the “paku paku” sound effect used in manga to indicate a puppet’s mouth flapping? Well, you do now, and you have Carl Gustav Horn to thank for it.
(an example of manga sound effects in Eiji Outsuka and Housui Yamazaki’s Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service)
As a former publisher myself, I get very frustrated by the sloppy and amateurish work I see done by a lot of comics publishers who really ought to know better; with The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, Dark Horse have gone far in the other direction, putting together a respectful and thoughtful package for the English-speaking manga audience. I hope other manga publishers are taking notes, because this is what good publishing looks like.
Katherine Farmar writes regularly on comics and culture from around the world, you can read more on her comics blog Whereof One Can Speak.