In 2006 a game was released for the Xbox 360 that surprised quite a few gamers with its uninspired game play, poor level design and terrible dialogue. After receiving largely negative reviews from both critics and gamers, Bullet Witch quickly sank into obscurity and poor sales have thankfully prevented a sequel from being made. What many people didn't realise was that the game took a great deal of inspiration for its main character from a manga by Katakura Masanori that began serialisation in Monthly Shounen Jump four years earlier.
So how does Mahou Tsukai Kurohime compare to a game that received widespread criticism?
The story begins with Zero, a boy whose life was saved by the legendary magic cannon user Kurohime, a witch so powerful she challenged the gods ... and died in the process. Ten years later, Zero has taken on the role of bodyguard to a young girl called Himeko, and the pair are on a journey to find a way to remove the curse that has been placed on her.
On the surface Kurohime appears to be nothing more than a fairly generic shounen manga, and that's a fairly accurate perception for the first few chapters. The plot tends towards the generic, so much so that the series places an almost unnatural emphasis on comedy, and the story can sometimes seem to have little or no direction at all. The mangaka has tried to introduce far too many things at once, and because of that the manga needs a little time to find its feet. Once the reader gets to chapter eight though, the plot gains more momentum, and the series takes a much darker and more dramatic turn which culminates in a truly singular moment in shounen manga.
After that, things get a little ... confused.
The main problem with Kurohime is that after the conclusion to the first arc the mangaka has attempted to expand the storyline in order to accommodate events that are bigger in scale and far more grandiose in concept. Unfortunately it seems as though Masanori didn't know when to stop, and while the narrative does continue to make sense, the addition of things like time travel can makes actions and events more convoluted than they need to be. The resulting plethora of threads meandering through the storyline make it difficult to reach a natural conclusion with all of them, and some of minor plot arcs can feel as though they've been forced into the story so that it can move on to something new.
That said, it's fairly obvious that this was due to the time constraints all serialised manga tend to face rather than a lack of ideas.
While Kurohime is very clearly a shounen manga, there are occasions where the artwork wanders into shoujo territory, which isn't a bad thing to be honest as it does emphasise the more emotional moments rather nicely. The characters are often well drawn, and the scenery is kept simple and straightforward in order to highlight the variety of spells and abilities on offer, with emphasis placed on how they're used and who or what they're used on. There are, unfortunately, two major downsides to the artwork, the first one being the way the quality of the work drops quite sharply during comedy scenes. The second is the inclusion of ecchi in a series that really didn't need so much of it as there are already plenty of things to keep the reader interested. It's pretty obvious that the decision to outfit several of the female characters, especially the Shinigami Angels, in outfits that leave little to the imagination, is nothing more than an attempt to cover up some very shallow development.
It all sounds a bit counter-intuitive, doesn't it? I'll explain then.
In manga, as in food, the first bite is with the eye. If a particular meal looks good in a picture or on a plate, then the natural assumption is that the food will be just as good. The trick is that even if the meal is only average at best, as long as the presentation is close to that of the picture then the person eating it will "fill in the blanks". Manga, comics, cartoons and anime tend to follow the same principle, and it's often the case that characters who are nothing more than average will often be perceived as anything but, simply because of how they look and the actions they take. A similar methodology has been used in the fashion industry for decades, and for many people the display of an idealized form, especially a nubile one, is enough to stop them asking unwanted questions.
That doesn't automatically mean that the characters in Kurohime are terrible though, but given that this is a fantasy action shounen manga, many of the related issues attached to the genre raise their heads on a number of occasions. While there is a degree of growth amongst the people that Zero and Himeko meet, the series tries to walk the fine line between a character led plot and an event driven one, and this is ultimately what hampers the development of certain roles in the story. In addition to that, the usage of so much comedy early on in the series hides some average characterisation, especially where Himeko is concerned. Zero isn't actually a bad character at all, and because his thoughts and actions maintain a consistency that is lacking in many of the other roles, it leads one to wonder why everyone else is only so-so.
Even with all of that, Kurohime is still a pretty enjoyable story, with a bold plot that's refreshing to see in shounen manga, and that's taking into account Masanori's attempts to outdo the conclusion to the first arc. Okay, so there's a lot of genericism in the series, especially during the latter half, and the characters aren't as well realised or developed as the story could have made them. In the end, these are issues that can be ignored as while the storyline is sometimes convoluted, it's rarely tedious.
Kurohime may not be perfect, but it does deliver a good degree of action and excitement, and many of the problems it has might have been resolved if the series had been a little longer. In comparative terms, Kurohime is easily one of the better fantasy action manga out there, and while it may not be the best at what it does, at least it's not Bullet Witch.